*The following post contains spoilers for the 7-part novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.
Whether illustrating, composing music, or writing, I draw major inspiration from archetypes. I could go on and on about the archetypes that inspire me most but today I’d rather ruminate on a specific character from the pages of Proust’s 7-part masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. I turned to Proust a few years ago when I was sentenced to public transit for 3 hours daily and though I never miss those excruciating bus rides, I am grateful that it forced me to take the time to catch up on my reading. Though he’s not often associated directly with the Decadent Movement I so love, Proust’s flowery writing on the introductory novel of the series, Swann’s Way, displayed heavy influence from the Decadent Movement layered in its pining nostalgia. While I was immediately taken by the languid surface-deep romances and high society fantasy on display in Swann’s Way, only brief moments hinted at the perverse darkness that would make In Search of Lost Time oddly relatable and a reading experience I’d treasure. These elements appeared in fragments, but their grand realization was introduced innocuously with the character of Albertine Simonet in the second book of In Search of Lost Time, bearing the incredible title of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.
The Charm of Albertine
Albertine immediately reminded me of the allure of young love, introduced as the mysterious unofficial leader of a group of charming girls in the seaside resort town of Balbec. It’s hard to explain why she immediately commanded my attention; whether it was her station within the group, the fact that she wasn’t the most obviously pretty of the group yet somehow carried her own sense of charm, or simply Proust’s clever direction of her catching the narrator’s attention. Albertine is described as dark and her actions often resound with confidence. When Proust’s narrator develops an unhealthy fixation on Albertine, it almost seems justified. She’s alluring because she carries her own brand of unique charisma, in spite (or more likely due in part to) her uncertain social standing.
The Teenage Fantasy
Albertine is everything I wanted from a girl when I was a teenager: her ill reputation and disapproval from adults, the window she offers into an alien world of her own design, a darkness marking her beauty, a ray of confidence shining through the enigma, and a tendency to reject, as if the constructs of her world are too precarious to her fragile suiters. A narrator’s perspective can often be tenacious, so it’s not much of a surprise that when Albertine initially rejects the narrator’s advances, it feels as if we too are being rejected. Albertine’s true thoughts and feelings are always obscured from the narrator and reader, so her impulses take us by surprise. When she not only reciprocates but aggressively and amorously pursues the narrator, it’s a genuinely startling though welcome moment.
But the romance waxes and wanes on both sides with the narrator feeling stifled by Albertine’s seeming devotion at times while pining for her painfully when she pulls away. It can come off as a pathetic display but so many nuances of the relationship between Albertine and the narrator speak directly to me of my own adolescent romances; a pallid vulnerability trembling with anxiety over paranoiac fantasies. Proust takes it pretty far over the course of In Search of Lost Time so that the relatable points are soon obliterated by the narrator’s over-the-top obsessive need for control, desperately trying to tie Albertine to him by any means necessary, be it marriage or straightforward imprisonment. The narrator’s fixation on Albertine warps him into something sickly and horrid, hoarding her like a porcelain possession with the walls of her prison growing higher with each of the narrator’s delusions. Sympathy for the protagonist flies out the window rapidly.
It’s hard not to root for Albertine when she finally makes her break from the luxury apartment where the narrator has kept her confined. But we’re lowered back down into his paranoid perspective yet again as he searches obsessively for her and the shadows of his paranoia seem to gain substance. When we hear that Albertine is dead, it seems like another deception but we eventually accept the grotesque reality that she is permanently severed from this world. After her death, the hidden world of Albertine Simonet gradually comes to life and, though it never excuses the narrator’s base actions, we’re still left somewhat gutted when we realize that his suspicions were actually true.
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
It appears that Albertine was involved in passionate, sexual relationships with a large number of the women mentioned throughout the 7 volumes and even engaged in a game of sorts with the narrator’s rival in which she and he would seduce innocent girls and bring them to brothels for orgies. It’s over-the-top to the point of being almost unbelievable but Proust paints it with such detail and with so much insistence that we trust in the heartbreaking horror of her betrayal. Of course, when we step back into reality, the narrator deserved pretty much anything he got but we get the impression that this was simply Albertine’s life, even before she’d met the narrator and that she wasn’t driven to her infidelity and betrayal through any of his actions. This may not be the case with all of Proust’s readers, but I was charmed by the character of Albertine into a sense of trust, similar to feelings I felt with high school romances; a faith separated from any sense of reality. I didn’t see a human being as much as I saw my perfect paramour come to save me from the suburbs through a window into her fantasy world. And like the narrator of In Search of Lost Time eventually that fantasy world crashed into a sexualized reality with an addictive sense of jealousy and the passionate sting of betrayal that not only haunts but possesses.
Albertine Simonet reinforces an archetype prevalent in my own work and one that I’ve alluded to in my illustration of Dorian Gray, my admiration for Franz von Bayros, and, though I didn’t mention it before, resounds somewhat in my idea of the lunar witch that rules over my illustration of the Moon tarot card. She’s a perfect crushing romance for Decadent Movement protagonists that pine and long only to be unceremoniously destroyed through sexual desire and the elitism of betrayal. There’s a particular sting that resounds when the gates of Heaven seem to close to you forever and that sting sticks to the smiling lips of characters like Albertine Simonet.