City Notice – The Delhi Proustians XXVIII, Indian Coffee House
A la recherche du temps perdu.
[Photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The 28th meeting of The Delhi Proustians, a club for Delhiwallas that discusses French novelist Marcel Proust, will take place on 24 September 2012. It was scheduled to take place in the lobby of The Imperial. Because I could not get the permission to use the hotel’s space, the venue has moved to the Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place.
Attention: The first Proustian to reach there will be gifted a boxed set of Marcel Proust’s multi-volume novel.
Where Indian Coffee House, Mohan Singh Place, near Hanuman Mandir, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, Connaught Place Time 7 pm Nearest Metro Station Rajiv Chowk
Well worth a read, a review by Chris Hitchens, now alas dead
Swann’s Way 1st Edition
by Marcel Proust
The Acutest Ear in Paris
A review by Christopher Hitchens
I have not been able to discover whether there exists a precise French equivalent for the common Anglo-American expression “killing time.” It’s a very crass and breezy expression, when you ponder it for a moment, considering that time, after all, is killing us. Marcel Proust was the man who, by contemplating in a way that transcended the moment, attempted to interpenetrate these two forbidding alternatives.
When the Monty Python gang acted out its “Summarize Proust” competition, one of the contestant teams, a madrigal group, was cut off abruptly by the master of ceremonies before it had got beyond the opening stave of Swann’s Way. One can readily appreciate the difficulty; yet if I were asked to “summarize” the achievement of Proust, I should reply as dauntlessly as I dared that his is the work par excellence that exposes and clarifies the springs of human motivation. Through his eyes we see what actuates the dandy and the lover and the grandee and the hypocrite and the poseur, with a transparency unexampled except in Shakespeare or George Eliot. And this ability, so piercing and at times even alarming, is not mere knowingness. It is not, in other words, the product of cynicism. To be so perceptive and yet so innocent — that, in a phrase, is the achievement of Proust. It is also why one does well to postpone a complete reading until one is in the middle of life, and has shared some of the disillusionments and fears, as well as the delights, that come with this mediocre actuarial accomplishment. Because plainly, along with being “about” social climate and fashion, and the countryside versus the city, and sexual inversion and also Jewishness, with l’affaire Dreyfus one of the binding and constitutive elements in its narrative, Proust’s novel (“the novel form,” he wrote in one letter, is the form from which “it departs least”) is all about time. And one does not fully appreciate this aspect until one has learned something of how time is rationed, and of how this awful and apparently inexorable dole may conceivably be cheated. The foregoing is intended as a word of encouragement. Proust can be regained, even if — in the very long run — time itself cannot.
My introduction to A la recherche du temps perdu came by way of Terence Kilmartin, who died in 1991, roughly a decade after completing his retranslation of C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s original English rendering. Kilmartin was, as well as a translator, an editor of considerable verve and decision. He made the book pages of the London Observer into a necessary weekly resource for the literate — an infinitely elastic “section” in which more seemed to get itself discussed than the allotted space could conceivably permit. To give you an idea of Kilmartin’s panache: I was once told by Gore Vidal that after turning in his first review to the Kilmartin regime, he received a telephone call from Kilmartin informing him that the piece had had to be shortened by half a dozen lines. Exigency at the printer’s had meant that this pruning had been executed by the editor himself. “Oh, no you don’t, Mr. Kilmartin,” said an irate Vidal, shortly before replacing the receiver with a bang. “Nobody cuts my stuff except me. I shall not be contributing to your pages again.” When he later seized that Sunday’s offending Observer in a foul frame of mind, Vidal found that he could not tell where (or how) the excisions had been made. After duly going to Canossa, he gave Kilmartin full power of attorney.
