Modern Library complete Proust


All about Albertine

The most important character in Proust's novel is Albertine Simonet, who first appears in Young Girls in Flower as an elusive member of the "little band" of girls at the seashore. When Marcel visits her hotel bedroom and tries to kiss her, she defeats him by threatening to ring the service bell. In The Guermantes Way, the situations are reversed: she visits his bedroom, and he easily gets it on with her – but not to the extent of coitus, I suspect. At this point, he's jolly young Alfred E. Neuman himself: "What, me worry?"

This situation likewise reverses itself: in the next volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, Marcel becomes a slave to Albertine, who follows Carmen's maxim: "If you love me, I don't love you!" This situation leads us into the next two books of the novel, which are more or less devoted to the love duel between Marcel and Albertine.

When Proust began his masterwork, he envisioned it as two volumes, which soon became three. As he wrote on and on, he went back to the earlier (but still unpublished) volumes and added material to them, so they in turn became longer and had to be subdivided. This process was abetted by the turmoil of the First World War, when his publisher was forced to close. (Not only were the men conscripted, but the lead used for the type was melted down to make bullets.) Swann's Way had appeared in 1913, but the war caused a five-year hiatus before Young Girls was published, with the others following at roughly two-year intervals.

In addition to building Albertine into a central character, Proust incorporated the war itself into his novel. (He even made some discreet changes in Swann's Way, shifting Marcel's beloved Combray toward the German lines, so it could be shattered – and Gilberte Swann beseiged – by the war.)

 Alfred Agostinelli Marcel's relationship with Albertine is based largely upon Proust's with Alfred Agostinelli, shown posing at left. An occasional chauffeur from the summer of 1907, he also served as companion to his lonely employer, playing checkers and otherwise entertaining him. (Proust was drawn to working class companions, usually men, though he sometimes formed the same sort of relationship with women servants like Céleste Albaret, his housekeeper for many years.) In an essay for Figaro that November, Proust put on display his love for the modern age and also for his "mechanic," along with an astonishing presentiment that machinery would be the death of him: "My mechanic was clad in a huge rubber mantle and he wore a sort of hood which fitted tightly around his youthful beardless face and which, as we sped faster and faster into the night, made him look like some pilgrim, or rather, a speed-loving nun.... [I]f only the steering-wheel held by the young man who is driving me could always remain the symbol of his talent instead of being the premonition of his death throes." The following summer, he and the chauffeur spent time together in Versailles, though their leisure activities may have been confined to playing dominoes.

Agostinelli had a common-law wife, the delightfully named Anna Square, and at his request in May 1911 Proust found employment for her as an usher at a theater. He apparently wasn't a love interest, however: at the time, that was directed toward Albert Nahmias, a talented young man whom Proust employed as a secretary (which job description did not at that time go as far as actually typing the manuscript), surrogate gambler and speculator on the stock market, and love object: "If only I were able to change my sex," he wrote Nahmias in November 1911, "alter my age and the way I look, and take on the aspect of a young and beautiful woman so that I could embrace you with all my heart." Instead, he would alter Albert's sex, or at least the gender of his name.

In May 1913, Agostinelli lost his job and asked Proust to take him on as his personal driver. Since he already had a driver, Proust employed him instead as a secretary-typist, and Agostintelli and Anna moved into the apartment. "It was then that I discovered him," Proust wrote a friend in June 1914, "and that he and his wife became an integral part of my existence." And to another: "I really loved Alfred. It's not enough to say that I loved him; I adored him."

The 14-Minute Marcel Proust

Agostinelli and Anna evidently had an active sex life, though he was regularly unfaithful to her. What was not uncommon at the time, he may have regarded the providing of some kind of sexual solace to his patron to be part of a secretary's job description, though again not to the extent of intercourse. Proust's sexuality – never high – seems to have been at low ebb by this time.

What grist for jealousy! Proust had to know that his secretary not only "betrayed" him with Anna, but betrayed the both of them with other women – and perhaps other men as well! You can see how a chap might become a bit paranoid in such a situation.

