Archive for October, 2009

Introducing Your Host

By Dennis Abrams

Before we begin our journey In Search of Lost Time, I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell you a bit about myself, and why I love the work of Marcel Proust.

I write for a living:  restaurant reviews, children’s books (biographies aimed at seventh to ninth grade readers) and other occasional pieces.  But mainly what I do is read.

I’ve been reading for nearly as long as I can remember.  Fiction, non-fiction, I read it all.  My bookshelves are crammed with more books then any one person could possibly need.  Not that that stops me from buying more books.  I like having the widest possible assortment of books to choose from, with the perfect pick waiting no matter my mood or literary disposition.

But as a reader, looking back at a lifetime of reading, what seems to have mattered most to me in my selections is the author’s voice.  There is little that links the authors that have mattered the most to me at various stages of my life–Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Norman Mailer, M.F.K. Fisher, Pauline Kael, and Joan Didion–except a singular voice, one that sounds like no one else’s, one that seems to be speaking directly to me.  Proust is no exception.

I made my first journey in search of lost time just about ten years ago.  For years, I had lugged the old two-volume Random House hardcover version around with me from college to apartment to apartment, books that I remember buying at a library sale in front of the Paw Paw Public Library when I was nowhere old enough to read Proust, but old enough to know that I should and would read him at some time in my life.

Finally, I decided that the time had come: I was not going to turn forty without having read In Search of Lost Time.  I was enchanted.  I was enthralled.  Proust’s voice seemed to me to be one I’d been waiting to hear all my life.  After completing the books, I nearly turned around to dive right back into them again.  But I waited, knowing that were lots of other books to read, and that when the time was right, I’d know.

Well, I’m turning fifty in January, and the time is now.  I want to hear what Proust has to tell me, I want to enter his world again, I want him to show me new ways of seeing my world, and, most of all, I want to hear and respond to the siren-call of his voice again.  Critic Michael Dirda wrote that “To those who respond to his sinuous prose – and many people don’t – there is no more powerful hypnotic drug in all literature.”  I hope that you, like me, are ready to fall under Proust’s spell.


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Who Was Marcel Proust?

By Dennis Abrams

We will, of course, be discussing the life and times of Marcel Proust in much greater detail as we proceed through the text, but I thought it might be useful at this stage to give you a short chronology of his life, while trying to put it into some sort of historic context.  (The main source of much of this timeline is the website http://www.tempsperdu.com)

1871:  With Paris in turmoil following the siege by the Prussians in 1870 and the brutal repression of the Paris Commune in May 1871, Mme. Proust left the city for the relative security of her uncle’s home in the Paris suburb of Auteuil, where she gave birth to her first child, Marcel, on July 10, 1871.

1873:  Robert Proust, Marcel’s brother, is born on May 24.

1880:  By the age of nine, Marcel has had his first asthma attack.  He will forever be known as and treated as a sickly child, and later as a sickly adult.

1882:  Enters the Lycee Condorcet, known until 1883 as the Lycee Fontanes.

1887-1888:  Collaborates with schoolmates to publish a series of literary and artistic reviews.

1889:  In November, perhaps shattering every stereotypical image you have of him, Proust enlists for a year of military service.

1890:  Marcel enrolls in the Faculte de deroit and the Ecole libres des sciences politiques to prepare for a possible future as a diplomat, as his father, Dr. Adrien Proust, wished.

1893:  Marcel publishes stories in the journal the Revue blanche.  Urged by his father to settle on a career, Marcel decides to study to become a librarian.

1895:  Begins work on his first novel.  The work is never completed, and will be published posthumously as Jean Santeuil.

1896:  A collection of his early pieces, with a preface by Anatole France, is published.

1897:  Reads the works of John Ruskin for the first time.  And, perhaps shattering whatever remaining  preconceived image you may have of Marcel Proust, he engages in a loaded pistol duel with novelist Jean Lorrain.

1898:  As the Dreyfus Affair escalates, Proust comes out strongly on the side of Dreyfus, writing “I was the first dreyfusard.”

1899:  Work on Jean Santeuil stops as Marcel immerses himself in the work of John Ruskin.  Begins translating (with the assistance of his mother) Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens.

1903:  La Bible d’Amiens is published   Proust’s father dies on November 24.

1904:  Begins work on the translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lillies.

