Monday, 9 August 1999

Marcel Proust: Albertine Disparu (1925)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, 1981, as The Fugitive
Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 307

The Fugitive, as a title, neatly matches that of the previous novel in Remembrance of Things Past (The Captive), yet it is clearly not a translation of the French title. Since it is the second of the three volumes put together by others following Proust's death, it is impossible to know what title he would have used for the eventual published work, if he had lived to make the final revisions.

The penultimate novel in Proust's cycle is entirely concerned with the narrator's obsessive relationship with his lover Albertine. We begin the novel where The Captive left off, with Albertine having fled back to her aunt in the country. The narrator makes a huge effort to bring about her return to Paris, but this never happens: Albertine is killed in an accident. Just after hearing the news, the narrator is shattered to receive a letter sent off just before Albertine's death, in which she says that she will return to him.

An important part of remembrance - the central theme, of course, of the whole series of novels - is the way in which we think of those we no longer see, particularly those at one time close to us who are now dead. It is inevitable that Proust would spend some time analysing the progress of this aspect of our memories. In more abstract terms, Sartre discusses the same issue in his Psychology of Imagination, and the ideas of the two writers on the subject are closely related. (Sartre in fact refers to Proust for illustration of his philosophical ideas on the subject.)

Their views are based on the idea that our imaginary pictures of people are of necessity only pale reflections of the living person, requiring frequent refreshment by renewed acquaintance with them. As the length of separation increases, our imagined version of the person becomes more divorced from the richer reality, and more and more sketchy. This is partly because the most real part of the imagined version is centred on our interaction with them.

I do not wholly agree with this analysis, which seems a little self-centred. However, Proust's narrator is an extremely self-centred person, and his mourning for Albertine follows this course. As is the case throughout the series, his analysis and record of his internal life is convincing, giving the distinct impression that he would not be an agreeable person to meet. He is self-dramatising and obsessed with the romance of his inner life. His internal viewpoint is here perhaps more melodramatic than in some of the earlier novels, and this can presumably be attributed to either a missing final revision or the strong emotional effects of bereavement.

On a fairly superficial level, the title chosen by the translators may seem misleading: it is only for the first few dozen pages that we think that Albertine has run away. But then both the French title and The Fugitive have a deeper meaning, as the narrator's memories of his lover begin to disappear from his imagination, becoming fugitive thoughts.

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