Reading Proust V - The Captive

So after an exceptionally long hiatus, I returned to In Search of Lost Time and picked up Volume V, The Captive and the Fugitive. These are actually the titles of two 500-page novels bound together in one volume, but given that I’ve only just finished the former, that’s where I’ll limit my discussion here. Part of the reason for procrastinating this long (I finished Volume IV back in March) was that I’d read somewhere that Volume V was the least finished of the six volumes at the time of Proust’s death in 1922 and did not receive the same kind of assiduous editing and rewriting he was known for and had applied to the other books. As a result, there’s a fair amount of rambling (I’ll get to that in a second) as well as a few gaps and errors. In terms of the latter, there are, for example, a few characters that are said to have died (Cottard and Mme. Villeparisis) yet appear alive and healthy in later sections of the book. The other reason was that I’d read online somewhere (I can’t remember which famous critic had said it) that Volume V was the one book that In Search of Lost Time could do without—not exactly the kinds of things one wants to hear before picking up a 1000-page tome! And now that I’ve read the first half, I’d have to agree that these claims aren’t entirely unjustified.

The Captive picks up where we left off: after learning of Albertine’s lesbian proclivities, Marcel resolves to remove her from Balbec (where there’s too much temptation), take her back to Paris with him and marry her. Although they do not marry, they live together in his parents’ apartment in the Hôtel de Guermantes while his parents are conveniently away (his father is away on diplomatic business and his mother is in Combray taking care of her sick aunt). Throughout much of The Captive Marcel is consumed with analyzing his feelings toward Albertine. One moment he claims he loves her; the next he says she bores him. At times he’s determined to marry her; then he contemplates how best to break up with her. After several hundred pages, this dithering gets very tedious. What’s clear is that it’s only at those moments when Marcel is in control (mostly when she’s asleep) that he not only feels at ease but also, paradoxically, least interested in her. It’s when she’s out on her own, however, in a world full of temptation and potentially fulfilling her desires with other women, that his jealousy flares up and he tries to keep her under as strict control as possible—hence, “the captive” of the title. One of Marcel’s ploys is to hire a chauffeur to not only drive her around but also to spy on her. He’s also employed her friend Andrée to accompany her on her outings and who also reports on their activities. But as Albertine’s friend, one whom she had danced with back in Balbec (“with their breasts touching”), how can Marcel truly believe what she says when her own tendencies are suspect? It’s an added bit of torture for Marcel. At one point, when he learns Albertine has been invited to the Verdurin’s for an evening and that Mlle. Vinteuil (the lesbian daughter of the famous composer) and her “friend” are also expected to be there, he suggests she go to the Trocadéro instead, which she does. But when he learns that Léa, a famous lesbian entertainer, is to appear there, Marcel sends Françoise to pick her up and take her back home.

Throughout much of The Captive Marcel is obsessed with uncovering the truth about things. But in typical Proustian style, in which nothing is what it seems, the truth often lies in the opposite of what is said or done. Near the end of The Captive, for example, when Albertine learns that Marcel ended up going to the Verdurin’s party without her they quarrel and Marcel says that they must break up. He doesn’t mean it, of course; afraid that that she would leave him, he feigns breaking up with her in order to make her fear losing him. In another example, Marcel’s hypothesis regarding Albertine’s “Sapphic tendencies” is based largely on Albertine admitting back in Volume IV that she is friends with Mlle. Vinteuil and her lover and that she had practically grown up with the former. In The Captive, however, she claims that she only said this in order to impress Marcel, knowing how much he admired the composer’s music, and that she didn’t know the two women at all. In another curious example, when the Verdurin “faithful” learn of Princess Sherbatoff’s death, Mme. Verdurin not only does not cancel her party out of respect for the dead Princess, but she even candidly states that she felt nothing upon learning of her friend’s death because, for her, it’s the wearing mourning clothes and other outward expressions of grief—a grief that one does not feel—that’s the real lie. Even when it comes to our own loves and relationships with people, Marcel says it’s all based on a lie:

The lie, the perfect lie, about people we know, about the relations we have had with them, about our motive for some action, formulated in totally different terms, the lie as to what we are, whom we love, what we feel with regard to people who love us and believe that they have fashioned us in their own image because they keep on kissing us morning, noon and night—that lie is one of the few things in the world that can open windows for us on to what is new and unknown, that can awaken in us sleeping senses for the contemplation of universes that otherwise we should never have known. (282)

But this search for the truth, whether it is the truth behind one’s words or something definitive in terms of character—is a vain pursuit, as Marcel suggests in the following passage that so elegantly sums up the central tenet of Search, what I’ve repeatedly mentioned throughout my blogging on Proust, that things are never what they seem:

[…] I concluded that it is as difficult to present a fixed image of a character as of societies and passions. For a character alters no less than [the Verdurins] do, and if one tries to take a snapshot of what is relatively immutable in it, one finds it presenting a succession of different aspects (implying that it is incapable of keeping still but keeps moving) to the disconcerted lens. (440)


Of course this volume is not without its highlights. One minor one I first need to point out is the appearance of the narrator’s name. I had read long ago that the name “Marcel” is only ever mentioned a couple times in the entire span of the novel, and so it brought me a brief frisson of joy—after nearly 3000 pages!—to at last see it in print:

Then [Albertine] would find her tongue and say: “My—” or “My darling—” followed by my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be “My Marcel,” or My darling Marcel.” (91)

But the real centrepiece of The Captive is the musical evening that Marcel ends up attending at the Verdurin’s without Albertine. These parties (Mme. Villeparisis’ in The Guermantes Way and the Princess de Guermantes’ in Sodom and Gomorrah; parties that typically go on for two hundred pages or more) are always such fun and this one is no doubt the best (and funniest) thus far. The Verdurins, who have now moved to the Quai Conti in the heart of fashionable Faubourg St-Germain, decide to host a musical evening. For the Verdurins, who are not of noble blood, the occasion is an opportunity for them to rise socially; and now that the Baron de Charlus is part of the Verdurin “faithful,” they are eager that he’ll use his influence to invite all the best society ladies to their home. For Charlus, the occasion is also an important one because it will be an opportunity to introduce Morel (his paramour) into society and better secure his future. However, as we’ve seen elsewhere in Search, one does not cross Mme. Verdurin without serious consequences. When the Baron haughtily vetoes practically everyone on Mme. Verdurin’s guest list (he’s especially adamant about not inviting Mme. Molé and even calls her “The Mole” (310)), Mme. Verdurin is furious and she begins plotting her revenge. Oblivious to her anger, however, the Baron arrives at the party excited, heavily powdered, and even campier than we’ve ever seen him before:

M. de Charlus was engaged in handing over his overcoat with the instructions of a familiar guest. But the footman to whom he was handing it was a newcomer, and quite young. Now M. de Charlus was inclined these days sometimes to “lose his bearings,” as they say, and did not always remember what was or was not “done.” The praiseworthy desire that he had had at Balbec to show that certain topics did not alarm him, that he was not afraid to say of someone or other: “He’s a nice-looking boy,” to say, in a word, the same things as might have been said by somebody who was not like himself, this desire he had now begun to express by saying on the contrary things which nobody who was not like him could ever have said, things upon which his mind was so constantly fixed that he forgot that they do not form part of the habitual preoccupation of people in general. And so, looking at the new footman, he raised his forefinger in the air in a menacing fashion and, thinking that he was making an excellent joke, said: “You are not to make eyes at me like that, do you hear?” and, turning to Brichot; “He has a quaint little face, that boy, his nose is rather fun”; then, rounding off his pleasantry, or yielding to a desire, he lowered his forefinger horizontally, hesitated for an instant, and, unable to control himself any longer, thrust it irresistibly towards the footman and touched the tip of his nose, saying “Pif!”, then walked into the drawing-room followed by Brichot, myself and Saniette, who told us that Princess Sherbatoff had died at six o’clock. (300-301).

To further add insult to Mme. Verdurin’s already injured ego, when the aristocratic guests arrive they all exchange pleasantries with Charlus, as if he were the host, while completely ignoring the Verdurins; everyone except for the Queen of Naples, the noblest among the guests. The orchestra (with Morel on the violin) begins playing a new piece by Vinteuil, a septet; and although Vinteuil is long dead, his daughter and her lover have painstakingly transcribed his notes and scribblings for tonight’s premiere. (The two women, incidentally, never do show up to the party.) The music is stunning; it contains echoes of the sonata that Vinteuil is famous for, and Marcel is mesmerized by it and launches into a beautifully rapturous disquisition on music. But the music means little to the Baron’s aristocratic but uneducated guests; there’s still some chatter and laughter and someone is even overheard saying, “Apparently you have to be initiated in order to understand it” (330). Charlus is forced to silence his guests with a baleful glare, and Mme. Verdurin, of course, is furious:

[Marcel] looked at the Mistress, whose fierce immobility seemed to be a protest against the rhythmic noddings of the ignorant heads of the ladies of the Faubourg. She did not say: “You realise, of course, that I know a thing or two about this music! If I were to express all that I feel, you’d never hear the end of it!” She did not say this. But her upright, motionless body, her expressionless eyes, her straying locks said it for her. (334)