Kilmartin wrote a highly amusing and illuminating account of his experience as a Proust revisionist, which appeared in the first issue of Ben Sonnenberg’s quarterly Grand Street in the autumn of 1981. The essay opened with a kind of encouragement: “There used to be a story that discerning Frenchmen preferred to read Marcel Proust in English on the grounds that the prose of A la recherche du temps perdu was deeply un-French and heavily influenced by English writers such as Ruskin.” I cling to this even though Kilmartin thought it to be ridiculous Parisian snobbery; I shall never be able to read Proust in French, and one’s opportunities for outfacing Gallic self-regard are relatively scarce. It seems to be the case, at all events, that Scott Moncrieff aroused a possessive instinct in the French. He published his translation of Swann’s Way just as Proust was dying, in 1922, and by the time of his own death, in 1930, had made the work into something like a vogue or a cult in the Anglophone universe. (He did not live to undertake Le temps retrouv�, which was Englished by other hands.) For decades Proust was eclipsed in France, first by surrealism, next by la litt�rature engag�e, and then by the existentialists. Not until the 1950s, with the advent of Andr� Maurois’s A la recherche de Marcel Proust, did French literary opinion decide to reclaim Proust, and was the celebrated Pl�iade edition published. This event in its turn began to generate concern among English-speaking Proustians that their treasured translation might not be quite up to standard, which meant that French precedence had been restored and that — in Cartesian terms, at least — reason had regained her Parisian throne.
When I was quite young, I often made the trip between suburban North Oxford and the wooded grounds of Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock. At some stage of my boyhood I was told that the Oxford-to-Woodstock distance was ten miles, and to this day, if at the end of any tiring journey I see a road sign indicating the remaining distance to be ten miles, I instantly feel that I am almost home. I am sure that everybody has a similar mnemonic prompting, and Marcel Proust wrote the book, so to speak, about mnemonic devices. But the distance to be traversed between, or as between, the Swann and the Meseglise and the Guermantes “ways” is measured also in metaphysics. Kilmartin thought a good deal about the responsibility this entailed. He didn’t cite Hegel’s famous observation about the Owl of Minerva taking wing only as its surroundings turn crepuscular, but he did realize that “the complexities of the opening pages of the novel are especially difficult to decipher without the hindsight provided by the later volumes.”
I myself noticed too late (after the new version had gone to press) that in the paragraph evoking the bedroom at Tansonville la chambre o� je me serai endormi had become in English “the bedroom in which I shall presently fall asleep” (instead of “in which I must have fallen asleep”), thus giving the reader the impression that the narrator is writing at Tansonville instead of in Paris some years after.
A similar b�tise — this time caught by Kilmartin — had altered the spatio-temporal significance of Swann’s jealous questioning of Odette. He demands to be told, of her possible lesbian encounters, “Il y a combien de temps?” Perhaps to an extent giving away his own proclivities, Scott Moncrieff made this into “How many times?” instead of “How long ago?” Even my French would be equal to that, as it would have been on the occasions when Scott Moncrieff, astonishingly, gave actuel as “actual.” If only the present and the actual were indeed the same. But what’s the occasional faux ami between real friends?
I think I am not wrong about Scott Moncrieff’s tendencies; he was well attuned to the gay vernacular, and his translation of “ce ‘chichi’ voulu” as “this deliberate camping” is held by experts to be the first use of the expression in print. However, his youthfulness relative to Proust might furnish a clue to a certain insouciance about time and its passage, of the sort that I mentioned previously. The very first sentence of the novel, “Longtemps je me suis couch� de bonne heure,” may very well be, as Kilmartin suggested, “deliberately ambiguous; it leaves the reader in a state of uncertainty as to the narrator’s position in time.” The chosen tense is the pass� compos�, or past perfect, but the imperfect keeps obtruding as the paragraph lengthens, and Kilmartin expressed frustration with the manner in which Scott Moncrieff had “smoothly evade[d] the issue” by phrasing it simply: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” (In my Modern Library edition of Proust, which has Kilmartin updated and refurbished by the late D. J. Enright, the first words now read, “For a long time I would go to bed early.”)
