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The Albertine Workout
New Directions, $10.95 (paper)
Leave it to Anne Carson to test the boundaries of the printed form yet again. Would we expect anything less from this poet-essayist-classicist-volcano painter? With the assistance of an obliging publisher, she has given us an accordion-folded holographic curio in a box (Nox), a text with rhapsodic illustrations on vellum overlay (Antigonick), and now, a rendition of the unassuming collegiate technology of yesteryear. The Albertine Workout, a recent installment in the New Directions Poetry Pamphlet Series, closely resembles a traditional, staple-bound exam blue book, and the content—a series of 59 short notes in prose poem format, followed by an improvised appendix corresponding to none of the notes in particular (the first appendix, “appendix 4 on Samuel Beckett,” is followed immediately by “appendix 8 on capture myopathy,” etc.)—has the loose feel of an undergraduate exercise. It could well be an imitation of a response to a 200-level literature course assignment: Chart the development of a secondary character in a volume of your choosing of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Why Albertine? She is neither Proust’s narrator’s first—nor even perhaps his most important—infatuation. She has a tendency to speak only when spoken to, and then, often only to recite the sorts of explanations that the narrator most desires to hear, truthful or no. Albertine’s inscrutability presents a challenge both to Marcel’s attempts to know and possess her, and to the reader’s prerogative of establishing empathy; yet a brief look at Carson’s astonishing scholarly/creative output attests that she is always hungry for such a challenge. And, too, there is this provocation, the seventh step of the Workout: “Volume 5 is called La Prisonnière in French and The Captive in English. It was declared by Roger Shattuck, a world expert on Proust, in his award-winning 1974 study, to be the one volume of the novel that a time-pressed reader may safely and entirely skip.”
Carson is the sort of rigorous intellectual to take seriously what others are determined to dismiss. The captive of the volume title is, in the conventional sense, Albertine, whom the narrator sequesters in his Paris apartment as his lover. Eventually—spoiler alert—Albertine flees her prison. Early in the second part of Volume 5, The Fugitive, Albertine is reported to have died in a horseback riding accident. The Captive, then, is concerned with Albertine in her most vital and closely observed state, but the narrator is at a complete loss in understanding his prisoner, as Carson makes clear:
The problems of Albertine are (from the narrator’s point of view)
and (from Albertine’s point of view)
a) being imprisoned in the narrator’s house.
. . .
Albertine denies she is a lesbian when Marcel questions her.
Her friends are all lesbians.
Her denials fascinate him.
. . .
His fascination continues.
. . .
By falling asleep she becomes a plant, he says.
The unassuming diction, the deadpan delivery of these incremental revelations, ape Marcel’s jealous confusion with respect to his captive. Indeed, Carson seems torn between proceeding in mockery of the narrator—a beguiling raconteur but also a profound emotional sadist and misogynist, who certainly invites such treatment—and revealing Albertine’s character in the more objective, and necessarily sympathetic, light she would seem to deserve:
appendix 8 on capture myopathy
Capture and restraining of an animal are extremely stressful. An immediate reaction to stress is the “flight or fight” syndrome, to which the body responds by producing adrenaline. Persistent overproduction of adrenaline leads to a buildup of lactic acid in the bloodstream, which affects the heart’s ability to pump correct oxygen to the muscles, which may cause muscles to start to die. . .
Viewing the captured Albertine as a frightened animal is an affecting reading of the situation, and it is one that also crosses Marcel’s mind (5:230) but is sufficiently suppressed before the weight of his own moral culpability is allowed to sink in. Carson’s desire to subvert Proust’s bald objectification of his female characters strikes the contemporary reader as an admirable ethical pursuit, but one that also carries the unfortunate, hollow connotation of wish-fulfillment. Crucially, we might wonder whether or not Carson’s reading necessarily furthers our understanding of Albertine, rather than creates a character that is more Carson’s invention than Proust’s. Carson seems desperately to want to invent the persona of Albertine, but these efforts are stymied by the necessary fact that without the relatively clean projection surface of Albertine—an ugly insistence of Proust’s text to be sure—there is no Marcel, and no story.
Would we expect anything less from this poet-essayist-classicist-volcano painter?