When the performance is over, Morel is invited to play at the home of one of the distinguished guests (which of course means that Mme. Verdurin won’t be invited) and, just as they did when they came in, they again pay their respects only to the Baron before filing out for the evening. Once everyone is gone, the Verdurins enact their plan: they separate Charlus and Morel by enlisting Brichot (and Marcel) to take the Baron into another room, ostensibly to smoke cigars, while the Verdurins talk privately to Morel. Although initially reluctant to fulfill this task, Brichot, perhaps afraid to disobey Mme. Verdurin, nonetheless proposes to Marcel that the best way to keep the Baron from returning to the drawing room is by getting him to talk about “his favourite topic. He’s prodigious!” (381). Naturally, Charlus is greatly pleased with the success of the evening, and after Brichot makes some naïve remarks about homosexuality, the Baron heatedly corrects him and goes on at length about the topic, pointing out the names of numerous famous men over the centuries who were known to be gay, and concludes by making the (probably not inaccurate) claim that 3 out of 10 men in society are “inverts.” Brichot, who is a Professor of Moral Philosophy, is astonished, both at the numbers and at Charlus’ vast knowledge, and makes this hilarious quip: “Should the University Council ever think of founding a Chair of Homosexuality, I shall see that your name is the first to be submitted” (412).

Meanwhile, the Verdurins are busy telling Morel that the Baron is being watched and blackmailed by the police (completely false accusations) and therefore his association with the Baron is disadvantageous to his career. They also spill the beans on Morel’s background. Morel has always tried to cover up the fact that his father was Marcel’s uncle’s valet (another example of the Proustian obsession with concealing one’s true identity), so when they inform him that the Baron had indeed mentioned Morel’s father was a “flunkey” (423), it’s the last straw. Morel shouts at the Baron when he returns to the room: “ ‘Leave me alone. I forbid you to come near me’ […] ‘You know what I mean all right. I’m not the first person you’ve tried to pervert!’ ” (424). But instead of the usual outburst of rage that Charlus is known for, he is too dumbfounded to reply, quietly leaves, and not long after falls gravely ill. What a tragic downfall, I thought, for a character that in Volumes II and III had come across as arrogant, snobbish, hypocritical, and prone to irrational violent outbursts; a character one loved to hate, as I’ve said elsewhere, but in the later volumes turned out to be quite sympathetic, not to mention a flamboyant queen, hilarious, and a bit of a buffoon. Had his fall from grace happened in an earlier book, I would have savoured it (a triumph that would likely be forgotten in no time), but after having grown quite fond of the Baron I certainly felt the enormity of his social demise.

And what a thoroughly gay book! was the other thing I thought, which was then followed by this potentially unorthodox idea: that maybe we’re not really meant to think of the three women Marcel claims to love at various points in the novel as actually women. After all, look at those extremely uncommon and conspicuously masculine names—Gilberte, Albertine, and Andrée. Maybe these names are exactly what they appear to be: token gestures at creating a nominally heterosexual protagonist in order to conform to the societal norms of the time and to prevent his book from getting banned. Maybe the use of these names is Proust’s way of winking at us, the way one uses the phrase “Mlle. Vinteuil’s ‘friend’.” And it does seem a little strange, too, when you think about it: the fictional Marcel, who shares the same first name as the biographical Proust, a known gay man, but who expends a great deal of energy trying to keep his girlfriend from having same-sex relations with other women. Doesn’t it make more sense to think of him as a gay man wanting to prevent his gay lover from having relations with other gay men? And then you have the unlikely situation of an unmarried man and woman living together in the same house, an implausibility that even Marcel acknowledges, but I got lost in the typically Proustian long-winded answer. Two men temporarily living together—“friends”—would not likely have roused eyebrows a century ago. And besides, wouldn’t this “revisioning” of these characters be completely in line with the Proustian notion that nothing is ever what you think it is? A long time ago, I might have said, “You’re not kidding anyone, Mr. Proust, with those names.” But now I can hear the surety of his response: “I wasn’t trying to.”

Of course, I’m not literally suggesting this is how one ought to read these characters. It’s just something that niggles at the back of the mind, especially when one considers that in Proust’s world, a place in which everyone needs a blind, a cover, a place where everyone has something to hide, why should Marcel be any different?


The party now over, Marcel returns home, tells Albertine where he’s been, and they too quarrel. Although Marcel insists on breaking up, they don’t—at least not right away—but things are never quite the same again. Months go by, Marcel uncovers several more of Albertine’s lies, and she starts to withhold her goodnight kisses. But it’s all a matter of power for Marcel, and when he is certain he has “ascendancy” over her, he is determined to break up with her the next day and to travel Venice, a place he always wanted to go but couldn’t because he too is something of a captive in this relationship with its constant need for surveillance and control. The next morning, however, when he rings the bell for Françoise to come in, she informs him that Albertine had summoned her to bring up her boxes and that at nine o’clock that morning she had left for good. Like the Baron de Charlus, Marcel is utterly devastated.

Stay tuned for the second half, The Fugitive.