In Search of Albertine

The feminist afterlives of Proust's iconic character

Victoria Baena

Still from Chantal Akerman's La Captive (2000). Courtesy Collections CINEMATEK - © Fondation Chantal Akerman.

Across the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, one name appears more than any other: Albertine. The nearly nameless narrator-hero (for simplicity’s sake, we can call him “Marcel”) adores, envies, mistrusts, grows bored by, and fantasizes about his beloved by turns. Albertine evades all manner of endeavors to pin her down. She is stylish, though sometimes gauche; athletic and artsy; well mannered in polite society but slangy and brash around her friends. She may desire women more than she can ever love him. Fittingly, the narrator tends to describe her in metonymies—patches and parts. Her face is a sealed envelope, her eyes a polished agate, her cheek as clear as a stone turned pink granite in the light of the winter’s sun. Her eyelids are like curtains that block out the view of the sea. Long before she finally abandons him, he thinks of her as a “creature of flight.”

Marcel’s ambivalent pursuit and Albertine’s ambiguous self-making have provided both model and foil for a century of artists working in a feminist vein, each of whom has been drawn in her own way to the fugitive figure. Albertine is the subject of Jacqueline Rose’s only novel; she has inspired a chapbook by Anne Carson (The Albertine Workout) and a film by Chantal Akerman (La Captive), the latter of which is the subject of a book-length essay by Christine Smallwood to be published by Fireflies Press in March. On Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a bookstore run by the French Embassy bears her name. In the 2020 documentary Le Temps Perdu, Argentine director María Álvarez follows a Proust reading group of long standing made up of elderly regulars at a Buenos Aires café. As one of them repeatedly mentions, it was his daughter who founded the group. This divine architect remains offscreen: we are told only her name—Albertina.

In Proust, Marcel’s fantasies about Albertine conscript her into an archetypically patriarchal relationship, making her a muse for his art. Marcel’s own self-doubt is only exacerbated by Albertine’s alluring, and galling, opacity. Some rewritings have therefore reflected on the power dynamics at play in the pair, adopting Marcel’s perspective in order to explore and expose the relation between surveillance, voyeurism, and authorship. Others seek to fill in the lines of Albertine’s character, following a revisionist tradition of recentering women who had previously been consigned to the sidelines of history or the margins of literature.

The person and the name, the blurred body and the silhouette—the logic of the close-up and that of the aerial shot—never coincide.

And yet, Albertine’s original depiction throughout In Search of Lost Time invites and authorizes these latter-day reworkings. Albertine dexterously manages what Proust calls the “social kaleidoscope,” with its endless inversions in status and destiny. Dependent and precarious, she manages to claw her way into upper-crust Parisian society on the sheer strength of her glamour and charm. By constructing her own mythology, and especially by refusing to let her lover (and readers) in, she makes her own life a work of art.

Proust’s fiction is generally obsessed with the connection between desire and knowledge. But the relationship between the two more often than not is an inverse one: “We only love what we do not wholly possess.” By making at once an aesthetics and an erotics out of evasion, In Search of Lost Time forged an enduring model, explored and interrogated even in later works that do not explicitly cite Albertine. One can catch glimpses of her, for instance, in the novels of Elena Ferrante, which recast the dance between captor and escapee as a game that takes place between women. Proust’s fugitive today travels under other aliases. Turn away an instant, and she might disappear.

When we first meet Albertine, she is a dark-haired, polo-cap-wearing orphan, one of several “young girls in flower” that Marcel spies on from afar as she wheels her bicycle down the beach at Balbec. Though he has heard talk about the “famous” Albertine, he might yet grow attached to any other member of her “little band.” In any case he is still (if only intermittently) in love with someone else.

At Balbec Albertine is a flat “silhouette, projected against the waves.” Little by little, she sharpens into focus. It is only in the novel’s fifth and sixth volumes, when Marcel manages to lure her into virtual hostage at his family home in Paris, that Albertine will take center stage as an object of his possessiveness and desire. These volumes were not included in Proust’s original plan for his multi-part novel, nor were they fully completed at the time of his death. In the French Pléiade edition they are entitled La Prisonnière and Albertine disparue (“Albertine gone,” or more literally “disappeared”); Proust’s original name for the latter was La Fugitive.