1905:  Publishes his most important work to date, his preface to Ruskin’s Sesame and Lillies, entitled “Sur la lecture.”

1907:  Begins to outline the work that will become known as Contre Saint-Beuve.

1909:  Contre Saint-Beuve, a work that combines essay, autobiography, and fiction, evolves into the first and last parts of what will eventually become In Search of Lost Time.

1910-11:   Work continues on what will become the first and last parts of In Search of Lost Time.  At this point, Proust sees the novel as two volumes:  Time Lost and Time Regained.

1912:  Proust now sees his work expanding to three volumes.  The Nouvelle revue francaise (N.R.F.), on the advice  of Andre Gide, refuses to publish the novel.

1913:  A la recherche du temps perdu, Du cote de chez Swann is published by Grasset on November 14.  Celeste Albaret enters Proust’s household, and quickly becomes his housekeeper and confidante.  She will remain with him until his death.  At this point of his life, Proust is largely a shut-in, living largely in his cork-lined bedroom and writing constantly, working against time to finish his book before his health gives out.

1914:  Marcel begins to work on the material that will be found in A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Within a Budding Grove).  Andre Gide changes his mind, and urges that N.R.F. publish the rest of the novel.  However, World War I breaks out, and most publishing in France comes to a halt.

1917:  N.R.F. publishes A’Lombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, a new edition of Swann, and a collection of Proust’s short pieces entitled Pastiches et melanges.  In December, Proust receives the Prix Goncourt.

1920:  Publication of Le cote de Guermantes I.

1921:  Publication of Le cote de Guermantes II and Sodome et Gomorrhe I.

1922:  Proust finishes his work.   Sodome et Gomorrhe II is published in May.  That same month, Proust attends a supper party at the Majestic Hotel, also attended by James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghliev, and Pablo Picasso.  In September, Swann’s Way, the first translation of Proust’s work, is published in England.  On November 18, Marcel Proust dies of pneumonia and is buried in Pere Lachaise.

1923:  Le Prisonniere is published.

1925:  Le fugitive is published as Albertine disparue to avoid confusion with a work of the same name by Rabindranath Tagore.

1927:  Le temps retrouve is published.

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What Else Should I Read?

By Dennis Abrams

You can, of course, read In Search of Lost Time on its own.  It’s not like reading James Joyce, where a reader’s guide is almost essential to help you get through the sea of puns, allusions, experimental prose and parodies.   Proust is, despite its formidable reputation, remarkably accessible.  There are, however, many many books available that may help illuminate your path and guide you along your journey.  Here’s a selection of a few that I think are definitely worth your time.

Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles (Thames and Hudson).  Having this book by your side as you read In Search of Lost Time will add immeasurably to the experience.  Proust makes countless references to paintings and drawings, both as works of art in themselves, as well as a way of describing his characters and his landscapes.  Karpeles’ book, with his perceptive introduction and reproductions of over 200 of those artworks, allows the reader to see for him or herself what exactly Proust was talking about.

Proust:  A Life, by Edmund White (Penguin Books).  Published in 1999 as a part of the Penguin Lives series, it’s a lovely biography; a literary homage from one gay author to another.

Marcel Proust:  A Life by Jean-Yves Tadie (Viking).  If White’s 164 page biography leaves you wanting more, Tadie’s nearly 800 page tome is your next step.  In the words of Eric Karpeles, it is “Indispensable.  Insightful, informative, often fascinating reading.”

Proust’s Way:  A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time, by Roger Shattuck (W.W. Norton and Company).  The masterwork by the man who has been called the preeminent Proust scholar of our time.  Important, even if occasionally bogged down in overly academic prose.

Monsieur Proust CoverMonsieur Proust by Celeste Albaret (New York Review Books).  Celeste was Proust’s housekeeper in his later years, and her warm and intimate memoir gives a nearly unparalleled look at the daily life of a great writer.

Axel’s Castle:  A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 by Edmund Wilson (Farrar Straus & Giroux).  First published in 1931, Wilson’s essay is an early and perceptive look at Proust’s work, written by one of America’s greatest critics.

Proust by Samuel Beckett (John Calder).  Roger Shattuck calls it “seventy of the most probing and succinct pages ever written on Proust’s work.”

