Waggish

Marcel Proust: The Captive

No, the Proust project has not been abandoned, but as I’ve gone through the novel I’ve been less keen on writing commentary, as the text has become less inspired and more redundant. This is all relative, as even Proust’s worst writing is stunning. There are enough brilliant bits to almost constantly reaffirm Proust’s talents, but by the time of The Captive, the finely edited prose of the first three volumes has loosened and turned into a much more disparate, elusive text. Proust surprises the reader in this and The Fugitive by narrowing his focus almost entirely to two characters, Marcel and Albertine, and Marcel’s obsessive, paranoiac jealousy and doubts over Alberine, who, to be fair, is hiding quite a bit. They live together, Marcel controlling Albertine as best he can, and every time she leaves the apartment, it seems, Marcel becomes insane with worry, interrogating her when she returns. By the end of the novel, she inadvertently, finally drops a clue that Marcel picks up on (though he has clearly been at Charles Bovary levels of denial for quite some time) alluding to her lesbian tendencies and egregious levels of infidelity. Yet they still continue in their relationship, though not for long, as Albertine becomes “the fugitive” rather quickly in the next volume. The question, of course, is one of how Marcel and Albertine are both captives, and we see the former far more than the latter. Marcel’s obsessive reflections make Swann’s jealousies in Swann’s Way look comparatively restrained. It also makes Swann’s thoughts look quite concise and pithy.

And yet, there is one blindsiding moment of revelation in The Captive, though it is only so when seen in the greater context of the entire work. Francoise is now Marcel’s maid, and has a great distaste for Albertine:

On one occasion I found Francoise, armed with a huge pair of spectacles, rummaging through my papers and replacing among them a sheet on which I had jotted down a story about Swann and his utter inability to do without Odette. Had she maliciously left it lying in Albertine’s room?(372)

Note that this cannot be a piece of Swann’s Way itself, since Marcel has not yet started to write his magnum opus. Still, it is the first definite indication that Marcel has heard enough of Swann’s story to begin writing about it, as Proust does himself. And for all the implicit connections between Swann’s jealousy of Odette and Marcel’s jealousy of Albertine, this is where it’s made explicit that Swann has been influencing Marcel. And not only that, but Marcel is writing these words about Swann during a time of extreme emotional stress, and revising his mental picture of Swann and Odette in the process. What we get in the first volume, then, is a many-revised version of Swann’s story, one that was first heard by Marcel from his acquaintances, then fictionalized during his time with Albertine, then refictionalized later.

Under this view, The Captive is less an analogue than a partial stripping away of fictional artifice. The third person narrative of Swann (with many first-person narrative asides) has been replaced with the intimate, claustophobic first person, and yet we have to take them as the very same voice at different times. Moreover, we need to see Swann’s story through the lens of The Captive, and perhaps through later writing, if we are to understand the narrator’s state in writing Swann’s Way and the pictures of Swann and Odette that are there presented. If this is the case, it would make sense that The Captive is far messier than Swann’s Way and less conclusive (for it is), because the author is that much closer to the material and less able to tell it as a distant story. Remember this passage from “Combray” in the first volume:

The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for these opaque sections [of people], impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate…

(See the link for the full passage.)

It is only now that “Swann in Love” seems to be exactly that to which Proust refers here. Likewise, there is the blurring of Marcel the narrator and Proust the author, as we come to see that it must be Marcel (even if that is not his name) that is writing the whole book, and that real, opaque person, Proust, recedes from clear sight.

One Comment

  1. Steve Coon
    14 October 2011

    “Still, it is the first definite indication that Marcel has heard enough of Swann’s story to begin writing about it, as Proust does himself. ” Sorry, but this is not correct. Remember many years earlier, during Marcel’s first visit to Balbec, when he visits Elstir at his studio and sees the portrait of “Madame Sacripant” and recognizes her as Odette…. he confirms that Elstir is “M. Biche.” He knows nearly all of the story of “Swann in Love” by that point.

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