Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Dumbing-Down of Proust or What Do the French Read?




Marcel Proust


Picture a cozy domestic scene: years ago, my daughter is in high school, in Advanced Literature, she’s doing her homework; I am vacuuming her room. I see a copy of Oscar Wilde’s short stories on her desk. I pick it up, vacuum still going, and open to my favorite line in Salomé, “Suffer me to kiss thy lips!” Salomé whispers this to the captive John the Baptist. Think of it! To be kissed by Salomé, John would suffer! “Suffer” is an old term, used as an equivalent of "may I please," but in this case, the virtuous John would indeed suffer. Exquisite line. Think of it! Wilde paid dearly for each and every word: he lived for them; he went to prison for them; he died for them. He ate, drank and sweated his words. And they are perfect.

I searched the pages, ah! Found the passage! I read: “Let me kiss you!”

What? Desolation! A sinking in the pit of my stomach, but, no matter, I have my own copy of Salomé.

“This is a terrible translation!” I scold my daughter, tossing the book on her desk.

I vacuum a few inches. I stop. That was no translation! Wilde was English! That was a dumbing-down of literature! “Sacre Bleu, Invaders!”

Twenty years before that afternoon, another afternoon: I am entering my English class at college, a course on the writer, Henry James. The day is dark, so dark, in fact, the lights are on inside and you cannot see out the windows. The world appears as dark as night; the campus lights are burning. No one is in the room except my tall and awkward friend, Douglas (When we walk together, he says we are both freaks because he is too tall, way over 6 feet, and I am too short, barely 5). Douglas has a stutter, yet he is the most eloquent person I know.

“Listen to this,” Douglas tells me and I do. He reads from his book. Not James. “A little tap at the window, as though some missile had struck it, followed by a plentiful, falling sound, as light, though, as if a shower of sand were being sprinkled from a window overhead; then the fall spread, took on an order, a rhythm, became liquid, loud, drumming, musical, innumerable, universal. It was the rain.”

This last sentence, he delivered by turning toward me, as if to emphasize it, because it was raining then on that dark day, sheets of it pouring down the black windows. He hadn’t stuttered once.

“It’s P-P-P-Proust,” Douglas told me.

I nodded, silently, in awe. I decided in that perfect moment that I should not read Proust until I was much, much older.

And, I haven’t. Till now. The time has come. I’m 66 years old and I can devote my attention to his words. I’m retired. My child is grown, I have no pets, just a pesky husband who always wants to know what I’m writing – kidding – he doesn’t. He’s just as happy to listen to the news or do nothing at all – it’s an art – he’s retired too.

So, I dig out my old copy of Remembrance of Things Past, Volume I, Swann’s Way, Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. I paid $1.95 for this quality paperback at the Cambridge Paperback Booksmith in 1973. (If only I had purchased Vols. II and III as well! If I’d known then what I know now!) Forty-five years later, the book is pretty moldy. There are roach poop stains on some of the pages from the years we lived in a studio walk-up on Charles Street in Boston. (I loved that studio – traditional architecture, fireplace, huge windows looking out on to a wisteria-filled alley - till the roaches took over and the window caved in.) The book is brittle. The pages are dark yellow. The print is tiny. I look online for a replacement only to fall in love with the cover on the new Modern Library edition – an unmade bed – oh, that’s cool! A brand new book! Exciting! Plus, I can see there are 6 more volumes! The last 3 were only recently published. I order the first one just in case I cave. It will be a major project; I’m not sure I can finish all 7 volumes.

The new book arrives and I have it by my bed for a while, I admit. Right on top of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. Yeah, I’m a nerd.

After I finished the book I was reading – unremarkable, so I won’t say what it was – I announce to my husband and daughter that I’m finally going to read all of Proust! I’m so excited.

I begin with the new edition. Wait, the title is different? It’s not Remembrance of Things Past. It’s In Search of Lost Time. Wow, that’s a big difference. I know Proust is successfully remembering. I have dipped into it a few times, out of complete adoration, and read, if I’m honest, the same 23 pages over and over. He’s not exactly “searching for lost time” - even though he claims to be in the narrative.

I also remember, from my research, that Proust approved this title, which comes from Shakespeare – I'm posting the entire sonnet, which almost seems to reflect the 7 volumes from Swann's Way to Time Regained.

