The Proust Project

The weather has begun to turn, away from the languidity of late summer and into an unapologetic, in-your-face bluster of early fall. 2019 feels like it’s entered a stormy adolescence and that makes the time feel right to turn to Proust.

This will be year five of my Proust project, my goal to read one volume a year of In Search of Lost Time, the new Penguin translations. This year’s edition is The Prisoner, translated by Carol Clark, wherein the narrator “imprisons” his girlfriend Albertine within his love and his selfishness in order to “save” her from lesbianism. It’s also the first volume that Proust was unable to finalize editing before he died and so, according to the translator’s note, it is rife with weird inconsistencies that nevertheless remain in the newer version because Proust himself did not correct them. As I embark on this reading journey, I’m going to move over from a previous blog some of my thoughts on the earlier volumes. Here, the first entry, on Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis.

Image result for marcel proust

In Search of Time to Lose

When I was an adolescent I declared that I would read Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu—but only in the original French that I would surely master someday. I was somewhat more pretentious ambitious then. That said, reading one of the inarguable masterworks of the 20th century has remained on my “life list” and this week I began the project.

I think this goal remained in my mind because of the importance of À la recherche—translated in English as In Search of Lost Time or, in earlier translations, Remembrance of Things Past—to the modern period in which I specialized. The first volume was published in France in 1913 and the others followed in 1919, 1920-21, 1922, and after Proust’s death in 1923, 1925, and 1927. It is thus a novel that spans the Great War (1914-1918) as well as the post-war period where modernist literature fully came into its own.

In Search of Lost Time also inspired many of modernism’s greatest writers, most notably Virginia Woolf, and one can see intellectual sympathy between, say, Woolf’s dives into Clarissa’s buried memory of kissing Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine. Thus his influence over and contemporaneity with “my” authors only sustained my interest in his work.

My plan is simple: read at least one volume of Proust’s seven volume opus each year until it’s done. So I have just over a month to plow through volume 1, Swann’s Way.

I actually read Swann’s Way once before, for a reading group in grad school. But in the interest of completeness I wanted to start at the beginning and march through until the end. But which translation to read?

The first time I read Swann’s Way it was with the first English translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff. Moncrieff began publishing his translations in 1922, the year Proust died, and his stood as the definitive translation until 2002. Sure, editions by Terence Kilmartin (1981) and D. J. Enright (1992) corrected some of Moncrieff’s more exorbitant flourishes and added in adjustments made to the French after Proust’s death, based on his notes, but by all accounts these were updates to Moncrieff and not translations in and of themselves.

However, in the mid-1990s, Penguin helmed a full English re-translation with 7 different translators. The updated In Search of Lost Time was released as a full set in the UK in 2002 (in the US we won’t have the final 3 volumes until 2018 due to our backwards copyright laws). In researching the competing translations, including Lydia Davis’s rendering of Swann’s Way, I discovered the inherent tradeoffs in reading in translation rather than an original language.

It seems that most people like the new translations but most people like the Moncrieff as well. By all accounts, Moncrieff added flourish to the prose, making it a bit more “purple” than it was meant to be. But he also took to heart the task of translating in a way that would be comfortable to English readers and many consider his version to be an independent creative work on its own.

The newer versions have received some criticism for being too faithful to the French, particularly with Proust’s exorbitant sentence structures, the flow of which can be jarring or confusing in English. On the other hand, they largely attempted to render the novel in the simpler, more direct prose that Proust pioneered and that is buried under Moncrieff’s floral style. This of course makes the prose in the new translations more modernist, an irony given that the British and American modernist writers read and were inspired by the Moncrieff.

Since I’ve already read Moncrieff’s Swann’s Way, I opted to begin with Davis’s version for this first push into reading the whole thing. So far, it is a delight, and the stylistic simplicity is evident, which seems to draw out more of the humor as well. As I progress, I remain undecided if I will go with Moncrieff, the other new translators, or toggle back-and-forth between them.

But for now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a stroll up the way to Swann’s.

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