Book 5 of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu
(The Search for Lost Time)
A critical paper by
George A. Weimer IV
So, we’re finally rid of Albertine and her exasperating but consistent lying –and M’s even more irritating obsession with her and her secret or semi-secret life. The Captive is perhaps the most complained-about novel of the seven that make up The Search for Lost Time. What happens in this volume? The Narrator wakes up, wonders for scores of pages about Albertine and her lies about her girl friends and – after lying to her himself – attends a concert reception at the Verdurins. There a reception is orchestrated as it were by Charlus for his present love object obsession, Charles “Charley” (a little less than kin but not his kind at all) Morel who will play beautifully, a beautiful Vinteuil septet, as arranged by the strange and now at least partly redeemed girlfriend of the composer’s daughter. As always in Proust much much more happens than meets the eye.
You recall the second entrance of Charlus into the memory of the Narrator and us when, as a young man, he hides in his parent’s Paris house and observes the first meeting of Charlus and Jupien. Proust describes them as an insect and flower pair engaged, instinctively, knowingly and, they think, secretly in a natural dance. (Recall also that Morel is engaged to Jupien’s niece. Freud would need time to unentangle this one.) In The Captive we see a French drawing room scene where another set of creatures is involved not in symbolic fertilization but in ambush and destruction, one by the other.
Godzilla meets Mothra as Madame Godzilla Verdurin settles her score with Baron Mothra Charlus by intercepting and arranging to poison Morel’s mind about Charlus through her husband Gustave as everyone is leaving the affair. Godzilla wins. Mothra is crushed, ruined, destroyed, flightless now forever.
The Narrator returns to his apartment to worry more about Albertine and his future with her and where. They take a drive. They argue, they make up after a fashion; they go to bed –separately in different rooms. Albertine noisily opens a window, breaking a big time rule in the world of the Narrator and of Proust himself. The Narrator is near sickness over the possibility that she has fled. She hasn’t yet. Then she does and we are finished.
As I noted in my last Proust paper, one of the great themes throughout The Search is snobbery, snobbery in all its forms from class to sex and sexuality to age to money, position and status, taste, beauty and power. In The Captive, one form of snobbery or more accurately, a special personal product of snobbery is itself, particularly romantic in terms of its attendant jealousy romantic love. For what is more snobby, more dismissive of others than to feel that there is only one; one significant other in the whole wide world for you? The over-arching position that Albertine assumes in the Narrator’s heart and mind drives all other people (even his mother) into secondary relief and all other duties into priority two at best. Lovers form the most exclusive clubs in the world. Those lovers’ clubs, however, that find at least half their membership hypocritical are doomed to various kinds of pain.
Plato was no slouch about all of this and is a character, of sorts, throughout Proust’s monumental work, as a kind of intellectual supporter of “Greek Love” which is everywhere in all 7 volumes. In a far larger sense and more importantly, however The Search is very much and very intentionally a neo-platonic work. It begins with a discussion of “forms” if you will in the introduction and the concepts of metempsychosis are part of the very first paragraph although Moncrief uses a set of different words. The latest translation, incidentally, uses the proper word – metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls. As the author noted to many friends: “This is not the real world. There is a much better one behind it.”
But, I was reminded of a comment of Plato’s that is particularly germane to The Captive, “love is a form of madness.” Indeed, when jealousy rises up as it does in this volume so powerfully, (the Narrator says on Pg 450 “such are the revolving search lights of jealousy.”) the madness Plato refers to becomes clear.
Still, while we may become even more exasperated than the Narrator over his obsessive jealousy and almost absurd love for this strange young lady – a combination of Mary Martin and Dody Goodman – there is always the incredible beauty of Proust’s stunning metaphors and similes and his astounding insights into the senses and human nature and motivation to keep us with the narrative if not the Narrator.
The wonderful prose describing the sounds of the street vendors and how they reminded him or Gregorian chant, from selling snails to saecula secularism, and his synaesthetic term “delicious sounds,” his beautiful descriptions of simple corners of a room, objects of the least stealable kind and his really brilliant essays on painting throughout each book adds a poignancy to the story that emphasizes his basic seriousness in the face of the overwhelming Human Comedy he is presenting. (I recall on trips to Rome hearing the radio cabs and they always sounded like the litany of the saints.)
But now we have reached beyond the midpoint of this huge novel and the great arcs that so many lives trace are clear; up and down the social scale, a kind of Newtonian path is traveled as Madame Verdurin and her “little band,” while remaining as ignorant as they choose to be, pass above the baron in his own social sphere by destroying him.
The differences between social classes can be explained by their various references to certain words, the Narrator notes. His example in The Captive should be of special interest to us. “Book,” for example, says the Narrator in Chapter 2 means a novel or a treatise on philosophy to us and to the Verdurins and to Albertine and to M and others. “Book” to Francoise and her assistants and Jupien might only mean the household bill ledger. To some of the Fauburg set it meant only the social register, as in the Blue Book. To some of them and us, lucky or unlucky few, it might mean two or even all three.
