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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.
The French magazine Le Point has posted a video, which, it is believed, shows Marcel Proust on film for the first time. There are plenty of photos of the author, but a piece of film shot during the wedding of Elaine Greffulhe, daughter of the Countess Greffulhe, in 1904, is thought to show Proust descending the stairs along with other guests at the wedding. Countess Greffulhe is thought to be the inspiration for Oriane de Guermantes in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).
Here’s the video:
Proust is seen at the 0:37 mark, and looks like this:
This is interesting just as an anecdote, but it’s also interesting to watch the rest of the people on the stairs, all of whom could be characters of Proust’s fiction.
Reading the second volume of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, I’ve just read the delightful account of the dinner with the marquis de Norpois at the home of the narrator. Norpois relates a dinner he attended with Swann, and young Marcel asked if Bergotte was at the dinner. Marcel is smitten with the writings of the novelist Bergotte, especially because his crush Gilberte likes him and is one of his familiars. But Norpois launches a tirade about how lame Bergotte is, both in his writings and in his person, and then explains how a brief prose poem that Marcel had given Norpois to read bears the puerile influence of Bergotte. The narrator says:
“Atterré par ce que M. de Norpois venait de me dire du fragment que je lui avais soumis, songeant d’autre part aux difficultés que j’éprouvais quand je voulais écrire un essai ou seulement me livrer à des réflexions sérieuses, je sentis une fois de plus ma nullité intellectuelle et que je n’étais pas né pour la littérature.”
“…I once again realized my intellectual worthlessness and that I wasn’t cut out for literature.”
It’s a good thing that Marcel didn’t take this seriously. Of course, the entire cycle of La recherche is about his desire to be a writer, and finally, at the end, realizing that he could write a novel.
As Beckett would say as the ultimate insult, in Waiting for Godot: “Crritic!”
A thick beard masking his sunken cheeks, the dying 51-year old Marcel Proust sat in his bed, propped up by pillows, covered with blankets. Sleeping during the day, and working at night, in a room with cork-lined walls to stifle noises, Proust was working on the page proofs of the fourth volume of his one-and-a-half-million word novel À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time.
The autobiographical novel depicts an unnamed ‘narrator’ who, like Proust, lived a comfortable life, hobnobbed with aristocrats, was a writer, and suffered from asthma. This illness affected Proust deeply, and, in many ways, helped forge his way of looking at the world, and his way of writing about it.
There have been many biographies of Marcel Proust, some nearly as long as his masterful novel In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past). William Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is the best comprehensive biography in English, and, in French, there are several, including a recently published volume, Marcel Proust: Une vie á s’écrire, by Jérôme Picon (Amazon FR). (Do avoid the tedious biography by Jean-Yves Tadié, both in French and in its abridged English version.)
But if you want to learn about Proust, you may not want to read a biography that is 600 or 1,000 pages long. Benjamin Taylor’s Proust, The Search (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) focuses on how Proust became a writer, and how he wrote his great work. Instead of going into a lot of detail, Taylor looks at the parts of Proust’s life that were integrated into his fiction. He doesn’t ignore the first forty years of Proust’s life, before he started writing La recherche, but he gives enough background information to provide context for Proust’s search, and how he finally found himself as a writer.
This brief book – 168 smallish pages of text, and another thirty of back matter – is part of a series called Jewish Lives. As such, Taylor does pay attention to Proust’s Jewishness (his mother was Jewish), but this isn’t a book about Proust as a Jew. He wasn’t much of a Jew, in fact, since he didn’t practice any religion, but he was aware of his heritage, particularly during the turmoil of the Dreyfus affair, which heightened anti-semitism in France.
Taylor is both a good storyteller and an insightful critic of Proust’s work. He doesn’t attempt to analyze the fiction, but he does make some salient comments about Proust’s intentions and themes. This is the book to read if you want to know a little bit about Proust’s life, but not get bogged down in minutia. After all, if you’re reading Proust, you probably want to spend time reading his words, not the words of others about him.
I should point out that this slim book is a tad expensive at a retail price of $25; it’s small in size, with fairly large margins, and should probably have been a bit cheaper. And the Kindle edition is currently priced at 16 cents less than the hardcover, so if you’re an ebook reader, you should probably look elsewhere. While price shouldn’t be the main consideration when buying a book, one shouldn’t ignore it either.
This is an interesting book for those who want to learn about Proust, or who are embarking on reading his fiction. If you’re looking for a detailed biography, this isn’t for you, but if you want to learn the main elements of Proust’s life and how it fits with his writing, this book will provide everything you need to know.
“One other, I think significant, aspect of the translation that the biography illuminates is the intertwining, in Moncrieff’s imagination, between the materials of Proust and the related–slightly different, but related–rhythms of Henry James. James’s direct influence on Proust is debated; certainly James disliked what he read of the French writer. But in Moncrieff’s mind Proust and James always seem to come up together, to get twinned–and not James’s novels so much as his occasional writing and non-fiction. Opening James’s letters, Moncrieff remarks that it is ‘a book that fills the emptiest winter room with the warm breath of intimate communicative people.'”
The first translation I read of Proust’s great novel was that of Scott Moncrieff, corrected by Terrance Kilmartin. After that, I read the book in French several times. When I went back and browsed through the English translation, I saw so many areas where it was simply wrong. However, the translation, as it stood, worked fairly well.
