Jacqueline Rose: The woman in Marcel's mirror

Proust, as we know, can change your life. Jacqueline Rose has gone one better by changing his heroine's life, reclaiming her from the author's scorn. Richard Canning goes in search of a lost girl
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The past few years have been big for Marcel Proust. In English, there have been three biographies of the author of A la recherche du temps perdu, the novel sequence that millennial polls agreed to be among the most significant works of the last century. Malcolm Bowie's Proust among the Stars repeated the popular success of Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life. Two acclaimed cinema adaptations – Raoul Ruiz's Time Regained and Chantal Ackerman's The Captive – appeared, followed by the recent sell-out adaptation of Harold Pinter's screenplay distillation at the National Theatre.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Proust the novelist and his relationship to Marcel, the narrator of A la recherche, have grown somewhat over-familiar. Oddly, though, Albertine – the most vital figure within the fiction, and the woman to whom Marcel dedicates most time and feeling – has been rather obscured. That is probably because critics and readers alike have found it easy to account for Proust's singular characterisation of Albertine by viewing her in the light of her creator's repressed homosexuality. Crudely put, she is – or should be – a man.

Now, Jacqueline Rose's Albertine (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) aims to set the record – as it were – straight. It retells the story of this obsessive, unstable relationship from its heroine's point of view. Why did Rose, a leading academic best known until now for her study of Sylvia Plath, take on such a daunting project for a first novel?

She recalls that, during a period of leave three years ago, before the recent interest in Proust, "I finished what I was working on early. For the first time in my professional life I had two months clear. I knew I wanted to write differently. My sister Gillian [a philosopher, and author of Love's Work] had died two years previously, and I hadn't been able to write since then, except for the odd small piece.

"I opened a blank page on my computer and started two different things: Albertine and the story of the adoption of my daughter. I wrote a page of each and knew immediately which I wanted to continue. First, it felt like the adoption was my daughter's story. Second, I remembered that Albertine was also an orphan. By a strange, unconscious synchronicity, I'd managed to find both preoccupations in one idea."

Surely she was apprehensive at the prospect of taking on one of literature's most hallowed reputations. "I remember asking a friend if anyone had ever told Albertine's side of things. He said: 'No, thank God'... On one hand, this is my tribute to Proust. I'd always wondered just how he'd managed to make Albertine initially this figure of light and water, then have her shrink to a phantom of Marcel's obsession. Hers is one of the most terrifying vanishing acts in the history of literature. On the other hand, Albertine's vibrancy has always seemed so forceful to me. It's almost as if she comes alive in defiance of Marcel.

"The germ came when I was re-reading one of the most beautiful passages in Proust – the sleep sequence in The Captive. Marcel walks in and embarks, as he puts it, upon the tide of Albertine's sleep. As I was reading, I had a sort of feminist response which is untypical of me. It felt quite overwhelming. I thought: 'She's not asleep'. It's just not possible that he could sit and stare at her; that he could lie down beside her; that he could proceed to do what he does next to her. I thought: 'No way! This woman is not asleep!'"

Albertine uses this central encounter, and other key scenes in the original, cleverly to invert or subvert the relationship's original dynamics. Repeatedly, moments where Proust's Marcel insisted on the impotence, ignorance or passivity of his consort recur. In Rose's account, they show just how apt his more neurotic-sounding expressions of suspicion about her are.

Rose's Albertine is more knowing, manipulative and sexually experienced than Marcel would ever wish. Rose confirms her heroine's occasional lesbian dalliances – including with best friend Andrée, also brilliantly deployed as the novel's second voice. "I needed her to explain the terrible seductive enigma of Albertine," Rose says, "as well as to allow me to escape the secluded intensity of Albertine's life."

The epigraph to Albertine is Proust's own, high-handed comment on his fictional creation: "The pages I would write, Albertine, above all the Albertine of then, would certainly not have understood... Had she been capable of understanding them, she would, for that very reason, not have inspired them." "In a sense," Rose argues, "the whole of Albertine is a riposte to that comment. Never mind all the cultural objects she accumulates, and the expertise the understanding of painting; the refinement of her language... I thought of Proust: 'You have missed the point. This is a sentimental education. This woman is wiser to you and about you than you could ever imagine'. So Albertine involves a turning of the tables. If this woman has been sucked into this man's narrative in that way... I thought, she will know him better than he knows himself."

There's the occasional danger that this table-turning renders Rose's Albertine somewhat too heroic: too contemporary or reader-friendly. A case in point is a reference to her anti-Semitism. Rose has her slightingly refer to two "notorious" Jew girls. But Albertine's prejudice, so palpable in Proust, is then shuffled so as to reveal instead this orphan's underlying identification with the outsider figures: "I knew that, in this world, we were meant to look down on them. But from where I was standing to be so flagrant was luxury untold." Rose comments: "That was difficult. In the original, Albertine is an anti-Semite. As a Jewish woman, I wasn't having that. I was going to improve on Proust's Albertine in every way, you might say. But then Proust himself was completely torn on his own Jewishness. He referred in one letter to his mother and brother being Jewish. Quite extraordinary, because if they were, of course so was he."

If there's bravura play between the precocious girl and her would-be captor, Rose likewise teases the expectations of a Proust-literate readership. At the same time, she and her publishers are understandably quick to insist that Albertine works for those uninitiated in the longer work. They are right.

Albertine is an absorbing read, taut and lyrical. It's also very much complete in its own fictional world. The detail of this most claustrophobic of relationships, interspersed in the original with Proust's social comment and wide range of attendant characters, here builds and resonates all the more powerfully. Rose strips away Marcel's ruminations on his other worlds – the worlds from which he forcibly excludes Albertine. This brings us to one aspect of Proust which Rose couldn't change, and wouldn't want to: his class consciousness. She sees it, and Marcel's attendant snobbery, as vital to conveying the depth of Albertine's confinement and solitude.

"I think the class barrier is unsurpassable for Albertine. That's essential to what makes her vulnerable. For me it was central, too, that Albertine was an orphan... It's a bit like the case of Harriet Smith in Jane Austen's Emma. For all the heroine's struggle to get Harriet up the social ladder, she can forget it. Emma has to drop her at the end of the book." As this sounded like a plausible beginning for a future fictional project, I asked Rose whether she had another idea for a novel yet in mind. Smiling, she would only say: "All I know is, I want to write some more."

Richard Canning, the author of 'Gay Fiction Speaks', is currently writing a life of Ronald Firbank