Last February, Yale University Press reissued the Albertine volumes together in a satisfyingly Latinate diptych as The Captive and The Fugitive. YUP’s revised and annotated version of Proust’s novel, edited by William C. Carter, began with the 2013 republication of the first volume, Swann’s Way, on the centenary of Du côté de chez Swann. The series is based on the mammoth labor of love undertaken by Proust’s first English translator, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, who died before finishing the final volume. Proust was appalled when he learned that Scott Moncrieff had chosen to render A La Recherche du Temps Perdu as Remembrance of Things Past, an allusion to Shakespeare that seemed to disregard the admixture of discovery, reflection, and even chance at play in his theory of involuntary memory. In this case Carter has parted ways with his precursor, opting for the now widely used In Search of Lost Time.

Scott Moncrieff ’s English is notoriously ornate, but one virtue of these editions is the way they capture the many echoes of style and syntax across the novel’s long sweep. Not only memories but specific phrases and images recur, sometimes at a distance of many hundreds of pages. In the Carter-Scott Moncrieff volumes, as in the original French, the adjective fugitive resonates with increasing complexity. It describes Albertine’s desires (“alternative, fugitive, often contradictory”) as well as Marcel’s pleasure (“fugitive and fragmentary”) at knowing where Albertine is to be found. It describes, too, his disturbed response to seeing her own pleasurable expression—“fugitive and fixed” and, he fears, equally erotic—as she watches other young girls at play. (By contrast, in opting for “elusive” or “fleeting” at turns, Carol Clark’s often excellent 2002 translation The Prisoner misses such subtle anticipations, in Proust’s very language, of the woman in flight.)

Throughout La Prisonnière, that flight risk is dramatized through surveillance as well as creative control. Marcel’s metaphors accumulate as he watches Albertine sleep and listens to her breathe, comparing her to a plant, to a breeze, to boats oscillating atop waves. His admiration leads to the “less pure” pleasure of masturbating before the sleeping Albertine. When he awakens each morning, she “slide[s] her tongue between my lips like a portion of daily bread.”

In Proust, however, Marcel’s physical pleasures ultimately remain secondary to an epistemological drive. If he only keeps watch over Albertine, he convinces himself, she will be understood, made rational, become known. The moments in which Albertine is asleep are safe for both of them. He doesn’t have to fear her leaving, and she doesn’t have to watch him watching her.

Chantal Akerman’s 2000 film La Captive picks up on the Proustian tension between possession, desire, and escape, as it whittles down Proust’s multipart spectacle into a sparer set of coordinates. Set in contemporary Paris, the film highlights the doomed obsession of its protagonist, Simon (Stanislas Merhar), with Ariane (Sylvie Testud), as he begins to suspect that his lover is carrying on an affair with a female opera singer. In Akerman, as in Proust, the Albertine avatar remains both surveilled and in important ways unseen. Akerman’s bourgeois interiors and sumptuous costumes, spliced with Hitchcockian scenes of Simon’s shadowing of Ariane through the streets of Paris, imply that the kept woman, especially one so at risk of escape, is a particularly valuable commodity.

Akerman was originally prejudiced against adaptation, as Christine Smallwood explains in her thoughtful rereading of the film. But Akerman was drawn to “that apartment, and the corridor, and the two characters.” La Captive experiments with the scopophilic affordances of Marcel’s obsession, a “pleasure in looking” that, since Laura Mulvey, it has become almost too easy to call the male gaze. But in Proust, looking is never simple. People and places often fail to live up to their initial allure. After the Albertine plot comes to an end, when Marcel finally learns what he believes to be the truth about her lesbian experiences, he compares these revelations to the process of getting to know a city, as intimate familiarity begins to replace the view of a skyline seen from afar. The person and the name, the blurred body and the silhouette—the logic of the close-up and that of the aerial shot—never coincide.

