David's Bookclub

Proust: The Captive

11.04.12 2:00 PM ET

The Captive is the most disturbing of all the volumes in Remembrance of Things Past. It weirded me out when I first read it as a teenager, and it weirds me out even more now.

The Captive describes a morbidly possessive love affair. Consumed by jealousy, the narrator entices his mistress, Albertine, to live with him, then keeps her almost as a prisoner, spying on her and relentlessly cross-examining her. He catches her in lie after lie, but he cannot give her up.

The cause of the narrator's jealousy is his fear that his mistress is attracted to women - that she is ready at any moment to slip away to a fleeting, anonymous sexual encounter. He imagines Albertine as a

fugitive, cautious, cunning creature, whose presence was enlarged by the thought of all those assignations which she was skilled in concealing, which made one love her because they made one suffer, in whom, beneath her coldness to other people and her casual answers, one could feel yesterday's assignation and to-morrow's …

These assignations could occur anywhere: in the back of a carriage, in a restroom, in a darkened street corner. The narrator fears to allow Albertine to go unaccompanied to a department store:

Allow Albertine to go by herself into a big shop crowded with people
perpetually rubbing against one, furnished with so many doors that a woman can always say that when she came out she could not find the carriage which was waiting farther along the street; I was quite
determined never to consent to such a thing, but the thought of it
made me extremely unhappy.

To control Albertine's (imagined) compulsive and anonymous promiscuity, the narrator entices her to come live with him in his parents' large apartment. Albertine, comparatively poor and in the habit of living on the hospitality of rich friends, agrees. To hold her, the wealthy narrator dandles a promise of marriage - even though he insists he does not really love her, has tired of her.

The idea that will occur to most readers is that women don't as a rule hanker for promiscuous sex with anonymous strangers in public places. Read Proust's biography and you learn, no surprise, that the original of Albertine was a man. The literary price of Proust's sexual transmogrification is a persistent inability to enter into the minds of his erotically interesting female characters. Let the woman be an old servant or a grand lady of high society, and Proust can depict her like Rembrandt. Let her even be a former courtesan now retired from the game, like Mme Swann, and he can make her live. But Albertine is unreal: a woman without affections or passions, treacherous and deceitful, voraciously lustful, cheerfully ready to sell herself for trinkets, without any interest in romance or marriage except as it might enhance her social standing.

If ... she is affectionate, what joy for a moment; but when we see that little tongue outstretched as though in invitation, we think of those people to whom that invitation has so often been addressed, and that perhaps even here at home, even although Albertine was not thinking of them, it has remained, by force of long habit, an automatic signal. Then the feeling that we are bored with each other returns. But suddenly this pain is reduced to nothing when we think of the unknown evil element in her life, of the places impossible to identify where she has been, where she still goes perhaps at the hours when we are not with her, if indeed she is not planning to live there altogether, those places in which she is parted from us, does not belong to us, is happier than when she is with us. Such are the revolving searchlights of jealousy.

It's claustrophobic to be with Albertine, and annoying to listen to the narrator (without any hint of irony in the author) fulminate against her and praise himself as someone whom people are always delighted to see. It's a strange fact that throughout the whole span of this vast book, we never meet anyone - other than an unfaithful mistress - who is not delighted to meet the narrator, who does not respect his opinions, who does not light up with joy when he accepts an invitation to their party. The conceit of the volume -that a Parisian girl of middle-class origins and high-society ambitions would consent in the years before the First World War to live for months and months in a young man's apartment as a kept woman in full public view - is so improbable that even a willing reader will have trouble getting past it.

But even this irritating volume is worth the trouble, because it also contains some of Proust's most clear and interesting statements of his ideas about art and literature.

Here, for example, is his critique of a certain kind of Impressionist art, and his explication of post-Impressionists like Cezanne. The "Elstir" referred to is a great painter who becomes an admired friend of the narrator's; the "you" addressed is Albertine:

[Y]ou remember the church at Marcouville l'Orgueilleuse which Elstir disliked because it was new. Isn't it rather a denial of his own impressionism when he subtracts such buildings from the general impression in which they are contained to bring them out of the light in which they are dissolved and scrutinise like an archaeologist their intrinsic merit? When he begins to paint, have not a hospital, a school, a poster upon a hoarding the same value as a priceless cathedral which stands by their side in a single indivisible image? Remember how the façade was baked by the sun, how that carved frieze of saints swam upon the sea of light.

What does it matter that a building is new, if it appears to be old, or even if it does not. All the poetry that the old quarters contain has been squeezed out to the last drop, but if you look at some of the houses that have been built lately for rich tradesmen, in the new districts, where the stone is all freshly cut and still quite white, don't they seem to rend the torrid air of noon in July, at the hour when the shopkeepers go home to luncheon in the suburbs, with a cry as harsh as the odour of the cherries waiting for the meal to begin in the darkened dining-room, where the prismatic glass knife-rests project a multicoloured fire as beautiful as the windows of Chartres?"

It's a profound thought, one that has influenced the way I've looked at art through all my subsequent life - and no less profound because Proust the author is ass enough to follow this explication with this reply from Albertine: ""How wonderful you are! If I ever do become clever, it will be entirely
owing to you."

Read David's remarks on Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV and Volume VI of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past