Tag Archives: translation

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.

https://ebooks-bnr.com/ebooks/html/proust_a_la_recherche_du_temps_perdu_3_cote_guermantes.htm

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.

Simon Leys' Death of Napoleon

Simon Leys, The Death of Napoleon, translatd by Patricia Clancy and the author (Black Inc 2006)

This book imagines that Napoleon escaped from exile in St Helena through a brilliantly complex conspiracy, and that the man who died on he island was an impersonator. Napoleon starts out planning to contact his loyal followers and regain power, but – not a spoiler really – that doesn’t happen. So what does a great military strategist and statesman do when deprived of his army and any possibility of rebuilding his power base? What effect does it have on him to take on the identity of a lowly corporal? Can his skills be turned to any other purpose, and what happens if he tries to reveal his true identity? It’s an intriguing and entertaining premise, and it unfolds in precisely realised, sometimes very funny, scenes and crystal-clear language.

This is the only work of fiction by Belgian-Australian scholar Simon Leys (real name Pierre Ryckmans), who is best known, I think, as a learned commentator on Chinese politics and culture. Written in 1967 in his native French it was first published as La mort de Napoléon in 1986. The English translation is copyright 1991, and this edition, which includes a fabulously taciturn Author’s Afterword, was published in 2006.

L’Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique, of which Ryckmans was a member, comments on its website (link here) that this book ‘seems to have found its true mother tongue in its English translation’. Certainly the cool, ironic yet still respectful narrative voice feels comfortably Australian. Even leaving aside the twist in the title – Napoleon’s death is announced fairly early in the narrative, but our hero, the real Napoleon, lives on – the story has plenty of clever twists and surprises, always justified by character, and the final tragicomic movement should be predictable but wasn’t predicted by me.

I’ve only read one other of Simon Leys’ books – not fiction, but written with a novelist’s attention to the telling detail and the emotional force of events: The Wreck of the Batavia and Prosper (my blog post here). I wonder if we should regret that he didn’t write more fiction.

My copy of The Death of Napoleon is on loan from my Book Club.

Proust Progress Report 4:

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), deuxième partie, ‘Nom de pays: le pays’

Here’s my fourth monthly progress report on my project of reading five pages a day of Proust’s Á la recherche du temps perdu. I’ve reached page 682, roughly 60 pages from the end of Book Two. Last month I noted with some surprise that I was now invested in the effete upper-class Parisian characters, especially the chronically ill, introspective narrator-as-remembered. This month, I’m surprised to report, I’m taking the narrator’s longwinded seriously – still laughing at times, but no longer unsympathetically.

Mind you, there’s still something absurd about the young narrator. He glimpses a woman selling milk at a railway station and wants to spend the rest of his life with her. He sees a group of young women at the beach resort of Belbac and falls in love with the whole group. He fantasises the wonderful letters of friendship he will receive from a young man he hasn’t met, is bitterly disappointed when on his first actual meeting with him the young man is reserved. He weeps in bed at night when his grandmother doesn’t come to say goodnight. But I now understand that the narrator, remembering himself as a young man, is at least as amused, astonished or even unbelieving as I am.

Someone defined a literary classic as a book one can’t read for the first time. I understand that: though I wouldn’t say I’ve heard or read very much about Proust, but in the last month he has cropped up twice: as an anagram for ‘stupor’ in a crossword (which gave the Emerging Artist joy, as she has to suffer my occasional chat about the book), and at a talk on memoir by Walter Mason at the Ashfield Library, where he showed an image of madeleines (one of which, dipped in herbal tea, plays a key role in the first book).

Reading the book in French, with some difficulty and a lot of vocabulary blanks, just a couple of pages at a time, I’m generally focusing on particular moments rather than following the broad sweep of the narrative (if there is one).

Here are some more or less random highlights.

