Tag Archives: French

Proust Progress Report 7: more about the Guermantes

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Le côté de Guermantes, seconde partie (originally published as a separate volume in 1921)

I’ve just realised with a shock that it’s time for my monthly Proust Progress Report.

A month ago I ended my post with the hope that the plot, such as it is, might move along soon. The opening page of the first chapter of Le côté de Guermantes Part Two offers hope, beginning with a plot summary:

Maladie de ma grand-mère. – Maladie de Bergotte.
Le duc et le médecin. – Déclin de ma grand-mère. – Sa mort.

In English:

My grandmother’s illness. – Bergotte’s illness.
The duke and the doctor. – My grandmother’s decline. – Her death.

What follows is a moving account of the final illness and death of the narrator’s beloved grandmother. Proust’s sharp, satirical edge is still there in his accounts of the various doctors and visitors of the sick. In particular, this intensely felt episode doesn’t overshadow completely the main concern of this book (or two books, depending on how you count them), which is the narrator’s relationships with the aristocratic Guermantes family and his acerbic commentary on them.

Albertine, with whom he fell into unrequited love in the second book but who no longer tugs at his heartstrings, turns up when he’s sick with grief and it seems she is now in love with him. I may have misinterpreted Proust’s opaque narrative at this point, but I think they have it off, and remain completely at cross purposes about what it means. The plot is definitely thickening.

But then we move on to the main game, and the forward impetus is lost. The duchess Mme de Guermantes, Oriane, with whom the narrator has also been in unrequited love and who also no longer pulls at his heartstrings – invites him to dinner. The plot of the next 100 pages or so can be summarised as: the narrator goes to dinner with a bunch of aristocrats.

The narrator is pretty much a fly on the wall. Every now and then someone speaks to him and he gets a word in edgewise, but he gives us a meticulous, detailed account of the witty, snarky conversation, so that the various personalities emerge sharply. Embedded in the narrative are essays on aspects of the culture and politics of the salons and of the aristocratic class.

When the narrator arrives at the Guermantes home – which is just across the courtyard from his own, though separated by a great social distance – he is greeted by the duke himself, who happily grants him his wish to be left alone in a room with some paintings by the great Elstir. When he tears himself away from the paintings (having given us a richly evocative analysis of them) he realises an hour has passed. A servant takes him to where the other guests are waiting to start dinner. The duke, aware as are all the guests that the narrator has the lowest status of anyone in the room, is at great pains not to make him feel he has inconvenienced anyone. So even though they have all been waiting to eat for at least forty minutes, he makes a point of introducing him to everyone individually, beginning with the Princess, the noblest person in the room. Only after a decent interval does he signal diffidently to the servants to announce dinner.

That tiny sequence is the occasion for a complex meditation on what you might call noblesse oblige, though that’s not a phrase Proust uses. These people who are in the highest social rank will never make a point of their status. In fact the way they demonstrate their superiority is by treating their inferiors (that is to say, just about everyone) with elaborate deference. It’s hard to explain the pleasure given by this essay – and a number of others, such as one on Oriane’s wit and social eminence. It’s something to do with paradox, and the tension between the infectious enthusiasm that Proust has for these people and his clear-eyed perception that they lead largely idle and trivial lives, and generally have appalling politics. And it’s laid out in sentences that you can get lost in, and then miraculously found again.

I’ve still got about a hundred pages of this book to go. The narrator has an appointment to meet the creepy M Charlus – Oriane’s brother – once he can make his excuses from the dinner, and that appointment hangs over the glittering dinner like a livid storm cloud. The title of next volume is Sodome et Gomorrhe, which raises the possibility that things are going to get a lot spicier.

Proust Progress Report 6: halfway through the third book

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): finished Le côté de Guermantes (1020–1921), première partie.

Exactly six months into reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and I’m halfway through the third volume. I have now finished the first part of Le côté de Guermantes, which was originally published separately.

If you’re looking for sizzling action, this book isn’t for you. The narrator has dinner with the military friends of his friend de Saint-Loup and is fascinated by military theory. He meets de Saint-Loup’s mistress, whom everyone except de Saint-Loup knows is a prostitute. He attends a salon where people are variously snobbish, uncouth, bien-pensant, antisemitic, evasively diplomatic and pretentious. He goes for a walk with the extremely creepy and probably predatory M de Charlus. At home, he finds his beloved grandmother is sick. He goes out for a walk with her and she has a heart attack.

