Seeking meaning, finding Proust

Alexander Nehamas is Edmund N. Carpenter professor in humanities, professor of philosophy and professor of comparative literature at Princeton. He is the author of several books, including "Nietzsche: Life as Literature."

Swann’s Way

Marcel Proust

Translated from the French by Lydia Davis

Viking: 468 pp., $27.95

“In Search of Lost Time” is the longest novel in the world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it contains 9,609,000 characters, which amounts to 1.4 million words -- 3,054 densely printed pages in the Pleiade edition of 1987. Almost 400 characters appear in it; one of its prodigious sentences is 970 words long; the account of a single dinner takes up 130 pages. Alfred Humblot, among the several publishers who in 1913 rejected “Swann’s Way,” its first volume, remarked: “I just don’t understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in his bed before he goes to sleep; it made my head swim.”

In the meantime, of course, Marcel Proust has become very popular. Three biographies have appeared in the last few years, and three films have dramatized his novel, while a fourth depicts its writing. Cookbooks feature the dishes his characters consume and travel guides the parts of France they visit. A self-help manual -- advice for coping with life from a man who spent 13 years in a cork-lined bedroom -- has become an international bestseller; the bedroom itself is exhibited at the Carnavalet Museum in Paris. From all over the world, pilgrims go to Illiers, Proust’s model for Combray and now officially renamed Illiers-Combray, to visit his house and take the Proustian equivalent of communion, a madeleine, the little scallop-shaped cake whose taste transports the novel’s narrator to his childhood and sets in motion the story of his life. Two thousand of them, including the popular chocolate-chip version, are sold every week.

Eating a madeleine, of course, is one thing and reading the entire novel is another. Still, 90 years after Proust published “Swann’s Way” at his own expense, at least six full editions of “In Search of Lost Time” compete with one another in France. And now a new English translation, giving new life and energy to his work and sure to widen its appeal, is being published in this country, in seven volumes, each produced by a different hand. Christopher Prendergast, a professor of French at Cambridge and the translation’s “general editor,” defends this controversial approach on the grounds that it is more likely to be true to “the shifting arrays of models and registers” of Proust’s language. But Proust’s sensibility is unmistakable throughout his text, despite his changing plans, the passing years and his interminable revisions. Prendergast’s real reason is surely practical and perfectly good: The task is too much for one person. Even Proust himself, who took to his bedroom to write in the fall of 1909 and hoped to finish by the following summer, rarely left it again and died in 1922, leaving volumes six and seven incomplete. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, his first English translator, died before getting to volume seven; Andreas Mayor, who translated it, died before revising Moncrieff; Terence Kilmartin died before revising Mayor; and a final revision, by D.J. Enright, appeared only in 1992.


The price of timeliness is that there are more variations in style and quality among the volumes here than in either the original or Moncrieff. But there are compensating strengths, many of them evident in Lydia Davis’ “Swann’s Way,” which is both accessible and faithful to Proust. Davis replicates the hesitations and digressions, the backward looks and forward glances that swell Proust’s sentences and send them cascading to their conclusion -- without sacrificing the natural air of his style, which Moncrieff often obscures. Her Proust is fastidious without being prissy.

The effort to stay close to the original produces English sometimes less elegant than Moncrieff’s and occasionally too literal to make sense. (What are we to make of people eating “with the backs of their spoons”?) But she avoids Moncrieff’s Edwardian extravagances and tendency to expand Proust’s already ample prose. Some people, according to Moncrieff, are obliged “to remain moored like house-boats to a particular point on the shore of life.” What Proust writes is “rester attache a un certain rivage”; Davis’ “to remain attached to a certain mooring” is more accurate, though “attached” (instead of “secured” or “fast”), while literal, is not idiomatic. But no translation is flawless, and Davis’ sans-serif version is bound to attract new readers to Proust and offer new pleasures to those who know him already.

Rereading “Swann’s Way,” I found myself asking what a first-time reader, who won’t know what is to follow, would make of this narrative, which meanders from the nameless narrator’s recollections of his Combray childhood to a time before his birth, when Swann was in love with Odette, and back again as the narrator meditates on the power of names over the imagination and recalls falling in love with Gilberte, Swann and Odette’s daughter. On its own, “Swann’s Way” must be a baffling work: It isn’t even clear whether Swann or the narrator is its hero; perhaps we shouldn’t judge Humblot too harshly. It is true, as Davis notes, that Proust’s principal themes are all introduced in this first volume: childhood, love, betrayal, memory, sleep, time, homosexuality, music, art, literature, manners, taste, society, historic France. We meet most of his major characters. We see the starting points of the two opposing paths -- Swann’s way and the way of Guermantes -- on which his narrator will wander until he realizes that both lead to the place where his own work begins. But without knowing the rest of the novel, it is difficult to see these as elements in a larger structure or understand their interrelations. “Swann’s Way” is long enough to seem to stand on its own, but it raises questions that will be answered only much later, and it is full of incidents whose significance does not emerge for hundreds, even thousands of pages. Its many beauties notwithstanding, it can be a frustrating book.

