The 14-Minute Marcel Proust
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Swann’s Way

Du côté de chez Swann (also translated as The Way by Swann’s)

The two-minute “Swann”

First we lull Little Marcel to sleep, in a long and discursive section that has convinced many readers to quit the book, to their great loss. As it turns out, Proust does a remarkable job of forecasting the turns his story will take over the next ten years of his life: what seems pointless in the beginning will be revealed as significant by the time when we reach the end of our journey. (To be sure, he did revise the book after the Great War ended, the better to incorporate that catastrophe into his novel. Among other things, he actually moved the narrator’s home town, so it would fall into the path of the German advance.)

Next we join Marcel and his family on long walks out from Combray. One direction takes them “the Guermantes way,” prefiguring the rich, beautiful, addled, and perverted clan that will people the novel to come. The other direction is “Swann’s way.” For those who seek symbols in literature, Swann’s way is also the life of the mind, as opposed to the high society of the Guermantes. Or more precisely, as one biographer points out, Swann’s way is a squandering of the intellect, an error that the mature Marcel will repeat but eventually correct.

(I should note that Proust might have protested this interpretation. After all, he chided his translator for the ambiguity of the English title: better, he said, to have called it “The Way to Swann’s.” It is perhaps for this reason that one new translation, in Britain, is called The Way by Swann’s.)

On one of those walks, the boy spies a girl with red hair and promptly falls in love with her, as he is prone to do. Like Charlie Brown, he is struck dumb by the vision. Gilberte responds with a gesture that he assumes is an insult but that, as we will learn toward the end of the novel, is actually intended to seduce. She is of course Swann’s daughter.

But the big news of this first volume is the love of Charles Swann for the courtesan Odette de Crécy, a story that takes place before Marcel’s birth. This section — a novel in itself, which indeed has been filmed as Swann in Love — is best summarized in Swann’s closing words: “To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!” Again, this error of Swann’s will be repeated by both Marcels, the actual Proust and his fictional protagonist. But note that Swann’s renunciation doesn’t stop him from marrying Odette! This he evidently does in order that their daughter may be introduced to the Duchesse de Guermantes, a sweet but rather loopy motive.

Flash forward to Paris, where Young Marcel (my guess is that he is now 14) meets the redhaired Gilberte Swann in the Jardin des Champs Élysées and realizes his love, after a fashion, scuffling with her over possession of a letter. When I read the book long ago in tandem with my friend the lawyer, his jaw dropped when he got to this passage. “That happened to me!” he confided. (Not in the Jardin, one presumes.) Behold the genius of Proust: long before this American’s birth, he wrote about an experience that Carleton had thought unique to himself, wrestling with a friend to the point of orgasm.

Enter Captain Scott Moncrieff, MC

Charles Scott Moncrieff was born 1889 and educated at Winchester and Edinburgh, when he graduated in 1914 with first class honors in English and a commission in the Royal Scots Regiment — just in time to be blooded (and bloodied!) in the Great War. He was also a poet, literary critic, and budding translator of French classics.

Like so many British youngsters of his era and class, Scott Moncrieff’s sexual experience had been limited to other boys, and he was by now confirmed in his preference for men. Convalescing from war wounds, he met and fell in love with another poet and wounded warrior, Wilfred Owen. This was a double tragedy for the Scotsman, because Owen didn’t return his love and, worse, was killed in France soon after. It was the perfect, though perfectly awful, experience for the man who would become the English-language translator of À la recherche du temps perdu.

In 1919, demobilized and working at the The Times of London, Scott Moncrieff discovered, read, and began to translate the revised edition of Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of Proust’s masterpiece. The revision (which served the double purpose of re-introducing the public to Swann and of allowing Proust to weave the war into his larger story) was published that June, along with the following volume, À l'ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs. Presumably Scott Moncrieff read both books, but he still could have had no idea of what a great sprawl the novel would become, nor the many directions it would take.

This limitation was obvious in the translated book. Scott Moncrieff chose to call it Swann’s Way, which irritated Proust when he learned it in September 1922. Not only did it refer (as he had intended) to the path leading past Swann’s home near Combray, but it also suggested that the novel might be about Swann’s way of life, or his personal manner. (As it happens, I like that ambiguity, and so do many students of the book.) A happier idea, Proust thought, would have been to call the book “The Way to Swann’s.” But that disappointment was a minor one, compared to his upset at the overall title. His novel had become the Shakespearian Remembrance of Things Past, from Sonnet 30. “Cela détruit le titre!” Proust supposedly cried. (“That destroys the title!”) His story was not about remembering the past, but about returning to it — recapturing it — finding it again. Indeed, that was the whole point of writing it!

Not at all chastened by Proust’s rather mild rebuke, Scott Moncrieff would continue to bowdlerize his titles: À l'ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs became Within a Budding Grove, and Sodome et Gomorrhe became The Cities of the Plain. Proust, who died in November 1922, did not live to see these later travesties.