Much of it is wryly funny, and there is one belly laugh. At least, I laughed out loud when after about twenty pages in which the narrator is a fly on the wall at the salon, the object of his infatuation who has not deigned to utter a single word to him when introduced, finally – after the narrator’s dear friend Robert de Saint-Loup whispers in her ear – turns to him and says, ‘Comment allez-vous?‘ Your mileage may vary.

I think of Proust as the Anti-Twitter: no proposition goes unquestioned, one’s immediate interpretation of a word or action is more likely than not to turn into its opposite when subjected to sustained, complex explication. No one ever gives a straight answer to a question. We know that Proust and his narrator are dreyfusards*, and the anti-dreyfusard characters are mocked mercilessly, but there’s no sign of Twitter’s door-slamming outrage. And yet Patrick Alexander, author of a guide to Proust, is rewriting In Search of Lost Time (in English) as a series of tweets. Sadly, my computer wouldn’t go far enough back in his Twitter timeline to give me his version of what I’ve just read, so I can’t tell whether he’s making a point of the impossibility of the project.

It turns out, though, that skimming @ProustTweet‘s timeline gave me hope that the endless conversations in this volume are about to give way to something a little more active. The account of grand-mère’s heart attack holds out that promise as well: it happens offstage while the narrator is paying attention to a silly conversation between the ‘marquise’ who attends the public toilets and a caretaker of the gardens they are visiting. The important things, it seems to be suggested, happen when the narrative is engaged elsewhere.

* Proust assumes that his readers are familiar with the Dreyfus Affair, which Wikipedia informs me divided the republic from 1894 to 1906. In essence a Jewish army officer was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for treason, and even when evidence of his innocence came to light the high-ranking office who had actually committed the treason was found not guilty and Dreyfus was again, against the evidence, and went to prison. In Proust, and I assume in the actual world, conservative, Catholic, antisemitic people of the upper classes tended to be antidreyfusards.

Proust Progress Report 5: Beginning the third volume

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): finished À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919), deuxième partie, ‘Nom de pays: le pays’; began Le côté de Guermantes (1020–1921), première partie.

As promised in my last report, I am now well under way in the third book, English title The Guermantes Way.

The last 60 pages of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs got quite sexy, with our poor narrator being sadly disappointed in what he had thought was going to be a long-yearned-for erotic rendezvous, in a way that not even his ingenious rationalisations could make less humiliating. But he bounced back and finished the book in good spirits.

There’s a scene in that book where an older man visits our narrator’s bedroom at night, lends him a book and paces about as if expecting something. The only way I can make sense of the scene is that the older man is hoping for a sexual encounter but goes away disappointed – to all of which the narrator is oblivious. Since absolutely no sexual overture is explicit it made me wonder how much I miss that goes unsaid elsewhere. And as I type those words I realise that the narrator’s disappointment in Albertine’s bedroom (mentioned in the previous paragraph) becomes even funnier in the light of his own unwitting rejection of the older gentleman. Incidentally, one of the common phrases in the book, is ‘à mon/son insu‘, which I guess translates as ‘unwittingly’.

I had thought that in this monthly report I’d write about whatever I happened to have just read. But what I’ve just read is two pages in which the narrator’s aristocratic army-officer friend Robert de Saint-Loup expands on the idea that there is an aesthetic side to the art of war, so maybe I’ll go back a bit.

On New Year’s Eve, in one of those conversations people who see each other once a year ask each other what we’ve been doing, I said I’m reading Proust. Behold, my interlocutor had read Swann’s Way with his book group, and has a friend who has read the whole of À la recherche in English and is now reading it in French. He quoted that friend as saying that in Proust what is not said matters more than what is said – a paradox, given that so much is said. There’s a marvellous moment in my reading since that conversation that exemplifies the point.

The narrator has gone to visit Robert de Saint-Loup at his garrison in the hope of procuring an introduction to Saint-Loup’s beautiful aunt, the object of the narrator’s stalkerish infatuation, the duchess de Guermantes. As it turns out, de Saint-Loup invites the narrator to stay with him in his quarters at the garrison. Over dinner, the narrator recognises a striking family likeness between his friend and his friend’s aunt. The emotional force of this recognition must have shown in his face because:

Robert, sans en connaître les causes, était touché de mon attendrissement.


