The Fugitive by Marcel Proust

The Fugitive by Marcel Proust



The Fugitive by Marcel Proust

Book 6 of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu
(Remembrance of Things Past)
Marcel Proust

A critical paper by
Lawrence N. Siegler


By the time we finish this penultimate book in Proust’s set of novels, we have an idea what his intentions, techniques, and structure are. We have seen Marcel’s growing disillusion with high society and his disappointment with love. In The Fugitive, these realizations reach a resolution and the book becomes the denouement which clarifies the final outcome in the last volume, Time Regained.

Unless we know what Proust set out to do and why, far too little of his genius can be completely comprehended, enjoyed, and be effective.  We must realize that Marcel is the foil against whom social adulation and discrimination, romantic love, and its disappointments occur. As a rich half-Jew he is a marginal man who, like Swann and many other actual people, like Proust himself, have ingratiated themselves into established society. Intelligent, clever, politic, and charming, Marcel achieves prominence and acceptance among these folk but he is no longer enthralled by them and their heritage.

To avoid wrongfully charging Proust with purposeless digressions or unrealistic situations and in order to better understand his intent and his style, it is essential to be aware that Proust often uses hyperbole, satire, absurdities, and humor to portray Marcel’s and other characters’ irrational and outrageous behavior. Charlus, the Verdurins, and the Guermantes, to name just a few are overdrawn to expose their flaws. Hyperbole and satire have a long pedigree extending back to Aristophanes and Plato.

It is Proust’s intent to overwhelm us and more deeply involve us by describing people who are shocking but still believable. These techniques have, since Proust’s time become a major modus operandi of the avant-garde in literature, art, and theatre. We need only think of contemporaries like: Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Edward Albee, John Irving, Salman Rushdie, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jorge Luis Borges to recognize this style. Proust was clearly an innovator and an inspiration that substantially infused the arts during the 20th century.

Proust realized, as did Joyce, Woolf, and Stein that the realism of Flaubert, Balzac, and Zola was inadequate. Epiphanies are more effective in Proust than with these earlier authors. Interior monologues and streams of consciousness make the narrative and descriptions far more complete and contribute more power to move us and create an effective form of “artistic redemption”.  They help nourish and enlarge the soul of the reader.

Proust’s novel has provided the basis for the recent French post-modernist and deconstructionist assault on realism. Followers of Roland Barth and Paul Ricoeur consider the text rather than the narrative most essential. Their credo is that the text creates the “spectacle”. Such techniques as word-play, metaphors, witticisms, similes, allusions and the like, provide the whole aesthetic. To them the medium is primary even if it is flippant and foolish.  Foolishness and flippancies are certainly found among Proust’s hyperboles and satires. Proust’s contributions however make sense and are not merely applied for entertainment value.

A key to solving Proust’s intent and moral model lies in his frequent references, to Jean Baptist Racine’s Phèdre and Esther. These late works of Racine concern the struggle between one’s will, desires and inexorable fate. Racine’s protagonists, especially Phèdre are faced with the ferocity and destructiveness of consuming passions. The helpless and graceless protagonist, fueled by his or her obsession and egotistical instincts faces a certain irredeemable doom. Does this not remind one of Marcel? To define Marcel in this way provides an important clue to Proust’s moral intent.[1]

As we travel with Proust over this quasi-autobiography, we perceive that much is about us. Have any of us not known grief, jealousy, and delusions? It matters little that we are not a half-Jewish, affluent effete, or a decadent homosexual Frenchman living at the end of La Belle Époque. We still share many of his basic appetencies, insecurities, delusions, fantasies, and aspirations so lushly and poetically set out in these books.

In this novel, a bildungsroman of growth and self-discovery, Marcel’s caddish and supercilious behavior has remained surprisingly constant. He is just as fickle and self-absorbed as ever. His awareness and attitudes though have changed noticeably. We continue to view the changing world through Marcel and the Narrator. Both these characters are, in these final pages, rapidly coalescing into one person as we move towards the time when these books will be actually written by Marcel.

Consider Marcel: this fop, this twit, this egotistical, callow, and puerile youth. This intellectually and materially blessed and yet twisted person has now engaged us for about 2500 pages on an odyssey from his childhood to maturity. Perhaps we ourselves have taken a journey of similar self-centeredness, including desultory pursuit of sexual fantasies, maybe of capriciousness and manipulation; maybe adoring culture heroes, prominent persons and families, and being enthralled by the glitter of society, and the emotions and the pretensions of art. All this entails much social insecurity, viciousness, fatuousness, jealousy, regret, indifference, prevarications, self-serving judgments, and rationalizations. Our hero, Marcel demonstrates them all.