When the narrator and his grandmother are at Balbec, he is acutely aware that most of the other guests at the hotel see them as social inferiors (there’s a lot about snobbery in this book, despising it and being unawarely caught up in it). An aristocratic woman (who I imagine as a French Maggie Smith) turns up, inaccessible to the other guests because of a phalanx of attendants. But she is an old friend of the narrator’s grandmother, and he hopes that the connection will increase his own prestige. But when she comes into the dining room, and nods imperiously at grand-mère, the latter – who considers that when on holiday at the beach one should be free from any obligation to acknowledge friends from one’s life in Paris – ignores her. The narrator compares the moment to the sensation of someone who is shipwrecked at sea who sees a large vessel, a potential rescue, approach, only to sail on past without seeing them. (I should mention that in what I’m coming to see as a typically Proustian twist, the two elderly women somehow come to spend a great amount of time together, and the narrator’s hopes are later fulfilled.)

The narrator meets an artist, Elstir, who invites him to visit his studio. The encounter does move the plot forward, but first many pages are spent in rhapsodic description of the artist’s paintings, and theorising about them and about art in general. What’s new for me is that I’m no longer reading these digressions (though you can’t really call them digressions because they’re pretty much central) as waffle. Here’s a tiny example I dog-eared a page for:

si Dieu le Père avait créé les choses en les nommant, c’est en leur ôtant leur nom, ou en leur en donnant un autre qu’Elstir les recréait. Les noms qui désignent les choses répondent toujours à une notion de l’intelligence, étrangère à nos impressions véritables et qui nous force à éliminer d’elles tout ce qui ne se rapporte pas à cette notion.

(p 656)

And a translation I found on the internet (and modified slightly):

If God the Father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their name or giving them another that Elstir created them anew. The names which designate things correspond invariably to an intellectual notion, alien to our true impressions, and compelling us to eliminate from them everything that is not in keeping with that notion.

(From https://www.proust-ink.com/quotable-a)

That comes close to describing what Proust is doing in À la recherche: he takes familiar things – youthful infatuation, a sunset, a romanesque church – and pulls them, or rather the act of experiencing them, apart, then puts them back together transformed. It’s the pulling apart that has people giving up on him saying things like, ‘He just goes on so much!’ But one of the effects of reading him is that an awful lot of what I read or hear elsewhere starts to sound intolerably glib and/or ready-made.

In this morning’s pages, the narrator has almost been introduced to Albertine. The experience is anticlimactic, which is not surprising to the reader as he repeatedly fantasises about something – a theatrical performance, a new friend, the church at Balbec – and then is disappointed when that something materialises in the real world. But this time he follows it up with this lovely reflection:

Tout cela avait causé pour moi du plaisir, mais ce plaisir m’était resté caché ; il était de ces visiteurs qui attendent pour nous faire savoir qu’ils sont là, que les autres nous aient quittés, que nous soyons seuls. Alors nous les apercevons, nous pouvons leur dire : je suis tout à vous, et les écouter. Quelquefois entre le moment où ces plaisirs sont entrés en nous et le moment où nous pouvons y rentrer nous-même, il s’est écoulé tant d’heures, nous avons vu tant de gens dans l’intervalle que nous craignons qu’ils ne nous aient pas attendus. Mais ils sont patients, ils ne se lassent pas, et dès que tout le monde est parti, nous les trouvons en face de nous.

(p 678)

And in English:

All this had been a source of pleasure, but that pleasure had remained hidden from me; it was one of those guests who don’t make their presence known until the others have gone and we are by ourselves. Then we catch sight of them, and can say to them, “I am all yours,” and listen to what they have to say. Sometimes between the moment when these pleasures have entered our consciousness and the moment when we can enter there ourselves, so many hours have passed, we have seen so many people in the interval, that we are afraid they might not have waited for us. But they are patient, they do not grow tired, and as soon as everyone has gone we find them there in front of us.

(C K Scott Moncrieff’s translation, at https://marcel-proust.com/text.html, tinkered with by me)

Did I already say this? It’s like an epic of introspection that may sometimes be silly or solipsistic, but mostly it’s so very alive.