In English:

Robert, unaware of its cause, was touched by my show of affection.

From http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300411h.html, modified by me.

Things move on from there:

Celui-ci d’ailleurs s’augmentait du bien-être causé par la chaleur du feu et par le vin de Champagne qui faisait perler en même temps des gouttes de sueur à mon front et des larmes à mes yeux ; il arrosait des perdreaux ; je les mangeais avec l’émerveillement d’un profane, de quelque sorte qu’il soit, quand il trouve dans une certaine vie qu’il ne connaissait pas ce qu’il avait cru qu’elle excluait (par exemple d’un libre penseur faisant un dîner exquis dans un presbytère).

In English:

My affection was moreover increased by the comfortable heat of the fire and by the champagne which at the same time brought beads of sweat to my brow and tears to my eyes; it washed down the partridges; I ate mine in a state of wonder like some sort of profane person who finds in a form of life with which he is not familiar what he has supposed that form of life to exclude—the wonder, for instance, of a free-thinker who sits down to an exquisitely cooked dinner in a presbytery.

So far so good: during an extended tête-à-tête in his friend’s room, the narrator looks at his friend with an expression that properly would be directed to the women he is infatuated with. He sees that his friend mistakenly thinks the tender look is meant for him. The narrator is filled with a sense of wellbeing, is experiencing delights such as he had never imagined. What could happen next? Well:

Et le lendemain matin en m’éveillant, j’allai jeter par la fenêtre de Saint-Loup qui, située fort haut, donnait sur tout le pays, un regard de curiosité pour faire la connaissance de ma voisine, la campagne, que je n’avais pas pu apercevoir la veille, parce que j’étais arrivé trop tard, à l’heure où elle dormait déjà dans la nuit. 

In English:

And next morning, when I awoke, I went to cast from Saint-Loup’s window, which being at a great height overlooked the whole countryside, a curious look to make the acquaintance of my new neighbour, the landscape which I had not been able to distinguish the day before, having arrived too late, at an hour when it was already sleeping in the night.

So we’ll never know what happened between all those feelings of growing intimacy and waking up next morning. I won’t quote any more of this passage, as there’s an extended description of the neighbouring hill. But the narrator is filled with a new joy as the day progresses, and begins to visit Saint-Loup in his room regularly, and when Saint-Loup and he dine with Saint-Loup’s friends, they hang on each other’s words shamelessly – and our weedy, literary narrator becomes fascinated with the world of military manoeuvres and military history, the world of Saint-Loup.

What would I have thought of all this if I hadn’t been told that what’s unsaid is more important that what is said, and that this book is a classic queer masterpiece? Pretty much what I make of it now, I expect.

In a month’s time I expect to have finished the première partie of Le côté de Guermantes, and I’ll tell you if our narrator ever does get to meet the duchess … and if he cares.

Bête/beast du/of the marais/Camargue

Xavier-Marie Bonnot, The Beast of the Camargue (translation Ian Monk, Maclehose Press 2009)

Maybe I’m turning into a horrible person, because here’s yet another book I’ve laid aside, this time just before page 100. It was a big hit in France, so it might be that I’ve lost all sense of what makes a good read. But it’s a murder mystery, and very little had happened by the time I parted company from it – the body of an extremely rich man who has been missing for a fortnight or so has finally been found in a swamp, so it feels as if the story might be about to start. An unnamed man who is probably a psychopathic serial killer has made a couple of lacklustre appearances. There’s a cop with enough idiosyncrasies to make him interesting, a romance that will probably stay unconsummated, and a beautiful, rich widow with something she’s not telling. There are English-speaking tourists, wandering with their cameras through places where evil lurks. Oh, and there are hints that the evil might be in some way occult. In other words, it’s familiar territory, and there evidently wasn’t enough in it to engage this reader.

Two things kept me reading even this long: the setting and the translation. The action takes place in parts of France I visited last year (as one of those gormless tourists), and I was hoping there would be pleasure in revisiting them – but the sense of place, it turns out, isn’t very strong. I was fascinated by the translation. When Gregory Rabassa was working on his translation of A Hundred Years of Solitude, an interviewer asked him if he knew enough Spanish for the task. He answered, ‘The question isn’t whether I know enough Spanish, the question is do I know enough English.’ I have no doubt that Ian Monk’s French was well up to the challenge of translating this book, much much better than mine I expect, but his English is disconcertingly uncomfortable in its own skin. A quick google just now turned up this sentence from the original:

‘Sortez du problème, les gars. Allez fourrer votre nez là où personne n’irait jamais le fourrer.’

