Proust Zumba

The Albertine Workout

FA review tag

1. Anne Carson has written her new book, The Albertine Workout, in numbered sections with alphabetical subsections. This makes for

a) easy reading.

b) an easy review conceit.

2. The content of the book could be described as the terse fruits of Carson’s labor to catalog all discernable facts about Albertine Simonet, the most lasting and beguiling of the Narrator’s loves in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

3. The tone of the book is dry. You can hear this dryness in Carson’s reading and in this sample section: “3. Albertine herself is present or mentioned on 807 pages of Proust’s novel.”

4. The Albertine Workout is the latest from the New Directions Poetry Pamphlet series but don’t fret, it’s about prose and written in prose. Carson is not known for writing fiction but I would have to say she advocates for it, having produced a “novel in verse” and now a study of THE novel.

5. To talk Albertine is to talk The Captive, as she is the somnambulant star of the fifth volume of Proust’s opus. Carson quotes Roger Shattuck, who says that The Captive is the one book from the series that one can skip entirely. I’ve tried to read it and it is indeed boring.

6. Chantal Akerman riffed on the book in a movie she made called La captive. It is also boring (despite an alluring poster).

La Captive7. Carson also adds appendices for some of the numbered sections, sort of parentheticals to parentheticals. In one appendix—on adjectives—Carson lists all the ways the noun “air” is modified in the seven volumes and calls her research the kind of fun you try to have in the desert of “After Proust.” I find The Albertine Workout a most enjoyable distraction from reading Proust. You feel all the accomplishment of absorbing something intellectual but are finished in two hours.

8. I would argue that Carson has, as a World Cup commentator might say, gone off the boil in the last decade.  She launched her career in 1986 Eros the Bittersweet and then snapped off Glass, Irony and God, Plainwater, Autobiography of Red, Men in the Off Hours and The Beauty of the Husband in ten years. This is a brilliant, mazy run, reminiscent of Godard’s from 1959-68.

9. As always, I blame finding personal happiness for mediocre writing. Last year’s New York Times profile talks about Carson’s love affair with a person nicknamed “The Randomizer.” For her it’s an adorable love story, for us it’s the diminishing returns of Decreation, NOX and Red Doc> (a botched sequel to Autobiography of Red of Caddyshack II proportions) along with many works of Greek translation.

10. The hinge of Carson’s career is If Not, Winter, her 2002 book of fragments of Sappho. The Albertine Workout most reminds me of those slim revelations of an unknowable woman, full of gaps on the page.

11. Even if her latest effort is more like Proust Zumba than the supermarathon of In Search of Lost Time, it’s still a move back in the right direction.

12. At any rate, the predilections of The Albertine Workout center on

a) the transposition theory: that Albertine Simonet is an unbearded version of Proust’s chauffeur and lover Alfred Agostinelli (they share an early death and a fondness for the cygnine verses of Mallarmé).

b) the Ophelia-inspired hypothesis that, for the Narrator, Albertine most often resembles a sleeping plant.

13. I prefer to focus on the theory that Albertine is a plant because I am a passionate, if ignorant, botanist and an indifferent bystander to writers’ offbook peccadilloes.

14. I read every word Carson writes because she produces shocking insight in a voice that’s always the same: elegant, certain, carved in stone. Of the Narrator’s obsession with Albertine she writes: “The jealous lover cannot rest until he is able to touch all the points in space and time ever occupied by the beloved.”

15. I don’t know why other people are writing their novels but that is why I’m writing my novel.

16. I was in Brooklyn last month and went to find again some Albertine roses. I made my friend look for them up and down the Brooklyn Botanic Garden until his throat almost closed from allergies. We were guided by my photo print (meaning it’s at least seven or eight years old) of the roses against a fence. The sign says they are a climber.

Anne Carson
Anne Carson

17. Albertine roses were introduced in 1921, two years after In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower introduced the world to Albertine. The roses are a drowsy pink with coddled egg centers, which is hardly Albertine at all.

18. The roses ought to be like her eyes: “saucy blue,” or her hair: “crinkly black violet.”  Or maybe like her cheeks: “purplish-pink blush, creamy, like certain roses with a waxy sheen.” Or, as Proust less pithily put it in the Penguin Translation: “Mostly, however, she had more color, and was more animated; sometimes the single touch of pink, amid her whole white face, was the tip of her nose, as neat as the nose of a sly little kitten, made to be played with; sometimes the smoothness of her cheeks was so even that one’s eye slid over their pink enamel as though it were the pink of a miniature, a semblance given more delicacy and intimacy by the black hair set above it like a locket lid half lifted; on occasion the shade of her cheeks was as deep as the purplish pink of cyclamens; and there were moments too, if she was feverish or flushed with warmth, when the midnight shades of certain roses, whose red is so dark as to be almost black, gave her complexion an unhealthy appearance, debasing my desire for her to something more sensual, filling her eyes with a look that was more perverse and unwholesome; and each of these Albertines was unlike the others, as the colors, the shape, the character of a ballerina may be transmuted, each time she comes on, by the constantly changing effects from a spotlight.”

19. This multiplicity is what Carson means when she writes: “When Marcel brings his face close to hers to kiss, she is ten different Albertines in succession.”

20. Carson also says Proust says Albertine has a laugh the color and smell of a geranium, which is not a rose at all.

21. I could not find the Albertine roses in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

22. But that just means I get to go back again and find them and show them this little book about Albertine.

– Kirk Michael is the White Tank Top.

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