Home > 1920, 20th Century, Classics, French Literature, Novel, Proust, Marcel > Every breath you take; every move you make, I’ll be watching you

Every breath you take; every move you make, I’ll be watching you

December 8, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust. 1929. English title: The Captive translation by CK Scott Moncrief.

Ironically, I have to thank EL James for teaching me all kinds of useful words to write this billet about La Prisonnière (except flogger, I don’t think I’ll need it. Wait, shall I wax Oulipo and challenge myself into using flogger in this billet?) I almost called it Fifty Shades of Marcel, but, no, that would be too great an honour to Ms James.

I’ve been reading La Prisonnière since August and I’m only half through it; I knew this one would be difficult because of its claustrophobic tone. I remembered being tired of Marcel the first time I read it but as a teenager, I didn’t have enough insight to realise how sick Marcel is. And here, I’m not talking about his asthma.

Let’s rewind a bit: at the end of the previous volume, Marcel whisks Albertine away from Balbec and takes advantage that his mother is away to invite Albertine to stay with him. So Albertine now lives with him, kind of secretly as this is still frowned upon at the time. The first long chapter of La Prisonnière is his life with Albertine.

As always, we only have the Narrator’s POV but I’d love to hear Albertine’s. Poor, poor girl. Marcel does have a sick vision of love relationship. He’s a control freak, a stalker. Jealous doesn’t even cover his attitude. He suffocates her and then is surprised that she lies to him to cover herself! He checks on her, calls her girlfriend Andrée to verify whether she really went where she said she’d go. (What kind of friend is Andrée, btw?) He enquires about whom she spoke to. He sabotages her plans any time he thinks she might meet someone he doesn’t want her to talk to. Marcel is obsessed with Albertine’s supposed homosexuality. Whereas he accepts perfectly well the love relationship between Morel and M. de Charlus, he’s horrified by lesbianism.

Marcel wants to own Albertine body and soul. He gets a kick out of domineering her:

Les robes même que je lui achetais, le yacht dont je lui avais parlé, les peignoirs de Fortuny, tout cela ayant dans cette obéissance d’Albertine, non pas sa compensation, mais son complément, m’apparaissait comme autant de privilèges que j’exerçais ; car les devoirs et les charges d’un maître font partie de sa domination, et le définissent, le prouvent tout autant que ses droits. Et ces droits qu’elle me reconnaissait donnaient précisément à mes charges leur véritable caractère : j’avais une femme à moi qui, au premier mot que je lui envoyais à l’improviste, me faisait téléphoner avec déférence qu’elle revenait, qu’elle se laissait ramener, aussitôt. J’étais plus maître que je n’avais cru. Plus maître, c’est-à-dire plus esclave.

The frocks that I bought for her, the yacht of which I had spoken to her, the wrappers from Fortuny’s, all these things having in this obedience on Albertine’s part not their recompense but their complement, appeared to me now as so many privileges that I was enjoying; for the duties and expenditure of a master are part of his dominion, and define it, prove it, fully as much as his rights. And these rights which she recognised in me were precisely what gave my expenditure its true character: I had a woman of my own, who, at the first word that I sent to her unexpectedly, made my messenger telephone humbly that she was coming, that she was allowing herself to be brought home immediately. I was more of a master than I had supposed. More of a master, in other words more of a slave.

Les devoirs et les charges d’un maître font partie de sa domination”, ie “the duties and expenditure of a master are part of his domination”: just how sick is that? He says he doesn’t love her and yet he takes her away from the world, for the pleasure of owning her.

Et cependant, pour moi, aimer charnellement c’était tout de même jouir d’un triomphe sur tant de concurrents. Je ne le redirai jamais assez, c’était un apaisement plus que tout.

Yet to me to love in a carnal sense was at any rate a triumph over countless rivals. I can never repeat it often enough; it was first and foremost a sedative.

This is what EL James would translate into 21st century trash prose as he doesn’t make love, he fucks.

