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In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust

 

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Posted September 2, 2016 by

In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust – 1913

Reviewed by: Michael Sympson          Date: 2 September 2001

Before we are going to lose ourselves in superlatives, a few pointers might be in place:

(1) Proust’s novel had been published this side of the turning century and therefore it counts as France’s contribution to the modernist movement of the 20th century. It is not. It still belongs to the Victorian three deckers of the 19th century, in a class with Tolstoy and Eliot, the English novelist, whom Proust admired most.

(2) When going through Jean-Yves Tadié’s monumental biography of Marcel Proust I found little evidence that Proust actually cared very much for Montaigne. Given his time and curriculum it stands to reason that Montaigne had been a must read, too familiar to fuss about. But with both authors, I feel the same warm hospitality oozing from the pages, just to sit down for a good gossipy read.

(3) This is a French novelist, with a French education, a French perspective on things, a French sensibility, and a French delight in surrounding absolutely everything in an iridescent halo of words. And by the way! Should you ever try to read the thing in one go, make sure you have plenty of leisure. Sell your telly and don’t go to the movies; keep your sex life to a minimum. And should you not speak French, you have a problem. Against all appearances, Proust’s Gallic, gently malicious wit, his belle esprit is really there, but in this translation it tramples along on heavy feet.

My French too is not quite up to the task of reading Proust the way he should be read, so like many I depend on Moncrieff’s translation — there is only his, in several editorial revamps, none of which has much to speak for itself. For instance we read in “Swann’s Way:” “… a reflection of the sunlight had contrived to slip in on its golden wings, remaining motionless, between glass and woodwork, in a corner like a butterfly poised upon a flower.” This is Victorian imitation kitsch. And what did Proust write? “… a reflection of the sunlight had made its yellow wings slip in and remained motionless, between glass and woodwork, in a corner, like a folded butterfly.” Less of cheap glitter, more sensuality. Am I nitpicking? Is this not a trifle of little consequence? Well, I’m sorry, but if you really want to read Proust, this is the meat of the matter. Whatever else it might be, Proust’s novel is a complete world in itself, projected and laid out in the most elaborate mosaic ever; and every little majolica shard counts.

Every author creates his own pedigree, says Borges somewhere and Proust took great pains to establish a huge family tree that reaches down all the way to Rousseau and St.Augustine who provided the overall form for Proust’s novel, the analytical confession. Most of us, especially in the translation, will miss out on all the little touches and mocking voice imitations of countless French authors, nobody outside of France has ever heard of. Ventriloquism is an act of comedy and this element is surely lost. Personally I think of Proust, as a great French essayist. Try to forget for a moment that the “Recherche” comes as a novel: we would still be left with a whole plethora of essayistic genres: character sketches, explorations into the world of plant and beast, meditations on sexuality and the nature of time, all of which could exist independently of its context. Another French, Emile Zola, I believe, characterized art as “nature seen through a temperament,” and Proust exactly fits the description.

Sometimes Proust insisted that his novel had the architecture of a Gothic cathedral — which reminds me of a heated debate we students once had, whether it was possible to build a cathedral or the pyramids like bees construct their hives. I really don’t know the answer, but I suspect Proust’s cathedral might support the honey-comb theory. I mean once we get to the bottom of his multi-layered technique there is not much of a story left to go anywhere. James Joyce is one of the few authors in English who received an education very similar to Marcel Proust’s, and even roughly at the same time. There was not much else the two had in common, Proust’s family comfortably floated on the upper end of France’s bourgeoisie, while Joyce’s Irish parents were most of the time broke and struggling. But by and large he of all contemporaries certainly had the credentials to pass judgement; and he characterized Proust’s sentences as “predictable.” Spoken from genius to genius! Lesser mortals like us, are not invited. I for once, rather enjoy the surprises.

And of course, Proust did create real characters, as real as anybody I know in the “real world,” but they seem not much to be doing, except for having pleasant conversations, frequent aristocratic dinner tables, fret over their latest crush and occasionally visit the museum. That’s alright, most of us don’t do much else, especially after retirement, but do we really need 3.000 pages to read about? Even Proust seems to agree that we don’t, so he regales us to countless batches of his Gallic pastiches, and they are sure worth reading, though they lack the sinuous muscle of Voltaire. Proust can be flabby at times. But so did Montaigne and once you feel comfortable in your armchair, you don’t really mind and just enjoy the hospitality. Ok, this might not be quite fair. Only the first two volumes had been published during Proust’s own lifetime. These volumes in fact do show considerable unity and architecture. Proust was every publisher’s nightmare and liked to edit copiously the galley proofs, who knows what this could have done to the other 4 volumes. As it is, we see a warehouse full of fluff, wrapped up in plenty of scented cotton wool. But the chrysanthemums are really good.

In Search of Lost Time: Swann's Way, Vol. 1
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