Monday, January 05, 2015

Marcel Proust, The Fugitive (1925)

The original title of this one is La Fugitive, but to avoid confusion with a recent book of that title by Rabindranath Tagore, it was renamed Albertine Disparu, and to this day it appears that there’s some uncertainty as to which title should be considered definitive.  The Fugitive is a good title in that it complements the previous, but I think Albertine Disparu sounds rather cool; the only problem is that it translates into the uneuphonious Albertine Gone.  You might try saying Albertine Vanished or something, but there the problem is that the verb is simultaneously in the simple past and a past participle, meaning that as soon as you realize that it makes up a really dumb-sounding English sentence, you can never read it any other way.  Where’s Albertine?  Oh, Albertine vanished.  Good ol’ Moncrieff signally failed to find a good solution by calling his initial translation The Sweet Cheat Gone.  Seriously, dude?  Seriously?

ANYWAY, this penultimate volume—which, at a mere three hundred pages, is practically haiku-like in its brevity by Proustian standards—starts out pretty much as you’d imagine it would: Albertine being disparu, our narrator acts crazy and makes a fool of himself devising Machiavellian (or perhaps Rube-Goldbergian) schemes to get her to come back without revealing that he wants her to.  This reader felt considerable vicarious embarrassment at all this folderol.

But THEN—and I must admit I didn’t see this coming, though I really should have—Albertine DIES, putatively from being thrown from a horse, but more accurately from the author’s desire to show different dimensions of mourning.  Poor Albertine—all this ill treatment just to let an author be even MORE self-indulgent.  And it does NOT bring out the best in our protagonist; if you want to see what a little shit he can be, try this on for size:

At any rate I was glad that before she died she had written me that letter, and above all had sent me that final message which proved to me that she would have returned had she lived.  It seemed to me that it was not merely more soothing, but more beautiful also, that the event would have been incomplete without that message, would not have had so markedly the form of art and destiny.

Yeah, that’s what really matters, isn’t it?  He goes on to contest this idea—going back to what I said earlier about the split between Marcel-as-narrator and Marcel-as-character—but only to say, no, we retroactively impose patterns on everything; it would’ve felt like destiny either way, not to say “boy, was I ever an asshole!” which seems to be the only appropriate gloss.  I am put in mind of Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, for whom any amount of pain and suffering is acceptable as long as it’s aesthetically appealing.  Needless to say, Lord Henry is not any kind of hero.

But that doesn’t really give one a flavor of quite how crazy he really gets.  He starts investigating whether and to what extent Albertine had been a lesbian—a regular Encyclopedia Brown.  ‘Cause that’s what you really want to know about the dead woman you loved, right?  He never gets a satisfying answer because he always second-guesses everything he hears.  Here’s a quintessential “Jesus Christ, Marcel” bit as he’s talking to one of Albertine’s friends whom he had initially met along with her way back in Within a Budding Grove:

I told Andrée that it would be of great interest to me if she would allow me to see her (even if she simply confined herself to carresses which would not embarrass her unduly in my presence) performing such actions with those of Albertine’s friends who shared her tastes, and I mentioned Rosemonde, Berthe, each of Albertine’s friends, in the hope of finding out something.

Asking your dead mistress’s friend to let you watch her reenact lesbian sex with one of her other friends?  Seems like normal behavior to me!  As one would hope, Andrée vehemently rejects this idea, but it points to something I keep struggling with: to what extent—if at all—is Proust aware that he frequently comes off as quite unpleasant, if not positively deranged?  I mean, whatever his failings, he’s undeniably a genius, so you’d think he’d have to be at least to some extent, but the text doesn’t really make it apparent, and certainly, self-awareness does not tend to be something that humans are good at, regardless of intelligence.  And if he’s not, is that a strike against the book?  I don’t suppose it’s any secret that it’s not turning out to be my all-time favorite literary experience, but is that really a strike against it?  I don’t know.  We’ll talk about these things more at a later date.

So to cut a long-ish story short, he ends up basically getting over Albertine, as one does.  Then—inevitably—there’s some stuff with the other characters.  Odette remarries, Gilberte inherits a lof money and marries Marcel’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup who then turns gay and is no longer friends with the narrator ‘cause we all know if you’re gay you can’t have male friends (???).  &c.  WHATEVER, man.  I’m just glad I’m almost DONE here.

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