I have so far not improved much on the progress made by the Monty Python madrigal group; but surely there is some charm in the discrepancies and eccentricities that at least potentially give every reader his or her “own” Proust. Nancy Mitford wrote to Evelyn Waugh, “There is not one joke in all the 16 of S. Moncrieff’s volumes. In French one laughs from the stomach, as when reading you.” E. M. Forster, in Abinger Harvest, wrote in a somewhat aggrieved manner that he was disappointed by Scott Moncrieff, “because I was hoping to find Proust easier in English than in French, and do not.” Forster continued, “All the difficulties of the original are here faithfully reproduced.” That’s not quite the same thing as stating that the difficulties were Scott Moncrieff’s fault. As for jokes, I sometimes think that it’s better to let them mature in the cask. In the chapter “Swann in Love” the eponymous figure quits an assignation with Odette, who has poured him some outstanding tea, and reflects as follows:
This tea had indeed seemed to Swann, just as it seemed to her, something precious, and love has such a need to find some justification for itself, some guarantee of duration, in pleasures which without it would have no existence and must cease with its passing, that when he left her at seven o’clock to go and dress for the evening, all the way home in his brougham, unable to repress the happiness with which the afternoon’s adventure had filled him, he kept repeating to himself: “How nice it would be to have a little woman like that in whose house one could always be certain of finding, what one never can be certain of finding, a really good cup of tea.”
I can well imagine Nancy Mitford’s laughing at that, with its bathos as regards the fluctuation of male passion, and its allied tone of English-style froideur. It is left to Proust to allow the other shoe to fall — more swiftly than is his custom — when the succeeding paragraph dispels Swann’s fatuous idyll.
An hour or so later he received a note from Odette, and at once recognised that large handwriting in which an affectation of British stiffness imposed an apparent discipline upon ill-formed characters, suggestive, perhaps, to less biased eyes than his, of an untidiness of mind, a fragmentary education, a want of sincerity and will-power. Swann had left his cigarette-case at her house. “If only,” she wrote, “you had also forgotten your heart! I should never have let you have that back.”
That letter would stand high in any anthology of what Kingsley Amis once called “cock-crinkling” remarks, and is an unusually severe, if oblique, rebuke to a member of the educated bourgeoisie who had been congratulating himself only for a good cinq-�-sept lay and a decent cup of tea (and who has been patting his pockets and wondering where he left his damn smokes). It’s easy to see how the Proustian manner became a fashion among the Brits. And that’s before one catches the distant echo of yet another shoe, almost muffled in its modesty and reticence: the very cup of tea and frail piece of fragrant cake from which the whole mnemonic epic derives its mise-en-sc�ne.
Kilmartin’s work as both editor and interpreter has been a cause of great happiness to me, so I bristled somewhat when I read, in Lydia Davis’s introduction to her new translation of Swann’s Way, the following rather backhanded tribute:
A revision of Scott Moncrieff’s translation by Terence Kilmartin, based on the corrected edition of the French, brought the translation closer to the original, cutting gratuitous additions and embellishments and correcting Scott Moncrieff’s own misreadings, though it did not go as far as it could have in cutting redundancy and also introduced the occasional grammatical mistake and mixed metaphor; in addition, Kilmartin’s ear for the language was not as sensitive as Scott Moncrieff’s.
I can really measure redundancy only in English, and I had already noticed in Davis’s introduction a reference to “the wistful closing coda in the Bois de Boulogne.” A coda can only be a closure, so the sin of redundancy (or tautology, or pleonasm) is one that Davis might be careful about stricturing in others. She also repeats the word “cutting” in the brief passage above, when other terms of art and editing are available to her and when, surely, the most one can hope to achieve in the case of Proust is the reduction of repetition, not its elimination.
