Proust Progress Report 1: Getting started

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913, text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Du côté de chez Swann, première partie, ‘Combray’

Someone on Christopher Lydon’s Open Source podcast recently was talking about À la recherche du temps perdu aka In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past. It was one conversation too many: I decided I had to bite the bullet and read the bloody thing. (My late friend Will Owen almost pushed me over the line in 2014 by writing – here – about his experience with it over several decades. The pressure to read it has been building.)

So I bought a copy of the Gallimard quarto edition, all seven novels in one huge, heavy volume, small print and thin paper, 2401 pages, a bargain at just under $90. If I read 200 pages a month I could get through the whole thing in less than two years. So that’s what I decided to do. Rather than review the books as I finish them, I’ll aim to give a monthly update.

I read the opening words – Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure – about a month ago, and was immediately glad of my decision to read the books in French and not to labour over translation. It’s hard to pin down the meaning of that sentence, and I imagine even harder to reproduce that un-pin-down-ability in English. The commonest version – ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early’ – is clear enough, but the verb’s tense is all wrong: if Proust had meant ‘I used to go to bed’ he would have written ‘je me couchais’. But the more or less literal translation, ‘A long time ago I have gone to bed early’, sounds odd. Maybe it does in the original French, and maybe the translators know that if they write something odd in English the readers will grow suspicious of them … Anyhow, if I even notice such fine points as I read I’m not labouring over them. Nor am I looking up unfamiliar words – and mercifully my years of studying French forty years ago seem to have left me with a fairly adequate passive vocabulary. I do need to reread many of Proust’s famously convoluted sentences, and that, it turns out, is one of the pleasures – to sort out how the parts of what at first looks impossibly complex fit together as in a well-constructed machine.

So I’ve now read ‘Combray’, the first of three parts of the first of the seven novels, Du côté de chez Swann / Swann’s Way. I feel like leaving at that, not because it’s been hard going, but because these 150 or so pages turn out to have been, well, fabulous, and I don’t feel any need to continue. (I will, though.)

After 30 pages in which the narrator (so far we don’t have a name for him) remembers going to bed early as a child and suffering terrible anguish because his mother doesn’t come to give him a goodnight kiss despite a number of ploys to trick her into doing it, he is overwhelmed with memories of his childhood triggered by the smell of a shell-like biscuit dunked in herbal tea. The memories are centred on the summers he and his family spent with an invalid aunt in the village of Combray (A fictional village when he wrote about it, but the village of Illiers, believed to be its model, recently changed its name to Illiers-Combray), and are structured according to the two paths that lead from the aunt’s house to the village church.

That’s it.

And it’s fascinating. A friend told me she’d given up on reading Proust because he’s such a wanker; I said, ‘Yes, but in the original French he’s such an over-the-top wanker that it’s brilliant.’

At least twice I laughed out loud. The first was at a description of asparagus. For me, having to work for each word, there’s a wonderful process of struggling through a thicket of extravagant language describing the extraordinarily subtle colours and imagining the asparagus spears as delightful creatures who had metamorphosed into vegetables to come at the end of the sentence to a relatively plainspoken reference to how asparagus affects bodily functions: ‘changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum‘ / ‘change my chamber pot into a perfumed vase’. (You can read a translation here, though it tones down the early extravagance and then misses the joke by continuing with the elevated language – ‘transforming’ for ‘changer’ and ‘bower of aromatic perfume’ for ‘vase fe parfum’ – until the very end.)

The other laugh-out-loud moment had a similar sense of coming out into the light after struggling through a thicket. The narrator remembers his fascination as a child with water plants swinging back and forth in a current. He likens them to people who wake up each morning resolved to change their lives but always revert to their established self-defeating habits. He ups the ante, invoking Dante’s fascination with the sufferings of the damned, saying that Dante would have liked to have gone on at greater length about those sufferings if Virgil, striding ahead, hadn’t made him catch up, comme moi mes parents / ‘As my parents did me’.

Both these are examples of how fabulously the writing works at a sentence level. I didn’t really worry that it seemed to be going nowhere. I dread to think what a film adaptation would look like. I guess it would have to play up the chaste lesbian frolic the boy accidentally eavesdrops on one evening, or his visit to a beloved uncle and innocently reporting back to his parents about the nice lady who seemed to be living with him, or the comedy about his antisemitic grandfather. But those elements aren’t central. In the last couple of pages of this section he brings it all together. What he has been showing us is a place, and the people in it, that are deeply embedded in his mind, even formed his mind (sans le savoir / ‘without knowing it’), so that he responds to people or places now because, whether he’s aware of it or not, they stir some yearning for that place. ‘The flowers that I am shown for the first time nowadays don’t seem real flowers to me.’

