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
When I watched Spectre six years ago, I marveled here that someone in the James Bond franchise was a devotee of Proust, given that Bond drove off into the sunset in his Aston-Martin with a lovely lady named Madeleine Swann. Come on, man! That couldn't possibly be a coincidence, somebody named Swann (Charles, by any chance) names his daughter after la petite madeleine? I didn't think so, and now I'm sure of it, given that the last flick in which Daniel Craig will appear as 007 is titled No Time to Die. (In theaters on October 6, with a near-Proustian run-time of 163 minutes.)
"Time figures in more than the title," writes Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal. The film evokes time's haunting passage.... Bond [and Madeleine] are in a car [Aston-Martin DB5, of course] on a cliff-hanging road in southern Italy.... She wants him to drive faster, but he resists. 'We have all the time in the world,' he says serenely.
"They don't, of course."
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.
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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