In the last week of his life Marcel Proust did something which baffles critics to this day. Only a decade ago, it was discovered that he deleted two-thirds of the typescript of Albertine Disparue. Although his intention remains unclear, there is one clue that suggests death interrupted him in the midst of a major revision. At the climax of this section of his work Proust lets the conclusion of a plot stand whose beginning is missing and had to be restored posthumously by his brother from the manuscript. The denouement is incomprehensible without the twists in the narrative that precede it; so Proust would have had either to reintegrate the twists or to cut the denouement. If we imagine that he had lived a little longer, and further assume that he would have taken the second course and suppressed both twists and resolution, there would have been a bang somewhere in the universe. For A la Recherche would have then lost what might be reckoned its last concession to human frailty: its only patent artistic flaw.
We are in the penultimate volume of the cycle. The narrator Marcel has received a telegram announcing that Albertine—lover, captive, fugitive—has been killed in a riding accident. After a period of mourning in which for an entire gloomy volume Marcel shuts himself up with the reader, he ventures forth into the world again, travelling to Venice in the company of his mother. There he receives another telegram, that reads: ‘Dear friend, she whom you thought dead—forgive me—is still very much alive and wishes to see you again to discuss marriage, on your return. All my love Albertine.’ How can this be—Albertine alive? Marcel does not doubt the news, but strangely, nor does her resurrection bring him the joy he might have expected. He examines his feelings and realizes that he is no more capable of reawakening the Albertine of old than his earlier self; that he had been right to fear the monster of amnesia would devour his love; that his love for young girls was in truth only for the dawn whose light for a moment brushed their faces; finally that even our love of life itself is like a past affair from which we cannot free ourselves; but that the idea of death which destroys it can also cure us of the need for immortality.
Wonderful, if also sad. And now comes the one major lapse of Proust’s art. The reader is flabbergasted by the possibility that Albertine, from whom he has not been able to detach himself as quickly as the narrator, may still be alive. There is the hint that her accident might have been staged as a ruse, to escape the harassments of Marcel’s jealousy, whose long grief therefore was quite misplaced, since he might now be reunited with her. What a prospect! Yet how does the narrator react? He changes the subject and starts to describe the treasures of Venetian art.
No reader in the world, no sentient person, can pay the least attention at this point. However finely depicted, marble mosaics and Carpaccios . . . To hell with them: what about Albertine? Fifteen dazzling, woefully perverse pages later, we find out. She is dead, the telegram was wrongly read, the clerk in the telegraph office had mistaken Gilberte’s baroque signature for Albertine’s, the offer of marriage was not to Marcel but to Saint-Loup. Not this forced denouement is an affront to the reader, but the virtuoso promenade that precedes it.
Proust’s error lies so deep in the craft of writing a novel that even the greatest practitioner cannot always avoid it. He has forgotten that as the author he knows the plan of the novel, but the reader does not. He underestimates the quasi-thriller suspense he has created. Above all, he underestimates how painfully well he has worked, how dear his characters have become to the reader, with how heavy a heart we have taken our leave of Albertine, and so how repugnant the mere idea of her sliding back to life like Lazarus must be. If we already knew that Albertine was not going to be resurrected, we might appreciate Proust’s digression as a last cruel demonstration of the laws of the heart, as he intended it. But we don’t know. On first reading the novel, we are in a state of innocence into which the author—whose plan has become a second skin whose every tiny vein he knows—can no longer put himself, even as an experiment.