Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919), première partie, ‘Autour de Mme Swann’
I have a project to read five pages a day of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu until I finish it, probably in a year or two. This month I’ve pretty much kept to my quota, and finished the first part of the second novel. The traditional English title of this volume is Within a Budding Grove, which, at least on the surface, is less enigmatic than the literal translation of the French, In the Shade of the Girls in Flower. The unnamed narrator has a couple of conversations with distinguished men who offer perspectives on his goals to become a writer; he falls in love for the first time and is deeply impressed by the mother of the object of his infatuation. His age is never specified, but my guess is that he progresses in these pages from about 14 to his early 20s.
I was chatting about this project with someone who read À la recherche in English with a friend over 5 years: they met every six weeks or so to discuss the book. She described it as an early masterpiece of queer culture. Well, that’s not true of the part that I’ve read, unless my French is even worse than I think it is. In what I’ve read this month the male narrator recalls his infatuation with Gilberte, the daughter of M Swann and his wife Odette, the cocotte of the first book. There’s just one explicitly sexual moment, but it happens quickly and the narrator, who elsewhere spends pages drawing out the implications of a tiny gesture, moves on quickly saying that he didn’t have time to savour the moment (‘savour’ is my translation for ‘goûter’, rather than ‘analyse’ in the Moncrieff version – which I looked up because I wasn’t sure what had happened). He also mentions, without dwelling on it, that he goes to brothels quite a lot, and he’s pretty fascinated by Odette herself. So heterosexuality seems to be all the go for our sickly, introspective, writerly narrator.
I’m still glad I’m reading it in French. My attention is held at the sentence level, rather than, say, skimming for the story, and at sentence level Proust is captivating. He can be extraordinarily complex, with plenty of inversions that are OK in French but wouldn’t be in English, lots of subjunctives, and and a sometimes bewildering use of pronouns. Yet whenever I’ve taken the time to sort out a sentence, the structure always holds up. Another feature I’ve come to love in an awestruck way is his use of similes. (Maybe I’ll give examples in my next post.) My attitude to the prolonged accounts of emotional twists and turns has changed. I read Swann’s jealous torments over Odette in the first book as comedy. Reading the narrator’s quite similar torment over Gilberte, I found myself remembering what it was like to be in my mid 20s and insecurely in love, and being profoundly glad not to be there any more. That is to say, I’m now invested in these unbelievably privileged, self-regarding characters.
For my seventh November Verse, I set myself the task of versifying a passage from this month’s Proust. One challenge was to find one that would fit into just 14 lines of verse. I settled on this, early in the long demise of the narrator’s relationship with Gilberte:
Le 1er janvier sonna toutes ses heures sans qu’arrivât cette lettre de Gilberte. Et comme j’en reçus quelques-unes de voeux tardifs ou retardés par l’encombrement des courriers à ces dates-là, le 3 et le 4 janvier, j’espérais encore, de moins en moins pourtant. Les jours qui suivirent, je pleurai beaucoup. Certes cela tenait à ce qu’ayant été moins sincère que je ne l’avais cru quand j’avais renoncé à Gilberte, j’avais gardé cet espoir d’une lettre d’elle pour la nouvelle année. Et le voyant épuisé avant que j’eusse eu le temps de me précautionner d’un autre, je souffrais comme un malade qui a vidé sa fiole de morphine sans en avoir sous la main une seconde.(page 483)
You can read the Moncrieff translation at this link. Allons-y!
November Verse 7: From Proust
Jan 1 chimed each hour so fleeting.
Gilberte's letter did not show.
Others came with seasons greetings
posted late, delivered slow,
so on Jan 3 I was still hoping,
Jan 4, my hope was downward-sloping.
The next days I wept a lot.*
I know: less sincere than I'd thought
when I'd claimed to have surrendered
my great love. My secret hope
was dashed and gone. I could not cope,
like one in pain or on a bender
who's used up his or her last fix
and now has nothing, nada, nix
* That line may sound very non-Proustian, but – unlike the rest of the stanza – it’s much closer to a literal translation than Moncrieff flowery ‘Upon the days that followed I gazed through a mist of tears.’