Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of French author Marcel Proust, and, as such, I’ve just started my fifth reading of his seven-volume novel A la recherche du temps perdu. Known in English as either Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time,
Even those who haven’t read the novel may have heard about the incident when the narrator dips a madeleine – a small cake – into a cup of tea, and takes a bite, these flavors unlocking a torrent of memories from his childhood. Memory and time are the two threads that flow constantly through the novel, and Samuel Beckett said, in his 1931 essay about the work, that the “entire book is a monument to involuntary memory and the epic of its action.”
You read Proust because it’s a literary Everest, but you fall in love with the novel because of the depth of its characters, and the way Proust makes you see the world through his eyes. You may have heard that it’s hard to read Proust: the novel is seven volumes long, and there are sentences that stretch on for hundreds of words. But it’s not hard, you just have to adapt to his style. The key that unlocked it for me was when I listened to an audiobook version of the novel in French, and realized that Proust’s writing is just the spoken word on the page. Once you understand that, you appreciate the cadences of his writing.
I first read La recherche in the early 1980s, when Terrence Killmartin’s revision of Scott Montcrieff translation was released in three huge volumes. I read it while commuting from Queens to Manhattan, perhaps 20 or 30 pages a day. When I moved to France in 1984 – initially to spend a year, but eventually staying in the country nearly three decades – I was optimistic. The very first book I bought was the compact, three-volume, leather-bound, bible-paper Pléiade edition of the novel. It took me a few years to get through the book – Proust used a vocabulary of more than 18,000 words in his novel – but after that, I was hooked.
Since then, I’ve read it every ten years or so, including once listening to a 128-hour audiobook recording in French. And so I embark, once again, on this journey.
In English, you have two choices. The Montcrieff/Kilmartin translation, titled Remembrance of Things Past. While not a literal translation of the title, Montcrieff took a line from a Shakespeare sonnet, feeling it was more poetic. This translation is arguably a bit old-fashioned, and doesn’t benefit from an updated edition of the French text published in the late 1980s, partly so the publisher, Gallimand, could retain copyright when the work was going into the public domain, but also to add a number of texts that had been discovered in the 1980s, including manuscript corrections that Proust made shortly before his death, but which had never been included in the work before.
The other option is the Penguin translation, completed in 2002, where each volume is rendered by a different translator. While this is a quick way to get this done, it does create inconsistencies. Titled In Search of Lost Time, this translation does contain the found texts of the newer French edition, and also takes into account the many corrections added to the 1987 Pléiade update.
And, to complicate things, there is even a revised version of the revision of Montrcieff’s translation, published by Modern Library, adopting the In Search of Lost Time title.
There are pros and cons to each translation, and I’ll put links below to articles about each of them, as well as a link to articles I’ve written about Proust on my website.
No matter which one you choose, should you wish to embark on this journey, you’ll discover one of the richest novels ever written, one that may be with you for the rest of your life.