Letter from Venice – Proust in French, Castello
In search of Marcel.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The Delhi Walla is performing a Proustian pilgrimage in Venice, a place that was special to French novelist Marcel Proust.
One day I visited Libreria “Acqua Alta” in Castello. It is home to a couple of black cats and to thousands of second-hand books. I chanced upon Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. But this one was in original French, titled À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur. Its white cover was bordered with red and black lines. Its spine was torn at the edges. Its pages were soft. The first page said: “Copyright by Gaston Gallimard. Paris 1919.” The last page said: “LE 26 FEVRIER 1949”
I bought the book.
I then wandered into yet another bookstore. Run by a couple who take turns to sit at the cashier’s desk, it has no name. There were books only in French. Many of them were on Venice. Many also had Proust’s face on their covers. One turned out to be a single volume edition of Lost Time-with more than 2,000 pages.
This was just the book I dreamed of. It too was in original French, titled À la recherche du temps perdu.
I bought it.
The same day I mailed the US-based William Carter, the greatest living Proustian in the English-speaking world.
Sir, I have read Proust twice in English. I don’t know French. Do you think it is a sensible for me to read Proust in French, one word at a time (with the help of a French-English dictionary).
Or am I mad?
Mr Carter, Proust’s acclaimed biographer and professor emeritus of French at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, immediately responded:
To answer your second question first: No, you are not mad, just understandably frustrated because you know what an awesome experience it would be to read Proust in the original. I don’t however think no matter how hard you might try that it would be possible for you or anyone to read Proust that way without at least a basic knowledge of French. It isn’t difficult to acquire, especially for someone as motivated as you. Within a year you could do this by taking courses in basic French or by doing one of the online courses or by spending some time in France. That would save you a tremendous amount of time in the long run.
The next evening I happened to meet a fellow Proustian outside a church on Calle Torelli. A traveller from Bucharest, Romania, she said:
“No, you are not mad. After all, we do this with dead languages, not knowing them and reading with dictionaries. I try to read Cavafy and other Greek poets in Greek even though I don’t speak Greek.”
So, my new Proust project starts in Venice. It will be a long journey, greater than the distance between Venice and Delhi, and perhaps it will be often frustrating, but I’m determined. On the other end of this voyage lies home.
Marcel, c’est moi