No more writing about Proust from me until the middle of January, by which time, with any luck, I’ll be some way into the third book, Le côté de Guermantes.

November Verse 7 & Proust Progress Report 3

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.’

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’.

Édouard Louis, Who Killed My Father

Édouard Louis, Who Killed My Father (2018, translated from French by Lorin Stein, New Directions 2019)

It was purely fortuitous that I read this book immediately after Susan Hill’s Black Sheep, but they make a beautiful pair. Arthur, one of the sons of the mining family in Black Sheep, disappears overnight, and only we and his youngest brother Ted know that he has escaped rather than met with disaster. Édouard Louis is a young Gay man who has escaped from the working-class conditions that have destroyed his father’s life. It’s as if it calls out to that book: ‘This is what it’s like inside your story!’

The opening sentences of Who Killed My Father – notice the absence of a question mark, also a feature of the French title Qui a tué mon père – says a lot:

When asked what the word racism means to her, the American scholar Ruth Gilmore has said that racism is the exposure of certain populations to premature death.

The same definition holds with regard to male privilege, to hatred of homosexuality or trans people, to domination by class – to social and political oppression of all kinds.

This is not an agony memoir, a whining portrait of a father who made his Gay son’s life a misery. Along with a certain amount of intellectual heft (Ruth Gilmores is not the only scholar to illuminate the narrative),

In all but the first couple of pages, Édouard Louis speaks to his father, who is still alive at the time of writing, presenting him (and, of course, us) with a mosaic of memories from which emerges a picture of how the father’s ‘male privilege’ and ‘hatred of homosexuality’ affected the son, but also the constricting and distorting effect they have had on the father:

Masculinity – don’t act like a girl, don’t be a faggot – meant that you dropped out as fast as you could to show everyone you were strong, as soon as you could to show you were rebellious, and so, as far as I can tell, constructing your masculinity meant depriving yourself of any other life, any other future, any other prospect that school might have opened up. Your manhood condemned you to poverty, to lack of money. Hatred of homosexuality = poverty.

(page 35)

It’s a passionate, painful, complex monologue, full of rage and frustration, reaching a kind of climax when the teenaged son deliberately provokes a near-murderous family row, and in the end it’s a love letter.

There’s a turn about 20 pages from the end. The father is critically injured in an industrial accident. Though he sufferers severe pain from the injury, policies brought in by the governments of Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron ensure that he doesn’t receive the help he needs but must continue in demeaning and damaging work. ‘Why do we never name these names?’ the words just about scream from the page.

The Wikipedia entry on Édouard Louis describes this book (on 9 October 2019) as a novel. I think that’s just plain wrong. I’d be astonished if the author’s father doesn’t read it and recognise every word as real – and find in it a difficult joy.

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).

Elie Wiesel’s Twilight (at a distance)

Elie Wiesel, Twilight (1987, translated from the French Le Crépuscule, au loin by Marion Wiesel 1988;)

I was given this book as a birthday gift some years ago. I was finally spurred to read it by a moment in Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam when he says that Holocaust survivor Frieda Menco became an international activist ‘after hearing fellow Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel discuss his experiences’.

Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Nobel Committee described him as ‘one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression, and racism continue to characterise the world’, and his Wikipedia entry offers ample justification for that description. His writing of memoir and fiction about the Holocaust is just part of his extraordinary activism; it’s the part I’m interested in here.

His first book, published in 1956, was a memoir in Yiddish of his Holocaust experiences, And the World Remained Silent. Night (published in French in 1958, then in English translation in 1960) was a shorter version, focusing on his relationship with his father in the camps. According to Wikipedia, Night ‘now ranks as one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature’. In the next years, he wrote the novels Dawn (published in French in 1960, and in English translation in 1961) and Day (1961/1962), making a trilogy that marked (again I’m quoting Wikipedia) ‘Wiesel’s transition during and after the Holocaust from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall’.