The Fugitive opens as Françoise says: Miss Albertine is gone (Mademoiselle Albertine est partie). One reads this phrase often in the first dozen pages. A long cycle begins of introspection, uncertainty, bravado, smugness, manipulation, and lies. We are inundated with his self-congratulations and self-effacement, alternating resolution and irresolution; regrets in losing Albertine, forgetting her, and then remembering the incriminating past, then recalling the boredom and the many pleasures and displeasures of life with her. All this is a quixotic attempt to know his beloved completely. Marcel seeks but fails to know Albertine and hence himself as well. He demonstrates the Faustian frustration of trying to know the world completely and like Faustus, fails also.

Proust, as usual, folds in elements of his own world during the sturm und drang of his self-analysis. A vast potpourri of emotion, introspection, and irrationality flows abundantly and for some, insufferably. The effect of Proust’s style on the reader is one of accumulative and unremitting force and honesty. Passages that are subtle and seem confused are expressed in just those ways in order to obtain the same effect on the reader.  Proust means to reproduce the stress and pain that intense emotions and involvements create. Such emotions are complex. It is no secret that passion makes us do and think in strange and complex ways.

Surely it may be somewhat dismaying to read Proust’s lengthy and convoluted discourse, meditations, and contemplations. But it also brings pleasure because one is led into viewpoints and aspects of human flaws and delusions in a way seldom found elsewhere. It is impressive to read his often outrageous musings, enlivened with humor, metaphors, puns, and literary and artistic digressions. There are evocations and memories of light, weather, colors, noises, smells, and atmosphere. These are indeed the “things of lost time remembered.”

Much of his rhetoric is satirical and witty. The difficult internal monologues deal with feelings which for most people are almost impossible to articulate. These constant and conflicting apprehensions and fantasies replicate the awful endless and sleepless nights, the paralysis, the various deliberations, and fears that Proust and perhaps we too might recall.

Proust has a vivid, even perverse imagination not unusual for those under psychic or physical duress. How easily is just a pain in the chest or a bad headache transformed into a heart attack, cancer, or a stroke? Marcel’s outrageous thoughts of revenge and erotic fantasies are more extensive than for most of us. But the hyperbole does not invalidate its existence in us. Proust’s purpose is to provide a wide compendium of extravagant psychic speculations and expose them as foolish and venal, yet not uncommon.

The initial title of this book was La Fugitive. It was changed to Albertine Disparu or Albertine Has Disappeared because The Fugitive was already the title of another novel.  Translator C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s inspired title was, Sweet Cheat Gone. Indeed, Albertine is a fugitive from Marcel’s fickle and changeable idiosyncrasies, suspicions, and controls. She is also a fugitive from the machinations needed to conceal her own inclinations and appetencies.

In all of these novels, the music of the text contains recapitulated melodies with subjects such as: jealousy, grief, recollection, forgetting, deception, and snobbery. These recapitulations and variations augment the power of the books and return to major foci in different and ingenious ways. Proust uses the Wagnerian style of continuously threading his various themes into the work.

Reading Proust is very much like listening to certain 19th century symphonies, when one expects a conclusion to a section, only to discover another recapitulation in a new mode, key, or cadence. Proust’s work is an even more modern piece with dissonances, difficult to explain linkages, and unfamiliar tones. By now we all should know the case for dissonance has been won.

The comparison of various characters’ lives is a prominent and fascinating feature of these books. Clearly Swann and Marcel have analogous lives. Both are outsiders who have ingratiated themselves through their skills, charms, and contacts into the aristocracy. Both find disappointments in love, art, and society. Both form socially fatal, unfaithful, but serious relationships. Swann’s love for Odette and Marcel’s for Albertine begins and ends in indifference. Odette, Swann’s wife, was Elstair’s mistress and Marcel’s great-uncle’s mistress as well. Albertine’s infidelities are both imagined and real, and as we finally learn from Andrée, might be even more extensive than we thought.

Marcel continuously contrasts himself to Swann and his failures. Swann is the gifted amateur, focusing on dilettantism, conversation, and seduction while Marcel, who engages in similar behavior, will ultimately become a professional artist. Swann fails. Marcel wants to succeed.

Bloch too is a kind of alter ego of Marcel. He has similar background and skills. But Bloch lacks Marcel’s savoir faire and sensitivities. Block represents ordinariness and otherness that Marcel has transcended. References to Racine’s biblical play, Esther, Jacques Fromenthal Halévy’s La Juive, (quoting the aria ‘Rachel, Quand du Seigneur’ whenever Rachel is mentioned)[2], and extensive comments on the Dreyfus Affair make it clear that Proust is quite concerned about bigotry, assimilation, and the Jewish presence in France. 

Marcel and Charlus can be compared. There are clear similarities and contrasts though each has a different background and status. Each is involved in foolish love relationships, are effete, have uncontrolled sexual predilections, and are wealthy. There are also many parallels between Odette, Albertine, Gilberte, Morel, Saint-Loup, and Rachel.

