The Prisoner

I wrote a little bit about Proust earlier this month and decided this week to re-read the one book in his Lost Time series that I remember least — his novel-within-the-novel THE PRISONER. It’s one of the shortest segments in the project and probably the simplest story of them all because there are only a handful of characters.

It’s also a completely insane book.

This very well done recap tells the basic plot of THE PRISONER as well as I possibly could, so go ahead and read it if interested. This excerpt from page 21 of the excellent Penguin translation gives some clue to just how messed up this story is:

Every day I found her less pretty. Only the desire which she excited in others, when I learned of it and began to suffer again, in my desire to keep her from them, could put her back on her pedestal. Suffering alone gave life to my tedious attachment to her. When she disappeared, taking with her the need to alleviate my pain, which demanded all my attention like some dreadful hobby, I realized how little she meant to me — as little, no doubt, as I meant to her.

Yes, this is a love story about two people who clearly do not love each other, but are determined to keep torturing one another with this reality. The oddest part of it is the fact that Marcel Proust — a gay man — decided to turn his straight male protagonist’s infatuation towards a woman who clearly prefers to be with women.

Instead of accepting Albertine’s preference for women, however, Marcel ties himself into the most helpless romantic knot possible — he invites her into his home and lavishes her with an opulent lifestyle, promising at times to marry her. Other Proust scholars have noted that Marcel’s incredible spending on Albertine (at one point he promises to buy her a yacht) is completely out of line with his social status. It’s almost like a desperate suitor who decides run up massive credit card debt to keep a woman interested. Except in this time there were no credit cards and God only knows why Marcel wanted to keep her interest.

Actually, Proust is pretty clear about why Marcel wants to keep her interest — he seems obsessed with a kind of attachment that can only manifest through jealousy. It makes me wonder … is the fictional version of Marcel actually jealous of Albertine’s interest in others, or is he envious of it? Meaning, is it possible that Marcel himself desires to be a lesbian and keeps Albertine as his captive as a way of play acting that hoped-for gender role?

The sex that Marcel and Albertine do have seems to be more akin to the kind that women would share. The website I linked to earlier makes an assumption that this is the case because Marcel might be impotent — and if you make the standard Proust transposition and turn Albertine into Albert and make it a gay male relationships, ok, maybe that works.

But that seems too pat for me. It’s isn’t that the something-other-than-lovers can’t have physical intimacy, it’s that Marcel has no desire to have intercourse with her. If these were gay men, I just don’t see that kind of approach playing out.

The other aspect of this novel that is completely bizarre is the way Marcel perceived the women-who-love-women in Paris of that era. While Proust portrays gay men in his book as extraordinarily discrete in their behavior, the lesbians are seen as the kind of sex crazed creatures you might find on contemporary porn sites. Marcel doesn’t just desire to keep Albertine from having an intimate relationship with another woman, he’s absolutely obsessed about keeping her out of the clutches of this ravenous coven of the oversexed.

There is one other aspect of this novel that I want to discuss — maybe the most heartbreaking moment in all of Proust’s writing, involving a character I had up until that point considered somewhat pompous and unrelatable, Charlus. I’ll have more to say about that in another post when my reading gets to that point.

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