The 14-Minute Marcel Proust
Available at most Amazon stores in paperback and Kindle editions

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


(In Search of Lost Time, with special attention to the translations from Penguin/Viking)

Chasing Lost Time

What a year for Proustiana! C.K. Scott Moncrieff's great-grandniece Jean Findlay has written an engaging biography of the translator to whom Joseph Conrad wrote: "I was much more impressed and fascinated by your rendering than by Proust's creation." That's a bit overheated, but there's no question that Scott Moncrieff created a masterpiece of his own, and one that still dominates most English-language versions of À la recherche du temps perdu. (Nor did he stop at Proust: when I pulled down my old Signet Classic edition of The Charterhouse of Parma, I found that, yes, it was the CKSM translation.) He was a Scot, a great wit, a poet, a homosexual, a lieutenant in the King's Own Scottish Borderers, a lame vetern of the Western Front, and a British spy in Fascist Italy. Altogether, this is a wonderful biography. It's for sale at Amazon's store in Britain. There are used and new "marketplace" copies available at in the U.S., but an American edition won't be available until February; it's available now for pre-order.

Everything old shall be new again

Du côté de chez Swann was published in 1913, so Yale University Press published a centenary volume, the first in yet another English-language version of À la recherche du temps perdu. You can get it from Amazon in a quality paperback for under twenty dollars. (There's no hardcover, and no e-book either.) The editor is William Carter, author of two fine studies of Proust. Yale plans to release a volume a year, with Young Girls in Flower due next spring. These aren't new translations but an update of the public domain editions of C. K. Scott Moncrieff's work from the 1920s. Their strong point is Professor Carter's notes, which appear close at hand in the margins, which explains the book's generous dimensions (9.3 by 7.4 inches). In addition, some errors have been corrected, some of Mr. Scott Moncrieff's mustier phrases have been modified, and American spelling and usage appears throughout. I have read Swann's Way and can testify that the project is eminently worthwhile, especially for the American reader with no great grounding in French language and literature (which describes me exactly).

How this project began

Marcel Proust I started and abandoned 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 room (it had a kitchen 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.

The novel according to Penguin

And for extra credit :)

But why bother?

The French sometimes boast that they have a Shakespeare for every generation, or at least for every century, while we Anglophones are stuck with Will's originals. Well, now we can say the same about Proust!

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.)