marcel proust, “the prisoner”

Marcel Proust
The Prisoner
(trans. Carol Clark) 
(Penguin, 2003)

The last three books of Proust are the ones I find myself coming back to; this time I return because of seeing Chantal Akerman’s filmed version of this book (La captive, 2000); it was so different than what I remembered of my first viewing three years ago that I thought it was time to turn back to Proust to see how he’d changed. I preferred the new translation of this book to the Moncrieff last time through; but this volume is handier, which is a large part of why I’m using this version. It’s vexing that this book & the final volume still aren’t available in this country because of copyright, though I kind of hate the chunkiness of the American paperback versions of this translation.

What I like about this section of the book is how with the Albertine captivity narrative, the novel jumps the rails of realism. The narrator’s problems in this book are not, on the face of them, the problems of anyone real; rather, it’s an imagined picture of heterosexual desire, a thought-experiment on Proust’s part. I’m not especially interested in how life in early twentieth-century Paris; that isn’t without interest, of course, but it’s the behavior of Proust’s characters and the narrator’s changing understanding of this behavior that I really care about. There’s not a huge amount of depiction of society in this volume (where I found myself losing interest in the earlier volumes); rather, the action is mostly interior. 

This is a book about jealousy; Albertine is the focus of the narrator’s jealousy, of course, but her person is almost immaterial, a blank screen on which the narrator can project (or reflect) his own fantasies:

But what I could not bear to imagine in Albertine was my own unceasing desire to attract new women, to sketch out new novels in which they would figure; it was the thought of her casting her eye, as I had not been able to restrain myself from doing the other day, even when seated beside her, at the young girl cyclists sitting at the tables in the Bois de Boulogne. Just as one can know only oneself, one could almost say that one can be jealous only of oneself. Observation is of little use. Only from one’s own pleasure can one derive both knowledge and pain. (pp. 356–7.)

With such a narrator, it’s hopeless to imagine Albertine as a real character; rather, she’s a fantastic projection. He reasons that he should have a great love, but doesn’t really have any idea what to do with it when he finds himself in one. There’s no romance in their external relationship – at one point, the narrator wonders whether he ought to buy her a yacht, as if that were what one did in the situation he finds himself in. Their relationship takes place almost entirely in the narrator’s mind, and one wonders if he’d prefer the physical Albertine not to exist; certainly he doesn’t do very much with her, and he comes across as absent-minded, more caught up in this thoughts than in anything that might be going on around him. They talk, but the narrator drifts off, and gets caught up in his own thoughts; early in the book, they discuss noises on the street, which leads to a five-page passage where the narrator considers waking from sleep. It’s virtuosic, of course, some of the nicest passages in the book, but it suggests solipsism:

Wasn’t it perhaps Françoise who had been sleeping, and I who had wakened her? Or rather, wasn’t Françoise somehow enclosed within me, for distinctions between people and their interactions hardly exist in that sepia darkness where reality is no more translucent than in the body of a porcupine, and where our minimal perceptions can perhaps give an idea of those of certain animals? (p. 109)

Albertine is beside the narrator on his bed, but she has been forgotten entirely, replaced her even as a stand-in for the other person by Françoise. It’s difficult to fault the narration for this, of course. At the end of the passage, where the narrator considers the cries of street vendors, we are told that “the cries rolled on for me like an echo of the waves where Albertine left to herself could have been lost, and took on the sweetness of a Suave mari magno” (p. 113). The reference is to the beginning of Book II of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, where he considers how nice it is, when safe on the shore, to watch someone drowning at sea; this is almost exactly the position of the reader, watching the narrator bumble through his jealousy.

This is being narrated retrospectively, of course, an old man reflecting on a younger man’s folly, but sometimes one wonders how well is is being done. A dumbfounding moment late in the book:

Albertine had never told me that she suspected me of being jealous of her, of spying on everything she did. The only words we had exchanged about jealousy, a long time before, seemed to suggest the opposite. (p. 306)

The narrator throughout the book has been acting like a lunatic; one wonders if he thinks that Albertine is an idiot and doesn’t notice anything, or whether he really doesn’t understand how strange his behavior actually is. (The narrator, as mentioned, is somewhat disconnected from reality; early in the book, for example, there’s a hilarious interlude where he fails to understand how a telephone works; a bit later he describes an airplane taking off in such a way as to make it appear that it suddenly moves vertically.) Maybe it’s simply that he’s more interested in jealousy than in other people; a few pages after he considers that Albertine couldn’t have noticed his jealousy, this passage appears:

And no doubt that is how it always is when two people face each other, since each of them is unaware of a part of what is inside the other, even what he is aware of he only partly understands, and each of them shows the other only what is least personal in him, whether because they have not understood themselves and think that the rest is unimportant, or because certain attractions which are not truly part of them seem to them more important and more flattering, or because there are other qualities which they think they need in order not to be despised, but do not have, and so they pretend to care nothing for them, and these are the things which they seem to despise above all and even to abominate. But in love this misunderstanding is carried to the highest degree since, except perhaps when we are children, we try to ensure that the impression we give, rather than being an exact reflection of our thoughts, should be what these thoughts conclude will have the best chance of getting us what we want . . . (pp. 317–8.)

It’s for passages like this that I go back to Proust; and going back, of course, is a pleasure in and of itself, noticing what I marked up the last time through, a record of change in different colors of ink. It’s hard not to think, when re-reading Proust, that it’s more worthwhile doing that that keeping up with what’s new. 