It’s reasonable to suppose that Twilight (especially in its original French title, which translates as ‘Twilight, at a distance’) is meant to be read as a footnote to that trilogy, an extra phase of the diurnal sequence. Not having read those earlier books, then, I’ve come to this one at a disadvantage: I suspect it picks up lines of argument from the trilogy, either amplifying them or refuting them. So bear in mind, if you read on, that I’m writing as someone who came in late. (Imagine reading only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and none of the first six HP novels.)

Raphael Lipkin was a young Jew in Poland during the Second World War. His entire family was wiped out, mostly by the Nazis but some by the Soviets, but he survived thanks to the intervention of a character known only as the madman with veiled eyes, and Pedro, a heroic member of Briha, the underground organisation that helped Holocaust survivors escape Europe. The novel tells the story of his traditional Jewish family as the reality of the Nazi threat becomes clearer and eventually overtakes them. Intertwined with this narrative is the story, some decades later, of Raphael’s time spent in a New York psychiatric hospital where all the patients believe they are characters from ancient history. He goes to the hospital on the pretext of learning from the patients in his academic field of Jewish mysticism, but he is actually trying to find out what happened to Pedro.

The Holocaust narratives here are mostly stories of richly diverse Jewish life – there are Judaic scholars, historians, young people in love, Communists, Zionists. The focus is on the rich culture and community life that was being destroyed rather than on the horror of the process (though there are moments of horror). In the modern story, Raphael speaks constantly to the absent Pedro, whose name he seeks to clear, but though Raphael’s main motivation is to do with Pedro, that story becomes secondary to his engagement with the hospital inmates. He has substantial conversations with Adam, Cain, a prophet, a dead man, the ‘Messiah of mad people’, and finally God himself. As I read it, in all these conversations, Wiesel is addressing the question of how the Judaic religious tradition can deal with the fact of the Holocaust – is it possible to still believe that God exists, that life has meaning. I suspect that as a confirmed atheist, and from a Christian tradition to boot, I missed a lot of the nuance, and if a conclusion is reached it passed me by (though there is a revelation in the final pages that may amount to Wiesel’s theological conclusion, and that revelation is foreshadowed in the epigraph from Maimonides, ‘The world couldn’t exist without madmen’).

The passion and intelligence of the writing held me captive the whole time. As a for-instance, here’s part of a monologue from the mad Adam, early in the book, which states an extreme despairing response to the horrors of the 20th century:

Listen, God. What I am about to tell you is for your own good. Stop! Yes, God: Stop this senseless project. Believe me, even you who are omnipotent cannot succeed in this. You thought man would be your glory, the jewel of your crown. You make me laugh. Man is your failure. Face it. Give up your illusions. Wake up. Be considerate. Close the book before you turn the first page. Does it shame you to admit that I’m right? Then forget it’s my idea. Let it be my gift to you. Legally, philosophically, you will have fathered it. And you know what? Theologically too. All you have to say is: I tried, I was wrong. And, luckily for the world, I realised it in time. Thus, even if your dream will have lasted but one day, one lifetime, you will be applauded. By your angels and seraphim. By the countless souls who will escape the curse of being born only to die. By the trees that will not be felled by man. By the animals that will not be slaughtered. By the earth that will not be despoiled. And all of Creation, pure and resplendent, will say: Look how great is God, how admirable His honesty. He does not shrink from admitting His error. And yes, He can manage perfectly well without man …

(page 28-29)

As you see, this isn’t a book that offers easy answers. It’s not a comfortable read. But (and remember, I’m a man who said last week that I need a novel to be fun) it’s kind of exhilarating.

Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water with the Book Group

Kenzaburō Ōe, Death by Water ( 2009, translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm 2015)

Before the meeting: In flagrant disregard for established practice, our current Designated Chooser nominated two titles, to be read for successive meetings. The first, Edward Said’s On Late Style, was not exactly a triumph (the link is to my blog post), though it has been working away in the back of my mind ever since I read it. This is his second pick.

