Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Notes: The Fugitive (Proust)

Wow, it's been a while! What can I say? Life got in the way. Actually, that's not true exactly. I've been doing plenty of reading, but reading a bunch of other stuff... As usual. Luckily, I don't think that Proust was angry; and it was very easy to get back into the story.

This is the sixth book of In Search of Lost Time and the story of the narrator's ill-fated love for Albertine comes to a conclusion here; his possessive jealousy and manipulation forces her out of his home and, before he can admit that he wants her back, she dies suddenly in an accident. It's a bit of a convenient conclusion, and yet it's hard to think of any other that Proust might have employed. Sadly, the narrator's prying doesn't end with Albertine's death, but is unexpectedly fruitful: he discovers that she really was making love with various women in the regions of the beach resort. The rest of the book is a very shrewd portrait of grief and healing. Meanwhile, Gilberte has become engaged to and marries Robert de Saint-Loup, a bit unexpectedly; she is now in good with the demi-monde in spite of their continued Antisemitism. However, he is also cheating on her, now with men. Relationships seem inevitably to lead to betrayal or jealousy in Proust.

As for the revealed secret bisexual life of Albertine, I was surprised by that the first time I read the novels, but couldn't say why now. Clearly, she's lying to him throughout their relationship, which at least starts to explain his suspicions and jealousy. Also, reading the books again, it's not as if Proust hides her lesbian proclivities. It's worth asking why so many of his characters move to Sodom or Gomorrah, in his terms. It seems like at least 1/3rd of sophisticated society dallies with the same sex in his books, quite often crossing class barriers to do so. Did Proust believe that the smart set was uniquely susceptible to homosexual proclivities? Are they? One thing is clear- if Albertine is actually a lesbian, her secretiveness and lying makes good sense. Like many of the other characters, she has a secret life. But, in early 20th century France, how could a homosexual not be an inveterate liar? Circumstances would seem to make lying an appropriate course of action.

The narrator, however, barely lies at all, except to himself. There, he excels. One of the frustrating things about these books is that he ties himself into illogical knots out of jealousy, and thus is lying in his narration. It's really a testament to what a great novelist Proust was that we, as readers, are frustrated with the main character for lying to himself in the narration: he's so real as a character that we know him better than he knows himself and can see through his self-delusions. There's a point in which he tells himself that, were Albertine alive, he would confront her with her affairs and then their relationship would be happy again; we know this is bullshit.

His jealousy is hard to understand. Even if Albertine cheats on him, she clearly only does it after he has made her crazy and miserable by analyzing her every move. Is Proust commenting on the impossibility of these sort of stifling patriarchal relationships? It is noteworthy how many of his men are cuckolds in one way or another. But, if his women are cheating, quite often it's because they're miserable. I wouldn't call Proust a feminist exactly, but he seems to understand human behavior from all sides. Nevertheless, in the twenty-first century, it's hard to relate to his narrator. Jealousy is something that most of us leave behind with adolescence. For him, jealousy reveals the hidden depths of his emotions; but he never really loves Albertine at all, which again we can see as readers, even if he can't. It is worth remembering that the narrator is very young, very sheltered, and quite a bit of a mama's boy when he meets Albertine.

Of course, even if he doesn't know himself, trying to make sense of himself through his memories is the work of a lifetime. None of the characters in Proust has what we would call a fixed and stable identity, nor can really explain themselves in a satisfactory way. His grand theme, if I can be so bold, seems to me summed up in a throwaway passage in this volume:
"Our ego is composed of the superimposition of our successive states. But this superimposition is not unalterable like the stratification of a mountain. Incessant upheavals raise to the surface ancient deposits."
He is constantly looking at the events of his life in different lights and interpreting them in entirely different ways as a result. The books return incessantly to the uncanny ways that memories act upon us in the present and the fact that we never really interpret them objectively or even accurately. Thus it takes decades to know ourselves, if that Delphic command can even be carried out at all. As for knowing others, it seems impossible in Proust's world.

Of course, this doomed but delightful quest to understand others will eventually lead our narrator to his destiny as a writer. But, we're not there yet. One more book to go.

No comments: