A Short View of Proust (continued)
by Edmund Wilson
When we first meet Mme. de Villeparisis, it is at the seaside summer resort, Balbec: the narrator's grandmother has known her during their schooldays, but, with her characteristic modesty and good taste, taking it for granted that Mme. de Villeparisis belongs to a superior social class, has never since attempted to see her. Mme. de Villeparisis, however, recognizes the grandmother and insists upon entertaining her. To the boy, who goes out driving with Mme. de Villeparisis, she is the perfect type of the great lady; she enchants him with her anecdotes of the distinguished people she has met at her father's house. When the hero next encounters her, however, it is at the reception I have mentioned above: he knows now that her social position is by no means so brilliant as he had supposed: in some way, she has lost caste; many people will not come to her house; she is also a sort of blue stocking: she paints and publishes memoirs, and has thereby ceased to be typical of her class; she is envious, sometimes mean, a little stuffy and a little pathetic. It sometimes occurs to the young man to wonder what dreadful sin Mme. de Villeparisis can have committed to have warranted such ostracism: he cannot imagine anything disgraceful enough, anything which such a woman might have done which such women did not do every day with impunity. Some time afterward, he makes an attempt to find out from her nephew, Charlus, only to discover that, so far as Charlus is concerned, Mme. de Villeparisis is not déclassée at all: she is simply his aunt and a Guermantes, and the opinion of the general world has never penetrated to him. He explains, however, to the young man that the late M. de Villeparisis was a nobody, with no title of his own, and that they had merely invented "de Villeparisis" in order that she might still have one. Years afterward, at Venice, the narrator once again comes upon Mme. de Villeparisis in the dining-room of his hotel. He overhears her conversation at table with the old diplomat, M. de Norpois, who has been her lover for years: it is one of those banal and laconic exchanges on the part of persons who have long been together and who have no longer anything to say to each other: they discuss their shopping, the stock market, the menu. Mme. de Villeparisis is disfigured by some sort of eczema which has broken out on her face: she seems tired and old. When an Italian prince comes over to their table, M. de Norpois watches her relentlessly with a severe blue eye to see that she does not say anything silly.
An ordinary novelist would leave it at this. With Proust, however, the point of the story is still to come—in a final transformation which is retrospective. When the narrator leaves the dining-room and rejoins his mother outside, he finds also a Mme. Sazerat, an old, excellent and rather boring neighbor from Combray. Mme. Sazerat, ever since they have known her, has been living in very reduced circumstances. When the narrator happens to mention that Mme. de Villeparisis is in the dining-room, Mme. Sazerat begs him to point her out: it was Mme. de Villeparisis, Mme. Sazerat explains, that her father had ruined himself: "Now that father is dead," she adds, "my consolation is that he loved the most beautiful woman of his time." The hero takes her into the dining-room, but, "We can't be counting from the same place," she objects. "As I count, the second table is a table where there's only an old gentleman and a dreadful blowzy little hunched-up old woman." We understand with astonishment that what the young man had been unable to imagine was simply that Mme. de Villeparisis had once been beauitiful, unscrupulous and cruel, had wasted lives and broken hearts, like Rachel and Odette. Proust's skill at producing these effects is one of the most amazing features of his art: as each successive revelation is made, we see perfectly that the previous descriptions of the character fit equally well our new conception, yet we have never foreseen the surprise. Behind the varied series of aspects, we divine the personality as a solid and indestructible entity: the series, in Proust's own language, describes its curve.
To return, however, to the story where we left it, we now enter the inferno of the passions, of which we have previously had only glimpses. The hero's love affair with Albertine, which is balanced, near the beginning, by his childhood infatuation with Swann's daughter, is the culminating, and the most enormously elaborated, episode of the book. The narrator falls in love with a girl in almost every way the opposite of himself: she is lively, sensual, piquante. She is an orphan and has no money and is obliged to live with an aunt, who dislikes her and whom she dislikes. The aunt is a dull bourgeoise, but there is about Albertine a good deal of the Parislan gamine. While his mother is away at Combray, the hero brings Albertine to live in the family apartment, where he is, for the time being, alone. There commences between him and Albertine one of those fatal emotional see-saws which seem first to have been described by Stendhal in the love affair between Julien Sorel and Mathilde de la Mole. So long as Proust's hero is sure of Albertine, he finds himself indifferent to her and decides that he will not marry her; but as soon as he suspects her of infidelity, he becomes furiously jealous of her and can think of nothing else.
In the meantime, he has become more self-indulgent, more lazy, more egoistic and more hypochondriac. He lies in bed till noon every day and will not take Albertine out: he keeps her like a prisoner. He leans too hard upon her, just as he leaned too hard upon Gilberte, but with consequences far more serious, because he has by this time lost the self-control which might have enabled him to end the situation, as he did in the former case. He becomes at last so morbid and exigent that, one morning, after a jealous scene, Albertine runs away while he is still in bed. The night before he has heard her, in her room, violently throw open her window—opening the windows at night was supposed to be bad for his asthma—as if to say: "This life is smothering me! Asthma or no asthma, I must have air!" He is filled with an agitation which shakes him more profoundly than anything he has known since the time, in his childhood at Combray, when his mother did not kiss him good-night; and as he had done on that former occasion, he goes out into the hall, hoping in vain to attract Albertine's attention. In the morning, he finds a letter, which says: "I leave you the best of myself." She goes back to her aunt in the country. Only then does it occur to her lover that she is, after all, a jeune fille á marier and that he has taken advantage of her situation to put her in an impossible position. He makes frantic efforts to get her back; then suddenly hears that she has fallen from her horse and been killed.
After the news of her death, he receives a letter she has written him, in which she tells him she is willing to come back. He has suspected her of Lesbian propensities, and this is one of the things that has tortured him; but he is never now to know certainly how much of what he has suspected is the product of his imagination and how much is true.Some evidence, after she is dead, leads him to believe that she is innocent;other reports, that she was far more depraved than he had ever guessed, that she had finally come to believe herself suffering from a form of "criminal insanity" and that she had really allowed herself to be killed out of remorse for a suicide she had caused. In either event, he feels that he is to blame: if she was innocent, he has wronged her; if she was guilty, he has abandoned her tothe perversity which she herself dreaded: "It seemed to me that, by reason of the fact that my love had been altogether selfish, I had allowed Albertine to die, just as I had killed my grandmother." In any case, this harrowing failure undermines his own morale. He completely collapses and takes refuge in a sanitarium, where be remains for years.