Friday, 17 November 2006

Proust and Women

As I struggle along with the reading of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ by Marcel Proust I came across something he wrote in ‘The Captive’ which brought me to consider Marcel’s attitude to women.

“Albertine has developed to an astonishing degree. This was a matter of complete indifference to me, a woman’s intellectual qualities having always interested me so little that if I pointed them out to some woman or other it was solely out of politeness.”

Women know your place – or at least it could be interpreted in that way. In real life Proust had an interesting relationship with women. In a rather blunt letter to his grandfather which he wrote aged sixteen Marcel describes the cure for a pastime that might otherwise have sent him blind:

“I so badly needed to see a woman in order to stop my bad habits of masturbating that papa gave me 10 francs to go to the brothel. But, 1st in my excitement, I broke the chamber pot, 3 francs, 2nd in this same excitement, I wasn’t able to have sex. So now I’m back to square one, constantly waiting for another 10 francs to empty myself and 3 francs more for that pot”.
Perhaps Marcel had a good reason why he was incapable of achieving détente. The character Albertine was thought to have been based on the relationship he had with his chauffer, Alfred Agostinelli whom he was said to have known well (yes, I do mean in the biblical sense). But perhaps too there is another reason:

“If prostitutes…attract us so little, it is not because they are less beautiful than other women, but because they are ready and waiting; because they already offer us precisely what we seek to attain.”

I hate to think that my selection of quotes will act to leave a bad impression of him and to be fair to him one must always remember to place him in his historical context and you must also place them within a literary context in that his characters are not necessarily deployed as a mouthpiece of his philosophical outlook.

Bearing all that in mind, I think for Marcel the essence of life, or at least one’s enjoyment thereof, lies in anticipation. A theme that is repeated throughout his novel is that the male characters (Swann, Saint-Loup, de Charlus and indeed the narrator himself) only begin to appreciate the charms of their women (and in some occasions men) once the threat of infidelity hangs over them. The worst thing that can befall a relationship is that it becomes a creature of habit and for Marcel’s characters it seems that only on anticipating some infidelity do they seem to reawaken an interest. Is Proust suggesting that the threat of infidelity is a necessity in a successful relationship – I don’t think so, but perhaps it takes outside influences to make you appreciate what you have:

“When you come to live with a woman, you will soon cease to see anything of what made you love her; though it is true that the two sundered elements can be reunited by jealousy.”

If you conduct a relationship along the lines of any that take place within ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ then I can assure you that you shall be miserable. However if you remember that one can keep a relationship fresh and exciting without the threat if infidelity inspiring panicked response to an upsurge of jealous rage, then there is hope for you yet.