After finishing Cities of the Plain, alternately titled Sodom and Gomorrah, and finding that Proust had yet to acknowledge his homosexuality, I expected that he would do so in The Fugitive. I imagined that this volume would describe his fleeing from the stifling, miserable life he shared with Albertine, running away to Venice with Robert Saint-Loup to at last indulge his true desires. Perhaps my expectations are too 20th century. Instead, the “fugitive” is Albertine, who in the middle of the night asks Francoise to pack her boxes, and is gone when Marcel wakes.
Ironically, Marcel had stayed up late that same night, deciding at last that their situation was untenable, and that he would ask Albertine to move out the next morning. Nevertheless, as always, he hates to be pre-empted. Cue despair. He wants to beg her to come back, but knows, or thinks he knows, that the way to get her back is to feign indifference. They exchange letters filled with falsehood. Proust discloses to us, “For a woman is of greater utility to our life if, instead of being an element of happiness in it, she is an instrument of suffering, and there is not a woman in the world the possession of whom is as precious as that of the truths which she reveals to us by causing us to suffer,” thus demonstrating that he is indeed either a masochist or a homosexual, for he derives no pleasure from a relationship with a woman, only pain. (Clearly he is both.)
The moment comes when he has despaired enough at being left that he becomes willing to take Albertine back, to speak the truth to her—that he wants her, whatever the circumstances; that he will give her the freedom she desires, if only she will come back to him. And in the author’s only moment of gross sentimentality, he receives two telegrams at once. One from Albertine, begging to return; the other from her guardian, bearing the news that she is dead, thrown from her horse while riding that morning. Now, despair intensifies, but only briefly. Never having loved Albertine—only the idea of Albertine—weeks pass and soften his sorrow.
He does go to Venice, traveling with his mother, and makes sketches in the cathedral. He watches the women with fascination. He has all but forgotten Albertine when he receives a startling telegram: you thought me dead but I'm quite alive. She wants to talk of marriage. Marcel despairs, not wanting to see her again (I told you; he never loved her.) When it is time to leave Venice, he refuses, sending his mother to the train station by herself with all of their luggage. But in the end, he does as he must, meeting his mother in time for the train, and planning to simply pretend that he never received Albertine's telegram.
Upon his return to Paris, Marcel is met with another surprise; that telegram was not from Albertine, but his childhood friend and first object of desire: Gilberte, in whose terrible handwriting, "Gi" looks like "A." Her news? She is engaged to marry Robert Saint-Loup.