Albertine can’t invite anyone home as her living with our Narrator is a secret, which increases his power over her. (“Elle [Gisèle] ignorait que la jeune fille [Albertine] vécût chez moi, rien qu’à moi” ie, “But she would not know that the girl was living with me, was wholly mine”)

He uses the language of property and in French it is not the language of love. (“la possession que j’avais d’elle”, ie “my possession of her. The French sentence is strange and heavy, btw). He speaks the language of domination: esclave, claustration, chaîne, esclavage, servage, prison. (slave, confinement, chain, slavery, prison)

In a previous billet, I wrote I wouldn’t want to be loved by the Narrator. I say it again. He has a sick vision of love, a vision where the woman must be submissive, this submission being a balm for his permanent disquiet. He’s jealousy driven and although he’s lucid enough to acknowledge it, he can’t help it. He ruminates memories, trying to extract new meaning from benign situation. And I can’t help thinking, Get a job, man, you wouldn’t have time mulling over meaningless details. But, then if he had, we wouldn’t have that fine piece of literature, would we? I shudder to think about what Marcel would do with today’s technology. Call her on her mobile phone every minute? Track her cellphone? Her car?

He finds his peace of mind in the idea of her being pliant. He tortures himself and therefore Albertine with thoughts about her betrayal. How can you have a relationship full of trust, genuine love and be happy with a man who picks at every word you say, sees double-entendre in innocent chatter and imagines ulterior motive at every outing? It must be exhausting. He’s mercurial and his mood swings are unpredictable. I bet the poor girl doesn’t know where to stand with him as it filters through this note she sends him:

« Mon chéri et cher Marcel, j’arrive moins vite que ce cycliste dont je voudrais bien prendre la bécane pour être plus tôt près de vous. Comment pouvez-vous croire que je puisse être fâchée et que quelque chose puisse m’amuser autant que d’être avec vous ! ce sera gentil de sortir tous les deux, ce serait encore plus gentil de ne jamais sortir que tous les deux. Quelles idées vous faites-vous donc ? Quel Marcel ! Quel Marcel ! Toute à vous, ton Albertine. »

“My darling, dear Marcel, I return less quickly than this cyclist, whose machine I would like to borrow in order to be with you sooner. How could you imagine that I might be angry or that I could enjoy anything better than to be with you? It will be nice to go out, just the two of us together; it would be nicer still if we never went out except together. The ideas you get into your head! What a Marcel! What a Marcel! Always and ever your Albertine.”

You can’t see it in English but in French, she mixes tu and vous. She uses vous to address to him and refers to herself as tu. (ton Albertine). By doing this, she places herself as inferior to him or in a servant-master relationship. In French, it shows an inequality between people when they don’t address each other with the same pronoun. A tu-vous relationship reveals either formal respect (son-in-law / mother-in-law) or inequality. For example, children say vous to adults who say tu in return.

I wonder why she stays. To climb the social ladder?

In English, the title is The Captive and as Seamus pointed out in his entry about this volume (The Captive / La Prisonnière), Marcel is as captive as Albertine, in a different way. In French, prisonnière is feminine and can only refer to Albertine. But still, despite the gender implied by the title, Marcel is a prisoner too. He stays home, he’s imprisoned in his tortuous way of thinking until his restlessness and jealousy act as a mental flogger (did it!) and push him out of the house. Chapter 2 is entitled: Les Verdurin se brouillent avec M. de Charlus. (The Verdurins quarrel with M. de Charlus). Relief. He’s socializing again and we’ll get some fresh air.

  1. December 8, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    There’s a film version of this which I wasn’t crazy about called La Captive directed by Chantal Ackerman. And then again last night I was watching a Russian film in which a husband bragged that his wife was entirely obedient and that all three of her holes worked. Makes you wonder why they bother with the real thing and don’t go for the plastic inflatable variety.

