The 14-Minute Marcel Proust

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A Scott Moncrieff for the 21st century?

When I finished the "Penguin Proust" (it took most of 2005, with the major biographies and commentaries thrown in), I felt suddenly bereft, as on the day when I got my pilot's certificate. (What do I do now?) So I ordered up the the C.K. Scott Moncrieff versions: D.J. Enright's revision of Terence Kilmartin's revision of the fusty old masterpiece. Also retitled In Search of Lost Time, it's available in a six-volume boxed set from Modern Library for little more than $60, postpaid. Now that I've finished it, I have to say: not bad!.

The Enright version (as I will call it in the interest of brevity) still lacks the excitement of much of the Penguin Proust. But it does have a magisterial flavor, a bit reminiscent of the King James Version of the Bible, that's lacking in the newer translations.

One of my favorite lines in the novel comes toward the end of the second book, to which Scott Moncrieff gave the rather arch title, Within a Budding Grove: "It is one of the systems of hygiene among which we are at liberty to choose our own, a system which is perhaps not to be recommended too strongly, but it gives us a certain tranquillity with which to spend what remains of life, and also--since it enables us to regret nothing, by assuring us that we have attained to the best, and that the best was nothing out of the common--with which to resign ourselves to death." I underlined it, and from time to time I had occasion to read it aloud, once to a young man who'd managed to get into Harvard and was chagrined to find it full of bright young outcasts rather like himself.

The Enright version retains this sentence almost unchanged, except to make it mental hygiene and also--a good stroke!--to substitute ordinary for common. Compare it with what James Grieve wrote in the Penguin translation, titled In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. He makes that sentence part of the preceding one, and renders it thus: "therein lies one of the modes of mental hygiene available to us, which, though it may not be the most recommendable, can certainly afford us a measure of equanimity for getting through life and--since it enables us to have no regrets, by assuring us that we have had the best of things, and that the best of things was not up to much--in resigning ourselves to death."

I don't presume to say which is truer to Proust, but I doubt that I would have underlined or remembered the Grieve translation, except perhaps to puzzle over the validity of "recommendable."

Mr Carter weighs in

In the new Yale University Press edition of this second volume, William C. Carter nicely splits the difference. He changes the English "which" to the American "that," takes out the superfluous "to," and nicely replaces "was nothing out of the common" with the more colloquial "did not amount to much":

"It is one of the systems of hygiene among which we are at liberty to choose our own, a system that is perhaps not to be recommended too strongly, but it gives us a certain tranquillity with which to spend what remains of life, and also — since it enables us to regret nothing, by assuring us that we have attained the best, and that the best did not amount to much — with which to resign ourselves to death."

I can imagine reading that aloud to a disappointed Harvard undergraduate!

For those who'd like to compare this to the original, here is what Proust actually wrote in those last few lines: "... comme elle permet de ne rien regretter, en nous persuadant que nous avons atteint le meilleur, et que le meilleur n'était pas grand'chose — pour nous résigner à la mort."

Go tell the Spartans

On a personal level, there's another line in this book that I prefer in Enright's version. Speaking of Madame Swann's at-homes, Marcel notes that there's a type of guest who's invited mostly because she is sure to tell others what a great success it was. Proust wrote: ' appelait des: «Etranger, va dire á Sparte!» '.... "Stranger, go tell the Spartans [that we lie here in obedience to their laws]."

Scott Moncrieff translated this notion as 'the "Tell Sparta" people', while Grieve oddly writes '"Strangers to Speak in Sparta"' (with a footnote to explain the allusion). But Enright does it best: the gossips are the "Go Tell the Spartans" people. I don't know if that's any more comprehensible to the average reader, but I enjoyed the heck out of it, since I like to think that Enright wrote it after seeing the Burt Lancaster movie of the same name, which happened to be based on Incident at Muc Wa, written by my alter ego.

In his 2015 edition, William Carter follows the Enright rendition, though he puts a comma after "Go." Really, the Yale University Press In Search of Lost Time may yet become my favorite.

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Posted September 2015. ©2006-2015 Fallbook Press; all rights reserved.