(This edition does, it should be noted, have weird punctuation issues: stretches of dialogue within a paragraph are kept inside single quotes, and “he saids” and “she saids” appear inside those single quotes; different speakers are introduced with a dash. I assume this is an attempt to follow French convention; it appears jarring and unnecessarily strange to the reader of English books. The American versions of the new translation didn’t have this punctuation issue; but I suspect that I care more about the translation of punctuation than most people do.)

it is useful to have dreams

“Desire, therefore, can be useful to the man of letters, first by keeping him at a distance from other men and from resembling them, then by restoring some movement to a spiritual machine which otherwise, beyond a certain age, tends to seize up. None of this makes us happy, but we can examine the reasons that keep us from being so, reasons which would have remained hidden from us if not for these sudden irruptions of disappointment. And dreams cannot be made real, we know that; still, perhaps we would not form any without desire, and it is useful to have dreams so that we can see their collapse and learn from it.”

(Proust, The Prisoner, trans. Carol Clark, p. 166.)

where reality is no more translucent than in the body of a porcupine

“Or rather, wasn’t Françoise somehow enclosed within me, for distinctions between people and their interactions hardly exist in that sepia darkness where reality is no more translucent than in the body of a porcupine, and where our minimal perceptions can perhaps give an idea of those of certain animals?”

(Proust, The Prisoner, trans. Carol Clark, p. 109.)


“In the original complication of having the narrator and the author of Remembrance of Things Past bear the same Christian name, Proust begins the process of merging appearance and reality in order that he may, ultimately, separate them. This doubling of names makes us aware that we are reading a novel that is, in some way, based on fact; it warns us simultaneously that appearances can be deceiving. This strange duality, connecting and yet severing the ‘I’ of the book from the ‘I’ of its creator, suggests its theme: It is nothing less than the rescuing of the self from the oblivion of time. There is an ‘I’ that needs to be rescued; there is an ‘I’ that does the rescuing. Insofar as each successfully acts out his role, the ‘Marcel’ of Proust’s narrator more cleverly disguises himself than any other name possibly could. The fictional Marcel becomes aware of the need of salvation only as he turns into the Marcel who creates him. And it is in the process of that creation that salvation exists. It is a difficult and all-important strategy.”

(Howard Moss, The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust, pp. 2–3.)

giotto’s joachim

The Expulsion of Joachim
Joachim among the shepherds
Joachim's Sacrifice
Joachim's Dream

(Giotto’s frescoes in the Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua. Proust:

When my father had decided, one year, that we should go for the Easter holidays to Florence and Venice, not finding room to introduce into the name of Florence the elements that ordinarily constitute a town, I was obligated to evolve a supernatural city from the impregnation by certain vernal scents of what I supposed to be, in its essentials, the genius of Giotto. At most – and because one cannot make a name extend much further in time than in space – like some of Giotto’s paintings themselves which show us at two separate moemnts the same person engaged in different actions, here lying in his bed, there getting ready to mount his horse, the name of Florence was divided into two compartments. . . . That (even though I was still in Paris) was what I saw, and not what was actually round about me. Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries which long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be.

from Swann’s Way (Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright trans.), cited in Eric Karpeles’s Paintings in Proust, p. 76.)

the python that will devour it

“As soon as I realized this I felt panic within me. The calm which I had just sampled was the first appearance of the great but intermittent force which would struggle within me against pain and against love, and would ultimately overcome them. What I had just had a foretaste and foreboding of, if only for a moment, was that which would later become a permanent state for me, a life where I would no longer suffer because of Albertine, where I would no longer love her. And my love, which had just recognized the only enemy able to vanquish it, the act of forgetting, started to tremble, like a lion enclosed in a cage which has suddenly seen the python that will devour it.”

(Proust, The Fugitive, trans. Peter Collier, p. 415.)


“How many people, towns, pathways jealousy makes us desperate to know! It is a thirst for knowledge thanks to which we come to have, on a series of isolated points, all possible information except the information we really want. We never know when a suspicion will arise, for suddenly we remember a phrase that was unclear, an alibi which must have been given for a purpose. It is not that we have seen the person again, but there is a jealousy after the event, which arises only after we have left the person in question, a ‘staircase jealousy’ like staircase wit. Perhaps the habit I had developed of keeping certain desires secret within myself, the desire for a young girl of good society like the ones I saw passing under my window followed by their governesses, and particularly the one Saint-Loup, who frequented brothels, had told me about, the desire for pretty lady’s-maids, and particularly Mme Putbus’s, the desire to go to the country in spring and see the hawthornes again, the desire for storms, for Venice, to set to work, to live like other people, perhaps the habit of keeping all these desires alive in me without satisfying them, simply promising myself that I would not forget to realize them one day, perhaps this habit, formed over so many years, of perpetual postponement, of what M. de Charlus damned under the name of procrastination, had become so general in me that it had invaded even my jealous suspicions and led me, while making a mental note that one day I would certainly demand an explanation from Albertine about the young girl (or young girls, for this part of the story was confused, half erased, in other words unreadable in my memory) in whose company Aimé had met her, to delay this demand.”

(Proust, The Prisoner, trans. Carol Clark, p. 75)

and when we lose objects?

Every day I set less store on intellect. Every day I see more clearly that if the writer is to repossess himself of some part of his impressions, reach something personal, that is, and the only material of art, he must put it aside. What intellect restores to us under the name of the past, is not the past. In reality, as soon as each hour of one’s life has died, it embodies itself in some material object, as do the souls of the dead in certain folk-stories, and hides there. There it remains captive, captive forever, unless we should happen on the object, recognize what lies within, call it by its name, and so set it free. Very likely we may never happen on the object (or the sensation, since we apprehend every object as sensation) that it hides in; and thus there are hours of our life that will never be resuscitated: for this object is so tiny, so lost in the world, and there is so little likelihood that we shall come across it.”

(Proust, By Way of Sainte-Beuve, trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner, p. 17.)