The Albertine Workout
(New Directions, 2014)
On page 19 of the 38-page-long The Albertine Workout (that is, the dead center), Carson declares, “It is always tricky, the question whether to read an author's work in light of his life or not.” And really, isn’t it, though?
Some personal back story then. This past spring, the guy I share a bed with (we’ll call him Allen here) went to a small European city to live with his ex-girlfriend for a few months, reconnecting quasi-romantically. He is gay, and a tension eventually surfaced, as she thought they might be together in a more sincerely romantic way, and he returned to the fact that he is gay, although not strictly so. While there, he worked his way through La Prisonnière, the fifth volume of Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.
The Albertine Workout, the latest from poet and essayist Anne Carson, consists of 59 pithy entries on La Prisonnière and the character of Albertine. The entries range in length from one sentence to one paragraph. They’re followed by a number of appendices that, in Carson style, match imprecisely with the preceding text (Appendix 29, for instance, discusses kimonos as a trend in Parisian culture in the 1920s, yet it is section 27 of the main text that actually references Albertine wearing a kimono). The essay largely concerns itself with documenting the relationship between Albertine and the narrator, listing details from Proust’s text and putting some pressure on the transposition theory—that is, that the probably-lesbian Albertine is a reworking and disguising of Proust’s chauffeur and beloved, Alfred Agostinelli. Carson also documents some similarities between Proust’s life and Proust’s novels to explore this theory.
The pre-appendix section of The Albertine Workout concludes with a quote from La Prisonnière, “Everything, indeed, is at least double.” As I read Carson’s text again and again, I am inclined to put more weight on that phrase, “at least.” At least two people. At least two texts. At least two versions of ourselves.
In Carson’s reading, Albertine’s lesbianism is a strategy that allows her to avoid possession by the narrator, who is and is not Proust, and who is not quite in love with her (he finds her boring and unattractive). Carson connects this avoidance to “Marcel’s theory of desire, which equates possession of another person with erasure of the otherness of her mind, while at the same time positing otherness as what makes another person desirable.” So lesbianism, then, allows this paradox to stand, as does the constant lying between Marcel and Albertine, and the constant lying down of the beloved. Carson is not interested in a beloved or lover as singular things, things that stay still, but rather in the doubling (“at least”) as action. It’s head-spinning to logic out the new ways we find to construct distance and otherness even as someone sleeps in our bed.
If this all seems a bit too academic or dry, Carson forms it into something much more affective. Everyone I know loves her work (Allen’s favorite is red doc>), and almost without exception their love is rooted in her ability to string humor and lyric beauty through her texts, qualities that resonate all the more in her plainspoken style. Of the ways for Albertine to escape Marcel, “by sleeping, by lying, by being a lesbian and by being dead,” Carson dryly notes, “Only the first three of these can she bluff.” (She also calls Roland Barthes “a late-born pre-Socratic philosopher.”) And speaking of the lies of the novel, she reaches the stunning lyric sentence, “But love reaches into past and future and fantasy; its suffering consists in positing to those realms all that the bluff conceals.”
Which is one of many keys to Carson’s essay, that quote. In this particular workout, gazing at a person sleeping in a bed, a beloved, is less about whether she can be understood and explained in that moment, but instead about the ways our imagination suffers “into past and future and fantasy” through that gaze. An appendix pointing toward a text cannot match the text precisely, but can think around it, imprecisely. The lies Albertine and Marcel tell one another are ways to resist possession, which means they are ways to prolong the otherness of Albertine, which means they are ways to prolong the fantasy, the culmination of which (Marcel taking Albertine as a straight lover) must then be resisted again. This makes the sleeping more interesting—a tenuous stasis within a relationship neither Albertine nor Marcel necessarily desires, a way to actively do nothing. Regarding the 807 pages that feature Albertine in the novel, Carson says “On a good 19% of these pages she is asleep.” When Albertine at last runs away, eventually to be thrown from a horse and die, she completes both a magnificent closure (precluding possession by Marcel) and opening (the otherness now eternal, unable to be breached).
And if transposition is a method of doubling, than this: In an interview with the Paris Review, discussing her failed life as a gay man, Carson says, “That’s the other thing about being a gay man. Model yourself on Oscar Wilde and you just lie all the time.” Further, “I wouldn’t say I exactly felt like a man, but when you’re talking about yourself you only have these two options. There’s no word for the ‘floating’ gender in which we would all like to rest. The neuter comes up in the unbearable poem, the neuter gender, but that doesn’t really capture it because you don’t feel neuter, you feel just wrong. Wrong vis-à-vis the gender you’re supposed to be in, wrong vis-à-vis the other one, and so what are you?” When I read this I do not respond with frustration, being myself a trans person in that “‘floating’ gender” she knows as wordless. Instead, I get a thrill, an excuse to see Anne Carson as a particular person she might not be (who knows?). “You just lie all the time,” and so my adoring suffering can go into those places that “the bluff conceals.”
Now back in the United States, Allen and I resume sleeping with our arms around one another, he progressing further through the remaining Proust volumes nightly, much as he did in Europe. I give him The Albertine Workout and he prefers the pre-appendix section, the thing commenting on the thing rather than the thing commenting on the thing commenting on the thing. I prefer the appendix. But then, I have never slept in someone’s bed under a different name. I have only been in love and preferred it when Anne Carson lied to me. Having only read the first volume of Proust, the Lydia Davis translation, I feel obliged to pick up La Prisonnière and trudge my way through it before finishing this review. I get a couple hundred pages in, encounter Marcel fretting endlessly over Albertine’s likely attraction to a woman and his declaration, “If therefore one can judge one’s true feelings by the action one takes rather than the idea one forms of them, I must have loved Albertine.” I then stop, compelled to pick The Albertine Workout up off the bedside shelf and read it yet again.