The 14-Minute Marcel Proust
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The Prisoner

The two-minute 'Prisoner'

Albertine has come to Paris and moved in with Marcel, whose parents are conveniently absent. Charlus and Morel (who come to the Hôtel de Guermantes to see Jupien's niece, whom Morel is more or less engaged to marry) are part of his daily routine, as is the Duchesse de Guermantes, who dispenses advice on what clothes Marcel should buy for "your friend." Nobody—not Françoise, the super-judgmental servant; not Madame Bontemps, Albertine's aunt and guardian—seems to think it's the least bit odd that the girl should be living there with him.

Noticing that Albertine wants to visit the Verdurins, Marcel jockeys her into staying home, and himself pays a visit to the salon, which Charlus and Morel are also to attend. The awful Patronne is inexorably rising in society through her ability to attract artists like Anatole France, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss. The baron is abetting her ambition, and has invited (p.223) two dukes, an eminent general, a famous writer, great doctor and distinguished lawyer (and a bunch of others, including the Queen of Naples) to this particular evening. Alas, they treat Charlus as their host, ignoring Madame Verdurin. Her revenge is swift and terrible: she turns Morel against the baron, who is crushed to the point of physical collapse.

Marcel goes home, suffering torments of jealousy because he has learned that Albertine has been lying to him about her friendships with some notorious lesbians. He writhes about this for 80 pages, until one morning he wakes up—serve him bloody well right!—and finds her gone.

Of love & jealousy, of boys & girls

The Prisoner / The Fugitive Time and again, Proust tells us of tragi-comic love affairs, in which the male (Swann, Marcel, St. Loup, and now again Marcel) spends his time, emotion, and wealth upon a female (Odette, Gilberte, Rachel, and now Albertine) who couldn't care less for him, and for the most part is in it only for the money. (Perhaps significantly, because she's based on an actual girl with whom Proust had boyishly been in love, Gilberte is somewhat an exception to this rule. She's a good kid; she just doesn't happen to fancy Little Marcel.) The torments suffered by these men do certainly invoke our young loves: most of us have experienced such moments of despair. Yet Proust never seems to have gone beyond them to a mutually satisfactory affair—let alone marriage! His characters are stuck forever at the stage of infatuation, in which the more deeply we love, the more cruel and the less affectionate the beloved becomes.

I suspect that this because Proust's loves were mostly unconsummated. In The Prisoner, this aspect of the Marcel-Albertine affair is stated explicitly on p.84: Albertine always alarmed me when she said that I was quite right to protect her reputation by saying that I was not her lover, since, as she said, "you aren't, are you, not really." Perhaps I was not, in the complete sense, but was I to think that she did with other men all the things we did together, only to say she had not been their mistress? A good cuddle and a bit of lubrication—that seems to have been Proust's idea of sexual love.

Even better if the beloved isn't awake! Pp.60-62: I listened to ... the sound of her sleep. So long as it continued I could dream of her and look at her at the same time, and when her sleep became deeper, touch her and kiss her.... The sound of Albertine's breathing, growing louder, could almost have been mistaken for the breathlessness of pleasure, and as my own pleasure neared completion, I could kiss her without breaking into her sleep. It seemed to me at these moments that I possessed her more completely, like an unconcious and unresisting part of dumb nature.

So Proust's novel-within-a-novel is not so much the story of a homosexual man as of an impotent one. This comes out very clearly in the casser le pot episode, when Albertine (p.311) lets slip that she'd like to go out and "get broken" (me faire casser) —what?—"my jar" (le pot), as Marcel finally completes the sentence. Casser le pot was French slang for rear-window sex, and doesn't make much sense unless Albertine were actually Albert. If Marcel's sweetie were a man, and Marcel weren't an effective lover, then the beloved might well regret hanging around the apartment night after night, when he could go out and get himself properly buggered.

As a result of this disconnection, Proust's accounts of affairs between men and women often seem unreal to me, or perhaps I should say surreal, except when they evoke my own Charlie Brown days. ("I saw the red-haired girl today... I couldn't think what to say to her. So I hit her!")

Even creepier is Marcel's formula of love and rejection. When Albertine behaves, he doesn't particularly like her; when she strays, his infatuation flames up again. P.21: Every day I found her less pretty. Only the desire which she excited in others, when I learned of it and began to suffer again, in my desire to keep her from them, could put her back on her pedestal. Suffering alone gave life to my tedious attachment to her. When she disappeared, taking with her the need to alleviate my pain, which demanded all my attention like some dreadful hobby, I realized how little she meant to me—as little, no doubt, as I meant to her.

British and (no!) American edition

The Prisoner and The Fugitive are often bound together as one volume, and the Penguin Proust follows this tradition. The first book of the "Albertine cycle" was translated by Carol Clark. Alas, it and the next two books have fallen afoul of American copyright law, which (thanks to the late Sonny Bono) insanely protects literary works for 95 years after the author's death. The first four books of Proust's great novel were published during his lifetime, so they fell into the public domain before the rock star and California congressman could intervene; the last three, however, are "protected" by the Sono Bono Law— aka the Micky Mouse Provision, since its real intent was to protect the Disney Studios' interest in its odious mouse. Viking tells me that it won't publish these books until 2018!

However, the British paperbacks (except for their covers, identical to the Allen Lane editions) are imported to the U.S. under the Penguin imprint.

Marcel and the Narrator

I've always thought of the central character in Lost Time as Little Marcel. On page 64 of The Prisoner, there's a hint that this might indeed be the case. Writing of Albertine's awakening in the narrator's bed, Proust writes: Now she began to speak; her first words were "darling" or "my darling," followed by my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would produce "darling Marcel" or "my darling Marcel." Apparently Proust liked the effect, because on page 140 he has Albertine beginning a note to the narrator with "My dear darling Marcel" and ending it "Oh Marcel, Marcel! Your very own Albertine."


The Prisoner was the first book of the novel to be published after Proust's death, and he was working on it (and the others) until he died. So it is naturally rougher than the earlier books, with many small solecisms and contradictions that he would have corrected had he lived a year or two longer. Thus, in one of his spasms of lust, he spots a blonde dairy-girl whom he invites up to his room under the pretext that he needs her to carry a letter for him. As soon as he sees her up close, of course, he loses interest in the project and sends her packing with a five-franc tip. That's on page 132; by page 136, the tip has been reduced to a mere two francs.

I briefly thought I'd found a typographical error when I saw the word appal on p.361, only to learn that this is the preferred British spelling of appall.