by Marcel Proust
translated by Carol Clark
When I finished Sodom and Gomorrah in May, I proclaimed that Marcel and his love life annoyed me. I was informed that if this was the case, I was in for a long haul with the remaining books. More (so much more) from the tortured soul of Marcel was in store. I heaved a deep sigh, but forged on.
Seven months later, four of which were spent actively reading the 6th volume of In Search of Lost Time (off and on, you know), I can report that I am finally seeing the humor in the situation that my fellow readers mentioned as their reason for sticking with Marcel. In The Prisoner it becomes abundantly clear that “Proust the author understands what a tool Marcel the character is being” (to borrow a brilliant comment from Emily of Evening All Afternoon!)
In this volume, Marcel has Albertine right where he wants her – living in his house, at his constant beck and call and under his suffocating supervision. He is certain that he can keep her away from the eyes and hands of her girlfriends, real or imaginary, which at this point seems to be his very reason for living. Or at least he has a few precious moments of certainty, surrounded by hours and hours (and pages and pages) of agonized worry that this is far from the truth. His own attraction to her varies from day to day, careening from utter loathing to boredom to a devotion that compels him to buy her dresses and sweets and perhaps even a yacht if one catches her fancy. He obsessively tracks her every move, sending friends to spy on her and then suspecting those very spies of being her lovers. At the same time, he longs for other women and entertainments and even though he knows it would destroy him, he wishes Albertine would throw off her fetters and leave him. In the end, his own jealousies cause him endless suffering, and ‘the prisoner’ of the title begins to seem more and more to be Marcel himself, and not Albertine.
Do I feel sorry for this poor sap? There is a degree of sympathy in me, buried in mounds of mirth. Marcel, Marcel, Marcel…what am I going to do with you? The frustration I felt after finishing Sodom and Gomorrah has boiled over into something else – a giddy fascination in the inevitable and amusing ability of human beings to muck up their lives and the lives of those around them. We all have it to a degree, and perhaps that is why Proust’s story is so compelling. On some level almost anyone can identify with this character. Perhaps we can learn a few things from him too – I know I am.
As always, the moments of incredible insight into the workings of the mind, memory, and music, among other things, continue to make Proust’s book worth reading. At this point though, I am finally invested in the character of Marcel too. And with only a couple more volumes to see where Proust is going with all this, I’m eager to keep reading. Next up, The Fugitive.