Tag Archives: Marcel Proust

Proust Progress Report 2: The end of Swann’s Way

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, deuxième partie, ‘Un amour de Swann’, et troisième partie, ‘Noms de pays: le nom’

So, keeping up with my quota of five pages a day, I’ve now read the whole the first of the seven novels, Du côté de chez Swann / Swann’s Way, in almost exactly two months.

‘Un amour de Swann’ takes off in a completely new direction from the first partie of the novel. It turns out to be the story of events that took place before those in the first part. The unnamed narrator isn’t born yet, and M Swann, the charming neighbour whose evening visits meant the narrator’s mother didn’t come to kiss narrator goodnight, and beside whose property the family most often walked on their way home from church, takes centre stage in a waspish comedy of manners (at least that’s the tone as I read it), in which he falls in love with the vulgar and manipulative (and, as we come to discover, free with her sexual favours) Odette de Crécy on the basis, not so much of her person as of her similarity in appearance to Jethro’s daughter Zipporah as painted by Sandro Botticelli and because he associates her with a particularly beautiful musical phrase, only to be tormented by jealousy as years pass until at last (spoiler alert!) he is miraculously freed from her spell and realises, to the reader’s great relief, that she wasn’t even his type. That sentence was my attempt to approach Proust’s structural complexity. If you got a little bit lost in the middle of it, then found your way again, you have some inkling of what I’ve been doing for an average of five pages a day for the last month.

In the third and final section, ‘Noms de pays: le nom’ (‘Country names: the name’), the narrator is back. The section begins with a long essay on how as a child he imbued the names of towns he had never visited with certain qualities, and as a result when he did actually visit the town there was always a disappointment – the town in the real world and the town in his imagination were both real, but existed in different dimensions. (That’s a crude summary of many beautifully written pages.) Then he remembers playing with a group of children in the Champs Elisées in wintertimes, when he was somewhat older than the child of the first section: here he fell in love with Gilberte Swann, glimpsed in Swann’s garden holding a hoe in the first section. On days when Gilberte won’t be coming to the place where they play, he persuades Françoise (the maid of his great-aunt in the first section, now working for the narrator’s immediate family) to take him to teh Bois de Boulogne. There he sees a vision of loveliness, Gilberte’s mother, Mme Swann. we know from the first section that the narrator’s parents disapprove of Mme Swann, and refuse to have anything to do with her. And, this is a real spoiler, we discover that Swann had married Odette after all.

Reading this book with rusty French feels pretty much ideal. I’m slowed down. At times I grow inpatient at the lack of incident, but there’s always the wrestle with syntax and vocabulary to keep me engaged. I can’t always tell the tone, and there are jokes that I just don’t get, like a scene where a couple of salon-goers make what I can tell is nasty wordplay on someone’s name. I get what’s happening, but have no idea of the particulars. Likewise the detailed accounts of gardens and clothing ensembles: I wouldn’t know a paletot de loutre from an ampilopsis merveilleux. Something glorious is being described, and that’s enough. Mostly I don’t look things up, but am happy to live in ignorance.

I laughed a lot – though maybe I wasn’t meant to. I gasped once or twice – and I’m pretty sure Proust meant me to. And even though I’m often not sure of exactly how a sentence works, I’m constantly on awe of the mastery of the prose. For example, here’s a sentence where the narrator is reflecting on how he sees the Bois de Boulogne differently from when he was a child. It lacks the magic it had back then. The women’s clothes aren’t as spectacular, and the men go (you can feel him shudder) bare-headed. As a child he believed in the Bois, whereas now it has no charm or importance:

Mais quand disparaît une croyance, il lui survit – et de plus en plus vivace pour masquer le manque de la puissance que nous avons perdue de donner de la réalité à des choses nouvelles – un attachement fétichiste aux anciennes qu’elle avait animées, comme si c’était en elles et non en nous que le divin résidait et si notre incrédulité actuelle avait une cause contingente, la mort des Dieux.

(page 341)

Here’s my translation, with help from C K Scott Moncrieff’s (from here), but presuming to differ from it:

But when a belief vanishes, it is survived – more and more stubbornly, so as to disguise the absence of the power, now lost to us, of imparting reality to new things – by an fetishistic attachment to the old things which our belief had once animated, as if it was in those things and not in us that the divine spark resided, and as if our present lack of belief had a contingent cause: the death of the Gods.

That’s a lot more awkward in English than in French. The English needs you to repeat the words ‘things’ and ‘belief’ and so becomes more cluttered than the French, where simple pronouns – elles and elle respectively – do the job. The English feels cluttered and clunky, whereas the French flows smoothly towards that final phrase – which made me go back and reread the sentence, and the one before it, because I was suddenly made to realise that the narrator wasn’t just talking about hats and dresses, but something reasonably profound about the difference between the creative way children see the world and jaded adult ways of seeing.

In short, then, I’m enjoying this project so far. Five pages a day is fine, but it works best if I do it in two instalments. Someone has probably written a novel called ‘In search of Time to Read Proust’.

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).