Protests with Parasols

Michael Wood

  • Proust among the Nations: From Dreyfus to the Middle East by Jacqueline Rose
    Chicago, 239 pp, £22.50, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 226 72578 9

‘Profonde Albertine’, the narrator writes close to the end of Proust’s novel. By ‘deep’ – profonde – he means ‘unreachable’. She was mostly that when she was alive, and has assumed this quality as a permanent attribute now that she is dead. But he can still be tortured by his memories of all he didn’t know, for a while at least: ‘For, after death, Time leaves the body, and the memories … are effaced from her who no longer exists and soon will be from him whom at present they still torture.’ Does that ‘soon’ express a wish or a regret? Does the narrator know? We are not going to hear much more from him, since he is only a page away from his last words. All he can really say about Albertine is ancient and obvious and rather beautiful: that he used to watch her sleep and that she is dead. ‘Profonde Albertine, que je voyais dormir et qui était morte.’

Was she deep? At an earlier stage the narrator thought not, took Albertine as a welcome representative of a not ‘too intellectual atmosphere’, and explained that she would not have understood the pages he would one day write. But that was the trick. ‘Had she been capable of understanding them, she would, for that very reason, not have inspired them.’ The formulation is elegant, but is it true? What can the narrator really know of Albertine if for him depth is just a name for mystery?

Jacqueline’s Rose’s novel Albertine (2001) doesn’t answer this question but it does answer the previous one, and it takes the sentence about Albertine and her non-understanding of the narrator’s pages as one of its epigraphs. It shows us Albertine’s depths, or rather creates an Albertine whose depths become to some degree imaginable, but who is still a sufficiently Proustian character to be much wiser about other people than she is about herself. It is narrated, in alternating sequences, by Albertine and her friend Andrée, and of course the suffering narrator is at the centre of everyone’s attention, as he would want to be. We see him ‘huddled inside the panic of his safety’, which makes him a good match for Albertine, whose recklessness is a quest for ‘panic before its time’. She understands that her misbehaviour is all that matters as far as the narrator is concerned, that his love for her feeds on suspicion, even on the idea of crime. ‘He didn’t just want to live dangerously … Whatever the cost, whatever the evidence, there had to be a sexual crime. Perhaps that was why, oddly and foolishly enough, I felt so safe … When he was in this frame of mind, he wanted me guilty or nothing.’

Albertine, an orphan, wants to escape from her aunt’s vulgar idea of social success, but not from society. That is where she hopes the narrator will lead her, into ‘his great grand world’, but he doesn’t, he keeps her imprisoned in his apartment. This doesn’t daunt her at first. She can invent games for that as for any other condition, and for much of the novel she is able to enjoy her own sleek intelligence and sense of control. Even at the end, about to die in a riding accident, she imagines winning a last round against her captor: ‘If I fall there will be no impact, no danger, there will be no fall at all. Danger only comes, I can see his pale face and his dark eyes widening with disbelief as I say it, to those who choose to stay behind.’

Albertine is not a sequel to A la recherche du temps perdu, and Rose is not in competition with Proust. It is a subtle and various insertion, and she is writing a commentary in the form of a (very good) novel. This is to say that Proust’s thought (although not that of the narrator in his many deluded moments) is her guide, which is precisely the role Proust plays in her new book and the reason he appears in its title. He teaches us, Rose says, that ‘what matters is that you somewhere know the mobility of your own soul,’ a condition that Rose’s Albertine enacts on every page. Albertine is not a political novel, not even a novel about sexual politics; but it is about someone ‘who was already, even as a girl, weaving her own web, turning herself into the accomplished craftswoman of her fate’. Proust among the Nations concerns the historical fates we have woven for ourselves as we strive, in all kinds of ways, to deny or freeze the mobility of our souls.

In her book on the Dreyfus Affair, The Man on Devil’s Island (2010), Ruth Harris insists that no ‘dark teleology’ links the 1890s in France with the years between the two world wars. ‘There is no straight line that can be drawn from the conflicts of the Fin de Siècle to the emergence of fascism in the 1930s,’ she writes; elsewhere, that the affair was ‘no dress rehearsal’ for later developments. At first glance this insistence is puzzling. The line from the violent anti-semitism of the older century to the anti-Jewish laws of the next seems pretty straight and we may remember that Madeleine Lévy, the granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus, died in Auschwitz. Pétain himself, we learn in Proust among the Nations, personally intervened to make the provisions of the Statut des Juifs harsher. Rose also tells us that as late as 1980, a French prime minister, Raymond Barre, could regret the bombing of a synagogue in terms that suggested that Jews were not French and were guilty – of being Jewish if nothing else. ‘A hateful attack,’ he said, ‘which wanted to strike at the Jews who were in that synagogue, and which struck innocent French people who were crossing the street.’

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[*] Yizhar’s books were discussed by Gabriel Piterberg in the LRB of 26 February 2009.

[†] ‘J’accuse: Dreyfus in Our Time’ appeared in the LRB of 21 April 2010.