Marcel Proust was close to death when he saw the English translation of the first volume of his seven-part masterpiece, À la recherché du temps perdu. He fired off a letter (in English!) to the translator, Charles Scott Moncrieff. Calling it “Swann’s Way,” the author complained, was a bit misleading. As for “Remembrance of Things Past,” as Scott Moncrieff had titled the novel as a whole, that was wildly mistaken!
Not at all chastened, Scott Moncrieff went on to bowdlerize the title of volume two, so that À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs appeared as “Within a Budding Grove.” Apparently “in flower,” in the Britain of 1924, was too honest a reference to female puberty. Similarly, he would soften Sodome et Gomorrhe, with its too-obvious reference to homosexuality, so that it became “Cities of the Plain.”
These howlers apart, Scott Moncrieff’s translation was justly celebrated as a masterpiece in its own right. All subsequent translators have drawn upon his gifted prose, though the titles, happily, have become truer to the French.
The latest to take up this labor of love is William Carter for Yale University Press, in handsome paperbacks promised at the rate of a book a year. (This neatly gets around the provisions of U.S. copyright law, under which the concluding, posthumous volumes don’t fall into the public domain until 2018.) The first volume, Swann's Way, was published in 2013, the centenary of the book's first appearance in France.
In the Yale edition, Scott Moncrieff is still shown as the translator, “edited and annotated” by Mr. Carter. In fact, he has done much more. I downloaded the public-domain e-books, in French and in English, the better to check his words against those of Proust and Scott Moncrieff. There is scarcely a sentence that Mr. Carter hasn’t changed, always for the better and often getting closer to Proust’s phrasing.
For example: when Little Marcel (as my wife Sally likes to call the novel’s protagonist) first enters the grand seaside hotel at Balbec, where he’ll meet those young girls in flower, he cringes before the majesty of the uniformed elevator boy. He tries to chat him up. “Mais il ne me répondit pas,” sighs Little Marcel, which Scott Moncrieff renders as “But he vouchsafed no answer.” Mr. Carter is more straightforward: “But he did not answer me.” Just so!
I should admit that 1) I’m far from fluent in French and 2) this isn’t my first expedition through Proust’s masterwork. As the author himself warns us, any work that is new and great (he happens to be writing about a violin sonata, but surely has his own novel in mind) will have to create its own posterity. So a Beethoven symphony or a Proustian novel can’t truly be appreciated on first acquaintance, but only with time, education, and familiarity. So it may be that I enjoy Mr. Carter’s lovely version more than his predecessors’ because I’ve already learned from Scott Moncrieff’s original (read twice, the second time aloud to Sally); the Modern Library revision of it; and the “Penguin Proust” collaboration of seven translators in three countries. (The Penguin edition is still incomplete in the U.S., thanks to our absurd copyright laws.)
Among Mr. Carter’s gifts to Americans, he has put the novel into our idiom. I especially liked this bit: when Little Marcel first sees those girls by the seaside, wheeling their bicycles and outraging the hotel’s stuffy guests, he guesses that they are “the mistresses of racing cyclists.” He’s desperate to know one of them especially, named Albertine. Social climber that he is, he schemes to be introduced to her family by “someone superior to themselves.” That shouldn’t be difficult, in Scott Moncrieff’s words, since the girls are “only common little bounders.”
Bounders? In place of that hilariously post-Victorian term, Mr. Carter settles for “little hookers.” (The French is petites grues which, I’m sorry to say, is out of my league.)
Elsewhere, Scott Moncrieff describes the girls as “unusual and shrill, like birds that gather on the ground at the moment of flight.” In Mr. Carter’s version, they are “insolent and chirping, like a confabulation of birds....” Confabulation! It’s a wonderful touch, never mind that Proust didn’t say it.
Little Marcel does eventually become Albertine’s friend—he always seems able to ingratiate himself with people. Indeed, she will become the love of his life and the novel’s principal character, though not its most realized one. The narrator’s loves are thinly disguised young men, even to their names. One of the real-life models for Albertine was Proust’s “secretary,” Albert Nahmias.
Alas, it doesn’t seem that Proust ever achieved with Albert, nor with Alfred Agnostinelli, nor any of the men he loved, what the protagonist calls “the potential happiness,” “that other pleasure, “that unknown pleasure” of reciprocated carnal love. Scott Moncrieff by all accounts was much more fortunate as he gamboled about Italy in the 1920s, translating Stendhal and Pirandello, spying on Mussolini’s military, and seducing young men. (For more about that, see his grand-niece's wonderful biography, Chasing Lost Time.)
This displacement—may I say “transgendering”?—has the unhappy result of making Proust’s young women less convincing than his secondary characters. Albertine isn’t as real as the immortal Baron Charlus, whom we also meet at the Grand Hotel Balbec, or the awful Madame Verdurin, introduced in “Swann’s Way” but whose social pretensions are more fully developed in this volume.
As for Mr. Carter’s annotations, they appear on the same page as the text—hence the large format. This is often a convenience, compared to turning to the back of the book. But I sometimes found them distracting: do I really need to be told who Plato was?
Like Proust, Scott Moncrieff died young, and before he could translate the novel’s final volume, Le Temps retrouvé. It has been rendered into English multiple times and under various titles, by Sydney Schiff (aka Stephen Hudson), Frederick Blossom, Andreas Mayor (twice revised, by Terence Kilmartin and D. J. Enright), and Ian Patterson. I wish long life and good health to William Carter, and I hope that with his guidance I’ll be able to finish this wonderful version in four or five years’ time.
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Posted October 2015. © 2006-2015 Fallbook Press; all rights reserved.