Kogito Choko is a writer in his eighties who revisits his childhood home with the intention of writing a novel about his father’s death by drowning when he was a child. What he thinks of as ‘the drowning novel’ had been one of his earliest projects, which he had laid aside because his mother wouldn’t give him access to the red trunk that his father had with him on the fateful night. Now, ten years after his mother’s death, the chest is released to him. An experimental theatre group who are passionately interested in his work are developing a project that will involve a dramatisation of his complete works, and hope to incorporate the process of writing the long awaited drowning novel. The theatre group has a signature audience-participation process featuring soft toy dogs and vigorous disagreements.

That’s the set-up. Nothing goes to plan. At one stage a character describes Mr Choko’s recent novels as ‘serial slices of thinly veiled memoir’, and that isn’t a bad description of some aspects of this one.

Kanzburō Ōe has a lot in common with his protagonist: same age, same childhood locality, same artistic medium (though Mr Choko doesn’t seem to have won a Nobel Prize as Ōe has), several novels in his back-catalogue with the same names. According to Wikipedia, Death by Water is Ōe’s sixth novel featuring Kogito Choko and his brain-damaged son Hikari (Ōe’s own brain-damaged son is named Akari). The novel’s imagined reader probably knows all this: I’m coming in very late, so shouldn’t complain if I feel disoriented at times. Which I do.

The novel progresses in an apparently haphazard way. The drowning novel is abandoned (a development it took me many pages to accept) and Mr Choko is persuaded to help write the script for the theatre group’s new project. A different theatre production is described in great detail. His wife is hospitalised and pretty much disappears from the book. He has a terrible falling out with Hikari and the problem of how to provide for Hikari’s needs remains on the agenda until the end. Key characters turn up well after the midpoint of the novel. The final movement deals with historical and remembered rape, incest and abortion – issues that have hardly even been hinted at earlier. It feels like one damned thing after another.

We learn about much of the action by way of letters to Mr Choko or conversations with him. Many words are spent describing theatrical performances and interpreting dreams and poems, though some of the dreams, we’re told, may actually be memories even though they involve a flying boy. Other characters tend to talk at Mr Choko, often offering him unflattering analyses of his personality or work, and they keep on talking in the absence of any verbal response, even one meant only for the reader. Mr Choko is asleep during the dramatic climax, and when his sister tells him (and us) what has happened she can only infer the action from what she has heard and overheard. The very final moments are Mr Choko’s imaginings of what might be going to happen.

At times it was like watching one of those Japanese movies that you can’t take your eyes off but which leaves your Western mind floundering.

My ignorance of Japanese history is part of the problem. Two historical uprisings feature strongly. The theatre group’s project is a stage play based on a film about an uprising during the Meiji Restoration, led by weeping children and warrior women. And Mr Choko’s father was involved in an ultra-nationalist plot to kill the emperor after the end of World War One. The incest-rape-abortion theme is linked to the first of these, and has a definite, though unclear to me, political meaning.

There’s also something about the tone of the writing that doesn’t travel well. For example, Masao, the artistic director of the theatre group, asks Mr Choko to reply to a questionnaire to help with the theatre project. What follows is several pages in which Masao delivers a series of monologues expounding on Mr Choko’s creative intentions and mental states at various points of his career. At the end of each monologue Mr Choko replies briefly to say, ‘Yes, that’s correct,’ ‘That’s exactly right,’ ‘You may very well be right about that, too,’ and so on. In a movie, no matter how deadpan the performance, this would be comic. But it’s just not funny on the page. Something isn’t translating.

But I’m not blaming the translator. I was disconcerted by a number of US-isms: a mention of a character’s ‘trail of tears’, for example, had me wondering why Ōe was referring to that terrible event from US history, until I realised he probably wasn’t. But other unsettling language is most likely just as unsettling in the original. I had to return my copy to the library so can’t give examples, sorry.