He who could make or break anyone’s career in Society has now been cruelly ambushed, shamed and put out. His escort out of the arena of his defeat is the Queen of Naples who has returned to reclaim her fan but reclaims her social equal and Guermantes family member as well. She seems to function as an example of proper breeding, manners, and courage. She alone of her crowd greets Madame Verdurin. She exits with Charlus and with great dignity and almost gives snobbery a good name. This is harbinger of events to come as that old adage about the sound of history plays like the Vinteuil sonata again. What is the sound of history and of society? It is the sound of silk slippers coming down and hobnail boots going up the stairway of time.
We begin by believing that the The Captive refers to Albertine who is imprisoned within the wealthy constraints of The Narrator. Then we agree with him as he notes that he is the captive as well. Then we see it is everyone who is captive to their own discriminations, their own jealousies, their own loves – and hatreds. Proust points out that Time is a moving prison, a reformatory or deformatory; it holds and molds us all and all of history as its captive. Obsession might have been a better title for this book.
So effective is the prose however, that we are saddened by these endings, particularly the end of the affair with Albertine which carried with it so much of the memories of Balbec and the earlier days of the The Search, the youthful days. For, while the end of this affair is the end of an obsession it is also a rupture with the Narrator’s past, which is now part of our memories as well. These accumulated memories of the reader will allow the author to perform a literary-mechanical demonstration of the effect Proust called “involuntary memory” later for us in The Past Recaptured.
In effect, everyone in The Search is a captive of Time as all the characters confront, confound and consume their seemingly predestined futures in their frenetic presents and form from all of this sound and fury the silent and ever-growing past. Each book is a kind of lamination on the previous adding to the mine of memories that the author searches through and shapes.
Yes, it seems to be the end of the road for the fascinating and frightening and always entertaining, downright freakish, incredibly witty, astoundingly self-centered, debauched, predatory and often cruel but often kind, tasteful yet boorish top of the Guermantes line – the Baron de Charlus, Duke de Brabant, Palamede Guermantes. Farewell baron, we shall miss your center of attention and your escapades, your defining character as the clearest and noisiest and most colorful exponent of a world long gone. However, while he is no longer center stage, we shall read of his increasingly appalling behavior as Time marches on.
The party at the Verdurin’s displays the top of the social world in its worst light. For it is not the bad manners of the whole Fauburg-St. Germain crowd; it’s their lack of any manners at all. They barge in as if they are entering a zoo and treat the hostess and her crowd as if they are all lesser simians, deserving of no more attention than the time it takes to read the cage labels. The baron is oblivious to the obliviousness of his own friends. He is not only caught in the act of ignoring, insulting and otherwise infuriating the Mistress, he keeps it up all night.
Proust seems to be saying that the higher you go in society the less appealing will be the people you will find there. One is reminded of the earlier days in Balbec at the hotel where the baron first appears. The Narrator notes how eerie it was to see the shadowy townspeople watching through the great windows of the restaurant at night what they thought of as, high society dining, and he says: “One wondered at their thoughts about this great aquarium; will they eat us eventually? Or LeGrandin’s comments about the nobility in the revolution: “Should have guillotined them all.” So here in a mid-19th century drawing room we have Monsignor telling tales of two cities again and running his carriage over the little girl – at least it looks that way to the hostess.
Well, Madame Verdurin is no little girl and this is no longer the Age of Pro Gratia Dei. It’s republican France and Baron Charlus and his crowd are being sized up for a vengeance attack while they are insulting these very attackers. It is the end of an establishment and the rise of a new one or one might say more exactly the beginning of an acceptance of some new members in the silk slipper set, which will continue into the final volume.
Proust once said “We all do love each other, just not at the same time.” When Albertine and her girl friends were doing cartwheels over the old man seated at the seashore way back in volume two, the Narrator was fascinated. His fascination turned to love, obsessive and possessive and finally to a kind of madness – which Albertine cures by her exit.
Proust presents no one as completely good or evil, no gods and no devils. The closest he gets to saints are his grandmother and his own mother, however they are presented with faults as well. The Verdurin’s for example, the ultimate social climbing schemers and bullies of their own band, make plans to take care of the painter and now pauper Saniette (who was so often the but of their jokes) with an income for life for no apparent reason than they felt sorry for him and they could afford it. The narrator overhears the noble and valiant, heroic Saint Loup giving a thug’s advice to a coachman on how to “get somebody.” People are presented to us in The Search, warts and all, full of potential for good or evil or for just being boring or comic.
And, throughout the whole Search, snobbery and ignorance of other social circles brings both the comic and the tragic to our attention. “Snobbery is a serious malady of the spirit,” the Narrator says in Chapter 1 of The Captive. “But one that is localized and does not taint it as a whole.” In other words, it limits one’s ability to appreciate the whole comedy – or the whole tragedy - as it unfolds. Once again, what people know and don’t know at the Verdurin’s when the Fauburg faces the Noveau crowd reflects the remarks of the Narrator’s aunts about Swann and his associates at the Jockey Club way back in volume one. You recall them; they were snobby about the snobs they thought Swann was becoming snobby with. Snobbery is, after all, so low class.
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