I thus commenced in a fault-finding frame of mind. The best plan seemed to be a straight comparison between versions of my favorite passages in Swann’s Way. One of these is the description of the loyal but venomous cook Fran�oise, unacknowledged ruler of the house at Combray. Her vendetta against the hapless and pregnant kitchen maid is one of the minor splendors of the early chapters. Of the unknown and presumably taste-lacking seducer of this foolish, fallen girl Fran�oise says in the Kilmartin translation, which comes more or less straight from Scott Moncrieff:
“Dear, dear, it’s just as they used to say in my poor mother’s day:
‘Frogs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails,
And dirty sluts in plenty,
Smell sweeter than roses in young men’s noses
When the heart is one-and-twenty.'”
The Davis version puts it like this:
“Oh dear! It’s just as they used to say in my poor mother’s patois:
‘Fall in love with a dog’s bum,
And thou’ll think it pretty as a plum.'”
Now, the original French is even more pungent, and also (grant Proust this much, for once) more terse:
“Qui du cul d’un chien s’amourose,
Il lui parait une rose.”
The whole point of downstairs peasant wisdom, as quoted with amusement by those upstairs, is that it be brisk, vulgar, and memorable. The Scott Moncrieff/ Kilmartin rendition fails to observe this rule. It also shields the reader from indecency, which Scott Moncrieff doesn’t elsewhere do, and which I would have thought would be unthinkable for Kilmartin. Benjamin Ivry, an experienced translator, has preferred to fault Davis — for using the word “patois,” which admittedly is not the term that Fran�oise herself would be likely to employ. And he quarrels with the rhyme of “bum” and “plum,” partly because “bum” is too British. I would say, rather, that using “plum” for “rose” (the latter is, after all, the same word in both tongues) constitutes the mistake here. The necessary image is that of a young man so pussy-trapped, and indeed ass-struck, that he acts like a dog and is prompted by rank and exciting scent. “Puppy-dogs’ tails” is a sorry prettification of that notion. If we exonerate Davis for dropping the perfectly serviceable and probable locution “my poor mother’s day” and substituting what has become the near Franglais word “patois,” the honor here — in point of pungency as well as fidelity — belongs to her.
Proust was more acutely aware of the imminence of death in life than almost any other author, and he took the death of love as his special premonition of the impending or the inevitable. So, even as Swann is sinking,
From that evening onwards, Swann understood that the feeling which Odette had once had for him would never revive, that his hopes of happiness would not be realised now. And on the days on which she happened to be once more kind and affectionate towards him, had shown him some thoughtful attention, he recorded these deceptive signs of a change of feeling on her part with the fond and sceptical solicitude, the desperate joy of people who, nursing a friend in the last days of an incurable illness, relate as facts of infinitely precious insignificance: “Yesterday he went through his accounts himself, and actually corrected a mistake we had made in adding them up; he ate an egg today and seemed quite to enjoy it, and if he digests it properly we shall try him with a cutlet tomorrow” — although they themselves know that these things are meaningless on the eve of an inevitable death. [Kilmartin/Enright]
From this evening on, Swann realized that the feeling Odette had had for him would never return, that his hopes of happiness would never be realized now. And on the days when she happened to be kind and affectionate with him again, if she showed him some thoughtful attention, he would note these ostensible and deceptive signs of a slight renewal of feeling, with the loving, skeptical solicitude, the despairing joy of those who, caring for a friend in the last days of an incurable illness, report certain precious accomplishments such as: “Yesterday, he did his accounts himself, and he was the one who spotted a mistake in addition that we had made; he ate an egg and enjoyed it — if he digests it without trouble we’ll try a cutlet tomorrow,” although they know them to be meaningless on the eve of an inevitable death. [Davis]
