If you haven’t read Proust, don’t worry. This lacuna in your cultural development you do not need to fill. On the other hand, if you have read all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, you should be very worried about yourself. As Proust very well knew, reading his work for as long as it takes is temps perdu, time wasted, time that would be better spent visiting a demented relative, meditating, walking the dog or learning ancient Greek.
In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past, as Proust’s “novel” is variously titled in English, is widely touted as one of the favourite books of the 20th century, second only to The Lord of the Rings. Fans of Tolkien can certainly handle a marathon read, as can Harry Potter addicts; but whether they have stayed the distance with Proust seems to me highly doubtful.
ALRDTP is not so much a book as an armful of books. No bookshop can be relied upon to have all the volumes in stock at any one time. The cost of the whole work is likely to be prohibitive – unless you can read it in French, in the one-volume paperback edition of the text established by the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade over five years from 1987. This is a helluva read, being 2,408 pages, 1.25m words, and so heavy that you can’t read it in bed let alone in the bath (if you can read it at all, with its crowded, narrow typeface and tiny margins).
This cannot be called the definitive text because, when Proust died in 1922, the last three volumes existed only in typescript, festooned with pasted-in interpolations and additions that Proust’s literary executors tried to make sense of; they moved some, ignored others, all the while erasing repetitions and inconsistencies in the belief that Proust would have done as much if he had had the time. Recent editors have restored this momentarily inert mass once more to chaos. Ulysses, too, is an editor’s nightmare, and ALRDTP should not be damned solely on that account. But it is damnable in its fake heterosexual voyeurism, and its disparaging and dishonest account of homosexuality.
People who gush over Proust say peculiar things about him. The Observer’s Robert McCrum thinks he “redefined the terms of fiction”, whatever they may be. Proust would have been surprised to be told he had defined anything. In a momentary lapse into barbarism, Nabokov, himself a consummate stylist, described Proust’s prose as “translucid”. If Proust did not make such a snobbish to-do about diction, it might be easier to forgive him for his battering of the sentence to rubble and his apparent contempt for the paragraph. He relies on commas and semi-colons to do what should be done by full-stops, of which there are far too few, many of them in the wrong place. Sentences run to thousands of words and scores of subordinate clauses, until the reader has no recollection of the main clause or indeed whether there ever was one.
Until almost the end of the century, CK Scott Moncrieff’s was the only English translation. It contained all kinds of howlers, which were tinkered with by various publishers to be presented eventually to the anglophone public as two different translations with separate copyrights. Then Penguin embarked on a genuinely new translation by assorted academics under the general editorship of Christopher Prendergast. This was generally well received, with one desperate reviewer even imagining that it had captured the “cadence” of Proust’s French.
Supposing you struggle on as far as the fifth volume, which Scott Moncrieff called The Captive, you will find the following: “Tirant d’un flûtiau, d’une cornemuse, des airs de son pays méridional, dont la lumière s’accordait bien avec les beaux jours, un homme en blouse, tenant à la main un nerf de boeuf, et coiffé d’un béret basque, s’arrêtait devant les maisons.” This Scott Moncrieff hilariously renders as: “Drawing from a penny whistle, from a bagpipe, airs of his own southern country whose sunlight harmonised well with these fine days, a man in a blouse, wielding a bull’s pizzle in his hand and wearing a Basque beret on his head, stopped before each house in turn.” In Carol Clark’s version for Penguin we read: “Drawing from a penny-whistle or bagpipes melodies from his southern homeland, whose light the fine morning recalled, a man in a smock with a bludgeon in his hand, and wearing a beret, stopped in front of the houses.”
The translators’ manifest difficulties stem at first from Proust’s own imprecision, and are then compounded by their ignorance. The Pyrenean goatherd carried neither a dried bull’s penis nor a bludgeon – what would he be doing with either? He is going to milk his goats and he needs something with which to restrain them: a hobble made of dried bull sinew. But when all is said and done, Scott Moncrieff remains the pleasanter read. Once it is understood that all translation is mistranslation, we are free to realise that Scott Moncrieff (Proust’s contemporary) keeps us reading at the right pace and rhythm. Besides, he has no hesitation in using French words that we all understand, while Penguin insists on translating a “concierge” as a “portress”, if you please.
Tend to agree. I couldn’t move to far on the book. Must say that the Spanish translation is quite affordable, if not difficult to find (again, not many book shops will stock the 7, or was it 9?, tomes).