For her part, Smallwood transmutes Akerman’s Proust from a case study of elective affinities into a drama of creative frustration. In the course of illuminating the filmmaker’s preoccupations, she renders explicit another of Proust’s themes: that any writer or artist may have to confront a version of Albertine’s challenge to Marcel. In the novel, their entanglement threatens his life’s vocation, as he comes to feel resentful that she has become yet another distraction from the book he’s supposed to be writing. “Had I forfeited something real?” he asks himself. “Could life console me for the loss of art?” Marcel’s problem becomes how to capture Albertine, not only in his home or in his mind but also, eventually, on the page.

What might happen if we gave a separate name to each of our own variable selves—as multiple as the infinite configurations of waves and waters that we so crudely call the sea?

For Smallwood, the agony of authorship is less a philosophical abstraction than a pressing material concern, a quotidian drama of making enough space, money, and time for the work of writing to get done at all. Because Smallwood signed a contract for her book in 2021, she watches Akerman’s La Captive, inevitably, as a quarantine film. Raising two small children in the pandemic era, Smallwood has a different take on the creepiness of Marcel/Simon watching Ariane/Albertine sleep. She, too, is jealous—jealous of Ariane’s ability to sleep on command: “All I want is for the people I live with to sleep when I tell them to sleep.”

In the case of Smallwood’s Akerman’s Proust’s Albertine, sleep isn’t sexualized, and being held captive in a spacious Parisian apartment doesn’t sound so bad to Smallwood after all. As her children keep growing, debts accumulate, and construction continues outside her family’s own apartment—in a part of Brooklyn where they can only afford to live if she starts having more “productive” days—she reads Proustian duration, in Akerman’s film, as giving us “the real time of literary production: the time of frustration, of wanting to write and not writing.” If In Search of Lost Time is a künstlerroman, a novel about becoming an artist, for Smallwood that also makes it a book about procrastination, about everything you do to avoid working. Concerts, parties, holidays, heartsickness, and (for Smallwood if not for Proust or Akerman) raising children: all interfere with the real work of art.

Early on in La Prisonnière, Marcel glimpses a laundress, a baker, and a dairymaid outside his window. Suddenly he is anxious to “go out of doors and, without Albertine, to be free.” Is she being kept captive, or is he the one tethered to her? As Smallwood shows, Akerman responds to this question by seizing and usurping the gaze of the male artist. Her cinematographic techniques play with Marcel’s position as desiring, though never quite achieving, control. Through her reading of Akerman, Smallwood also reflects on Proust’s representation of Albertine as distraction for the stymied artist. Albertine pulls him away from his work for so long that the only possible solution is for her to be folded into his work, for her to become his muse. If Marcel can ever get around to setting pen to paper, it will turn out that the life he’s spent putting off writing has furnished the material about which to write.

Despite her status as creative stimulus, the balance of power between Marcel and Albertine continues to wobble on its axis. Her avian elusiveness, including the mystery of her sexual inclinations, strengthens Albertine’s own hold over Marcel. If Akerman and Smallwood deal with such asymmetry by imagining their way into Marcel’s position, Jacqueline Rose’s 2001 novel, Albertine, finds alternative strategies for resisting the reduction of woman artist to muse.

Rose’s novel moves away from questions of surveillance and control to instead consider the narrative potential of shifting perspective. Albertine is narrated alternately by Albertine and her friend Andrée in a stream-of-consciousness style that replaces Marcel’s musings with their own. Rose’s Albertine is less obedient than Proust’s: she defies her captivity, ignoring Marcel’s asthma as she flings open the window to his stuffy apartment and takes pleasure in gulping in the fresh air. Her love affairs with other women are no longer an ominous prospect but rather a candid fact. And if Proust’s Marcel worries endlessly over what Albertine is thinking, what she’s doing, and where she could be when she isn’t at home, Rose makes short shrift of this problem, wheeling a spotlight into place and training it on the shadowy corners of her heroine’s mind. Her approach aims to render manifest those aspects of a woman’s interior life that in Proust remain latent. An epigraph, taken from his final volume, motivates her rebuttal: “The pages I would write, Albertine . . . would certainly not have understood. Had she been capable of understanding them, she would, for that very reason, not have inspired them.”