Proust was famously prone to revision, virtually rewriting the galley proofs as he received them, penning his corrections in the margins and on pasted-on bits of paper. Inevitably he made mistakes; the typesetters made other mistakes; and then he died before completing work on the last three volumes, which were edited under the supervision of his brother Robert Proust. In the 1950s, therefore, after another and even Greater War, two French scholars created a corrected text, called the 1954 Pléiade edition. In 1981 this version was rendered into English by the Irish-born translator and editor Terence Kilmartin, who also ventured to tone down some of Scott Moncrieff’s prose where it “tend[ed] to the purple and the precious.” Kilmartin did not, however, tamper with the titles.

An updated “Pléiade” edition was published in the 1980s, rendered into English by Dennis Joseph Enright, a poet, itinerant professor, and prolific writer of books. D.J. Enright’s version was based on Kilmartin’s — a revision of a revision! — but he did take the courageous step of changing the overall title to In Search of Lost Time. Proust would have been pleased, though the English fails to capture the secondary meaning of temps perdu as time wasted. It was published in 1992 and remains in print from Modern Library.

The Penguin Proust

Swann's Way

Then, in the new century, came the Penguin Proust, the work of seven translators in three countries, published in 2002 under the now-accepted general title. In Britain, Lydia Davis went a bit further with volume one, calling it The Way by Swann’s. This too would have pleased Proust but it evidentally seemed too radical for the American publisher, who reverted to the easier Swann’s Way. The American translator and short story writer Lydia Davis did a masterful job at brushing up Scott Moncrieff’s somewhat musty, post-Victorian prose. (As might be expected: she received a MacArthur “genius” award for her fiction and was appointed a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters for her translations.) The text isn’t radically different from the Modern Library edition: I’ve compared sentences here and there, and generally only a single word has been changed.

But that word is often important. Scott Moncrieff (and Messrs Kilmartin and Enright) will have Swann exclaiming something, while Davis has him saying it — and that seems to be what Proust was writing also. Then too, she strips out many of the intensifiers, so that Swann is now content with something, instead of being quite content. This too seems closer to the original. Finally, she often opts for the less elegant word, delicious instead of exquisite (see Dueling madeleines for an extended example of how translators have dealt with Proust over the years).

I did find a few typographical errors in the U.S. edition of her translation, though I don't know whether they sprang from Davis’s translation or were created in the course of rendering the British language into American. Except for one case — where O appears instead of An — they won’t cause any confusion. (I had to go back to the French to clear that one up.) Physically, the U.S. hardcover is larger and more handsome. And for the monophone reader, it has a further advantage: French literary quotations are shown in English, with a translation at the back of the book.

In the British edition, those quotations remain in French, with the translation at the back. I find this a bit irritating — if I can't read Proust in the original, why does the publisher think I can read Racine? There are a few other differences: conversation is set off by dashes instead of quotation marks, the spelling is British standard, and the title is the more literal The Way by Swann’s.

And the Yale edition

And even more recently, in 2013 — the centenary of the first publication of Du côté de chez Swann — Yale University Press launched yet another refreshing of the classic Scott Montcrieff translation, this one by the Proust scholar and biographer, William Carter. To be honest, I read this volume for pleasure, without the close comparison that I gave to Davis’s translation, or that I later gave to William Carter’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. After all, William Carter doesn't claim to be translating anew, but to be freshening and annotating the C.K. Scott Moncrieff version of 1922. Like Davis, and indeed like the contemporary Modern Library edition, he has also corrected errors in the French-language edition that were remedied by later scholarship. As for induced errors, I noticed only one, where Odette is speaking but the masculine pronoun is used — a confusion easily forgiven because Swann is clearly the next speaker.

I like having the annotations on the same page, though they could as easily have been placed as footnotes instead of in the outer margin, which in my opinion would have improved the layout by allowing a larger font to be used. The American hardcover of the Davis translation is much easier to read and to handle. Overall, though, the Yale Swann's Way is a considerable advance on Scott Moncrieff's, and less in thrall to him than were Kilmartin and Enright.

Now that I have made a close study of Mr Carter's rendition of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, I'm not so sure about what I wrote above. Though he claims to have only "edited and annotated" Scott Moncrieff, I find that he has done very much more than that. I'm hugely impressed! Lydia Davis has a worthy competitor here.

Which one to buy?

I think it's a toss-up. If you've read Swann's Way in the past, then you might well try the Penguin translation by Lydia Davis, in paperback, in the handsome hardcover, or as an e-book for the Kindle. All those links are to Amazon.com, but you should be able to find the books elsewhere. Note that I am skeptical about the merits of reading Proust on a digital e-reader. He's really too labyrinthian for that.

But if you've never tasted the glories of the Scott Moncrieff translation, or if you'd like to embark for a second or third time on la recherche, then by all means go for William Carter's wonderful reworking of it. It's also a must-have for those of us who collect things Proustian. The book is available only as a large-format paperback.

You won't go far wrong, either, with the Modern Library paperback, also available for the Kindle. To me, it seems rather — what shall I say? — dutiful, too much in thrall to the original translation, by technicians rather than a gifted writer like Lydia Davis or an ardent Proust-lover like William Carter. It's also cheaper than the Yale University Press edition, and of course it's part of a matched set that you can get today and that will look very impressive on your bookself.

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Proust Six-Pack

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 October 2015. © 2006-2015 Fallbook Press; all rights reserved.