Howard Moss, in his The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust, provides these vignettes of Marcel’s three lovers.
These three loves, though they are all failures, differ from each other in important ways. Marcel gives Gilberte up as if the suffering his love for her entails is too much to bear. He protects that love by refusing to allow it to be nurtured toward a conclusion; he draws back to avoid further pain. Haunted by doubt, doubt becomes obsessive. It is only late in life that he realizes that Gilberte was attainable. She confesses she was attracted to him, at the very end of the novel. At the time their relationship takes place, he withdraws in order to sanctify the image of his love rather than risk its failure. In this retreat, we have a narcissistic, almost masturbatory version of love. The picture, or image of the beloved, is more precious than its actual presence–just as the lantern slides of Geneviève de Brabant are always to be the ideal against which the Duchesse de Guermantes is to be measured. So the idealization of women–like places–is always fatally inconsistent with knowing them. Like the two ways, where geography becomes mental, so, here, physicality and personality become internalized. The true Gilberte exists inside Marcel, not outside him. Marcel destroys and preserves his relationship to her at the same time. Oblivion accompanies separation. But by not coming to any issue, the relationship forms an unconscious pattern for those of the future, as it reinforces the emotional patterns of his behaviour toward women that began with his mother. If love can be deliberately demanded, it also can be deliberately killed.
Mme. de Guermantes inspires love by awe; her name is evocative, magical. She is not a person who turns into an illusion like Gilberte, or an illusion that turns into a person like Albertine. She is inhuman to begin with. Proust says that the love for a person is always the love of something else as well, and, in the Duchesse, Marcel becomes obsessed with the power of the feudal overlord who is still a member of the contemporary world–a world so select, so special, that, to Marcelo, it might as well be the Middle Ages. If, with Gilberte, he falls in love with the legend of Swann, with the Duchesse, he falls in love with the history of France. It is not her wit, her style, her position, or her beauty that ultimately matter; it is that in her name she embodies a history; in her face and person a race; in her speech a landscape and an epoch; and in her manners a civilization. Though her intelligence, her modishness, her ton impress everyone as they do herself, to Marcel, after he has sifted the real jewels from the fake, it is another quality that counts: her conservativeness, in the real sense, for here, in person, is the prototype of something worthy of conservation. The Duchesse, the greatest lady of her day, and Françoise, the servant, share qualities in common. Their speech and their manners are feudal; the serf and the lord possess virtues enhanced by the existence of each other. The farmer and the landowner, still bearing the fragrance of the soil, enrich each other’s powers. In Remembrance of Things Past, Françoise and the Duchesse have no reason to meet. Yet they have more in common than either could possibly imagine. They are two terms that have become separated in one of Proust’s metaphors. (34-36)
Who is Albertine? She is the unknowable animal who calls forth the finest resources of Marcel’s intellect. The greatest analytical mind in the world is helpless confronted with a dog. It is Marcel’s fate to want to see what cannot be seen: the sex life of a plant, the emotional histories of the deep-sea creatures, the motivations of the dark. Marcel and Albertine are two liars hopelessly tangled together. She charms him by being out of the range of what analysis can reach. To keep her in focus for a further try, lured by what he cannot know, he falls in love with her.
Albertine is Marcel’s sensibility turned inside out and objectified. The greater pretense in their relationship comes from Marcel. Her reserve in the face of his jealousy, her lies, her restlessness, all prod him on to another attack. If he knows, he keeps saying, he would be happy. But it is precisely because he doesn’t know that he loves her. A scientist in a dressing gown, he watches over a laboratory of falsehoods, the greatest one being that he is objective in regard to the truth. Marcel uses Albertine to keep from himself a truth about himself: he is not in love with Albertine, he is in love with what Albertine loves.
As such, he credits her with a power and a reality she doesn’t have. Albertine is addicted to games–particularly “diabolo”–clothes, cars, ice cream, planes. She is far simpler than he and far more deceptive. His lies are lies of the mind, hers of being. In Albertine, Marcel is matched against himself in a battle that cannot be finished. She holds within herself the two sexes in one and is, therefore, a constant reenactment in her very existence of the ideal torture of the voyeur. Albertine is the window scene of Montjouvain, the courtyard scene of Charlus and Jupien played over for ever and ever.
It is no wonder that her commonest attributes, her polo cap, her macintosh, the way she plays the pianola, her stride along the front–every physical manifestion of herself–takes on an Olympian sheen. Marcel grasps at every vestige of her reality because he has made her up the way the Greeks made up their gods: he needs constantly to be reassured that she is there. Albertine is both a deity in Proust’s “Garden of Woman” and the demon at the center of his vision, for he describes her as “a mighty Goddess of Time” under whose pressure he is compelled to discover the past. Starting out with the mystery of the animal, she ends up with the mysteries of eternity. (39-41)