There are many insightful examples of interpersonal relationships. For example, Proust portrays the less obvious attractions that lead to love and especially to its renewal. The remembrance of a nose, or even a shoulder, or a peculiar mannerism may enthrall a lover for many years. Attraction to a sensuous, kind, teasing, frisky, mysterious, and charming partner can endure for decades even after these traits become faint, change, or disappear.

Marcel describes his separation from Albertine, his grief at her death, and then the development of a growing indifference. In believable and articulate ways, he extensively expresses the internal processes of recovery from grief. The role of forgetting is examined. Proust maintains that one is cured from suffering and grief only by “experiencing it to the full” and that suffering continues, slowly changing from troubled questioning to a final acceptance of the loss. The description of the change from painful deep sadness to sweet sadness is one of the finest literary treatments of grief ever written.

By accepting Albertine’s guilt, Marcel’s suffering diminishes, pain is reduced, and his bad dreams are easier. Residual thoughts and identifications with Albertine begin to recede. But first he describes fully these identifications and thoughts. The final grieving and growing indifference to Albertine begins with an interview with Andrée, who admits her own homoerotic preferences but strongly denies that Albertine was so disposed. Much later when Andrée recants and relates Albertine’s sordid activities, Marcel is by then completely indifferent and uninvolved.

In a separate sense, indifference also allows relationships to remain workable. Some couples may become indifferent, over time to each others’ foibles, quirks, and gaucheries. Indifference like love is an adaptive emotion. Love is necessary to human existence when rationality alone is not enough to make us do the selfless, maternal/paternal, and other idealistic acts required of us. Vive L’Amour et Vive L’ Indiffèrence!

The parody-like presentation of Marcel’s and Albertine’s affair is meant to expose the failure of human love.[3]  Concern with mutual devotion, selfless giving, and other qualities of romance are absent in Proust’s version of love. Self-satisfaction is primary. Topics such as jealousy, grief, dominance, and separation are legitimate enough. But when it comes to love there is little focus on mutuality. This seems to limit his view on love. However, Proust is exposing the shallowness of carnal love and of selfish manipulative love.

Marcel’s need for love seems too far from the norm to be generally applicable, yet it is very understandable. Perhaps inadvertently and not surprisingly, Proust shows his desire for a beloved like his mother – a selfless, undemanding, and accommodating love. As Marcel muses in his post-Albertine period, a replacement for Albertine need only give him an occasional sisterly kiss. An occasional Madeleine also might be helpful.

Proust means to show the similarities of homo- and heterosexuality. We know that Proust has feminized male names like Albert and André. Proust’s actual amour, Alfred Agostinelli, was killed in an airplane accident. A Proust letter to Agostinelli, very much mirrors a conciliatory letter to Albertine. Proust provided an early and courageous effort to discuss and make more public the existence and subtleties of homosexuality.

In the second half of this book, a young woman is mistaken by Marcel to be the infamous Mlle D’Eporcheville, an alleged frequenter of bordellos. The failed attempts to meet the D’ Epocheville are just as fatuous as his earlier attempts to meet Mme Putbus’s reputed lusty maid.

Marcel later finds that the putative D’Eporcheville is instead Swann’s daughter Gilberte, his first love. Proust is again portraying the inconstancy and insincerity of love. Human error and its attendant motives are often found in Proust.

In the brilliant final 144 pages of The Fugitive we again find Proust’s main themes: Decline and change in the aristocracy, the shallowness of the prominent figures in that society, the circulation of the elites, failure of love and its foolish choices, avariciously arranged marriages, prejudice against the Jews, and condescension towards the working class, especially their females. Proust’s general attitudes towards women reflect his society’s mores. In the context of his style, one wonders if he is really condemning these attitudes.  It’s no surprise that Chauvinism is a French word.

In a fine satirical vignette, long-time lovers, de Norpois[4] and Mme Villeparisis, indulge each other during a wondrously humorous, satirical, and perceptive interlude about society, ego, and politics. On this occasion, Mme Sazerat, for the first time sees Mme Villeparisis, her father’s once glamorous ex-mistress who years before financially ruined him and now is an old decrepit hag.

Remember first viewing by Saint-Loup of a photograph of Albertine. Saint-Loup and Mme. Sazerat surely think, “Wow, (or more likely, Mon Dieu), for this person did he do so many idiotic things and then for her was he ruined?”

Proust’s themes are clearly recapitulated as Gilberte, now rich and hypocritical, hoping to erase her past and avoiding her rich heritage, is finally accepted by the shallow and bigoted Guermantes. In her desire to be accepted by high society she sadly neglects her late father, Swann. Marcel likens her to courtesans who quickly remove monograms from their recently inherited limousines.

