Chapter I: Grieving and Forgetting, from "Time passes, and gradually all the things which we have falsely alleged..." to "...the same monotonous existence where we knew none of all this."
_____The narrator learns that in the course of forgetting, the first things one forgets are the bad parts: "the unpleasant sides to Albertine's character and the hours of boredom that I had endured at her side." Consequently, "forgetting, although still working within me to accustom me to our separation, only made me see Albertine as sweeter and more beautiful than ever, and made me desire her return all the more."
Françoise seems to the narrator to take an "odious relish" in being rid of Albertine, and when, in the course of cleaning up her room, Françoise discovers some rings she had left behind in a drawer, an argument develops between her and the narrator. The narrator denies having given them to Albertine, and Françoise says it must have been "somebody rich who has good taste." He counters that the rings "did not come from the same person, one was given her by her aunt and she bought the other herself" -- though he fears that they were given her by a secret lover. Françoise persists in arguing that the rings are identical, and shows him that they both bear the same image of an eagle and Albertine's initials. She even produces a magnifying glass to prove her case. Finally, the narrator orders Françoise out of the room and broods on yet another discovery about Albertine: "My revulsion at her falsehood and my jealousy of someone unknown were augmented by my pain at learning that she had accepted presents in this way."
He is also nettled by Françoise's hope that Albertine won't return, and takes pleasure when a letter from her arrives in "momentarily studying Françoise's eyes, drained of all hope as they read in this augury the imminent return of Albertine." But the letter simply says she will cancel the order for the Rolls-Royce and asks for the name of the agent, and concludes with a reference to their last outing together, which, she says "will never be erased from my mind until blackest night finally invades it." The narrator takes this last sentence (a rather heavy-handed bit of ironic foreshadowing) as "purely rhetorical" because "Albertine could not have kept until her dying day such a sweet memory of an outing which had certainly given her no pleasure, since he had been impatient to leave me."
In his reply, the narrator tells Albertine that he has asked Andrée to come live with him in her place and to marry him, that Andrée is "less charming, but one whose greater compatibility of character ought perhaps to allow her to be happier with me." He means the letter to provoke Albertine's jealousy, but once he sends it he's afraid it will have the opposite effect of making her "pleased to know that Andrée was living with me and was to become my wife, provided that she, Albertine, remained free."
He waits on the staircase for Saint-Loup's arrival, and accidentally hears something that he thinks uncharacteristic of his friend: Saint-Loup advising one of the Duchesse de Guermantes' footmen on how to get rid of a fellow servant the footman dislikes. The narrator is "struck dumb with stupefaction" at the "cruel, Machiavellian" advice from someone whom "until then I had always considered ... fundamentally kind, so sympathetic to those who suffer." He wonders if Saint-Loup "might not have acted treacherously towards me in his mission to Mme Bontemps." He dispels the thought when Saint-Loup enters to talk to him, but is struck with another pang when Saint-Loup mentions that on arriving at the Bontemps, he "went through a kind of outhouse which led into the house, and they took me down a long corridor into the lounge." It's the specificity of the details that bother the narrator so much: Until then he has not been able to visualize the place Albertine has escaped to. "In an outhouse, you can hide with a girlfriend." (The word "outhouse" has an unfortunate connotation for American readers, but here it just means something like an annex.) "And in that lounge, who knows what Albertine did when her aunt was not there?"
I still had not seen the house; never could I have conceived the frightful idea of a lounge, an outhouse and a corridor, which I now saw staring out at me from Saint-Loup's retina, which had seen them, and appearing in the guise of the rooms which Albertine walked into, passed through and lived in; these specific rooms and not an infinity of other possible rooms which had neutralized one another.... Alas! when Saint-Loup told me in addition that while in this lounge he had heard someone singing at the top of her voice in the next room, and that it was Albertine who was singing, I realized with despair that, once rid of me, she was happy!Saint-Loup goes on to mention that when he was leaving, he met some other young women entering the house, and that while in the area he had met a friend of Rachel's. The idea that there are other young women in the vicinity of Albertine is "enough to make me see Albertine flushed and smiling with pleasure, held in the arms of a woman whom I did not know."
And so he's tormented by jealousy of an imaginary woman, with the additional touch of paranoia from the revelation that Saint-Loup is not quite the paragon he believed him to be. He even suspects that Saint-Loup might have "devised a whole conspiracy to keep me away from Albertine!" He recalls what he knows of Swann's state of mind during his infatuation with Odette:
If Albertine could have fallen victim to an accident and had lived, I would have had an excuse to rush to her bedside; if she had died, I would have recovered what Swann called the freedom to live. Did I believe this? Swann, who was so refined and thought he knew himself so well, had believed it.But he is about to learn that Swann was wrong, "that the death of the woman he loved would have liberated him from nothing!" For just as he sends a telegram to Albertine begging her to return, he receives a telegram from Mme. Bontemps informing him that Albertine has been killed in a riding accident.
Proust piles irony on irony here, as Françoise, ignorant of what has happened, enters with two letters from Albertine, one praising Andrée and offering to intercede if she should be reluctant to marry him, the other expressing a second thought and asking "Would it be too late for me to return to you? ... If it were favourable, I would take the next train."
For Albertine's death to have suppressed my suffering, the mortal blow would have had to kill her not only in Touraine, but within me. There, she had never been more alive.He learns from her death the dark side of involuntary memory, "the perpetual rebirth of moments from the past called forth by identical moments." Everything -- the rain, the sun's rays, the morning sounds -- serves to evoke a memory of their time together.
"Françoise must have been pleased that Albertine was dead, and to be fair I must acknowledge that from a kind of decorum and tact she did not pretend to be sad." She tries to stop the narrator from crying himself sick. "And she added: 'It was bound to happen, she was too happy, poor thing, she didn't know how happy she was." But there's no stopping the narrator's descent into depression.
If an illness, a duel or a runaway horse bring us face to face with death, we realize how richly we would have enjoyed the life, the sexual pleasure and the unknown lands that we are about to be deprived of. And once the danger is past, what we fall back on is the same monotonous existence where we knew none of all this.