The differences here may seem very slight, until we recall that Proust is matching and contrasting the expiry of love with the slow extinction of a human body and personality. Thus in the first version the word “revive” seems much more apropos, and in the second version the alternative use of “realize” involves committing an easily avoidable repetition. “Renewal of feeling” is a clear advance on “change of feeling,” though “ostensible,” in the second version, is redundant in the context of what are clearly outward, even if deceptively intended, “signs.” The error in the accounting — such a perfect bourgeois touch at death’s very door — is unlikely to be in anything but addition. It is far more consistent with the period and the tone, and also with the affected portentousness of the scheme, to say “we shall try him with a cutlet” than “we’ll try a cutlet.” Here the advantage is plainly with the first attempt. This poignant passage closes with Kilmartin/Enright saying of Swann, “He would have been glad to learn that she was leaving Paris for ever; he would have had the heart to remain there; but he hadn’t the heart to go.” This is again superior to Davis’s “He would have been glad if she had left Paris forever; he would have had the courage to remain; but he did not have the courage to leave.” To be “glad to learn” is better in keeping with the strenuous but ever maintained distance between what Swann knows and what he chooses to know. The etymological connection between “coeur” and “courage” is clearer in French than it is in English, but our association of “heart” with fortitude is equally strong, and we have to consider both Swann’s mangled emotions and the disease that is consuming him, so “heart” is obviously le mot juste. Lastly, and given the terminal nature of the whole paragraph, it is much more apt and final to say “to go” than “to leave.”
I can’t be the judge of whether Davis is right or wrong in saying that Kilmartin’s ear for French is deficient. But as the passage above serves to demonstrate, the laurels may go in the end to the one who has the superior feeling for English. Vladimir Nabokov, no mean multilinguist, wrote in his Strong Opinions and elsewhere that a translator must be (a) fairly good in the “out of” language, (b) very good indeed in the “in to” language, and (c) a male. That might give Kilmartin two advantages where he need claim only one (I mean the second one). Nabokov quarreled with Scott Moncrieff in the matter of titles, saying that the latter had “inflicted” some “more or less fancy translations” in this area. Nabokov proposed The Walk by Swann’s Place as a replacement, which certainly meets the test of accuracy, if at some cost in literal-mindedness. A similar directness, almost off-putting this time, is involved in his choice of In the Shade of Blooming Young Girls. Unquestionably, the creator of Lolita was being true to Proust’s A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, and there is prettification, again, in Scott Moncrieff’s Within a Budding Grove; but perhaps something should be reserved for the reader’s imagination.
The Kilmartin translation, to the ire of Roger Shattuck and other specialists, retained Scott Moncrieff’s overall title, taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX and thus naturally euphonious: Remembrance of Things Past. Proust himself, when told of this, said simply, “Cela d�truit le titre,” and as Kilmartin states, “There is no doubt that the notion of ‘summoning up’ the past contradicts the basic theme of the novel, which is a celebration of involuntary memory.” But Proust, despite his Anglophilia, was not always the most exquisite judge; he complained about Swann’s Way as well, because he thought that “way” could only connote “manner.” Kilmartin’s preference was for In Search of Lost Time, which has in fact been the title since Enright’s successor edition of 1992. But he had reservations even about that, because “the English phrase lacks the specific gravity of the French and misses the double meaning of temps perdu: time ‘wasted’ as well as ‘lost.'” This Viking edition preserves the new overall name and rechristens the second volume In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower — a choice slightly less enthusiastically inflammatory than Nabokov’s.
How one pines, incidentally, for a translation of Proust by the hand of Nabokov. Here is Professor Adam Krug, in Bend Sinister, the first novel that Nabokov wrote in America, as he touches a stone on a bridge on the night his wife has died:
I had never touched this particular knob before and shall never find it again. This moment of conscious contact holds a drop of solace. The emergency brake of time. Whatever the present moment is, I have stopped it. Too late. In the course of our, let me see, twelve, twelve and three months, years of life together, I ought to have immobilized by this simple method millions of moments; paying perhaps terrific fines, but stopping the train. Say, why did you do it? the popeyed conductor might ask. Because I liked the view. Because I wanted to stop those speeding trees and the path twisting between them. By stepping on its receding tail. What happened to her would perhaps not have happened, had I been in the habit of stopping this or that bit of our common life, prophylactically, prophetically, letting this or that moment rest and breathe in peace. Taming time. Giving her pulse respite. Pampering life, life — our patient.