"Remembrance of things past" – Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought      
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.


I’m baffled by the new title to the books, and I recall being baffled when I was first taught the word “rechercher” by Miss Petite, my French teacher in high school. She said it literally meant “to search for” but that the French use it to mean what we call “remember.” Ah, the French, so passionate! I check the translator. Now there is a new name: Revised by D.J. Enright. Already, I don’t like D.J. I mistrust him.

I begin reading anyway.

I notice there’s no Overture. The book goes right into Combray. I check my narly old edition. Hmm. The words seem to be the same. I read some more. I stop at the phrase, “soft as cheeks of childhood.” No, no, no. That’s wrong, I can feel it!

Out comes the old book again: “cheeks of babyhood.” Yes! Much more like it. The cheeks of 5-year-old child have already begun to toughen from the bumps and bruises of the playground. A baby’s cheeks are the most miraculously tender flesh on earth.

I read on, thinking, feeling, really, “This is clunky. Where is the sweet, flowing prose I experienced in Remembrance of Proust Past?”

I am reminded of the empty, sinking feeling I had biting into Go Set A Watchman when I was not greeted by the voluptuous, Southern cadence of To Kill A Mockingbird

I put down the clean, new D.J. edition to brave the fungus and mold of my old copy. I stop at the phrase, “I would ask myself what o’clock it could be...” Oh, yes! Lovely! Just for kicks, I check the new edition. “I would ask myself what time it could be…” Blah! That kind of bull merde I can get anywhere is NOT why I want to read Proust! Reminds me of Woody Allen telling the actors to just say whatever pops into their heads. No! I don’t want Scarlett’s wit when I anticipate Woody Allen’s, thank you very much!

Now begins my search for In Search of Lost Time. I begin researching translations. I never thought I would be in this position. As a student, I thought, oh, great, it’s in English! I wondered why anyone would complain about what seemed trivialities then. Now, I understand. I look online for old books, used books on Amazon or anywhere. Most of them have what are called “highlights,” those yellow marker study lines over the text made by earnest students. No, thanks, no highlights. I didn’t do that when I was a student, why would I want that now?

I find a two volume set, send for it, and when it arrives from Oregon, I discover, well, I expected the print to be tiny, it’s all 7 volumes, after all, but I had hoped against hope that it wouldn’t be too damaged by the ravages of time. Given to P.L. at Christmas, 1941. You can smell the mold. My own book isn’t this bad. I place the 2 volume set by my bedroom hearth, unable to throw them away just yet.

My two volume set has the name, Frederick Blossom as well as Moncrieff. Hmm. A brief check of certain key words I love leads me to find that this helpmate is more loyal to Moncrieff than D.J. Enright. In my online searches, I found mention of a Lydia Davis, who, apparently, began her translation by going slowly line-by-line. Oh, no! I wonder where does a translator draw the literal line? Especially with the romance languages! They are so passionate, not to be taken literally!

By now, I am thinking it might be easier to learn French.

I’m curious. What do the French read?

I Google “Swann in French.” Do the French see M. Cygne when they open their copy of Proust? Amazingly, non! They see “Du Côté de Chez Swann!” There’s even a nice French lady who says, “Swann! Swann!” with a smooth French accent.

I wonder he didn’t translate Swann’s Way as “The Coast of the House of Swann.” Or offer the title, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower instead of Moncrieff’s more subtle, and I think, more French, In a Budding Grove.

I’m amazed that D.J. didn’t break open the word, Guermantes ( a riverside path) into “Hardly a Mantle!” I would hate to think what D.J. would do with Baise-Moi by French author, Virginie Despentes. The rated PG version, Kiss Me?

I read my old book for about a week before my right hand broke out in a rash. My eyes got itchy. I broke out in hives.

Alas, I had to put it aside and reach for the new one. I decided, if D.J. had kept a certain word, the word “houri,” I would read his edited translation. He had. He’d kept Moncrieff’s line exactly the same, in a description of white or purple lilacs, a flower that hangs in bunches like grapes: The nymphs of spring would seem coarse and vulgar in comparison with these young houris, who retained, in this French garden, the pure and vivid coloring of a Persian miniature. I look up the words, houris, and find that the word means a pure woman of Muslim paradise, but, more precisely, that the whites of the woman’s eyes are pristinely white. Very interesting to me, as a macro, because, if the whites of the eye are purely white, then that person is extremely healthy. I trembled once again with adoration of Proust.