One reason Carson may have set her sights on Albertine is that this character illustrates a principle of erotic resistance outlined in Carson’s early and seminal text, Eros the Bittersweet: “Sappho perceives desire by identifying it as a three-part structure . . . lover, beloved and that which comes between them.” The vital component to the current of desire, “that which comes between” Marcel and Albertine, might find its expression in any number of their obvious incongruities: his sickliness in contrast to her athleticism; the great gulf of class difference; the unknowable nature of Albertine’s free time, characterized by suspected lesbian affairs. According to the narrator’s musings, it is this “unknown element” (5:580) that propagates love, and “we love only what we do not wholly possess." But I would argue that the most compelling source of this tension—especially since the eros, here, is only intermittently reciprocal—resides in the psychological and philosophical mechanism of the narrator. To fully appreciate Albertine as a sort of unknowable and governing construct of the narrator, it is necessary to look beyond the confines of Volume 5.
Carson knows this, as well, and she hints at the larger implications of Albertine-as-phenomenon in her notes and appendices.
At first Albertine has no individuality, indeed Marcel cannot distinguish her from her girlfriends or remember their names or decide which to pursue. They form a frieze in his mind, pushing their bicycles across the beach with the blue waves breaking behind them.
The scene indicated by Carson occurs in Volume 2, and it depicts a “little band” of girls—an image returned to again and again in subsequent volumes—moving raucously over the beach of Balbec like a small flock of shore birds; Marcel perceives them as “a pallid oval, black eyes, green eyes . . . a sort of shimmering harmony, the continuous transmutation of a fluid, collective and mobile beauty." The reader might take this amorphous anonymity of the girls, this interchangeability, as the resting state, the necessary precursor to singling out an object of desire. While not strictly a monogamist, Marcel indeed espouses this traditional conception of a continuum of deepening acquaintance with an individual that moves toward exclusive possession. But as Marcel’s retrospective narration makes obvious, the continuum is a sham; it is the idea of knowing, of possession, that is illusory, while the interchangeability—made manifest by romantic “types”—endures.
In order to privilege this psychological reading, one must consider the clues beyond Volume 5—for instance, the bulk of Volume I: Swann’s Way, which details Swann’s failed possession of Odette, or even Marcel’s aborted early pursuit of Gilberte in Volume 2, of which he concludes, “It is true that Gilberte was an only child, but there were, at the least, two Gilbertes.” As Carson properly notes in step 38 of her Workout, “Albertine is not a solid object . . . she is ten different Albertines in succession.” If the succession of failed infatuations (Swann-Odette, Marcel-Gilberte, Marcel-Oriane, Marcel-Albertine, Palmède-Charlie, Robert-Rachel, etc.) is not enough to convince us of the primacy of interchangeability, the internal, hydra-like proliferations of identity of the beloved signal to us the presence of the distancing third element in Carson’s earlier schema, “that which comes between” the lovers.
The distance is a manifestation of perception, and here it is necessary to extrapolate beyond Carson’s reading. In Proust, the beloved is “fabricated”—fashioned into an instrument of self love, “a smiling mirror”—for and by the (self-) adoring lover. If it is true that there are at least two Gilbertes, as many as ten Albertines, this is because there are also at most only one, a singular mode of eros sleeping in the lover that in its work obliterates the specific individuality of the beloved:
[The beloved] is legion. And yet she is compact and indestructible in our loving eyes, irreplaceable for a long time to come by any other. The truth is that this one has only raised to life by a sort of magic countless elements of tenderness existing in us already in a fragmentary state, which she has assembled, joined together, effacing every gap between them, and it is we ourselves who by giving her her features have supplied all the solid matter of the beloved object.
In light of the egotistical nature of the narrator’s conception of love, it accords that he also refers to himself as a “captive” to his jealousy, even while serving as Albertine’s jailer. In appendix 32, Carson takes the narrator to task for referring to Albertine as a “heavy slave.” When we consider that Albertine is weighted down with the patina of Marcel’s projections, her heaviness indeed makes sense, and usefully complicates the simplistic notion that slavery is a disease whose effects are shared—somehow in equal measure—between slave and master.
All this is to say that The Albertine Workout feels more like a warm-up. It begs the question whether it is possible or even desirable to bite off a little bit of Proust. The conceit of the ‘workout’ allows Carson to paraphrase Proust at will, leaving the credit for the aesthetic highlights—such as step 32: “Albertine’s eyes are blue and saucy. Her hair is like crinkly black violets”—in question. On the other hand, Carson’s traditional strengths are also on display: a dispassionate, penetrating intellect and an enthusiasm for pursuing a mystery on its home turf. The Workout, with its proof-like sequencing and predilection for distilled moments may be just what is needed to induce a new reader to wade into Proust’s exhaustive masterpiece.
Benjamin Landry is a 2014–2015 Research Associate in Creative Writing at Oberlin College and the author of Particle and Wave (University of Chicago, 2014), as well as poems in Kenyon Review Online and Guernica.
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