Ironically, Rose’s critique is also an extension of Proust’s literary methods. Proust too breaks the diegetic wall. He too muddles the realms of fiction and fact. If Marcel never manages to properly access Albertine’s consciousness, that might be due to the fact that so many Albertines emerge over the course of the novel. Her characteristic beauty spot, in Marcel’s memory, moves from her chin to her upper lip to her cheek. In this case, the instability of memory may be at fault—how little, Proust reflects, we manage to remember details even about those we love best—but in another sense, Albertine really does look and act different from one day to the next. As a testament to her contradictory declarations, her behavior, like her appearance, shifts according to the season, or the weather, or her mood. And yet, the narrator reflects, there is only one name for all those Albertines.

According to the conventions of polite society, each of its members must be tagged, identified, and sorted. Such conventions, which Proust studies with ethnographic precision, keep us rigidly in place. But what might happen if we instead gave a separate name to each of our own variable selves—as multiple as the infinite configurations of waves and waters that we so crudely call the sea? In the gap between Marcel’s frustration and the narrator’s reflection, a new vision of character emerges, less as essentially unknowable than as multiple, variable, and socially formed. Proust’s under-defined portrait of Albertine, that is, leaves room for imaginative revisions of other ways she might be in the world, including the complexly indeterminate, even if more assertive, heroine that emerges from Rose’s Albertine.

Albertine’s death in a horse-riding accident in Proust’s sixth volume, shortly after she has abandoned Marcel, seems to put a definitive end to her flight. Grief, though, can be as inconstant as character. After her death, Marcel recognizes that in time he will come to recall her only intermittently, if at all. He will mourn, that is, not only the disappeared woman but the very acuteness of the fact she is gone.

In the history of Proust criticism, some have sought to account for Albertine’s appeal by taking cover under the presumably safer shelter of her author’s biography. According to what is known as the “transposition theory,” the lesbian relationships in the Recherche are only a veil for male homosexuality, and the real-life Albertine is a man: Proust’s chauffeur and secretary, Alfred Agostinelli. Having fallen in love with Agostinelli, Proust bought the amateur aviator a plane, which he had engraved with a line from Mallarmé. In May 1914, Agostinelli fell from the aircraft into the Mediterranean and drowned. The following day, Proust received a letter from him, a kind of message from beyond the grave.

In the novel, it is just after Marcel sends Albertine a telegram pleading for her to return that he receives another telegram, this one from her aunt, conveying the news of her death. Such scrambled boundaries between art and life are further anticipated by a scene near the end of The Captive, when Marcel and Albertine are visiting Versailles. Marcel, hearing the buzzing of an airplane overhead, is dazzled by the idea that the vehicle is six thousand feet above him. Measuring such a distance, he reflects, feels “different to us because the access seemed impossible”—something like the boundary between the living and the dead.

Anne Carson’s numbered poetic sequence, The Albertine Workout (2014), reads Albertine in part through the prism of the critical history that has identified her as Agostinelli. Like Rose, Carson is interested in the friction between perspectives—Marcel’s, Albertine’s, but also that of the reader who wants more for and from her. Her mock-methodical approach suggests that she is one of these readers:

8. The problems of Albertine are

(from the narrator’s point of view)
a) lying
b) lesbianism,
and (from Albertine’s point of view)
a) being imprisoned in the narrator’s house.

Are lying and lesbianism the same kind of problem? As Elisabeth Ladenson pointed out in her 1999 book, Proust’s Lesbianism, this has historically been the case for some of Proust’s critics, as well as for Marcel. Such critics, she argued, continue to sideline female sexuality by installing a (male) historical figure in the place of the unpossessable, unknowable Albertine. Carson’s characteristic style—citational, thoroughly researched, lively, often tongue-in-cheek—offers a “working out” of this interpretive strategy, including its more reductive implications. “Granted the transposition theory is a graceless, intrusive, and saddening hermeneutic mechanism,” she writes. Still, “In the case of Proust, it is also irresistible.” Albertine’s oblique, spectral characterization can also be read as a moving testament to Proust’s own mourning for his beloved.

