The 14-Minute Marcel Proust

All about the English-language editions of Marcel Proust's great novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, once known as Remembrance of Things Past but now more accurately titled In Search of Lost Time

READING MARCEL PROUST

(In Search of Lost Time, with special attention to the translations from Penguin/Viking and the new edition from Yale University Press)

Proust through a glass-bottomed boat

There's a wonderful yarn in the June issue of The Atlantic, " Reading Proust on My Cellphone," by Sarah Boxer. I've always been skeptical of a digital In Search of Lost Time, especially if it's the Gutenberg Project version, but Ms Boxer not only got through them but got a whole lot out of them. She hangs the story on a 958-word sentence in volume four, which C.K. Scott Moncrieff called Cities of the Plain, where, fifteen years earlier, she got stuck and could go no further. In 2011 she set out to finish the book on the two-by-three-inch screen of her smartphone, to the horror of most everyone she knew. ("When I tell people this, they look at me like I have drowned a kitten.") But it worked! "Your cellphone screen," she explains, "is like a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night. There is no shore. There is nothing beyond the words in front of you. It's a voyage for one in the nighttime. Pure romance."

Read her essay, and you may decide to give it a try. I would, however, recommend that download the Kindle app and inves $1.99 in the Centaur Classics edition. I have it on my Fire tablet, and it's nicely done. (A tip of the virtual hat to Tony King.)

The word from Marseilles

Marcel Swann Fascinating! It appears that Jean Adloff has spun a novel out of the mythical Lettres de Marcel Swann à Marcel Proust. The eponymous letter writer, as you may recall, was in real life Proust's chauffeur, companion, and love interest. He went off to Marseilles in hopes of becoming an aviator, under the alias of Marcel Swann, only to drown when his aircraft crashed into the sea.) The book was published in December, costs 19 euro, and at present is available only on Amazon's French and British stores. M. Adloff is the author of such impressive but unremarked books as Le Cogito cartésien revisité, not to mention the five-volume series, Proust demythifie ("Proust Demystified"). Several of his books are listed on Amazon.com, so perhaps this one will soon be there.

How this project began

Marcel Proust I ventured onto Swann's Way two or three times before a pal challenged me to read the whole of the novel with him. Every Wednesday on his way to the law office where he was a low-level attorney, he would stop by my rented room (it had a kitchen and bath but wasn't really an apartment). We would drink coffee, smoke(!), and talk about Proust. Egging each other on in this fashion, we both finished the novel before the year was out.

Ten years later, I read the novel again—and aloud—to my wife over the course of two winters. (One of the French deconstructionists, arguing that one can't just study a novel by itself, because it's a collaborative venture between the author and the reader, cinched his case by pointing out: "After all, who has read every word of À la recherche du temps perdu?" It pleased me hugely to be able to say, if only silently, "I did!")

That was the handsome, two-volume Random House edition of the novel, entitled Remembrance of Things Past, the first six books rendered into English by Charles Scott Moncrieff and the seventh by Frederick Blossom. (Scott Moncrieff died before finishing his task, which is probably the reason Penguin decided to employ seven different translators for its 21st century Proust.) When Kilmartin's reworking came out in the 1990s, I acquired that, too, but only read pieces of it—notably book seven, The Past Recaptured, greatly improved over the rather lame Blossom translation. Otherwise, however, Remembrance of Things Past was still hobbled by the post-Victorian prose of Scott Moncrieff.

Then came the new Penguin editions, the first four volumes of which have now been published in the U.S. by Viking. After reading a rave review of vol. 2—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower—I realized that I would have to read it. On second thought, I decided to start from the beginning with the new Swann's Way. It was a good decision. Lydia Davis did a wonderful job with the first volume, and by the time I'd lulled Little Marcel to sleep (on page 43 in this edition), I knew that I was once again in for the long haul. So I set out to acquire a complete set of hardcover books—not so easy, as matters turned out! I read them in sequence, and I have reported on them here.

(And now of course it begins again, as Yale University Press begins to issue the Scott Moncrieff translations as modernized and Americanized by William Carter, author of two fine studies of Proust. Swann's Way was published in 2013, its centenary year, with In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower promised for this October. I've read the first and can't wait for the second....)

The novel according to Penguin

Swann's Way (In Britain: The Way by Swann's) (tr. Lydia Davis)
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (tr. James Grieve)
The Guermantes Way (tr. Mark Treharne)
Sodom and Gomorrah (tr. John Sturrock)
The Prisoner (tr. Carol Clark)
The Fugitive (tr. Peter Collier)
Finding Time Again (tr. Ian Patterson)

And for extra credit :)

Mr. Joyce, may I introduce M. Proust?
On translating Proust (Lydia Davis)
A first cut at comparing the two "Lost Times"
Dueling madeleines (C.K. Scott Moncrieff vs. the others))
Why doesn't Viking publish the rest of them?
"A Short View of Proust" (Edmund Wilson, 1928)
Marcel goes to the movies
In search of Proust: biographies and commentary
In search of Proust: the comix!
In search of Proust: one man's collection
Private Proust at Coligny Caserne
The love of his life: all about Albertine
What would Marcel make of the Kindle? (digital editions)
A la recherche du temps perdu in French

But why bother?

The French sometimes boast that they have a Shakespeare for every generation, or at least for every century, while we Anglophones must stick with Will’s originals. Well, now we can say the same about Proust! (And indeed it may not long be true about the Bard, for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned the translation into of his thirty-nine plays into modern English.)

Beyond that, I've seen it argued that literary French has changed little over the past hundred years, while English most certainly has, under the battering of such writers as James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. (Whatever you say about Charles Scott Moncrieff, he probably never read Ulysses and he certainly was unfamiliar with the noisy young journalist who stormed into Paris in 1921.) However that may be, it's nice to have a freshened version of Proust's prose, and one that arguably is closer to the original than the one rendered by Scott Moncrieff in the 1920s.

(Proust, Joyce, and Hemingway! It's pleasant to think that my three favorite writers once breathed the same air in Paris. Indeed, Joyce and Proust once met at a party ... and had little or nothing to say to one another.)

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1. Swann's Way | 2. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower | 3. The Guermantes Way | 4. Sodom and Gomorrah | 5. The Prisoner | 6. The Fugitive | 7. Finding Time Again

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Posted June 2016. © 2006-2016 Fallbook Press; all rights reserved.