It is also a book [Note to reader: You have now read 970 words] about frustration. Both Swann and Marcel (as the narrator is identified in Volume 5) are disappointed in love. Swann, unable to express a serious thought on any topic he cares deeply about, never manages to write his book on Vermeer. Marcel spends much of his childhood feeling that life is passing him by in enigmatic episodes that lead nowhere; surrounded by indecipherable people, events and scenes, he cannot realize his life’s ambition to write about them as long as he can’t understand their meaning.

Similarly, the point of some of the most moving passages eludes the reader, not quite within reach even after careful rereading. The experience is disorienting and can be discouraging, but this frustrating elusiveness proves to be one of the glories of “Swann’s Way” -- and of the novel as a whole. Here are examples from three famous passages. On seeing a pond sparkling in the autumn light as the wind ruffles the wild grasses, Marcel says, “I cried out to myself in my enthusiasm, brandishing my furled umbrella: ‘Damn, damn, damn, damn’ (Zut, zut, zut, zut). But at the same time I felt I was in duty bound not to stop at these opaque words, but to try to see more clearly into my rapture.” No words come, though, and he moves on. He does no better with a hedge of hawthorns that offers “the same charm endlessly and with an inexhaustible profusion, but without letting me study it more deeply”; his feelings stay “obscure and vague” even when he revisits the flowers to give them, so to speak, a second reading. And though it fills him with strange pleasure, he dismisses his one piece of writing -- on how the steeples of two village churches seem to shift in space though only his carriage is moving -- because he cannot grasp what lay “behind that motion, that brightness, something which they seemed at once to contain and conceal.”

These passages are as opaque to the reader as what they describe is to Marcel. The text induces the experience it represents. Proust wants his prose to be as mystifying to his reader as the world is to his narrator, and all of “In Search of Lost Time,” but especially “Swann’s Way,” subjects reader and hero to the same ordeal. Supremely confident in his fiction, Proust is willing to prolong the ordeal until it is almost intolerable, and many readers give up long before Marcel is finally ready to start on the book that has eluded him for so long. But those who persist are rewarded in the most unexpected way.


Toward the end of “Time Regained,” a series of madeleine-like episodes -- an uneven paving stone that returns him to Venice, a metallic sound that transports him to a train, a linen napkin that re-creates Balbec -- shows Marcel that his past, the time he thought lost, still lives within him. “Involuntary” memory, which Proust contrasts with memory under conscious control, has preserved his impressions intact in all their particularity, which is why he can experience them so fully again. But only a literary work, he realizes, can both be true to his impressions and make explicit what he had felt before, “convert it into a spiritual equivalent” and give it more than a fugitive moment’s existence. Marcel finally begins to understand what the church steeples and wild grasses of his past had been trying to tell him and discovers the subject matter of his book: “I understood that all these raw materials for a literary work were my past life.”

As “In Search of Lost Time” ends, Marcel recaptures the past and can incorporate it in the work of his life, which is also the book of his life -- none other than “In Search of Lost Time” itself. His subject will be what he calls his “vocation,” which he has already called “that invisible vocation of which this book is the story” in “The Guermantes Way.” “In Search of Lost Time” ends by announcing its beginning -- so what it announces has to be already complete. If Marcel’s past will emerge recaptured through the book he is about to write, it has already emerged recaptured in the book we just finished reading.

But where? Returning to “Swann’s Way,” we find Marcel still speechless beside the pond, puzzled by his happiness. And yet perhaps he has said more than he knows. It’s easy to believe him when he says he has no words for his experience, because Proust has constructed the brilliant, elaborate description of the pond, through which he makes the reader aware of its beauty, as if it were independent of Marcel -- a piece of the world, so to speak, and not a record of Marcel’s impression, both cause and object of his rapture. Thus Proust registers that experience but also suggests that it escapes Marcel’s conscious awareness, leaving only an inexplicable pleasure behind. Proust achieves the same effect with Marcel’s one piece of writing, which he has Marcel confess that he composes “[w]ithout saying to myself that what was hidden behind the steeples of Martinville had to be something analogous to a pretty sentence, since it had appeared to me in the form of words that gave me pleasure.” Marcel fails to see that what matters in experience is experience itself, and Proust sends him searching for “a subject in which I could anchor some infinite philosophical meaning” while his real subject passes by unnoticed.

And that is exactly what Proust does to his readers. Misled by his double voice, we fail to realize that these passages, like most of “In Search of Lost Time,” report Marcel’s experiences; we miss their significance, and as they slip by, our own present slips unnoticed into the past. Proust has his readers undergo what Marcel undergoes: the loss of time, of which we are aware only in retrospect. Recognition comes when, returning to “Swann’s Way” after Marcel’s epiphany in “Time Regained,” we apprehend Proust’s narrative strategy and realize that those passages are significant because they depict impressions that were lost to Marcel. But the only reason we know what those impressions are is that Marcel himself has told us -- that’s what Proust’s double voice was intended to hide. “Swann’s Way” shows time both lost and regained; the very same words tell a double tale.

“Swann’s Way” can be read on its own, but its full significance requires a reading of all of “In Search of Lost Time.” Thus it is a pity that each volume of this translation is appearing separately here (all are available as a set in England) and that for copyright reasons the last three will be issued only between 2019 and 2022. Not even Proust takes that long to read. Davis’ “Swann’s Way” is good enough to inspire a longing for the rest of the work -- a longing that will be unsatisfied unless readers turn to Moncrieff, whose classic version has now found, if not a replacement, at least a worthy competitor. *