What is so alluring about these vanishing women?

While Agostinelli haunts Proust’s Albertine, Smallwood reads Akerman’s film as a prelude to the filmmaker’s own form of mourning. In Proust, by the time Albertine and Marcel are living together, his grandmother has died, and his mother is buckled by grief. In Akerman’s La Captive, the grandmother is still alive, and she, not the mother, is part of the couple’s unusual ménage. Smallwood takes this as a clue to consider the film in relation to Akerman’s many reflections on her intensely close but fraught relationship to her mother. Her 1976 documentary, News from Home, for instance, juxtaposed images of Manhattan and a voiceover of letters from Akerman’s mother in Brussels. For Smallwood, that film “shows the artist physically escaping her mother while psychically remaining her captive.” (Akerman took her own life in 2015, barely a year after her mother’s death.)

The final scenes of La Captive undercut those more playful versions of collapsing art into life that Carson’s method implied. As the film returns to its opening home-video-style shots of Ariane on the beach, the camera follows her as she swims out and out into the sea, keeps swimming, too far, for too long. Simon jumps in after her, but to no avail. While in Proust’s novel “art will have her,” Smallwood reflects, in Akerman “the ocean will cover Ariane completely,” as the film declines to redeem her death.

“It’s a feeling I know well,” Elena Ferrante told her Paris Review editor in a 2015 interview, about the wish to vanish: “I think all women know it.” If Akerman and Smallwood take up the position of Marcel-as-artist and Rose and Carson inhabit and transfigure Albertine-as-muse, Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels update the Proustian drama of the disappearing woman, extending, expanding, and regenerating the dialectics of confinement and escape articulated through Proust’s Albertine.

Ferrante’s exploration of fraught friendship between women is more explicitly indebted to another novel, the East German novelist Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T. (1968), which also seems to swerve away from the gendered power dynamics of the Marcel-Albertine pair entirely. The Quest for Christa T. lends the author’s name to the object of obsession rather than to the narrating artist. “I feel that she is disappearing,” Wolf’s narrator reflects on the titular Christa, who has recently died of leukemia and is slipping away from her friend’s memory. In writing, she attempts a resurrection.

While Wolf’s storyteller writes to mourn and to remember, Ferrante’s eponymous narrator sits down at her laptop less out of grief than anger. “It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace,” Elena Greco writes of her friend Lila, with envy and fascination, in the prologue to My Brilliant Friend (2012), “and I’m the only one who knows what she means.”

What is so alluring about these vanishing women? In some ways, Lila is more conventional than Elena: she was the first to marry, to have children, to settle down. In this she also recalls Proust’s Albertine, who is equally conformist in her material predilections, coveting Fortuny dresses and aspiring to infiltrate the salons of Parisian high society. But if to disappear is the ultimate flouting of convention, the writer-storyteller is left to wonder about her own untaken paths.

In Ferrante as in Wolf, the writers write to keep the other woman present. In some ways this desire construes aesthetic creation as an act of care. But if in one sense writing keeps the vanished women alive—tries to bring them back to life—in another sense, and despite the shared terrain of gender, it also ensnares and embalms them. This vexed dynamic of creation and erasure, confinement and evasion, is one source of the inexhaustible appeal, and frustration, of Proust’s Albertine and her afterlives. Maddening and tempting, haunting and banal, Albertine dares her lovers, readers, and critics to follow in her wake.

Correction, January 26, 2024: An earlier version of this essay mistakenly referred to C.K. Scott Moncrieff by his last name simply as "Moncrieff."

Victoria Baena is a Research Fellow in English and Modern Languages at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. Her writing has appeared in Boston Review, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, The Baffler, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Originally published:
January 22, 2024


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