David's Book Club: The Fugitive

David Frum on Proust's penultimate volume, where remembrance in the wrong spirit can be as vicious as forgetting.

The Fugitive, the fifth and penultimate volume of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, tells the story of two deaths. One death is followed by chilly oblivion; the other by an even more ghastly remembrance.

The oblivion is that of the great novel's first protagonist, Charles Swann. Swann was the art collector and man about town who, in the first volume, fell obsessively in love with a courtesan, Odette de Crecy. When The Fugitive begins, Swann is long dead. Proust wants us to understand, though, that the dead only fully and truly die when they are forgotten by the living.

During the passionate phase of his relationship with Odette, Swann was haunted by jealousy of one rival above all, a certain Count de Forcheville. As soon as Swann had passed from the scene, Odette promptly married de Forcheville - not for love, but for money on one side, for the title of "countess" on the other.

Callous. But not so callous as the actions of Swann's daughter, Gilberte. Swann had ceased to love Odette at the time he married her. He married for his daughter's sake, to provide her a comfortable home and a respectable name. Unfortunately, Swann died as the Dreyfus affair is boiling fiercest, and his name - which revealed his partly Jewish origins - had become awkwardly inconvenient for his socially ambitious heirs. De Forcheville offered to adopt Gilberte, and she seized the opportunity to abbreviate her father's name to a mere initial S. in between first name and her new aristocratic surname.

Yet the new Gilberte S. de Forcheville was not so ashamed of her Jewish side as to refuse the legacies that descended upon her from childless relatives of Swann's: legacies that established her by her early twenties as one of the richest heiresses in Paris.

It had been Swann's dearest hope that he might introduce his daughter to his dearest friend, the Duchesse de Guermantes, the grandest lady of the aristocratic quarter. The Duchesse refused every entreaty. But with Swann gone, Odette renamed, and the fortune suddenly available in the marriage market, everything changes. The Duchesse who had cruelly snubbed the daughter of her best friend during his lifetime, when it would have given him the joy of his life, abruptly reverses course after his death - and accepts (for her own family's advantage) the renamed, ultra-wealthy, and de-Judaized Gilberte as a match for her favorite nephew, the Marquis de Saint Loup.

Yet remembrance in the wrong spirit can be as vicious as any forgetting.

The Fugitive opens with the flight of the narrator's own obsessive love interest, Albertine. Unable to endure the narrator's suspicions, despairing of his false promises to marry her, Albertine returns to her conservative Catholic aunt and uncle. The narrator tries all manner of despicable tricks to procure her return. (Each time I read Proust, I become more and more unhappily doubtful that Proust the writer recognized how despicable his narrator is.) The tricks finally succeed, but too late. On the very day that Albertine agrees to return, she is thrown from a horse and killed.

The loss of his great loss plunges the narrator into despair and misery - for himself. Albertine was never to him anything more than a means toward the satisfaction of his own needs, ego needs and sensual needs. Her death deprives him of this means. But it utterly fails to awake any interest in him in Albertine as a person in herself, any sympathy for the miserable position into which he thrust her, any compassion for what it must have meant to be a poor girl connected to a manipulative man in a society in which marriage was a respectable woman's only possible career.

Instead, the narrator only accelerates after Albertine's death his ferocious investigations of her suspected lesbian love affairs. (Albertine's personality only makes sense when you realize that she is based, not upon any woman, but upon a bisexual and highly promiscuous male friend of the young Proust's.) The death of his supposed love leads the narrator only to a more profound conviction of the unreality of love: "There is not a woman in the world the possession of whom is as precious as that of the truths which she reveals to us by causing us to suffer." The only reality, he insists, is the self, and the passing impressions that collectively form our consciousness. "What we feel is the only thing that exists for us, and we project it into the past, into the future, without letting ourselves be stopped by the fictitious barriers of death."

Yet in this ugly line of thought is the birth of a nobler and better thought, the thought that will form the basis of the final and most philosophical volume of the novel: through the narrator's brutal disregard of others, a discovery of the means to overcome the self. As he broods and broods upon Albertine's infidelities, the manifold ways in which she failed as an object of desire, he begins to realize something of the wrong of his own ultra-subjectivity. As time passes, his memories of the departed woman intensify. And then:

[W]hat surprised me was not, as in earlier days, that Albertine so living in myself could be no longer existent upon the earth, could be dead, but that Albertine, who no longer existed upon the earth, who was dead, should have remained so living in myself. Built up by the contiguity of the memories that followed one another, the black tunnel, in which my thoughts had been straying so long that they had even ceased to be aware of it, was suddenly broken by an interval of sunlight, allowing me to see in the distance a blue and smiling universe in which Albertine was no more than a memory, unimportant and full of charm. Is it this, I asked myself, that is the true Albertine, or is it indeed the person who, in the darkness through which I have so long been rolling, seemed to me the sole reality?