I think it was perfectly brilliant of Scott Moncrieff to look to the Sonnets for a title. They anticipate Proust in almost every respect, with their deep and melancholy reflections on the sorrows of love, the tortures of jealousy, and — this perhaps above all — the tyranny of time. “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow …” “Those hours that with gentle work did frame …” “When I do count the clock that tells the time …” “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed …” “Being your slave, what should I do but tend / Upon the hours and times of your desire?” “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore / So do our minutes hasten to their end.” “Against my love shall be as I am now / With Time’s injurious hand crush’d and o’erworn.” “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced …” “When in the chronicle of wasted time …” It is also notoriously the case that we cannot know whether these morose and smoldering yet lovely lines are intended as addresses to boy or girl or both, and this makes them doubly fitting as either source or analogue (speculation about the identity of Albertine is almost as fervent as that concerning “Mr. WH” or the dark lady).
It is somewhat easier to keep an edition of the Sonnets at hand while immersed in Proust than it is to be simultaneously consulting the collected works of James Joyce or Henry James. In fact, I doubt that even the most tenacious reader has ever attempted the latter expedient. But Jorge Luis Borges thought that the achievement of Ulysses — a decade of Homer condensed into an average Dublin day — was its “unrelenting examination of the tiniest details that constitute consciousness,” an examination that “stops the flow of time.” And James could be terse when he chose to be, laying on the aspirant reader of The Art of Fiction the injunction to “write from experience and experience only,” adding, in his least forbidding manner, the nevertheless intimidating motto “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”
Time, then, is of the essence, and Proust is interested in slowing it down, if not exactly holding it up, so as to enable himself to take longer sips from the precious but evaporating fluid. Here is another measured moment from Swann’s Way — a tiny episode from a boyhood walk in the Meseglise direction, where the question is whether time can ever be speeded up.
Not a footstep was to be heard on any of the paths. Quartering the topmost branches of one of the tall trees, an invisible bird was striving to make the day seem shorter, exploring with a long-drawn note the solitude that pressed it on every side, but it received at once so unanimous an answer, so powerful a repercussion of silence and of immobility, that one felt it had arrested for all eternity the moment which it had been trying to make pass more quickly. [Kilmartin/Enright]
We heard no sound of steps on the avenues. Dividing the height of an unknown tree, an invisible bird, contriving to make the day seem short, explored the surrounding solitude with one prolonged note, but received from it a retort so unanimous, a repercussion so redoubled by silence and immobility, that one felt it had arrested forever that moment which it had been trying to make pass more quickly. [Davis]
Surely the first of these is very much more evocative in English. I mean “evocative” in the strict sense of making one hear or apprehend the voice. To be “striving” to make the day seem shorter by holding one note is much closer to the original sense than to be “contriving” to do so. By means of a simple anthropomorphism Proust invests his own feelings in the lone, plaintive effort of the bird and shares in its failure to accelerate matters, noticing that instead it has appeared to make time stand still. Not unlike Berkeley’s tree in the forest, since there is apparently no one (save the narrator) to hear it, the bird has been beautifully squandering its time. The necessarily preceding and succeeding dead silence is far better established by saying “not a footstep was to be heard.”