I crossed over to the new world. The one in which educators have decided that students are too stupid to understand the original intention of the author. There’s even an annoying introduction by a Richard Howard, who teaches literature at Columbia, which begins, “Dear Proust, meet your new readers…your reputation as a difficult author is widespread, and many readers are daunted.” Daunt, no more, dear readers! In 1992, Modern Library actually announced these volumes as the “definitive translation” of Proust’s masterwork. Definitive because it’s the only translation now available without mold!

I don’t think the students are too stupid. I think it is the teachers who are too lazy or too stupid to teach the novels that were written so eloquently and finely, and bravely by writers who are no longer around to defend their work. Shakespeare is hard to read, but no one fucks with his words. I used to feel sorry for friends who knew Greek or Latin and had to read altered versions of the classical Greek plays or altered versions of the Bible or, in a more modern context, altered James Joyce’s Ulysses. I think of the scholars who could recite long passages of ancient poetry. Recitation was a huge part of learning in the old days, and a fond way of remembering one’s youthful study. People used to recite at parties to entertain one another. Does everything fine need to crumble and die?

I could spend the rest of my life comparing new editions of my favorite novels. But, I won’t. I will keep my moldy old books because I want to keep the precious, vibrant, stunning words I fell in love with in the first place. Until I crumble and die.

Proust doesn’t really have chapter endings the way most books do, but, as I read, I sensed the section was coming to an end and after weeks of reading, I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t realize that I was approaching the end of Combray, the section about the summer home of his youth, the countryside, the gardens, the food, told through the dear and honest impressions of a child. Next, is Swann in Love. Do I really care about the morés of early 20th Century French salon society? No, but I do care about M. Swann. So, onward!

I last for nearly 50 more pages of D.J. before I feel cheated again. I can just feel the prose is not good. I’m not enjoying myself. I’m not moved. In fact, I’m confused about what’s going on in the drawing room of the Verdurins. I return to my Moncrief for answers. Comparing only one page delivers the meaning I’ve been looking for – poor M. Saniette is morose, not dull, about his continuing faux pas in society. Morose is the French word for morose! Mon Dieu! Idiot! Now I understand what is going on with M. Saniette, who suddenly seems so sweet and charming. Further down the page, I find the description of a young lady as “having her wits about her.” But, Moncrieff has described her as “having the American eye!” I literally bang the D.J. book with my fist. Pow! Pow! Pow! You little shit! I could write pages about how “Americans are very appreciated” (The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James) in Europe where the impoverished aristocracy like to infuse the Americans’ hot, new blood into their own cold and mildewy. I could go on about the brave American spirit, about fresh American youth! One word, so full of connotation!

I’m forced by my love of good writing, my love of Proust, my dream to read him, finally, in my old age, to return to my old Moncrieff and risk poisoning by mold and mildew. Like an old French aristocrat, like Rapacinni’s daughter, I shall be poisoned a little at a time, by beauty, until I cannot leave the house or garden for fear of passing on.

It’s fitting that I am reading Remembrance of Things Past now that I am old and remembering and searching, as always, for knowledge. But, that is the faith. That is the covenant of the artist with time, with those who come after. I believe in the artists. I love them, and their art.


I refuse to let them die.

UPDATE: I finished the first volume Swann's Way today! I had given myself reading time during breakfast and lunch, so it did take a while. I realized that I did not possess the second volume, Within A Budding Grove, but I was able to purchase that book today. Thanks to the original publisher, Chatto and Windus, and the renegade Random House (which randomly published the new rogue Modern Library editions), there are also available on Amazon, fresh new books (I had to dig to find them) of the C.K. Moncrieff translation, thank you, thank you, God! (I'm going to read Baise-Moi while I wait.)






©Patricia Goodwin, 2018

Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation. Her newest book is Telling Time By Apples, And Other Poems About Life On The Remnants of Olde Humphrey Farme, illustrated by the author. 

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