Tag Archives: translation

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.

Ruby Reads 18: buckets from the stream

Blogging about books read to Ruby could become a full time occupation. All I can do is dip my little bucket in the stream every now and then and show you what I caught in it. Here goes!

Christina Booth, Are These Hen’s Eggs? (Allen & Unwin 2020)

Mrs Roberta Kennedy, a retired school teacher, reads to children at Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill every Thursday morning. When we attended last week, the usual contingent from a nearby childcare centre didn’t arrive so Ruby made up half the young audience and this was a wonderfully intimate experience for her, especially as the other little one was sick and not that interested.

Are These Hen’s Eggs? is hot off the press, and though it’s the first book by Christina Booth that I’ve encountered, she has written and illustrated a lot (link to her website here). This one has a story of friendship and cooperation – the hen’s eggs are scattered in a storm and other animals help to retrieve them – and it slips in a sweetly amusing lesson, because as the eggs hatch we get to see a range of creatures that are born out of eggs, culminating in a very cute turtle (I was half expecting a snake, and was relieved that Christina Booth went for cute rather than scary).


Alex Barrow, If I Had a Sleepy Sloth (Thames & Hudson 2020)

Also hot off the press (after all it’s a bookshop and the merchandise must be promoted), this is great fun. I must admit that what I remember is the incidental facts about sloths: moss grows in their fur and they have very long claws. I can’t tell you if these facts were in the text or in Mrs Kennedy’s asides. But the images are splendidly friendly.


Didier Lévy (text) and Fred Benaglia (images), How to Light Your Dragon (Thames & Hudson 2020)

A child tries all sorts of tactics to rekindle his pet dragon’s fire. In the end, it’s his affection that does the trick. We’r never quite sure whether we’re on the child’s side or the dragons. Do we hope the fire will come or do we wish the child would just leave the poor fireless creature alone? Either way, we love the images.

This is translated from French, original title Comment rallumer un dragon éteint. I couldn’t find the translator’s name anywhere, sorry. Didier Lévy is a prolific creator of children’s books, and I hope this isn’t the only one that’s available to Anglophone children. many of them ringing the changes o fairytale themes. Fred Benaglia is similarly prolific in the Francophone world.


Chris McKimmie, I NEED a Parrot (Ford Street Publishing 2019)

Mrs Kennedy showed her virtuosity here. Realising that the books she had selected in advance weren’t appropriate for her audience of a solitary two year old (plus grandparents), she scrimmaged around on the shelves and chose this, and did a brilliant unrehearsed reading. The child narrator here wants a parrot and goes thought a list of the things she doesn’t want – the whale in the cover illustration is the most outlandish, but not by much.


Eunice Moyle and Sabrina Moyle, Super Pooper and Whizz Kid: Potty Power! (Harry N Abrams 2018)

This wasn’t part of Robbie Kennedy’s repertoire. It was in the board book shelf at Marrickville Library, and some inner demon prompted me to pick it up and read it with appropriate gusto to Ruby. It’s a rude and irreverent explanation of the use of a potty with adventurous typography and wealth of synonyms for bodily functions. I don’t know that the synonyms did much for Ruby, but she stayed interested. The bit I liked best was where the child, once sitting on the potty, has to wait … and WAIT …and WAIT.


Julia Donaldson (words) and Axel Scheffler (images), Tabby McTat (Alison Green Books, Tenth Anniversary edition 2019)

This Tabby McTat is a busker’s dear friend. When Tabby is distractd by a beautiful female cat named Sox and the busker gets into serious trouble they are separated. It’s a book about love and loss and change and hope. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler are one of the power partnerships of current children’s literature, and this is my favourite of their books. Donaldson makes rhyming look easy and her wit is brilliant as well as age-appropriate – Ruby loves the song that Tabby McTat sings with his human busker friend:

Me, you and the old guitar,
How perfectly, perfectly happy we are.
MEEE-EW and the old guitar.
How PURRRR-fectly happy we are!

Or at least, she quotes it when the book is picked up and has told me I can’t do the song: ‘No song, Poppa!’ I must be doing it differently from her father, who is a very good reader of children’s books.


Are These Hen’s Eggs? is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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.

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Everything I Don’t Remember

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Everything I don’t remember(2015, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, audio book read by Jack Hawkins, Bolinda 2016)

I’d pretty much given up on audio books (see here and here), but the Emerging Artist is less prone to burning bridges than I am, and she borrowed two from the library for a longish drive on the weekend. We listened to Everything I Don’t Remember, all seven hours of it, and I’m once again open to the medium.

A young man named Samuel has died in a car crash, probably deliberately, and a writer is interviewing people who were close to him to find out how they make sense of his death. It settles down to three main interviewees: Samuel’s best friend Vandad, a woman not-quite-lover Panther, and Laide, the lover he broke up with a little before his death. Their narratives, sometimes expanded by scenes imagined by the writer, are interwoven, filling one another’s gaps, contradicting one another, commenting – often harshly and unfairly – on the others’ roles in Samuel’s life and death.

Samuel’s impending death provides a central narrative thread, but the book sends out tendrils into very interesting parts of Swedish society. There’s a brilliantly cinematic moment when a recorded tourist commentary on Stockholm plays on while the people hearing it are experiencing a very different version of that city – which is the version where the main action of the novel plays out, populated by artists, low-level public servants and community workers, struggling members of the gig economy, petty criminals, refugees, most of them, like Jonas Hassen Khemiri himself who has a Tunisian father, of African or West Asian heritage.

Some of the time as we listened we were driving through bush that is just beginning to put out new shoots of recovery from bushfire. In spite of the competition from the real world, the world of the novel kept us engaged (though we had to turn it off every so often to let the surrounding devastation sink in).

There are some meta elements. One of the interviewees tells the writer not to attempt to write Samuel in the first person because he can never know what was in Samuel’s mind. The reader (at least this reader) agrees, and the whole weight of the novel seems to lie behind the advice. Then, in the next section, Samuel’s internal monologue appears for the first time. And in the last ten minutes or so the writer explains to us why he undertook the project. These, and similar moments, may be just clever bits of mise-en-abîme (you know: the camera draws back and you realise you’re looking at a picture within a picture within a picture, ad infinitum), but I read them as moving the narrative beyond journalistic enquiry to something more emotionally engaged – and thereFore more emotionally engaging.

The Bolinda packaging doesn’t mention a translator. I found Rachel Willson-Broyles’s name online in connection with the English print edition, and assume that the smooth, elegant English on these discs is hers. And reader Jack Hawkins is a master at speaking to the microphone intimately, so that it almost feels as if the narrative is unfolding inside the listener’s head, while at the same time he manages the extraordinary feat of always, or almost always, being clear which of several voices is speaking at any given time.

Bernhard Schlink’s Weekend

Bernhard Schlink, The Weekend, translated by Shaun Whiteside (2008, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2010)

A group of friends in their 50s meet for a weekend in a grand, but dilapidated house in the German countryside, the first time they’ve all been together in decades. The occasion for their reunion is Jörg’s release from gaol where he has been serving a sentence for acts of terrorism – including four murders – back in the 1970s. The others had been members or sympathisers of the leftist group he had belonged to, but hadn’t been part of the violence.

As well as Jörg, there are Henner, now a journalist, Ilse, a school teacher, Ulrich who owns a string of dental laboratories, and Karin, a bishop, plus Jörg’s protective older Christiane. Ulrich and Karin’s spouses are also there, as well as Ulrich’s young-adult daughter. Margareta, Christiane’s friend who part-owns and lives in the house where they meet, Andreas, Jörg’s long-time lawyer, and Marko, a younger man Jörg has invited at the last minute complete the cast – until a surprise extra guest turns up on Saturday evening (about whom I won’t say anything).

This is a novel by Bernhard Schlink, who writes fine, complex essays on political-cultural issues (my blog post about his Guilt about the Past here), and as you’d expect these eleven, and then twelve, characters aren’t left to talk about the weather. Christiane has organised the weekend to help Jörg make the transition to civilian life. Marko, to the disapproval of everyone else, especially Andreas the lawyer, urgently wants Jörg to become a leader of the revived leftist group. Others, particularly Ulrich, want him to face the reality of his crimes. The conversation ranges – what happens to the dreams of youth, its ideals, loves and resentments? what has become of the leftist, political terrorism of the 70s, and how is it different from the terrorism of al-Qaeda? if you murdered bystanders ‘for the cause’, how do you see that thirty years later, especially if the cause has failed? (Since finishing the book I met the concept of moral injury, which is what happens when someone, usually a soldier, realises they have done terrible things towards what they thought were good ends, but the ends have been revealed as immoral: that concept looms large here, without the term.)

But the debating is rooted in the context of these real lives. There’s some tears, some sex, some humiliation, some wonderful intergenerational conflict, some sweet tenderness, and two surprises that I should have seen coming but didn’t. Ilse, the quiet one, has started writing a story that plays as a kind of counterpoint to the main narrative. In it, another member of their group, Jan, lives on after faking his own suicide to commit more terrorist acts; she has to imagine how to show the mental life of a man who – like Jörg – lives for decades in prison. In the end she decides to have him die, and does it in a way that I read as symbolising how that brand of leftist terrorism came to an end.

It’s a short book. I enjoyed it. It made me think.

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’.