I’ve always felt that best example of Proust’s style in English is that of Henry James’ late novels. As I’ve written about Proust, his style is very close to that of spoken French. Interestingly, James’ late style is also that of spoken language; Henry James took up dictation in 1897, and has major novels – The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl – were written in voice. The style of these three novels is quite similar to that of Proust.
Since I first discovered Proust in my early twenties, I’ve been a huge fan of his massive novel À la recherche du temps perdu (the English titles for the work are Remembrance of Things Past or in Search of Lost Time). I’ve read the novel many times, and have recently started reading it again.
Every now and then, there is a Proust wave: someone writes a new book about Proust, and this inspires book critics to suggest that people pick up the book. Or some author decides to (finally) read Proust, and writes about it. Hannah Gersen did that recently on The Millions. Her Proust Book Club was inspired by a new biography of the author, and by previous failed attempts to get through the long work.
In my late 20s, I finally made good on my promise and read Proust daily for about four months. […] But my enthusiasm must have waned, because I stopped reading somewhere in volume four. I don’t remember when I gave up, or why; I don’t even remember feeling bored with the project. Looking back through my journal entries from that year, it seems that a new iPod shuffle was the culprit. Maybe the weather also played a part. I began my grand rereading project in January, when it was cozy to stay indoors and read during my lunch hour. But then spring and my iPod arrived and I started to use my lunch break to go for walks set to a soundtrack of my own design. I have to wonder what albums could have been better than Proust. And at the same time, I think that Proust, who briefly subscribed to “Théâtrophone,” a service that allowed him to listen to live opera performances via telephone, would have understood the temptation.
Recently, in a Facebook group about Proust I belong to, someone posted that, for him, reading Proust was “a struggle.” I was surprised by this. As if this is not reading for pleasure, but out of some sense of duty. As if someone has assigned the novel as required reading.
Ms Gersen explains, in her article, that:
Almost everyone I know who has completed In Search of Lost Time (and to be clear, most of these “known” people are those who have written about the experience, not anyone I’ve met personally) did it slowly, reading just 10 to 20 pages a day, usually in the morning. At a pace of 10 pages a day, it will take me about a year and two months to finish, a period of time that doesn’t seem as long as it did 10 years ago.
This sort of New Year’s resolution approach seems to me the wrong way to read a great work of literature. In my experience, the only way to read Proust is just to read him, the same way you’d read any other author.
But there is a stumbling block when reading Proust: it’s his long, sinuous sentences. Many people find these difficult, and spend a lot of time reading them and re-reading them, mentally diagramming them to figure out what they mean.
I figured out the key to reading Proust some years ago, when listening to an audiobook version of the work in French. When you hear Proust’s sentences spoken, you realize that his style – which seems complex and modernist – is essentially a reproduction of spoken French. The digressions, the explanations, and the amplifications he piles on match the way people speak. If you can read Proust with this in mind, you can let the words flow, without them tripping you up. It may be more difficult in the English translations to follow these sentences, because no English translation really gets it right. But try reading Proust with this in mind, and you’ll get a better appreciation of the author’s fluid style.
The first time one reads Proust should be like writing a first draft of something; read to enjoy the text, to follow the plot, and don’t try and pick up every detail. You’ll have time to go back and read the novel again. (You’d be surprised how many people who do finish the novel read it again, maybe ten or twenty years later.) But, as you read, you’ll find elements that stand out, that are reflections of your own thoughts or experiences. Read the second installment of Ms Gersen’s Proust Book ClubThe View From Age 38 to see how she compares the narrator’s childhood memories to her own. Proust’s writing contains multitudes, and everyone can find resonance in this novel.
So read Proust, but don’t make it a chore. Enjoy the experience. If you see it as a struggle, then you probably shouldn’t read it. Reading should be a pleasure.
It’s fairly well known that Harold Pinter created what is known as The Proust Screenplay, distilling Proust’s seven-volume epic novel for Joseph Losey, who hoped to make a film. This 1977 screenplay as since been published, and is available in volume 2 of Pinter’s screenplay. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
This play is fascinating, but it’s very possible that you could only really appreciate it if you are familiar with the novel. Pinter (and Trevis) manage to pull a number of brief scenes from the novel and string them together with a loose narrative to tell the story of this massive work. Many of the bits are very short, and they are not all in chronological order, but they do fit in a certain way.
You see the narrator (here, clearly named Marcel), and many of the supporting characters: Swann, Gilberte, Albertine, baron de Charles, Mmm Verdure, and many others, all deftly painted with fine strokes that highlight their characters. Situations that take dozens of pages are summarized in a few lines, and others in scenes that tell just enough about the characters. Certain themes come back often – the narrator’s jealousy, Swann’s disappointment in his marriage, and the ever-present them of class, and striving to attain a better station.
It’s a brief read, just 138 pages, no doubt meant to last about two and a half hours on stage. If you’ve read Proust already, I strongly recommend this. If not, well, it’s up to you; you may not get a lot out of it. It’s hard to know, since I have read La Recherché several times.
“A question I am often asked is why do I never tire of reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? How does this novel continue to speak to generation after generation in a voice that seems fresh and vigorous? How does Proust manage to breathe so much motion, so much life into his style?”
Proust scholar William Carter explains what is so fascinating about reading Proust. I agree with everything he says. I’ve read Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu four times so far, and every time I reread it, I find many new elements of the story, the style, the atmosphere.
Proust isn’t hard to read; but you do need to make a commitment to embark on this journey.