The first part of The Fugitive

February 17th, 2010

With Albertine gone, our narrator immediately starts thinking of how to get her back: in contrast to the inaction of The Captive it feels like he’s suddenly all action, though really he’s still all talk: he decides he’ll marry her, but writes telling her how good it is that they’ve parted; he sends Saint-Loup to her aunt’s house to talk indelicately about money; he writes about the yacht and the motor-car he’s just ordered for her. There is much about habit, about loss, about the subjectivity of love, “the distortions of love” (p 592), how we don’t see the beloved as the world does. He’s angry that Saint-Loup’s mission has failed; he writes to her himself again (now telling her he’s decided to invite her friend Andrée to live with him, though of course really he just wants her), is excited to chase after her and convince her to come back…and then receives a telegraph from her aunt to say that she’s died. Now, instead of grieving over the fact that his love left him, he’s grieving over her death: everything remains painful but the pain shifts (especially because just after the telegram he gets a last letter from her saying that she’ll come back at once if he’ll just ask her to). Grief, memory, the fear that each season will bring its own painful memories. This being Proust, there is lots of exquisite description here, like this:

From the sound of pattering raindrops I recaptured the scent of the lilacs at Combray; from the shifting of the sun’s rays on the balcony the pigeons in the Champs-Elysées; from the muffling of sounds in the heat of the morning hours, the cool taste of cherries; the longing for Brittany or Venice from the noise of the wind and the return of Easter. Summer was at hand, the days were long, the weather was warm. It was the season when, early in the morning, pupils and teachers repair to the public gardens to prepare for the final examinations under the trees, seeking to extract the sole drop of coolness vouchsafed by a sky less ardent than in the midday heat but already as sterilely pure. (p 645)

Albertine’s death doesn’t manage to cure the narrator of his jealousy: he stays jealous of her past, of all the things she might have done with others that he never knew about. He specifically remains obsessed as to whether she loved women, to the point where he sends Aimé (the head waiter from the hotel in Balbec, who’s now in Paris) back to Balbec to ask some questions. But for all that he says he wants to know the truth, the narrator really doesn’t: when he hears back from Aimé he’s at first dismayed, but then turns disbelieving; he talks himself out of believing what he’s just heard, because he doesn’t want to have heard it at all. He can’t let it rest though: he sends Aimé to the town where Albertine’s aunt lives to ask questions there; he talks to Andrée and implies that he knows all about what she and Albertine used to do together; he looks at girls and thinks Albertine would have liked that one, or that one. He brings other girls home with him, but he finds himself just thinking of Albertine, thinking of how they are not her. But slowly, slowly, things shift: this section of the book is called, after all, “Grieving and Forgetting,” so we have to come to the forgetting part eventually:

It is the tragedy of other people that they are merely showcases for the very perishable collections of one’s own mind. For this very reason one bases upon them projects which have all the fervour of thought; but thought languishes and memory decays: the day would come when I would readily admit the first comer to Albertine’s room, as I had without the slightest regret given Albertine the agate marble or other gifts that I had received from Gilberte. (pp 751-752)

(All page numbers are from the Modern Library paperback edition of The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright)

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