22 July, 2011

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time

335 Days Later

Marcel Proust(10 July 1871–18 November 1922) was a French novelist, critic, and essayist. His stature as an author was established with the writing of In Search of Lost Time, which was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927.

In August 2010, after watching a film at the Nova, Carlton, I made a customary visit to the nearby Readings bookshop for a casual browse among the bookshelves where I observed four of the six volumes of the Penguin Classic In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. I picked up the first volume The Way by Swann’s, and saw that the translation from French to English had been done by Lydia Davis. The name of the translator reminded me that recently I had read a review of  this book, and the praise given to Lydia Davis for her translation. Her work as a translator of French texts having been recognized by the French government which awarded her the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Many years ago I bought a copy of The Way by Swann’s as I had read about Proust’s reputation as an author. I got as far as 80 pages, and felt exasperated that I was unable to enter into the rhythm of the story: the paragraphs and sentences were extremely long, and Proust’s descriptions seemed to never end. I soon became bored by what I was reading, and so I felt a pressing need to stop reading as I anticipated experiencing sheer mental agony if I was to proceed with this volume, and indeed volumes 2-6. There were times past when I have been disappointed with the writings of an author, be that as it may,in general I persevered and finished the book. However,the challenge of finishing Proust’s tome was too much for me. With a feeling of defeat, and for the first time in my life, I threw the book into the rubbish bin.

Given my initial experience of Proust, I smiled when I read that Germaine Greer commented that rather than read Proust one would be better off visiting a demented relative!

At Readings bookshop, I flicked through the pages of the first volume, and, after having read several paragraphs, I decided to revisit Proust's novel with a more positive attitude. Thus, I walked out of Readings with a copy of The Way by Swann’s.

Before commencing to read the book I searched the Internet to better acquaint myself with the author and what reviewers had to say about his novel (normally I do the reverse – read a review of a novel and then seek  contrasting viewpoints). I was absolutely amazed at the amount of available information. I wasn’t surprised to learn that a reading of Proust was going to be a challenge, and that in entering into Proust’s world I would come to develop a sharper eye for observing the social and natural environment in which I live.

I settled on three resources which would assist my appreciation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

182 Days of Marcel Proust by Charles Mathews

Reading Proust for Fun

A Readers’s Guide to In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) by Patrick Alexander

Reading Proust for Fun is a book reading group which was established in September 2009. Since then the group has met once a week in order to explore, explicate, and examine 10 pages per meeting. As at July 2011 the group has read the first two volumes and now it is just over half way through the third volume The Guermants Way. This group is to be congratulated for the amount and variety of supplementary information that has resulted from their research.

Given my past experience of reading Proust’s first novel I was heartened by the introductory comments in Patrick Alexander’s book:

In Search of Lost Time. Marcel Proust’s great novel, is like a beautiful garden filled with delights but hidden behind a forbidding wall. The wall is too high to scale and the gate is jealously guarded. Prospective readers who know of the book’s fame and status are fightened away by the sheer length of the novel, and by its daunting academic reputation.

Except for those fortunate enough to spend several years confined to a hospital bed or a federal prison, or to be stranded on a desert island with their preselected library, few readers have the time to tackle a novel with more than three thousand pages, a million and a half words, and more than four hundred individual characters. The demands of contemporary living, and our culture of immediate gratification, mean that Proust’s novel is increasingly read only by professional academics.

This is a great pity. Like the hidden garden, the novel, once entered, is an enchanting world filled with beauty and haunting images to delight all the senses. Proust’s profound observations on life, literature, and art  are brought to life by a rich panoply of characters who are as contemporary now as when they were first created . Above all, the book is extremely funny. Proust’s humour, veering between the subtle and the outrageous bawdy, affects every page of the novel. In Search of Lost Time is a comic masterpiece.

To enhance  my appreciation of Proust I blend my reading of the novel  with an abridged audio version (narrator–Neville Jason)

I am pleased to say that since August 2010 I have got well beyond the first 80 pages of Proust’s novel. And now 335 Days Later I am about to commence reading part two of the third novel The Guermantes Way. I concur with Patrick Alexander’s introductory comments, but admit that at times I have had difficulty with some parts of the novel, and thus have found it necessary to refer to the above resources in order to clarify the situation.

As an amateur translator of French into English, I find it worthwhile at times to compare the various English translations with the original French. The original English translation was by Moncrieff, later revised by Kilmartin and then Enright. The latest penguin edition begins with  new translation of volume one by Lydia Davis, and the each of the remaining volumes has its own translator.

An example of such a comparison can be seen at:


Given the demands placed on his readers, I don't think it wise to read, on a continuous basis, volume after volume of Proust. In order to maintain my interest in the writings of Proust, I decided it is best to complete a volume, and to then take a break and read other literature for a reasonable period of time before proceeding to the next volume.

No comments: