Sunday, August 8, 2010

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume One: Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust

What I remember most strongly about my first weeks of college is the revelation of the lacunae in my learning. In comparison with my high-school peers, I was (without knowing it), quite a Proustian character: constantly reading, physically weak, and intellectually smug. I had read from Henry Miller and Kerouac to Kafka and Dostoevsky, all in my free time and in addition to school work (my school had a bias toward Shakespeare on one end and contemporary novelists of color on the other, leaving the great swath of what I considered literature unattended); I thought myself very well-read. But I sat down for the second lecture of my Existential Philosophy in Literature and Film course with my new friend Suzanne, and her friend (a bleached blond, name-dropping homosexual) told us that he was reading Marcel Proust's (pronounced "Proost's") À la recherche du temps perdu. He told us in French, even though he was reading it in English. He told us that his goal in life was to read all seven volumes.

Not many weeks later, in my Environmental Design Writing About Space workshop, our professor invoked Proust's (again, pronounced "Proost's") madeleine, as if it were some iconic trope we should all recognize (it is). He gave us, as a reading that night, the introductory pages of Swann's Way, in which Marcel, given a cup of lime-blossom tea in which to soak his madeleine cookie, begins to recall his youth in Combray. I didn't find it particularly moving. My last year at Berkeley, I wanted to take the Proust senior seminar, in which all seven volumes were read, but I was already pushing it by taking four English courses in one semester (ill-advised), and in order to graduate that year, my senior seminar needed to simultaneously satisfy the dreaded pre-1800s requirement. And so, I had to put off Proust.

Nearly ten years later, this lacuna remained in my literature knowledge. I found a tattered copy of Volume I of the silver-bound Vintage edition* in my building's laundry room and began reading. My intention was, at that point, to read all seven volumes on end, but from the start, it was a slog. I hated Marcel. He was neurotic, obsessive, and above all, long-winded. For fifty pages on end, he tossed and turned in bed, longing for his mother's kiss on his cheek, plotting ways to send for her, but too anxious to take action lest he offend his father. I finished Swann's Way and started Within a Budding Grove. I didn't blog about Swann's Way because I had so little of consequence to say that I planned to simply write one blog entry upon completing the work in its entirety. But, wearied that Marcel had transferred his obsession with his mother to an obsession with Gilberte Swann, I set the book aside for a time and never picked it up again. Hence, Swann's Way went unblogged.

A year later, I encountered another copy of Swann's Way in my laundry room. For some reason, I mistakenly thought this was the second volume, which I had never finished, so decided to start the project again. Luckily, it was in fact the first volume of the Modern Library edition, and I was able to reread with occasional rapture something I had once dismissed. Enough had shifted in my life that I can't be certain that the revised translation is what changed things, though having had such an experience with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, I remain open to that possibility. I emerged from Swann's Way fresh enough that I was able to proceed directly through the Modern Library's Within a Budding Grove, and though I haven't had time until just now to write about either of these, I am now a quarter into The Guermantes Way. My only challenge now will be to address the contents of Swann's Way here without eliding them with Within a Budding Grove. Or have I here already written enough?

*A note on the volumes: Proust's novel is written in seven volumes. The 1982 Vintage edition, which was used by Berkeley's Proust senior seminar, is entitled A Remembrance of Things Past, and collapses these into three silver-bound bricks. Volume I contains Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove; Volume II The Guermantes Way and Cities of the Plain; and Volume III The Captive, The Fugitive, and Time Regained. The Modern Library's 1993 edition, entitled In Search of Lost Time, is in six volumes: Swann's Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive and The Fugitive together in one cover, and Time Regained. For this edition, D. J. Enright has revised the original C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin translation found in the Vintage edition, and is responsible for the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in titles. In 2005, Penguin UK released a new edition featuring all new translations, edited by Christopher Prendergast and featuring further title shifts: Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by James Grieve, The Guermantes Way, translated by Mark Treharne, Sodom and Gomorrah, translated by John Sturrock, The Prisoner, translated by Carol Clark, The Fugitive, translated by Peter Collier, and Finding Time Again, translated by Ian Patterson. I would be thrilled by the prospect of all-new translations by various authors if I had already read the "standard" translation years ago, but I don't think this is the place to start, and will see The Modern Library through before proceeding to anything too fresh.

No comments: