The Albertine Workout
by Anne Carson

Reviewed by Ayten Tartici


Published by New Directions, 2014   |   38 pages

“One only loves what one does not entirely possess,” writes Marcel Proust in La prisonnière, the neglected fifth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. La prisonnière, known as The Captive in English, chronicles the obsessive jealousy of its narrator Marcel toward his love interest, Albertine. Marcel is convinced that Albertine is secretly a lesbian and intent on humiliating him. Over the course of the novel, this anxiety develops into an all-consuming desire to possess Albertine’s body and soul, an effort Marcel describes as a “thirst for knowledge.” In The Albertine Workout, a collection of witty and lyrical reflections on La prisonnière, Anne Carson also questions the connection between desire and control: Why do we love that which eludes us? Why do we gravitate toward that which we cannot fully comprehend? 

The Albertine Workout exemplifies Carson’s distinctive style. The text is comprised of fifty-nine numbered sections (or “paragraphs” as Carson calls them) as well as seventeen appendices. Lyrical passages are interspersed with facts and data from Proust biographies and literary histories. As Carson recently explained before a reading, she began writing the book after finishing reading all of La recherche, a task that took her seven years. An intense feeling of loss followed, which Carson sardonically calls the “Desert of After Proust.” To prolong the pleasure of reading Proust, Carson plunged herself into an intellectual excavation of his life and work. The Albertine Workout is the culmination of that project, a poetic “working out” not simply of the mysterious character of Albertine but of her authorial creator as well.

Carson’s poetry has long been distinguished by its use of the language of scholarship and criticism. Her work exhibits a variety of indexical, lexicographical, and encyclopedic tendencies. Not only is The Albertine Workout obsessively ordered, with numbered sections linking to corresponding appendices—Carson has compared her process here to that of Wittgenstein—but Carson also relays to the reader many seemingly esoteric, numerical facts about La prisonnière and its author. These include the number of pages Albertine appears on, an enumeration of all the adjectives used to modify the word “air” in La recherche, and even a note about the speed limit in France when Proust was writing.

Carson’s habitual use of citation and intertextual allusion reinforce this academic aesthetic. In paragraph 22, for example, she writes: “He [the narrator] emphasizes that she [Albertine] is nonetheless an ‘obedient’ person. (See above on Albertine as a ‘heavy slave.’)” Phrases such as “see above” occur throughout The Albertine Workout and serve to augment the self-referentiality of Carson’s text. The device is simultaneously functional and tongue-in-cheek. Carson also weaves in allusions to other texts to amplify her reading of Albertine—from snippets of Barthes, to excurses on boredom in Beckett, to ruminations on Zeno’s second paradox. Carson dwells on the famous “transposition theory” of Albertine’s identity. This theory, championed by André Gide among others, argued that Albertine was really a female proxy of Alfred Agostinelli, Proust’s chauffeur and unrequited love object. It is an explicitly biographical reading of Albertine, a critical move with which Carson displays ample self-awareness. As she remarks in paragraph 56, “It is always tricky, the question whether to read an author’s work in light of his life or not.” In the end, what Carson achieves is a creative lectura. There is a Proust-like obsessiveness to it all that gives The Albertine Workout the flavor of an eccentric love letter to its subject, a piece of criticism born out of the desire to prolong and possess Proust’s literary creations.

The desire for possession runs through almost every page of The Albertine Workout, as it does throughout La prisonnière. In La prisonnière, Marcel asks Albertine to move in with him and immediately begins to monitor her movements. With time, his surveillance drives him to paranoia and doubt. One night, as Marcel watches Albertine sleep, he questions whether she is really asleep or is just pretending to sleep in order to escape his possessive gaze. Ironically, Marcel feels most fully in possession of Albertine precisely when she is sleeping, since one who is unconscious cannot deceive you: “By shutting her eyes, by losing consciousness, Albertine had stripped off, one after the another, the different human personalities with which she had deceived me ever since the day when I had first made her acquaintance. She was animated now only by the unconscious life of plants, of trees, a life more different from my own, more alien, and yet one that belonged more to me.” To Marcel, Albertine asleep is like a plant: alive, yet incapable of movement and consciousness, and therefore, of deception.

Carson pinpoints the irony and falsehood of Marcel’s analogy: “Plants do not actually sleep. Nor do they lie or even bluff. They do, however, expose their genitalia.” And yet Carson’s desire to possess Proust directly parallels Marcel’s own self-destructive obsession. She frantically attempts to possess La prisonnière, and especially Albertine within it, by quantifying it, by philologizing it. Just as Marcel besieges Albertine so as to possess her, so too does Carson besiege La prisonnière. This raises the most interesting and fundamental issue of The Albertine Workout: the question of our relationship to the texts we love. Like a sleeping plant, a great piece of literature is an unspeaking consciousness. Insecure as to whether the text is truly ours, we find ourselves obsessively interpreting and diagnosing the texts we love, desperate to work out the knots and wrinkles of meaning. Carson’s text is a paean to that origin story of scholarship, of our powerful urge to worship a beloved that is perpetually asleep.


Ayten Tartici is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale University.


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