A fugitive precisely because a queen
Propped up by pillows in his cork-lined bedroom in the Boulevard Haussmann,
he stares into the folds of the drawn curtains. His asthma is bad. Very bad.
The smoke of fumigatory powders thickens the air; caffeine wars against Verona!.
For the writer, an adjustment of Aunt Leonie’s life as professional invalid has
its advantages—life through an inner window. (Bergotte, having poured all his
selves into his books, shrank into the life of a convalescent.) Remember the room
at Balbec: Francoise’s pins and extra mummy wrappings over the window-frame
could never entirely exclude the corrosive intrusion of that slab of gold.
His hooded eyes sweep over this room in which he has been trying to write:
boxes of pills; that day’s Figaro; invitations; neckties; prescriptions; pyramids
of books; several hat-pins; a Chinese casket stuffed with fifty-franc notes; leaves
of paper overflown from bed to floor; wooden pen-holders; coils of cotton wool.
A watercolour of trees at Senlis hangs by the bedside. Most of the furniture
was his parents’. He wraps his muffling of pullovers more closely around him;
though were any visitor allowed, he would open the door to front a furnace-heat.
‘C’est notre attention qui met des objets clans une chambre, et l’habitude qui
les en retire et nous y fait de la place.’ Sometimes the idea of this book has to be
endured like a form of illness. But he tells himself that he fears death only insofar
as it threatens to shatter the thin glass of the retort in which the past re-forms and
actualises itself—the stroke of a death that might occur before these pasted, tom
pages have been hugged into the safety of print. He insists he has rejected friendship
and all social ambition; what he most values (and urgently needs) is a state of calm.
The flesh must be made over into the word before it can be palpated, but words
like Coleridge’s flock of starlings now whirl into protean shapes—a globe, a gyre,
a half-moon—blackening the sky one moment, then thinning out, glimmering;
with no apparent volition some birds begin to flutter away in only-connect dots.
Time is like a stain spreading out as a pen-nib digs into blotting paper. Sometimes
there is the wish to work on six parts of his manuscript simultaneously. Better
trust the novel to its grubby incubator. For the present he will write only letters.
Maybe later when he makes it evening…he retains the possibility of dining out,
knowing all the time he will stay where experience accretes most profitably. Again
his mind takes wings to Alfred Agostinelli, his chauffeur, who had once driven him
shooting like a cannonball through Normandy, lighting up the facades of churches
with the car’s headlamps; Alfred, his secretary—the most formidable intellect he
has encountered and from whom he has received letters which are those of a great
writer—Alfred is now in Monaco; he had fled the domain to pursue Perseus’ high
ambitions: he wants to qualify as an air pilot. His former icon, a steering wheel, now
looks too circumscribed, almost bygone; there are fortunes to be made in the air.
(It will be learnt later that Alfred enrolled at his flying school as Marcel Swann.)
We fall in love with a projection of ourselves; then wish to possess this object’s
extensions (even if he flies a Mystere) to all points of time and space, and hold
captive one whose eyes are always measuring the distance to take flight. Pain
is predestinate! This quintessence of betrayal for which all previous ones have
been but a preparation—it leaves him desolate; yet he wonders in certain moods
whether the fugitive might not simply be trying for better terms. His tactical
romantic sense instructs that he must not be seen to be seeking Alfred, so he has
dispatched a friend—and considers hiring a private detective. Already the Master
has been brooding on ways of bleeding some of his distress into Albertine disparue.
(Commentators in some future will squabble over the provenance of the girl’s
several models: what part potted Agostinelli? what part Marie Nordlinger,
that cultivated creature he knew, fresh from her Jewish family in Rusholme?)
Only by speaking through the impersonations of art is it possible to bear
oneself—to say certain things. He wonders now to what extent is he ‘himself’
in his letters—all those steep thermals of flattery to most of his circle. Yet
so often that ground conceit intrudes: ‘It is my fate to be incapable of deriving
profit from anyone but myself.’ All his letters are ostentatiously undated.
Even that final one he has been putting off in which he promises that if Alfred
will only come back, he will buy him an aeroplane—all of his very own.
(Did he think to fly on Alfred’s Pegasus? Or was there already some inkling
that a life which appeared to be as contained within itself as a monologue
might suddenly collide with the plot of a realistic novel it has unwittingly
entered?) A quick-fingered denouement certainly prescribed the parabola
on which Alfred was launched—its aim as inexorable as an author’s guilt
at profaning a mother’s love ( which had already fixed the fates of Albertine
and Saint-Loup in sexual defilement and an early death). The same day
the letter was written, when Alfred came to grief on his second solo flight
and crashed his monoplane into the sea, was not real time, turned kelpie,
insisting tumultuously that it points all its stops crisply? It was just after five
o’clock on the 30th May, 1914, a clear-skied Saturday, that Alfred—he could
not swim-went down within eyeshot of those who might have rescued him.
Yet, miles away, observe how soon the Master will place grief on his easel;
through many sittings-he continues to rise at sunset; see his supreme disinterest
re-touching ever more profoundly, layer after layer, the material of which
he was made.