In Search of Lost Time slash À la recherche du temps perdu Volume 5 (in the current Penguin Modern Classics version) contains the texts known as The Prisoner and The Fugitive, which have historically been considered Volume 5 and Volume 6 of Marcel Proust’s complete, massive, novel.
These two “books” are both much shorter than the previous four, though, so now seem to be ordinarily published together. Fine, I thought to myself, I’ll read them together. And with no domestic Wi-Fi for three days and the exterior cold still persisting here in freezing Canada, I decided it was time for me to take another step along my many-year journey through Marcel Proust’s magnum opus. Before you go further, why not remind yourselves of how I’ve felt about the novel so far:
I last found myself reading Proust waaaaaaay back in the Autumn of 2016, as I dove hard into what was rapidly becoming the worst year of my life. In the Summer of 2016 I had quit my job and then gone hiking through Spain for several weeks, hoping to find within sobriety and great physical exhaustion some kind of purpose. During those few weeks, I did find a purpose: I would wake up, eat, walk, eat, sleep, and this simplicity – plus the social isolation (I deliberately didn’t make any friends) – allowed me to be the happiest and most content I had ever been in my adult life. Actually, the superlatives are unnecessary: while I walked across Spain I was happy and content for the only time in my adult life, certainly until that point. I returned to England, wishing I hadn’t, and then things got worse and worse and worse and – of course – if you’re a long-term reader of this blog you’ll have seen that happen live online, for example here.
Reading great literature allowed me fleeting happiness, fleeting pleasure and a sense of human connection. When I was able to be somewhere and able to read, uninterrupted, I could be at peace. Sodom and Gomorrah – which is a cracking read – was a great way for me to distract myself. That volume is all about the uncovering of a great network of homosexuality underneath the buttoned-up aristocrats of splendid Paris. This Volume – in both The Prisoner and The Fugitive – features a narrator (named, finally, openly, as Marcel) who is obsessed with unmasking a possibly fictitious double life within the mind of Albertine, a woman he once loved but now hates. Marcel believes Albertine is, secretly, a promiscuous lesbian, and he will stop at nothing to have the truth he has convinced himself of confirmed. Of course, though, as a rich but sickly man Marcel only really has money to get what he wants, and much like torture, bribery tends to make people say whatever it is that wants to be heard.
Albertine and Marcel have a weird sex life together and Marcel seems very conscious that it is unsatisfying for his lover. His sexual jealousy and the extrapolations of Albertine’s infidelity come, probably, from an awareness of his pisspoor sexual performance. Jealousy is the main subject of most of this volume, and it’s something I’ve never really understood: it is mean and cruel and selfish to want to “possess” someone, it is also dehumanising, and – to be honest – most of The Prisoner made me feel fucking anxious and hyper-stressed out as the ways in which Marcel – moneyed, proud, self-important, urbane, educated – treats Albertine – younger, poorer, provincial, shy, easily awed – reminded me horribly of the terrible relationship I spent most of my twenties “imprisoned” within. Marcel tells Albertine where she can be and who she can see, he teaches her the “correct” ways to think and eat and dress and behave: she is a doll, a toy, to him, and though he claims to “love” her, he doesn’t respect her, he doesn’t like her and – by the end of this volume – he clearly fucking hates her and orders her to leave his apartment, then changes his mind, then does so again and again and then Albertine leaves anyway.
I have a long history of depression and anxiety, but this is the first time a book I have read has ever given me proper terrifying flashbacks to the lowest moments of my life. The relentless petty and cruel manner in which Marcel addresses and diminishes Albertine was painfully familiar. I was told how to dress, what to think, and I was shouted at and mocked for the language I used (“lounge”, for example, was a disgusting noun that could never be spoken in polite society, and to call your “sitting room” a “living room” was barely more acceptable). I have been Albertine, and I too have been able to experience – through conversations with third parties – how my own Marcel read their behaviour, and it was like this.
Marcel thinks he is the prisoner, trapped living in his lovely apartment with a woman he fucking hates, but he isn’t trapped: he’s a dickhead. For me, it was hard to empathise with the controlling, moneyed person with no real understanding of love, and – in stark contrast to when I read The Guermantes Way – here I found myself hoping for more of the long-winded scenes set at society dinners, and I was – cruelly – glad when Albertine was casually killed off in a riding accident. Albertine was too much like me, Marcel’s treatment of her too much too much too much.
Yes, it is beautifully written, yes it is properly fucking hilarious and it is wise (not always) and witty and well-translated (The Prisoner by Carol Clark and The Fugitive by Peter Collier), too: it is a great novel and one I am now close to concluding. Which I think I’ll do soon. Don’t want any more of this hanging over me for longer. For me, though, this volume was too familiar in an unpleasant way. But that’s just me – I don’t think there are many Albertines in the world, but there are definitely a few of us.
And I know I know I know that there’s nothing insightful or interesting in this blog post, I know. But if you’re gonna read Proust, you’re gonna read Proust. I think you should, but most of you won’t…
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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