My multi-year effort to finish Proust’s epic is almost at a close, with one more volume to go. The Captive and the Fugitive is notable for its intent focus on the relationship between the narrator and Albertine, the woman with whom he falls in love despite her average intelligence and beauty. To be sure, Albertine shows signs of having increased her learning and her intelligence, thanks in large part to the narrator’s efforts to tutor her and to awaken her intellectual fires, but there is little to indicate why the narrator may have loved Albertine, save the latter’s occasional efforts to show him how much she cares. Much of the relationship is colored with jealousy, as the narrator is obsessed with keeping tabs on Albertine, lest she continue the lesbian liaisons that the narrator suspects her of. The jealousy, suspiciousness, and desperate attempts on the part of the narrator to curb Albertine’s outside activities–for fear that those activities may lead to infidelity–tend to grate on the reader, but as always, Proust fascinates and amazes with his use of language, his appreciation of the power of memory, and his capacity for deep and profound introspection.
Paradoxically, the narrator is as much the captive of his jealousy as Albertine is (her movements are severely restricted by her lover). Eventually, the narrator decides that he must end the affair, but is surprised when Albertine ends it first. What follows is a discussion of the narrator’s sense of loss, and his ability to recover and forget his relationship with Albertine. But before the narrator is able to recover and move on, he must indulge his final stages of obsession with Albertine’s actions. In the meantime, Proust discusses the changing nature of the aristocracy, especially the changes that have occurred in the realm of romantic relationships entered into by the aristocracy.
As always, one reads Proust with a healthy appreciation for his ability to take verbal detours, employ exceedingly dense prose (made denser, perhaps, by the fact that one is reading French), and write in a fashion that is calculated and planned out, but seems to be stream-of-consciousness so as to serve as a commentary on the power and peculiarities of human memory and its workings. In short, Proust is no breezy read–a fact that I feel compelled to emphasize. But if one wishes to understand how a novelist could play the role of a master psychologist, one could do little better than to read Proust’s masterwork.