    This sounds like some heavy reading–and I don’t mean Proust but the intensity of the relationship portrayed and its claustrophobic feel. Good point about the prisoner-captive dynamic. Reminds me of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.

    Proust is still calling, but he has to take a number behind Balzac.


    • December 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm

      I haven’t seen this film version but I’d like to.
      What a charming and sensitive man, in this Russian film! I have the same reaction as you. This kind of relationship doesn’t appeal to me at all.
      I didn’t like La Prisonnière the first time I read it but I couldn’t analyse exactly why. Now that I’m older, I know. That kind of passionate, hurtful relationship isn’t glamorous, hot or whatever, it’s debasing.

      Seamus writes about Hegel in his post; I’m not good at philosophy.


  2. December 8, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    I found this book particularly claustrophobic and oppressive. Of course, to say the subject is unpleasant is not a literary criticism, but unpleasant it certainly is. And it strikes me reading your pst that there may be a third person who is “captive”: the reader. Throughout this book, the reader is stuck inside Marcel’s head – and that’s not a pleasant place to be stuck in!


    • December 8, 2012 at 10:57 pm

      I see I’m not the only one who find it unpleasant.

      I agree with you, the reader is captive as well and you’re not very at ease in Marcel’s head.

      I pity Albertine because her aunt sort of prostitutes her (in the sense that she knows where she lives) in the hope that she’ll land a rich husband.


  3. December 10, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    Not the only one! I wonder if we could find a reader who finds it pleasant. But let’s not look for him – I would rather not know.


    • December 10, 2012 at 10:05 pm

      Right. What was he thinking? Or probably, he had too much time to think.


  4. December 10, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Not pleasant, I’m sure but oddly fascinating. And funny enough, I’ve seen women stay in relatinships like that. Possibly even men – I don’t think it’s reserved to men to be domineering like this. It sounds very sick indeed. The think is, you can’t really only blame him, it needs the two of them. They both have issues.


    • December 10, 2012 at 10:17 pm

      Not fascinating to me. And I don’t think Albertine really has a choice, according to this quote.

      Qu’Albertine, en ayant l’air d’une enfant, fasse paraître Mme Bontemps plus jeune, c’est tout ce que celle-ci demande, et qu’Albertine ne lui coûte rien, en attendant le jour où, en m’épousant, elle lui rapportera.

      Mme Bontemps is Albertine’s aunt and she’s in charge of her. Who knows under what kind of financial pressure the poor girl was?


      • December 11, 2012 at 3:04 pm

        Ok, yes, I agree, I adopted a too contemporary view.
        I find dysfunctional people fascinating. Not appealing but interesting.


  5. December 12, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    It’s the curious thing with Proust, the narrator makes comments of such perception that they can feel intensely personal, but one can imagine him being very tiring to be with. In volume three the weight he places on his friendship with Saint-Loup often seems controlling (just as Saint-Loup in turn is controlling of his mistress).

    The tu-vous thing is fascinating, a nuance totally lost in the English.


    • December 12, 2012 at 9:56 pm

      I don’t think the narrator was tiring to be with: he’s witty and excellent in society. So he must have been quite enjoyable. As long as he doesn’t have a romantic interest in you. I don’t think he’s controlling with Saint-Loup, quite the contrary. I always had the feeling he doesn’t care much about friendship and that Saint-Loup is more attached to the Narrator than he to him.
      What makes you say that?

      PS: really, really looking forward to your next Proust review.


    • December 12, 2012 at 10:00 pm

      About the tu-vous: I knew you, Guy and Tom would be interested in this. I’m not sure I would have mentioned it if I were writing billets in French.

      Sometimes I miss the tu-vous nuance in English, sometimes I find it convenient to use a noncommittal you, especially in the corporate world. You don’t have to make a choice when you address someone.


  1. February 1, 2013 at 4:57 pm
  2. September 15, 2019 at 9:46 am
  3. February 5, 2022 at 10:27 am

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