Proust was fabulously generous, routinely tipping waiters twenty francs, and he spent thousands on his love objects. (I reckon a franc of 1910 to be the rough equivalent of a 2019 dollar.) Agostinelli accepted whatever was given, and soon was asking for more. Eventually he began to yearn for flight, literally and figuratively, and in December 1913 he left for Monaco (his home) to take flying lessons under the hilariously apt name of "Marcel Swann." To spy on him, and hopefully to bring him back, Proust employed none other than Albert Nahmias, filling the role that in the novel is performed by Robert de Saint-Loup. In March 1914, Proust ordered the airplane and perhaps a Rolls Royce for Agostinelli, evidently threatening all the while to cancel the orders if the beloved didn't return to Paris.

In the novel, Marcel similarly orders a Rolls and a yacht for Albertine, with the real-life airplane and the fictional yacht each costing the identical sum of 27,000 francs (roughly $75,000). And the fictional yacht and the actual airplane are to be engraved with the same stodgy sonnet from Mellarmé:

A swan of olden times recalls that he
Splendid yet void of hope to free himself
Had left unsung the realm of life itself
When sterility glittered with ennui

Poor, splendid Marcel Swan, isolated in his Paris apartment while the love of his life swanked around the south of France! Then, on April 30, Agostinelli drowned when the plane he was flying crashed into the Mediterranean.

Even as this tumult was happening in his life, Proust was incorporating it (and sometimes even the actual words from Agostinelli's letters) into the character of Albertine in Sodom and Gormorrah. More than that, he soon began to write the two comparatively short "Albertine" volumes, The Prisoner and The Fugitive, in which Marcel's obsession ends with Albertine's dying in a fall from a horse.

Of course, few fictional characters are drawn exclusively from one individual. Perhaps Albertine had her real-life female models as well – or perhaps not! It is often true that the least-realized character in a novel is the one who stands for the author. We know ourselves so well (and often so poorly) that we aren't particularly well-equipped to make ourselves come alive on paper. The same can be true of another person whom we know very well, and in so much complexity that he or she defies our best effort to create a fictional counterpart. In any event, Albertine doesn't come across (to me, anyhow) with the lovely clarity of the Baron de Charlus or Mme. Verdurin, two of the most unforgettable characters in fiction.

Verdurin and Charlus

Apropos Mme. Verdurin: she's one of the great characters in literature, more persuasive to me than even Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, and proof that Proust was able to create female characters as convincing as any of his men. But the patronne of course is post-menopausal and no threat to Marcel's sexuality.

And apropos Charlus: Proust certainly used some of his experiences chasing Alfred when he wrote about the baron's obsession with the pianist (and valet's son) Morel, who at one point begs Charlus for 25,000 francs. And Charlus in turn hires the tailor Jupien to spy on Morel, just as Proust employed his secretary Albert Nahmias. It's as if he allocated the tragic elements of that affair to Marcel's romance, and the high comedy to Charlus's.

Gilberte Swann

Marie BernardakyAnd what about Gilberte Swann, Marcel's earliest love? In his excellent Proust in Love, William Carter argues that she at least is largely based on Marie de Bernardaky, who was a playmate of the teenage Proust in Paris. (She married Prince Michael Radziwill when she was twenty-four, perhaps her age in this photo.) This is all the more convincing because the mature Marcel meets the mature Gilberte in the novel's final book, and because she is the one who in a sense completes his life and joins the "ways" of his boyhood into a single path. And she is indeed a more complete character than Albertine. Still, I could as easily be persuaded that Gilberte is also or even mostly based on Reynaldo Hahn or Lucien Daudet, whom Proust loved as a boy, and who remained his friends for life.

Reader's comment

Received in the email: "About narrator's 'girl friends' in La recherche. Both Alberte, its diminutive Albertine, and Gilberte are highly unusual names for girls in France.... On the contrary their masculine forms Albert and Gilbert are quite common. Also in the last part of Swann's Way, narrator tells of Gilberte playing at saute-mouton [leapfrog].... French boys play it quite often but when I was a kid I never saw a girl play at it. Also in Proust childhood times girls never wore trousers. Gilberte would have been wearing long robes [which] would have got caught on her partner when she jumped and sent her crashing head first on the pavement. Now, if Gilberte was in fact Gilbert there is no problem. – Regards, Jean Francois Martinez"

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Now Comes Theodora

1. Swann's Way | 2. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower | 3. The Guermantes Way | 4. Sodom and Gomorrah | 5. The Prisoner | 6. The Fugitive | 7. Finding Time Again

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Posted October 2019. © 2006-2019 Fallbook Press; all rights reserved.