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)

Proustian Uncertainties

Yes, Saul Friedländer won the Pulitizer Prize for history, but if Proustian Uncertainties isn't sufficient warning, the sub-title should put you on alert: On Reading and Rereading In Search of Lost Time. I'm afraid it's not an easy read. Mr Saul Friedländer was born in the former Czechoslovakia, spent the war years hiding out in a Catholic boarding school in France, became a Zionist when he learned that his mother and father had been gassed at Auschwitz, immigrated to Israel in 1948, studied in Paris and Geneva, and taught at universities in Switzerland, Israel, and the United States. His books deal mostly with the Holocaust and our memory of it, and here he turns his considerable mind to "one of the most important novels ever written" -- and À la recherche du temps perdu is among other things a study of memory. Regrettably but I suppose inevitably, he works from the Modern Library translation, where C K Scott-Moncrieff's post-Victorian prose has been successively reworked to the satisfaction of Proustian scholars. The result -- which Mr Friedländer praises! -- was to turn "Proust's sumptuous style and its unusually long but characteristic sentences into a language that typically favors short, declarative sentences...." To me, that was a crime, not a kindness. I also find two of the titles unfortunate: Within a Budding Grove (vol. 2) and Time Regained (vol. 6). Neither, it seems to me, is a fair translation of what Proust intended wth À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs and Le Temps retrouvé.

But I'm a sucker for anything Proustian, and I was intrigued by two of his essays, one arguing that Marcel's grandmother is a stand-in for the true love of Proust's life, his mother, and the other that for all the talk of the madeleines and involuntary memory, Proust's novel is actually a feat of the novelist's deliberate evocation of the past. Both are interesting, and the second is fairly significant -- and, once pointed out, like most truths, rather obvious. I'm glad to have read it. The book is also available in a Kindle edition, though I think the hardcover is a better value.

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 Andrea 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 :)

Mr. Joyce, may I introduce M. Proust?
On translating Proust (Lydia Davis)
A first cut at comparing the two "Lost Times"
Dueling madeleines (C.K. Scott Moncrieff vs. the others))
Why doesn't Viking publish the rest of them?
"A Short View of Proust" (Edmund Wilson, 1928)
Marcel goes to the movies
In search of Proust: biographies and commentary
In search of Proust: the comix!
In search of Proust: one man's collection
Private Proust at Coligny Caserne
The love of his life: all about Albertine
What would Marcel make of the Kindle? (digital editions)
A la recherche du temps perdu in French

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

Front page | Penguins v. Enright | translating Proust | Madeleines | growth of a novel | Proust & Joyce | Viking | Wilson | Movies | Biographies | Proustiana | Comix | Private Proust | Albertine | Digital editions | and in French

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Posted January 2021. © 2006-2021 Fallbook Press; all rights reserved.