As luck would have it, I knew where to find the English version (on page 83):

‘Move outside the problem, lads. Go and stick your nose where no one else would stick it.’

The French, advice that a wise old cop once gave our hero, looks to be casual speech, but the English is oddly stilted. Sortir is ordinary language for leaving or going out (of something), but who says, Move outside (something)? And how could anyone else stick the lads’ nose anywhere? How about:

Step outside of the problem, lads. Stick your nose in places where no one else would think of sticking theirs.

That’s just nit-picking, of course. My eye glided over that sentence when I read it in context. I noticed its awkwardness now because it’s the only sentence from the book I’ve seen the French for, so it’s the one I was stuck with to consider here. But the cumulative effect of such small misfires is both fascinating (as in, I’d love to study this closely because it shows a lot about language) and unpleasant (as in, I keep being jolted ever so slightly out of the world of the story).

Actually, I think Ian Monk is probably a very good translator. I spent maybe ten minutes playing around with that one sentence. He had to earn a living. Translators aren’t exactly paid at merchant banker rates, and you do what you can in the time you’ve got.

Anyhow, Commandant Michel de Palma may be the French reading public’s equivalent of John Rebus, but he couldn’t keep me reading past page 98.

Les voies d’Anubis

Tim Powers, Les voies d’Anubis (J’ai Lu 1986; translated by Gérard Lebec from ‘l’americain’, original title The Anubis Gates)

2290020117When this turned up on BookMooch en français I decided to seize the chance to brush up my French at the same time as crossing an Apollo Award winner off my TBR list. The plan worked out excellent well. The novel is a fabulously over the top fantasy, like an extended episode of Doctor Who, only there’s no Doctor to help out when the quantum mechanical (or in fact magical) time travel to the England of Coleridge and Byron, and beyond, goes horribly wrong. Or it could be likened to a Cairo Jim adventure with an organisation very like the Old Relics Society and a time-travelling Eng Lit scholar cum pseudo-werewolf in place of Geoffrey McSkimming’s poet-archaeologist: it’s got Egyptian gods, animated statues, history mysteries, but sadly no animal companions. It’s a vastly inventive, rip-roaring picaresque adventure, with a lovely array of grotesque villains, some almost Shakespearean crossdressing, and much derring-do.

Reading it in translation reintroduced me to the childhood pleasures of incomplete comprehension, guessing meaning from the context, sometimes with a fair degree of confidence, occasionally looking a word up, every now and then having a word’s meaning emerge into clarity with repeated appearances, and even – once in a while – knowing what a word means without knowing the English for it (I had to look up embarcadère, for instance, to translate it as landing stage, but I knew what structure it referred to without benefit of dictionary).  I could just about feel my neurons reconfiguring.

The other pleasure came from pace: I was forced to read slowly, so slowly that by the time I’d finished the prologue and the first chapter, I felt as if I’d read a whole book, so in effect I got four or more books for the price of one. This effect was helped, of course, by the episodic structure.

I probably missed a lot, though I did laugh out loud more than once, which means I got at least some of the jokes, and that’s supposed to be the hardest thing when you’re reading in a language you’re not fluent in. In fact, there was at least one joke that might easily have been tailor-made for my situation: a character says at one point ‘Psaume en chemise sans cote de quarte?’ and I wracked my brains (‘Psalm in shirt on side of quad?’ Really?), only to be relieved five lines later when the character articulates carefully, ‘Sauté en mille six cent quatre-vingt-quatre’ (‘Jumped to 1684?’ which is simply reiterating incredulously what someone else has just said). [I just Looked Inside This Book at Amazon, and found that the original poorly articulated line was ‘Jutmoop sidskeen eftee door?’, gibberish which I don’t think would create the same puzzlement in someone who knew English as well as I know French.]

If this had been a ‘serious’ literary work and I’d enjoyed it this much, I’d probably feel that I ought now to read it in the original. While I now have Tim Powers on my list of authors to look out for, I’m happy with one reading of this, happy to recommend it as a constantly surprising and delighting romp either in French or in English.