Mr Choko plans to write a book in a ‘catastrophic late style’ à la Edward Said (who was a friend of his), and perhaps this is Ōe’s version of the same. Perhaps this is Ōe’s ‘drowning novel’.

Having written a first draft of this blog post, I re-read the last ten pages of the book before returning it to the library, and realised that for all the book’s opacity and apparent incoherence, it does hang together. It comes back again and again to the main image of Choko’s last contact with his father, just before the father drowned. The boy’s unresolved feelings about that moment are the novel’s engine, echoed by a young woman’s need for resolution about her experience of rape and incest: it’s a tortuous, and tortured, path for both of them, but in very different ways they each find some sort of resolution.

After the meeting: There was a terrifying moment when it seemed out host, who was also the Designated Chooser, wouldn’t be able to come to the meeting because of a family crisis. Happily – both in terms of the crisis and for the good of the group – he did turn up, and was able to deal with our general bafflement with lucidity and grace.

But first: my bafflement was generally shared. One man said that he had never experience so strongly a sense that he and a book were travelling along separate, parallel lines. His partner got exasperated with his moaning and told him to abandon it and read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles instead – advice he was happy to follow. He wasn’t the only one to jump ship.

Our host agreed that some elements of the book were mystifying, but they didn’t determine his response. For him it worked as a comedy – the protagonist is an unreliable narrator, who thinks of himself as a distinguished novelist, perhaps a national treasure, but is in fact pretty much a has-been: the theatre group, which he thinks of a celebrating his legacy, is actually using his work as a springboard for something very different – devoted though they may be. He is managed by the women in his life – his mother, his sister and his wife; is useless at dealing with his son’s difficulties. And alongside this comic aspect, our host was enthralled by the way the images of forest and water are woven through the book, so that he was thrilled by the final moments (which I felt were clumsy and arbitrary).

I don’t know that he persuaded any of us to go back and reread the book, but it was a wonderful to have someone lay out a very different response to a book. One of us would say, ‘But what do you make of [blah blah]’. ‘Oh that,’ he’d say, ‘that’s something from Japanese culture.’ It’s no good argung about taste, as my Latin teacher used to say (but in Latin, De gustibus non est disputandum), but you can definitely learn a lot from talking about where different tastes take you.

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001–2011

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year 2001–2011 (2013, translation by Katy Derbyshire, Seagull Books, 2017)

In 1960 the Moscow newspaper Izvestia invited a number of writers, including East German Christa Wolf, to describe one day in their lives, 27 September that year, as precisely as possible. Christa Wolf accepted the invitation and found the project so interesting that she did the same for that date every year for the rest of her life.

She didn’t necessarily intend this writing for publication, but at the turn of the century she decided to compile the 41 pieces into a book, saying in her preface (reprinted at the start of this book):

I see it as a kind of professional obligation to publish them. Our most recent history seems to be at risk of being reduced, even now, to easily manageable formulae. Perhaps messages like these can play a part in keeping opinions on what has happened in flux, re-examining prejudices, dismantling hardened views, recognising our own experiences and gaining more trust in them, allowing unfamiliar circumstances a little closer to ourselves.

That book is a compendium of detailed accounts of a single day for each year, coming very close to the primary classroom concept of a ‘recount’ as opposed to a shaped ‘narrative’, beginning in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall was built, ending long after the unification of Germany, and traversing on the way the massive social and political changes of the 1960s to 90s, as well as huge changes in Wolf’s personal life.

The book I’ve just read is not so much a sequel as an addendum. The German original, titled Ein Tag im Jahr im neuen Jahrhundert (literally One Day a Year in the New Century) was published in 2013, nearly two years after Wolf’s death in December 2011. The changes it charts are not as momentous, at least not on the world stage – at the personal level these pages are overwhelmingly aware of the approach of death – but nor is it as dauntingly huge.