And suddenly it’s profoundly moving. His narrator talks about a future when the paths he describes will be overgrown and the people he saw there will have died, when all that will remain of them will be what he has remembered of what that child saw, and smelled, and thought. I find myself thinking how, of the billions of humans who have ever lived or are living now, every one of them has had their individual rich deep connection to the earth, awarely or otherwise. Few people could articulate it as fully as Proust, even if they wanted to, even if they had the time, but he’s bringing to the foreground something that’s inevitably there for everyone. And then I think about climate change and how, optimistically, we’ve got 12 years to make big changes if the earth, the air and the water are to keep sustaining us. Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.

Added later: I can’t believe I didn’t talk about all the very funny stuff about his family: his aunt who never leaves her room, and won’t let anyone visit her who tries to jolly her into going out, but likewise bans anyone who believes that she is very sick; the maid; M Swann, the neighbour who made an unfortunate match; Swann’s daughter Gilberte, whom the narrator glimpses just once as a vision of loveliness who gives him a vulgar signal, etc. I expect there will be more of that in the coming sections (though probably not of the aunt, whose death has come as a shock because I had come to believe that absolutely nothing was going to happen).

14 responses to “Proust Progress Report 1: Getting started

  1. J’aime beaucoup ça!
    Je viens de finir de lire The Stranger en français … maintenant, je me demande si je pourrais jamais m’attaquer à Proust ??

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    • Your French looks pretty good to me. I was going to answer in kind bu couldn’t do it, so that probably means you’re better equiped for Marcel P than I am. I imagine, though, that Camus is about as different from Proust as it’s possible to imagine.

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      • I didn’t do French at school, so I am terrible at tenses, and I don’t really have a solid vocabulary. With Camus, I’ve done what you are doing, just scampering on even if I lose the drift, and I can get away with that because I’ve read the book twice in English anyway. But Proust terrifies me!

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      • Hmm, the tenses in Proust are pretty intense. I kept thinking of a joke in the book we studied in the Leaving Certificate in 1964. A pompous old teacher uses the past subjunctive tense in a serious moment, and a student has no idea what the word is. My teacher, himself pretty old, roared with laughter st the line ‘Comment, cachât?’ Well there’s a lot of eusse and fût in Proust.

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      • Yes, that would defeat me, I think…

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  2. French is the weaker of the two foreign languages I have; and in the other (German), I get less and less comfortable the more abstract the text gets. But I had an interesting reaction to that opening sentence.

    Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure

    I mentally translated that literally, not grasping that “bonne heure” was a colloquialism for “early” in relation to a child being put to bed. I came out with “For a long time, I went to bed at a good hour” and took from the “good hour” a sense of the hour being just the right one to go to bed at. I don’t know if you’d call that a serendipitous bad translation, but I rather like it.

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  3. Thanks Jonathan. Very inspiring! Something that has also been on my ‘must read’ list and now you’ve shown me how accessible it is. I’d never thought of reading it in French, but it has a definite attraction. Incidentally, that going to bed sentence I would translate as ‘For a long time, I was in the habit of going to bed early’.

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    • I’d love to hear your take on it, Kathy. But on the matter of translation, just to keep on flogging a dead horse, wouldn’t ‘used to’ or ‘was in the habit of’ need the past imperfect in French, where this is the past perfect, literally ‘I have gone to bed’?And why has he said ‘Longtemps’ rather than ‘Il y a longtemps’? I have no idea how that works for a native speaker – to me it sounds incongruously informal, like, ‘Long time, I’ve gone to bed early.’

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  4. I have long had the little blue covered Chatto and Windus books translated by Scott Moncrieff. Perhaps you have inspired me to read them while there is still time.

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    • While there is still time indeed! Starting on this book is an act of faith in one’s own longevity and the survival of the planet. Paradoxically I think I’d find it harder to read in translation than in the original with my rusty and gappy French. The work needed slows me down to a pace that suits Proust’s style.

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  5. But as you said above…all those fumes and eusses….

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