In these last pages of The Fugitive, we read quintessential Proust. In these satiric, even sardonic pages, Proust strongly reiterates the major concerns of these novels. We see clearly how earlier events fit into the structure of the novel. As often happens in a denouement, we see the logic of the text and then expect an immediate conclusion. But with great works like this, it instead sets us up for a glorious conclusion in the last volume. Swann’s Way and Guermante’s Way have combined, with the marriage of Gilberte and Saint-Loup and a new, perhaps equally degenerate society. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Proust’s work has enthralled and inspired readers for almost a century. It is a subtle and subliminal work, humorous, apt, and intricately structured. Not a quick read, not a gripping adventure but a slow unfolding, proliferating and complicated design that resolves in these last books.

We may ardently seek to remember details of this work yet may find it difficult to recall. It is a text that can be rewardingly read over and over as Edmond Wilson and many others have done. I can assure you the second reading is more gratifying than the first.

Reading parts of Proust is often like sloshing through thickets in a dark forest, then finding air and daylight. Proust’s agonizing and perplexing over his dilemmas are not always easy to grasp. Much is opaque and takes effort to read. Remember, he is trying to create an effect of ambiguity and confusion. It is similar to Dante’s journey to the underworld to seek Beatrice, love, wisdom, and God. The voyage is sometimes clear and sometimes murky.

The clever and ingenious, humorous and biting prose provides necessary and delightful refreshment and gratifying panache. It is worth the effort to sort-out the meanings because there is truth in this work, there is originality, and a sui generis artistic style and beauty.

Proust is an indulgent author who nevertheless significantly enriches our often routine and prosaic lives in new and stimulating ways. We are fortunate to have this sensitive, sinuous, insightful, provocative, and enduring book – and the fortitude to read it to the very end.



[1] Phèdre or Phaedra, Third wife of Theseus after Antiope Daughter of Minos, and sister of Ariadne, (Theseus’s first wife), She has told lies about Hippolitus, Theseus’ son by Antiope. Found out, she commits suicide.
[2]   La Juive, written in 1839 by Jacques Fromenthal Halévey, is about a Jewess, Rachel who has been seduced by and who loves an already married Christian Prince posing as a Jew. She plans to leave her wealthy and devout father, Eleazar. The aria, ‘Rachel, quand du Seigneur’, was a favorite of Enrico Caruso.
[3]   Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir in 1929, a few years after the final publication of this novel, entered into an open relationship suggestive of Albertine and Marcel.  They declared that jealousy is an enemy of freedom. This relationship endured 51 years and included frank discussions of each other’s relationships, endeavored to find each other new partners,  involved homosexual relationships on the part of De Beauvoir, lies, and manipulation.
[4] Proust makes many puns on names such as: de Norpois,(of no weight), Cambremer,( from an expression at the Battle of Waterloo), Villeparisis, (Paris/Syphilis), Verdurins, (vegetation), Bouillon, Bontemps, Mme Odo, Doudeville, Legrandin, and English sources, e.g., Prince Foggi



1.    One French expression not found in this critical paper is joie de vivre. Does the book’s less than optimistic outlook reduce your pleasure in reading the text? Is Marcel’s transcendence enough? Is there enjoyment in Proust’s fecundity? What is your philosophy of reading and how best to judge fiction? Who shouldn’t read this book?

2.    A common criticism of Remembrance is that it is too long and seems excessive, convoluted, and redundant. Were you Proust’s editor and Proust did generally re-write at their suggestion, what would you suggest?  Are you glad or sorry that he did not completely finish the last books? What is missing? Are the notes to the text adequate? Is the synopsis helpful? We see from time to time, examples of indulgent writing. Thousand-page novels are common, for example, Patrick O’Brian’s popular 20 volumes or the various series by Robertson Davies.  Recently in theatre and film, Mnouskines’s Caravanserais of Ulysses (6 hours), Berliner Alexanderplatz (15 hours), and the Marahabata (all day). The Ring Cycle takes about 18 hours. Which is more effective, short duration with focused power or long and variously reiterated passages? When length is “mind-blowing” and short sweet? What creates exasperation? What doesn’t? Please no rambling answers.


3.    Hearing music or attending theatre makes one wonder if the performer’s experience differs or is superior to the audience’s. Superior performers produce what is called an intelligent reading or an inspired rendition. Can a reader, who after all, is a vital participant in the novel, be as intimate and inspired with a piece as a player of music or an actor?

4.    Does Proust speak to you? Do you empathize? Do you see him only as a superb stylist who influenced Literature, especially in France? Did you have any epiphanies? Is your soul, (O Sole Mio, a pun?), enriched and nourished? What is artistic redemption?


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The Fugitive by Marcel Proust


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The Fugitive by Marcel Proust



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The Fugitive by Marcel Proust