Proust by William Sansom (Thames and Hudson).  A lovely biographical essay, written by an unjustly neglected British author (Check out his collected short stories as well as his novel The Body, once named by Anthony Burgess as one of the greatest English novels published after 1939.)

The Proust Project by Andre Aciman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).  Aciman asked twenty-eight writers (Colm Toibin, Geoffrey O’Brien, Edmund White, Louis Auchincloss and Shirley Hazzard among them) to choose a favorite passage from Proust and comment on it in a brief essay.  Fascinating.

Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time:  A Reader’s Guide by Patrick Alexander.  I hesitate to recommend this, (it’s not unlike a Cliff’s Notes for adults), but it does contain an extraordinarily useful  guide to what Alexander describes as the fifty most important characters in Proust.

Use this list at your own discretion.  As we wind our way through Proust, I’ll try to post quotes and ideas from these books and others that you might find useful and/or thought provoking.

And, if any of you can recommend any other titles, or would be interested in reviewing any of these books (or any other books relating to the topic as well), let me know, send them on to me, and I’ll put them up.

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Swann's WayBy Dennis Abrams

I have to admit that I’m both extraordinarily picky and extraordinarily insecure when it comes to picking the “right” translation of a foreign language writer into English.

The pitfalls of translation selection became obvious to me a number of years ago, when I was hanging out at my friend’s bookstore in New Orleans.  A mutual acquaintance came in, looking for a copy of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.  John had four different translations available, so we read the first paragraph of each, trying to determine which version to recommend.

Not only was the language in each translation slightly different from the other, but the meanings themselves were subtly different.  This discovery raised a basic question:  If you don’t read the original language, how is the common reader to know just which translation comes the closest to capturing the essence of what the author was originally trying to convey?

Fortunately, when it comes to Marcel Proust and In Search of Lost Time, there are really only two major translations for the English language reader to choose from.  The first is the celebrated translation by Scotsman C.K. Scott Moncrieff, done between 1922 and 1930.  The first translation of Proust’s work into another language, it was published under the rather unfortunate title “Remembrance of Things Past,” a phase taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, rather than the more accurate In Search of Lost Time.

This translation has itself been revised twice – the first time in 1981 by Terence Kilmartin, using the new French edition of 1954 – and then re-revised by D.J. Enright and published by Modern Library in 1992.  Today, this version is considered by many to be a landmark in the art of translation.  In the words of Richard Howard, “A triumph of tone, of a single (and singular) vision, this ultimate revision of the primary version accords the surest sled over the ice fields as well as the most sinuous surfboard over the breakers of Proustian prose, an invaluable and inescapable text.”

Three years after the Modern Library edition was published, Penguin Books, under the editorial guidance of Christopher Prendergast, undertook an entirely new translation based on the authoritative French text of 1987-89.  This time, though, instead of using just one translator, Penguin decided to use a team of seven translators – one for each volume.

So with those to choose from…which one to read?  When I first read In Search of Lost Time ten years ago, I read what was then the translation – the classic Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright.  But now that the new Penguin translations are available, and even though I had my doubts (Proust wrote in one voice – shouldn’t just one translator’s voice be heard?), I asked Eric Karpeles, author of Paintings in Proust, and the man who has read Proust more often than anyone I know, which version he recommends.

His response?  Read the Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way, published by Penguin, then read the rest of the series in the Modern Library Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation.  What is it about the Davis translation that he likes?  “Even though I’ve read the Moncrieff several times and know it quite well, what I like about the Davis is that it has less of an Edwardian English overlay to it.  Davis removes some of the fustiness of the language of the period, which Proust did not have in French.  She manages to retain an authenticity of tone, making it fresh and seemingly less pompous, infusing it with more of a Proust-like delicacy.

There you have it.  I’m going to be following Eric’s advice and read the volume of the Penguin Books translation of Swann’s Way, before switching over to the Modern Library Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation for the remaining books in the series.  If you’ve already purchased the Modern Library version though, don’t worry.  Anytime I post a quotation from the Davis, I’ll post the corresponding quote from the Moncrieff as well, which should, in an of itself, be an interesting look into how differences in translation can translate into differences in meanings.

FYI, the Modern Library edition is also available for the Kindle.  I have a Kindle.  I use a Kindle. I like my Kindle a lot.  But reading Proust on a Kindle just seems wrong somehow.  If anyone feels differently about this, please let me know.

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