Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Captive / La Prisonnière

Love the way these copies straddle the decimal divide.
The Captive - Marcel Proust

The captive is Albertine, who Marcel* keeps in his apartment, unbeknownst to his friends. The captive is also Marcel, who is so jealous of Albertine that his movements are severely constrained by his need to watch her all the time. And as one expects by now (if you've got this far into Remembrance of Things Past) these positions are also reflected and refracted through other characters, particularly the relationship between scion of the Guermantes family Baron de Charlus and Morel, the socially ambitious violinist. However the focus of the book is very much on Marcel and Albertine.

I found myself feeling uneasy at points in this book. Proust's method of almost swooning into the emotions of the time means that we are sucked under wave after wave of unhealthily extreme possessiveness. But however much he constrains Albertine's freedom, Marcel's jealousy is never assuaged, for what she isn't doing now she may be doing tomorrow, or may have done yesterday. And even if she isn't 'doing' it, how can he tell if she isn't thinking it.

Possessiveness at this level is a dead end. The dialectic between jealousy and constraint reminds me of Hegel's Master and Slave dialectic. ("I was more of a master than I had supposed. More of a master, in other words more of a slave.") Freedom has many different faces and the master can come to rely on the slave as much as he controls them. This inability to control time leads Marcel to wish to escape time, into the perfect moment, a tendency which has already been seen in the famous 'madeleine' and 'hawthorn' scenes. "I would have sacrificed my dull life in the past, and all my life to come, erased with the india rubber of habit, for one of these special, unique moments."

Pop's Proust on his desire to be pinned and mounted and for fifteen minutes with the object of his love.

It seems that this wish, to conquer anxiety completely, to know and control completely the object of love is a type of death wish. Life is like the tide and cannot be pinned and mounted like a butterfly.  And if it could would the object of desire keep their attraction? "Love is nothing more perhaps than the stimulation of those eddies which, in the wake of an emotion, stir the soul."Marcel often returns to the idea that jealousy is the grain of sand that forms the pearl of love. Except that his jealousy contains a desert's worth of sand and his love is like an illness. (Apologies to Proust if I appear to imply that this cliched pearl metaphor is his.)

The Master and Slave dialectic is also reflected in the financial disparity of power between the orphaned Albertine and the wealthy heir Marcel. He tries to make the constraints under which he keeps Albertine less disempowering by buying her things. At times he seems ready to embrace ruin, to dissipate his fortune in vain attempts to keep her happy. He gets advice from Madame de Guermantes on the most exclusive dresses and is considering buying a yacht and a Rolls Royce by the end. But the more he (ab)uses his financial power the more he believes that it is this alone that is keeping Albertine with him. And his fear that she will leave torments him and makes him a captive of his own fears. "When I returned home it had been with the feeling that I myself was a captive, not with that of finding a captive in the house."

And when his anxiety and jealousy is held at bay is he happy? Of course not! It is then that he wonders if he himself loves her at all. love is only a creation of our own mind, he reflects. There is less and less of the beloved in the thoughts of love the more it grows. And returning to the mutability of people he wonders is it even the same woman who occupies his house that moved into his heart. "On each occasion a girl so little resembles what she was the time before (shattering in fragments as soon as we catch sight of her the memory that we had retained of her and the desire that we were proposing to gratify), that the stability of nature which we ascribe to her is purely fictitious and a convenience of speech."

Although the relationship between Marcel and Albertine forms the central element of this book Proust includes many of the themes that have been constant since Swann's Way. Music, particularly that of the composer Vinteuil plays a big part also, with Baron de Charlus and the Verdurins working together to put on a performance by Morel of a septet by Vinteuil.  This piece has come to light due to the diligent work of the composer's daughters lover who has made sense of the composers idiosyncratic notes to produce a fair copy of this piece which Marcel comes to consider the crowning glory of the composer's life and work.

He is fascinated by the idea that art gives an insight into some kind of more permanent essence and allows us to inhabit and return to moments which are fugitive in life. however he is far from sure of this and seems no further along the line to committing his own life to the creation of art. For even when we consider ourselves to have discovered a new way of seeing the world when a new masterpiece is created in a new style might the revelation not simply prove another disguise. "Finally, the phrase that had seemed to me too little melodious, too mechanical in its rhythm, of the swinging joy of bells at noon, had now become my favourite, whether because I had grown accustomed to its ugliness or because I had discovered its beauty."

And for the artist themselves, what difference will the limited immortality of art make to them? ; "there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even, nor make the talented artist consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms.."

Just as love is a double trap in which we try to possess and be possessed by what is fleeting and contingent, is not art too a figment, an abstraction? "..Art, to which I would try to devote my reconquered liberty, was not a thing that justified one in making a sacrifice, a thing above and beyond life, that did not share in its fatuity and futility..."

I may return to The Captive with a second post or in the post for The Sweet Cheat Gone which I am already almost a third through. And then there will only be one volume left. This final volume will not be translated by C Scott Moncrieff because he died before he could compose the 'translator's note' for The Sweet Cheat Gone. Under Translator's Note on the flyleaf it says "We regret that Mr Scott Moncrieff was not able to write this note before his death. - The Publishers." It will be interesting to see if the final book is noticeably translated by a different hand

* The distinction between Proust and the narrator is made very clear in the following quote - "As soon as she was able to speak she said: "My _____" or "My dearest ____" followed by my Christian name, which if, we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be "My Marcel," or "My dearest Marcel."


  1. If I was planning to read this in English, I suspect I would be a lot further into it by now. As I'm trying to do it in French, I've read 'Swann's Way' and that's it :(

    Every time I see a review, especially an excellent one like this, I make a mental note to get onto it tout suite - of course, as we all know, mental notes can be erased all too easily...

  2. Yes, intentions. They are written on water. I just read this in the next volume The Sweet Cheat Gone a.k.a. The Fugitive
    "..I knew that I would never settle down again to work, or make myself live upon hygienic principles or do any of the things which, day by day, I vowed that I would do upon the morrow."
    Unfortunately, even after five years of French in school, I amn't and never was in a position to even try to read this in French. maybe I should start to learn tomorrow?

  3. How interesting to see that Marcel's possessive instincts only "improve," like wine, with age! Very envious of you that you've been able to make fairly steady progress with this epic--I went off the tracks a while back and have yet to right myself. Feeling a little guilty about that, oddly enough. Cheers!

    1. I'd be nowhere if it weren't for guilt! I think i'm on the home straight now. The last two books are only one volume each - around half the size of the other books so it's as if I was on the last one.

  4. Tony, if it is any help - the best part, after Swann's Way is the end, the last, I don't know, 100 pages or so. It all comes together. An amazing feat.

    I found myself feeling uneasy at points in this book.

    Isn't that the truth. Marcel is at risk of becoming some kind of monster. He indulges the worst side of his character.

    1. And he seems to be getting worse in the next volume!

  5. "Marcel often returns to the idea that jealousy is the grain of sand that forms the pearl of love." I agree with this and it's already the case in Swann's Way. Swann's love for Odette is based on jealousy too.

    The French title implies that Albertine is the captive but you're right to say that Marcel is prisonner of his own unhealthy tendencies.
    He makes fun of Charlus but he's as controlling as the poor Baron.

    I added your review to my Reading Proust page.

    1. I find that Marcel and the Baron (and Swann) parallel each other a lot and sometimes seem to share the same character. If you add them together are oyu moving towards a rounded view of M.P. himself.