I found the book fascinating. Each day is full of detail: the dream from which Wolf wakens, a list of newspaper headlines, the meals her husband prepares, crime shows on television, her current reading, her current writing project, gossip, calls on her to appear in the media, invitations to gallery openings (most of which go straight to the bin), news from her family (one of her daughters has a birthday on 28 September, so family always looms large), reflections on the big events of the day (German elections seem to happen in September), correspondence. It’s not that all these things are presented as of equal value: Wolf knows that her reflections on, say, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, will be more interesting to her possible readers (including her future self) than what she had for lunch. But there’s a wonderful sense of the broad sweep of history enmeshed in the minutiae of life as each entry ‘interrogates the bejesus’ out of its day (the phrase is from Phillipa McGuinness’s The Year that Everything Changed, which did for the year 2001 what Wolf does for her days – the link is to my blog post).

I imagine that every reader will find her or his own personal points of connection. Here are some of mine.

On 9/11, the perspective of a former East Berliner stands as something of a challenge these days to those who urge the primacy of ‘western civilisation’:

Why did it seem to me – precisely sixteen days ago it was – as though those two towers were crashing directly into the empty centre of our civilisation, the alleged target of the attack? Everyone appeared to know what our civilisation is. […] So it’s Greek philosophy, the monotheistic religions, the Enlightenment’s belief in reason … And what if they had all lost their effectualness in the Occident under the ‘terror of the economy’ and lived on only as a chimera inside us? And have not more and more people sensed that this civilisation of ours is hollowed out and empty?

(page 11)

(Incidentally, that ‘the Occident’ makes me wish I could read German so I’d know if it was Wolf or the translator Katy Derbyshire who decided to use it rather than the more usual ‘the West’. Given the general ease of the English elsewhere, I’m assuming it was Wolf: she tends to use ‘the West’ to mean West Germany, and Katy Derbyshire has honoured her usage.)

In the period covered by this book, Wolf completed the only other book by her that I’ve read: City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud. That book deals in part with a moment in 1985 when it was revealed that she had been an informant for the Stasi – something she had completely forgotten. There are some interesting footnotes to that book – she mentions in passing the difficulty of writing it, of dealing with editorial changes and then, in 2010, readers’ responses. This passage makes me resolve to tell writers when their work means something to me:

Then a quite long, intense letter from a woman from Berlin, prompted by City of Angels, which she calls a ‘captivating and liberating’ text. My books, she writes, have accompanied her for more than half her life (people often tell me that now). She goes on to thank me for staying ‘in this part of the country’ […] I could cite more of this letter, which is typical of a large number of letters I’ve received since City of Angels. More from the East – but not only from there – more women than men, more older than very young people. Testaments of personal concern, which push aside my doubts over whether I ought to have published the book in this form.

(page 145)

The book is probably an example of ‘late style’, as discussed in Edward Said’s On Late Style, a book that failed to impress me much when I read it last year, but which seems to be relevant to almost everything I’ve read since. Like Said’s book, this one was published posthumously. Unlike his, it’s explicit about the writer’s physical condition. This moment from 2007 strikes a chord with me, though the pain in my joints is a trivial shadow of hers:

From the living room window I see a young blonde woman walking past, in a white jacket and black trousers; I watch enviously as she walks without effort, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.

I console myself – when I was her age I could do that too.

(page 110)

The final entry – just two pages of notes she managed to scribble two months before she died – is an extraordinary testimony to her dedication to the life of the mind, and to this task in particular: among the notations about the struggle to find a position for sleeping that won’t be in pain, her medication, difficulties with eating and going to the toilet, she mentions her reading:

I read a few pages of [Estela Canto’s] relationship to Borges, which Ellen sent me. Didn’t know B. was infertile – for mental reasons, not least due to his domineering mother.

(p 149)

In the middle of it all, there’s always something new to learn.

I don’t suppose this book is everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes me glad to belong to species that has included such an individual.