Reading Proust: In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past)

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 editions from Yale University Press)

Sodom and Gormorrah revisited (sort of)

I'm baffled by what Yale University Press has done in the fourth volume of its edition of In Search of Lost Time. The earlier books were soft-cover editions at $24 each; this one is an $85 hardcover. Quite apart from the odd appearance on one's bookshelf, can anyone outside of a library or a university actually afford to collect $85 books?

Yale says the book is "edited and annotated by noted Proust scholar William C. Carter, who endeavors to bring the classic C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation closer to the spirit and style of the original." Yet it seems me that this Sodom and Gomorrah actually hews closer to Scott Moncrieff than did the earlier volumes. Unfortunately I'm reading it in PDF format on a tablet, which involves a lot thumb-and-finger work and makes it hard to compare the text with Scott Moncrieff's, let alone Proust's, both of which I have in digital format. (Oh, why did I ever sell the old two-volume Random House edition of Remembrance of Things Past?) Mr Carter does correct outright mistakes, as when Scott Moncrieff gave Gilberte an inheritance of "nearly twenty-four million francs," an error that reduced her fortune by more than two-thirds. (I don't know when this was first caught, but the sum is correct in the other translations now in print.) Yet Mr Carter accepts some very odd turns of phrase, even when noting that Scott Moncrieff translated them strangely. I had the feeling, reading the first three volumes of the Yale edition, that the the 1927 vocabulary had been modernized and indeed Americanized. This no longer seems to be the case.

I'll update this commentary as I read along in concert with Mr Carter's wonderful lectures on his Proust Ink website. The book can be ordered now at Amazon's US store and elsewhere online stores (search for the 10-digit ASIN, 0300186207) for shipment on June 22.

The 6-volume Modern Library ebook

How my project began

Marcel Proust I peeked into Swann's Way two or three times before a pal challenged me to read the entire novel with him. Every Wednesday on his way to the law office where he was a low-level attorney, he stopped by my rented room (it had a kitchen and bath but wasn't really an apartment). We drank coffee, smoked(!), and talked about the week's reading. Egging each other on in this fashion, we both finished Remembrance of Things Past before the year was out.

Ten years later, I read it 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 author and reader, cinched his case by saying: "After all, who has read every word of À la recherche du temps perdu?" It pleased me hugely to be able to think, "I did!")

That was the handsome, two-volume Random House edition of the novel, the first six books rendered into English by C K Scott Moncrieff and the seventh by Frederick Blossom. (Scott Moncrieff died before finishing his task, which is probably why Penguin decided to employ seven different translators for its 21st century Proust.) When Terence Kilmartin's reworking came out in the 1990s, I bought that three-volume edition, but read only pieces of it — notably Andreas Mayor's translation of The Past Recaptured, greatly improved over the rather lame Blossom version. Otherwise, Remembrance of Things Past seemed mostly unchanged from Scott Moncrieff's translation.

Then came the Penguin editions, the first four volumes of which were published in the US by Viking. After reading a rave review of vol. 2 — In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower — I decided 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 the Viking edition), I knew that I was once again in for the long haul. 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 reported on them in what was a sort of blog. And now I'm adding the elegant Yale University Press editions as they are published.

The novel in translation

Swann's Way (also translated as The Way by Swann's)
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (Within a Budding Grove)
The Guermantes Way
Sodom and Gomorrah (The Cities of the Plain)
The Prisoner (The Captive)
The Fugitive (The Sweet Cheat Gone)
Finding Time Again (The Past Recaptured)

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 must stick with Will’s originals. Well, now we can say the same about Proust! (And indeed it's no longer true for the Bard. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned the translation of his 39 plays into modern English, with -- of course! -- more than half the translators being female, and more than half "of color.")

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 C K 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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Flying Tigers

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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