Wednesday, 2 June 1999

Marcel Proust: The Captive (1923)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, 1981
Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 263

With the seventh volume of Remembrance of Things Past (both The Guermantes Way and Sodome et Gomorrhe being originally published as two separate volumes), a distinct change is apparent. This is the first part that was edited and published by other hands after Proust's death, and to me the missing final polishing seems to make itself clear in several ways.

The immediate sign that The Captive is unfinished is that is contains inconsistencies not apparent in earlier volumes: the deaths of two characters are described or mentioned only for them to pop up alive later on. (There is also a completely missing piece of narrative near the end.) But I think that the comparatively melodramatic subplot is also a legacy from the lack of final revision; my suspicion is that this would have been smoothed out and made more discursive, for why should things suddenly start to happen after well over two thousand pages? The length of The Captive is comparable to that of earlier volumes, so it is nearly complete - unless a really major revision was planned. (The two volumes which follow The Captive are considerably shorter.)

There is another possible explanation for the melodramatic nature of The Captive. Like earlier volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, it is an exhaustive examination of a theme. In this case, the theme is jealousy, which might be considered essentially melodramatic. However, earlier strongly emotive themes, such as young love in Within A Budding Grove and sexuality in Sodome et Gomorrhe, do not lead to a melodramatic novel.

The theme of jealousy is explored through two obsessive relationships which mirror one another. One is between the narrator and Albertine, the other between the elderly homosexual M. Charlus and his protegé, the young violinist Morel. One is a heterosexual relationship, in which the dominant partner is jealous of the homosexual leanings of the beloved; the other is a homosexual relationship, in which the dominant partner is jealous of the heterosexual leanings of the beloved. Both become increasingly demanding, claustrophobic and unfulfilling until the break between Charlus and Morel, when Charlus is humiliated at a society soirée.

There are two candidates for the role of the captive of the title: Albertine and the narrator. Such are his fears of her duplicity - he lays little verbal traps for her to measure the extent of her lies - that his mistress is barely allowed to leave the house with him let alone by herself. Her friends are barred to her, she is cut off from her former life.

But, given the self-obsessed nature of Remembrance of Things Past, it is the narrator himself who is the more likely candidate. (We are finally told to call him Marcel, after the writer, though we are assured at the same time that this is not in fact his name.) He is not just imprisoned because he doesn't dare let Albertine out of his sight. His realisation of her deceitfulness leads to mental obsession with her even when they are not together. Like the author, Marcel is beginning to succumb to invalidism; the disease that has haunted him since childhood is taking hold more frequently, more permanently, more debilitatingly. In Proust's own case, this was an asthmatic condition, and by 1905 he had (famously) taken up a hermetic existence inside a cork-lined room in Paris. Marcel is not affected to such an extent, but his life is ruled more and more by the disease.

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