The Sweet Cheat Gone

by Belle Waring on April 12, 2004

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to realize my bed-rest destiny: re-reading Proust. Yes, it’s the perfect project, though I’m hoping baby will be born before I’m too far along the Guermantes way. When I read it the first time (which I did, rather disreputably, under the table in a series of boring seminars), I was also taking a very interesting seminar on the Greek novel with Froma Zeitlin, and I noticed a certain parallel to Achilles Tatius.

Warning: Contains Remembrance of Things Past plot spoilers! And Leucippe and Kleitophon plot spoilers, I guess!

M. Vinteuil is not just a provincial piano teacher, but a great composer! No, wait, that’s not it. The spoiler is that Albertine dies. (You might have guessed something of the sort just from the volume’s title “Albertine Disparue”, though surely not from Moncrieff’s rather fanciful “The Sweet Cheat Gone.”) Now, many believe that Albertine is modelled, at least in part, on Proust’s lover Alfredo Agostinelli, originally a chauffeur (I guess Proust thought “Alfreda” was too awful a girl’s name, though “Albertine” is not the greatest). Here is a very nice page about him, with photos, but it is in Italian. From it, we learn that Proust paid for Agostinelli to enroll in flight school (under the name Marcel Swann!), and even gave him a plane with a verse from Mallarmé’s “The Swan” painted on it (the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past proposes to give Albertine a yacht, similarly emblazoned.) Performing some risky manouver in this plane, Agostinelli plunged into the sea and died in 1914. Now, given this, it is easy to see how Albertine’s death on a horse which the narrator gave her may be just a transposition of this real-life tragedy.

[Faithful family retainer Francoise brings him a telegram.] Alas! it was not a suppression of suffering that the first two lines of the telegraph produced in me: “My poor friend, our little Albertine is no more. Forgive me for breaking this terrible news to you who were so fond of her. She was thrown by her horse against a tree while she was out riding. All our efforts to restore her to life were unavailing. If only I had died in her stead.”

Nonetheless, reading them at the same time, I was struck by the parallel to this scene from Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Kleitophon (written in the second century A.D.). The narrator, Kleitophon, has a cousin and sidekick named Kleinias. Kleinias’ young (male) lover Charikles is being forced to marry by his father, much to Kleinias’ dismay and disgust — he offers a furiously misogynist rant when he learns of the impending tragedy. (So, too, Agostinelli apparently had liasons with women which drove the jealous Proust to distraction, and as for Albertine and Mlle. Vinteuil’s girlfriend, well…) Young Charikles goes off for a ride on the new horse which Kleinias has given him, but disaster ensues:

When Kleinias saw [his slave] he exclaimed, “Something has happened to Charikles!” Simultaneously the slave exclaimed, “Charikles is dead.”
Kleinias froze, stunned and speechless at the news, like a man caught in the eye of a tornado. The slave told the story: “He mounted on your horse, Kleinias, and rode for a while at a gentle pace. After two or three laps he reined to a halt and began wipiing the sweat from the horse, still seated on it and dropping the reins without a thought. While he was wiping its back, there was a noise from behind and the horse gave a startled leap straight up into the air and began to run crazily…[bucking bronco action elided]…The horse in headlong flight galloped away from the road towards the woods and suddenly knocked poor Charikles against a tree.”

Interesting, no? I grant that having the character Albertine die in a plane crash would be improbable, but she could certainly have been in a car crash, especially given all the romantic drives they have been on. There is a feature of Achilles Tatius which I imagine would particularly appeal to Proust, as well. At certain points, all the action of the novel grinds to a halt for an ekphrasis or detailed description of some static scene, perhaps a painting, or a striking tableau (one of Leucippe’s multiple apparent executions, perhaps…), or, as here, a garden:

As soon as the funeral was over, I hurried back to the girl. She was in a formal garden adjoining the house. It was in fact a grove of very pleasant aspect, encloistered by a sufficiently high wall and a line of columns that together formed a covered portico on all four sides of the garden. Protected within the columns stood a populous assembly of trees. A network of sturdy branches interlaced to form an intricate pattern wherein petals gently emraced their neighbors, leaves wound round other leaves, and fruits rubbed softly on fruits, Thus far the world of plants knows intercourse….

Grapes grew on trellises on either side of the tree, thick-leaved, ripe with fruit whose clusters tumbled through the trellisworks like locks of curly hair. When the highest, sunlit leaves fluttered in the wind, the earth took on a dappled look, with yellow patches in the shade.

The flowers of various colors displayed their beauty in turn — violet, narcissus, rose — the earth’s dyed stuffs. The calyx of the rose has the same contour as that of the narcissus — a natural drinking cup. The petals opening about the rose’s calyx have two colors — of blood at the edge, of cream at the base — but the narcissus’ calyx has throughout the same cream color as the heart of the rose. The violet’s calyx is nowhere to be seen; its color is like that of sunlight flashing on a dark sea.

Among the flowers, a spring bubbled up within a rectangular pool constructed to contain the flow. The flowers were reflected in the water as in a mirror, so that the entire grove was doubled — the realm of truth confronting its shadowy other.

