“Leave the pretty women to men without imagination”. In this sentence at the beginning of Albertine Disparue, Marcel Proust gives a key to understanding his book. Indeed this sixth and penultimate title of In Search of Lost Time is obviously not a “pretty” book but a dark and tough one. It is a strange patchwork of memories which handles themes as profound as oblivion, homosexuality and love. Imagination and involvement are absolutely necessary to understand it.
However, to read this book you don’t need only imagination but also luck. Even in France where In Search of Lost Time is considered a masterpiece, this volume is quite difficult to find, rarely taught at school and often forgotten in the research on Proust’s work.
Albertine Disparue, like the whole cycle of In Search of Lost Time, is all about recollection. On the first page the narrator discovers that Albertine, his lover, has gone. He consequently tries to find her and carry out an investigation on her past life. He finds out that although he thought he knew her intimately, she had a completely hidden life. He starts being haunted by his own imagination and develops many hypothetical theories between reality and fantasy: he pictures Albertine as a lesbian, a potential wife and even a mythological goddess. After a period of madness, the narrator experiments with all the steps of dying love from obsession to increasing indifference and finally succeeds in forgetting her.
However, Albertine has changed the narrator’s life because she has revealed to him the dark side of Guermantes, a place he has always admired and tried to reach. He finally becomes aware of what is really taking place there: hypocrisy, anti-Semitism, the decay of the aristocracy, ruthless ambition… The whole world of the narrator is called into question and ambivalence, deceit and vicissitudes creep into the novel.
All these revelations jeopardize the reassuring end of Finding Time Again. How can the narrator still find in writing a way to give sense to his life and to overcome his fear of the passing of time after this turnaround? Besides, we may have to reconsider this last title completely. Indeed death stopped Proust in his correction of Albertine Disparue. He consequently did not have the time to correct Finding Time Again and might have changed it completely in keeping with the new tone of Albertine Disparue. What would have been the end of the most famous cycle of all time if the author had lived longer?... Let’s just be men and women with imagination.