Proust very seldom fails to provide a plangent echo or reverberation, and about forty pages later on we find (in the vicinity of the Rue de l’Oiseau, happily enough) the contrastingly inanimate steeple of Saint-Hilaire, where
when an hour struck, you would have said not that it broke in upon the calm of the day, but that it relieved the day of its superfluity, and that the steeple, with the indolent, painstaking exactitude of a person who has nothing else to do, had simply — in order to squeeze out and let fall the few golden drops which had slowly and naturally accumulated in the hot sunlight — pressed, at a given moment, the distended surface of the silence. [Kilmartin/Enright]
when the hour rang, you would have said not that it broke the calm of the day, but that it relieved the day of what it contained and that the steeple, with the indolent, painstaking precision of a person who has nothing else to do, had merely — in order to squeeze out and let fall the few golden drops slowly and naturally amassed there by the heat — pressed at the proper moment the fullness of the silence. [Davis]
Here the laurels seem equally distributable. Relieving “the day of its superfluity” is altogether more languorous and telling, but it is by way of “the proper moment” rather than “a given moment” that one fully appreciates the subdued metaphor of winemaking, with its appropriate tribute paid to patience and the seasons.
Birdsong and bells are grace notes to the Proustian fascination with music as the means of unsealing the fount of memory. Swann’s hesitant fascination at Mme. Verdurin’s musical soiree, as he tries to net and identify the phrase of Vinteuil’s sonata (and has his gratitude at the eventual recognition so eagerly and idiotically misconstrued by Mme. Verdurin), takes a full five pages to unfold, and can be read with delight and identification by anyone who has ever had a recollection teased or tortured by a secret harmony.
This rather solemn and touching interlude is succeeded, in a way that Nancy Mitford must have admired, by a first-rate set piece involving the gushing hostess and the crashing bore. Mme. Verdurin and Dr. Cottard are made for each other, like a sort of reverse of Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute, and one has no choice but to laugh (pace Mitford) when the latter gazes at the former “with open-mouthed admiration and studious zeal as she skipped lightly from one stepping-stone to another of her stock of ready-made phrases.” Thus Kilmartin/Enright with quite sufficient wit; Davis shows some verve in awarding the literal and platitudinous doctor a look of “speechless admiration and zealous studiousness as she frolicked in this billow of stock expressions.” Here it hardly matters whose English or French ear is the better; the acutest ear in Paris was Marcel Proust’s, and there’s no dulling it.
I have dwelt on micro-effects because in Swann’s Way the slow movement (Edmund Wilson likened its first, deceptively soporific line to the opening chord of a grand symphony) is predominant. It is not until the later volumes that we sense Proust’s excited awareness of modernity, in the form of newly arrived aeroplanes and motorcars. When he talks about soldiers in Swann, he is thinking about the prior war and not the next one — a pace and rhythm that does not alter until, in subsequent volumes, we feel the Great War coming on. In Swann we glimpse the anatomy of pure snobbery; later comes the recognition of the viciousness of the forces of reaction. In something like the same way, Swann highlights love and intrigue, and sex is mostly reserved for the ensuing books. In an almost invisible manner Proust donned his innocence once again to write this, the better to shed it by degrees as he advanced. This is a work of memory like no other: it is conscious of itself even as it relies on the subliminal, the associative, and the contingent. We know from Proust’s haggard original editors, as we do from the memoirs of his naive and devoted housekeeper, that the first manuscript might have come from someone more than half insane, including as it did interpolations, marginal additions, excisions, scrawls, and — the worst sign of all — strips of fresh paper stuck at odd angles onto exhausted pages. Part of the function of memory is to forget; the omni-retentive mind will break down and produce at best an idiot savant who can recite a telephone book, and at worst a person to whom every grudge and slight is as yesterday’s. Yet Proust is reliably lucid and almost invariably kind. “The struggle of man against power,” said Milan Kundera, reprobating amnesia, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Ernest Renan earlier took a different view, saying that in order for a nation to exist, it had to agree to remember a certain number of things and also to forget a certain number of things. The almost hypnotic effect of Proust is to make this into a distinction without a difference, and to demonstrate that an apparently self-absorbed individual may yet draw his strength and his insight from a passionate engagement with the interior and exterior lives of others, as well as his own. On him not much was lost.
Comments are closed.