Isn’t that just the thing for a man who could go into four pages of raptures over a pink hawthorn bush?

And it was indeed a hawthorn, but one whose flowers were pink, and lovelier even than the white. It, too, was in holiday attire, for on of those days which are true holidays…but it was attired even more richly than the rest, so that the flowers which clung to its branches, one above the other, so thickly as to leave no part of the tree undecorated, like the tassels wreathed around the crook of a rococo shepheard, were every one of them ‘in colour’ and consequently of a superior quality, by the aesthetic standards of Combray, to the ‘plain’, if one was to judge by the scale of prices at those ‘stores’ in the square, or at Camus’, where the most expensive biscuits were those whose sugar was pink….High up on the branches, like so many of those tiny rose-trees, their pots concealed in jackets of paper lace, whose slender stems rise in a forest from at altar on the greater festivals, a thousand buds were swelling and opening, paler in colour, but each disclosing as it burst, as at the bottom of a cup of pink marble, its blood-red stain, and suggesting even more strongly than the full-blown flowers the special, irresistable quality of the hawthorn tree, which, wherever it was about to blossom, could bud and blossom in pink flowers alone.

This is just before he sees Gilberte for the first time in Swann’s garden. Anyway, I hoped to use this searchable archive of Proust correspondance to find out if he ever talked about Leucippe and Kleitophon, but it’s not working. There certainly were French translations then, and it has always been the most popular of the Greek novels, I think. Any actual Proust scholars want to clear me up?

[Updated to correct typos]



Matt 04.12.04 at 1:50 pm

“Warning: Contains Remembrance of Things Past plot spoilers!”

Wait a minute- you mean there’s a plot in the book? I mean, I only read the _Swann’s Way_ part, but, while I enjoyed it very much, I could not detect anything looking like a plot. I guess I’ll have to read the rest.


John Isbell 04.12.04 at 2:35 pm

You wonder what would have happened if he’d had that second madeleine.
BTW there are still typos, mainly in the Proust.


bob mcmanus 04.12.04 at 5:15 pm

Can’t help you with your question, but as I read your material on Proust’s romantic history and his lover’s death, an image came to mind:

Wasn’t there a scene, I think in the last book, involving an airplane and a ruined Gothic chapel? Perhaps even on a promontory of a coast?


Abiola Lapite 04.12.04 at 8:07 pm

“I mean, I only read the Swann’s Way part”

“And to think that I wanted to die for a woman who wasn’t even my type!” …

Seriously, though, you’re missing the best parts if you stopped at Swann’s Way. Within a Budding Grove and the Guermantes Way are excellent reads in their own right, arguably even better than the first volume. Just wait till you encounter the Marquis de Norpois and Professor Cottard! If these two don’t have you reeling with laughter, nothing will.


Andy Lowry 04.13.04 at 12:48 am

I’m unclear whether Belle is reading the original French, an old Scott Moncrieff translation, or none of the above, but I’d be curious to find out—I’m reading Proust for the 2d time, in the new Penguin translations.

Btw, it seems a little odd to read the first 1/7 of a work and then say there’s no discernible plot. Well, not yet there ain’t. Not that it ever gets very much of one.

(Imagine one of those choose-your-adventure books, the ultimate in plot-driven “writing,” that’s based on Proust. “If you decide to contemplate the hawthorns further, turn to page 1,688. If you go with Bloch to hear La Berma, turn to page 2,321.”)


Belle Waring 04.13.04 at 6:15 am

Andy — I like the choose your own adventure idea. (If you decide to become part of the Verdurins’ clique, turn to page 1,270.) And thanks for commenting on my post, you guys; I was worried it might die commentless. But what do you think, is it plausibly an allusion that signals Proust’s homosexuality to the knowing, or just a big coincidence?


bob mcmanus 04.13.04 at 7:19 am

I enjoyed Proust long ago when I read it, especially the Albertine book, believe it or not.

But one of the problems I had, besides a lack of structure, was an obvious coyness and confusion about gender and homosexuality. It was like he was trying to disguise his lovers as women, but couldn’t quite manage it. Not that I really understand gays or women, but it never felt like I was looking at either one in his characters.

I do not have this problem with Tennesse Williams or Truman Capote.

I also felt much of the humor was cruel or sad.


Andy 04.13.04 at 6:19 pm

Oh, yes—the original point of your post. Ahem.

I think you’re probably right, for the reasons that you state (why not a car wreck, etc.). It’s hard to think that something that central to the plot was accidental on Proust’s part.

Someone with access to a serious academic library (not me, alas) should look in a Proust commentary to see whether this has been picked up on. Even without any French, “Achilles Tatius” should be easy enough to find.

Any notion, btw, whether A.T. has been available since the Renaissance or is a more recently discovered text?


Belle Waring 04.14.04 at 3:56 am

Achilles Tatius’ book has been consistently in circulation in some form and was always quite popular. First printed edition was 1601. It’s a pretty good read, actually.

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