Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I'm reading Swann's Way again and finding it, as on my previous readings, an even richer, more complex and more beautiful book than I remembered. I began the day reading Middlemarch, but after 50 pages I returned its world of Protestant rectitude to the shelf and dove immediately into Proust's oceanic pool of decadent catholicity. Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New compares Proust's prose to the leaping, spiralling, organically multiplying forms of art nouveau architecture, a comparison that hits several bullseyes (formal and social historical, most obviously). Before the glories of Proustian prose even George Eliot, a writer of often startling nuance and ironic perception, seems something of a primitive. Indeed, the only Victorian novelist who seriously competes with Proust in this area would be late Henry James, but at this point in my life I prefer Marcel (and even margarita) to the Master.

Rather than attempt any kind of summary treatment--a mug's game with a work this massive--I'm going to take a more fragmented approach in this and the next few posts, presenting some notes and thoughts that came to me as I read:

"Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure."
"For a long time, I went to bed early."
A flat, banal, uninteresting sentence. (I'm surely overstating its vapidity.) Has a novel this brilliant ever begun less auspiciously? It's an instantly forgettable first line that we remember only because its blandness sticks out of Proust's bejewelled prose like a lump of coal among diamonds. Great, enormous novels should begin with lines like "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" or " 'Eh bien, mon prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than family estates of the Bonapartes' " or even "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress." Prior to Proust, Flaubert's Sentimental Education takes the palm with a first paragraph that reads like the opening of a not very interesting newspaper item. All the same, Proust's is a perfectly and ironically straightforward first line for this labyrinthine 3000+ page novel.

Every time I reread Swann's Way or any of the other volumes in the Recherche, I'm impressed anew at the way Proust states or implies almost all the major and minor themes of the entire work in the seemingly desultory opening section. Love, memory, death, jealousy, desire, frustration, even a brief misdirecting mention of Charlus that implies (rather than explicitly states) the theme of homosexuality. It's all here in the overture at Combray. And the early paragraph that begins "These shifting and confused gusts of memory..." implicitly positions the narrator as a scientist of consciousness and writing as his technology, the stop-motion camera with which he will analyse the social equivalents of the race horse's galloping run.

The "little room" at the top of the house in Combray is mentioned early (on page 12 in my edition) and associated with the narrator's "sensual pleasure," but only on page 189 does Proust give us the long-delayed money shot. (He must've been a great lover.) Only after almost 200 pages do we return to the little room and see the track of Marcel's semen on the leaves of the currant branch that thrusts phallically through the room's window. The semen--"une trace naturelle" in the original French, a phrase that Jacques Derrida would've found pregnant with nonmeaning--is compared to the track of slime left by the passage of a snail, suggesting that Marcel doesn't ejaculate directly onto the leaves but rather wipes his hands on them after masturbating.

A minor matter of translation that has always bothered me: When Francoise mentions that Swann has dined with a princess, Marcel's aunt replies (in the original) "Oui, chez une princesse du demi-monde!" The best translation would be the most literal: 'a princess of the demimonde' or 'a princess of courtesans'. Scott Moncrieff and his revisors, however, choose the much less direct and more sarcastic "a nice sort of princess." I don't understand why. If this was because of the era of censorship during which the Moncrieff translation was originally published, it should have been corrected when the Moncreiff was "revised and updated." This brings up the issue of translations and editions. I'm a Scott Moncrieff partisan. I consider the translation of the Recherche by C K. Scott Moncrieff, as revised by Terence Kilmartin (in 1981) and D.J. Enright (1992) to be by far the most beautiful edition currently available in English. Moncrieff's Proustian prose is so intoxicatingly beautiful that it deserves to be considered a high-point of 20th-century English literature. This is the translation most easily purchased in the six-volume Modern Library trade paperback format, sold on Amazon as the "Proust six-pack" (and a pretty good deal at under $50). My page numbers in these posts might vary from the Mod. Lib. edition since I'm reading a Vintage UK trade paperback edition of the same translation. (Now that we're all sufficiently confused, let's move on.)

The scene in which Marcel sends his mother a note requesting a bedtime kiss is a marvelous example of writing as presence in absence and as a technique of desire, the "exquisite thread" of ink that joins mother and son, carries the son's desire to the mother, and is so cruelly snipped when she refuses to answer. This refusal precipitates what I think is the novel's first gender crossing, when Marcel compares his distraught self to a 'poor girl' receiving a similar message from a powerful man. This 'exquisite thread' of writing will become one of the major motifs both of this volume and of the entire work.

Little Marcel's 'one night stand' with Maman, his temporary and unforeseen Oedipal victory, has as its first fruit Marcel's absolution via the Medical Word. He is no longer responsible for his unhappiness, because it has now been verbally 'inscribed' into the discourse of medicine as a "nervous condition." The Catholic discourse placed alongside the medical in this passage has the effect of ironizing both, a strategy of rhetorical collision that is one of the defining characteristics of Modernism, beginning (if we must choose an arbitrary origin) in the paintings of Manet (Olympia, Luncheon on the Grass).

Walter Benjamin, a great reader of Proust, was surely influenced by Marcel's grandmother's theories on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as described on pages 45-47. Indeed, we should probably read Benjamin's most widely anthologized (but by no means best) essay as an extended meditation on this passage of Proust.

One of my favorite moments in Scott Moncrieff's translation comes on page 47 when Proust writes of "those old forms of speech in which we can still see traces of a metaphor whose fine point has been worn away by the rough usage of our modern tongue." It's a wonderfully witty moment in which the concept of concealed metaphor is exemplified by the construction of a concealed metaphor for concealed metaphors (the hidden metaphor is implicitly likened to the nib of a pen worn away by hard use--and this isn't the only implied metaphor in the passage). It's great, and most of it is Moncrieff. The French passage reads: "les vieilles manieres de dire ou nous voyons une metaphore, effacee, dans notre moderne langage, par l'usure de l'habitude." So it seems that Moncrieff's "fine point" is his own invention, a translator's teasing out of the implications of Proust's word 'effacee,' which carries the meanings 'effaced, erased, worn away.' I suppose there are two ways to look at this: either accuse Moncrieff of taking unnecessary liberties, or conclude that Proust was very lucky in his translator. I'm of the latter opinion.

On the petit madeleine and Marcel's rush of memory: Just as the taste of madeleine brings Marcel's Combray childhood rushing back to him, the word "Madeleine" might have had the same effect on Marcel's creator. For Proust's childhood home in Paris (9 Blvd Malesherbes) was just a short walk from the church of the Madeleine, that imposing Napoleonic Parthenon that stares down its boulevard at the Place de la Concorde. Proust would probably have passed the church every day on his walks to and from the Champs-Elysee; it would've been the major monumental architectural presence in his Parisian childhood.


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