In Search of Lost Time
by Marcel Proust
3,300pp, Penguin, £75
In the early volumes of In Search of Lost Time , the young Marcel is forever falling in love with people and places at the drop of their names, spinning out of the phonemes of "La Berma" (an actress renowned for her performance as Phèdre), Balbec (the resort on the Normandy coast where he holidays) and especially Guermantes, elaborate webs of desire, which will be pulled apart later when he becomes better acquainted with their objects. According to Christopher Prendergast, the general editor of this new Penguin translation of A la recherche du temps perdu , it's high time the same thing happened to the cocoons of fantasy and prejudice that Proust's ad-mirers are prone to weave around his name. "For too long Proust has been 'Proust', held in an image bordering on idolatry." Nowhere more so than on this side of the Channel: "The English reception of Proust has been especially plagued by a tendency to sport acquaintance (often slight) with his work as a badge of distinction, at once social and spiritual, by construing it as a storehouse of exquisite epiphanies laced with a strong dose of class-bound aestheticism." And no wonder, since the only previous translation of the novel into English, by CK Scott Moncrieff, showered Proust's text in "cascades of Edwardian purple prose", some but not all of them staunched by Terence Kilmartin and DJ Enright in the "fully revised" version now reissued by Vintage to compete with these volumes.
Proust would have approved of Prendergast's iconoclastic inclinations. His first book was a collection of curios and vignettes, Les Plaisirs et Les Jours which, because of its fastidious sensibility and style, because it was lavishly produced and outrageously priced, and most of all because it was illustrated by Madeleine Lemaire, a society watercolourist and hostess, saddled him with a reputation as a coterie writer, the pet pen of the narrow and shallow Faubourg Saint-Germain. That reputation, cemented by the twin adjectives fin et délicat, which reviewer after reviewer applied to the book, Proust spent the rest of his career trying, with only limited success, to throw off. When the first volume of A la recherche was about to be published, hearing that the Figaro was planning to run a puff, he wrote to the editor Gaston Calmette begging him to steer clear of the dread terms. He insisted, too, on slashing the price of the volume from the 10 francs which his publisher Bernard Grasset had proposed to three francs and 50 centimes, not wanting his "thoughts to be reserved for people who spend 10 francs on a book and are generally stupider than those who buy them for three". Towards the end of his life, once he was prevented by his complicated illnesses from leaving his apartment, let alone venturing below ground-level, one of Proust's fondest hopes for his novel was that his fellow Parisians were reading it on their way to work on the Métro.
The Penguin Proust aspires, if not quite to be devoured while strap-hanging on the Bakerloo line, at least to foster a "more democratic dissemination and enjoyment of A la recherche ". It wears this aspiration on its (attractively presented) sleeves. For the title of the novel as a whole, Kilmartin's plain and vigorous In Search of Lost Time has been preferred over Moncrieff's delicately Shakespearean Remembrance of Things Past. Rightly so: it's truer to the quasi-scientific urgency of A la recherche (Proust's father, a doctor, conducted famously indefatigable research in what we would now call epidemiology) as well as to the ambiguity of temps perdu - time not just "lost" but, more forcefully, "wasted" - and so to the spirit of Proustian retrospect, which is more often a tortuous process than a rapturous state, a matter of self-inquiry, even self-accusation, and not merely self-indulgence. In the titles of individual volumes, too, forthright literalism has replaced suggestive obliquity: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower instead of Moncrieff's prurient Within a Budding Grove (which Kilmartin and Enright retained) for A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs; and for Le Temps retrouvé , instead of Moncrieff's transcendently Miltonic Time Regained (again preserved by Kilmartin and Enright) the down-to-earth Finding Time Again. That last case is notoriously problematic, and neither solution is altogether satisfactory, but the colloquiality of the Penguin choice is no blunder: in the final volume of the novel, Marcel comes up hard against time as an everyday physiological reality; having found time, discovered its secret, only on the threshold of his own death, he must, like Proust himself, confront the possibility that he will not find time to communicate his discovery.
Turning to the translation it-self, though each of the seven volumes is the work of a different translator, some general tendencies emerge supporting Prendergast's contention that the novel is "far more robustly hewn" than is commonly supposed.
Several of the translators make judicious use of anachronism to point up the indecorous explicitness of Proust's dissection of sexual desire in general, and the subcultures of male and female homosexuality in particular: Albertine is "lusted-after" in The Prisoner , for instance, and M de Charlus mentions "rent-boys" in Sodom and Gomorrah . In this, however, the Penguin translators were anticipated to some extent by Kilmartin's and especially Enright's revisions of Moncrieff.
Not so in their handling of the impersonal pronoun "on", to which the Proustian narrator has such persistent recourse. There are three possible direct equivalents in English: in descending order of formality, "one", "we", and "you". Moncrieff overwhelmingly preferred "one", a preference which Kilmartin and Enright largely permitted to stand. The Penguin translators, by contrast, opt in the majority of cases for "we", and sometimes even for "you".
As an example of how much less pursed and prissy, how much more direct and downright, this can make Marcel sound, consider the passage at the beginning of The Fugitive which describes his response to the news that Albertine has left him. Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright: "Hitherto I had regarded [Habit] chiefly as an annihilating force which suppresses the originality and even the awareness of one's perceptions; now I saw it as a dread deity, so riveted to one's being, its insignificant face so incrusted in one's heart, that if it detaches itself, if it turns away from one, this deity that one had barely distinguished inflicts on one sufferings more terrible than any other and is then as cruel as death itself." Penguin (Peter Collier): "Until now I had considered [Habit] above all as a negative force suppressing the originality and even our awareness of our perceptions; now I saw it as a fearsome goddess so attached to us, with her inscrutable face so grafted on to our hearts that if she detaches herself and turns away from us, this deity, whose presence we were barely able to discern, inflicts upon us the most terrible suffering, and then she is as cruel as death."
Yet if the measure of this new translation is to be its success in prising Proust from the clutches of the affected and the effete, I suspect it will go down as a missed opportunity. It's no easy task, of course: in the photograph reproduced on the spines of the Penguin volumes Proust looks every languid inch what the volumes themselves set out to prove he isn't - a "purveyor of high-grade cultural narcotics". But the majority of the Penguin translators have made the task harder for themselves by choosing to tackle it with one hand tied behind their backs. For all Prendergast's talk of smashing "Proust-worship", many of them perpetuate it in one crucial respect; by treating the Proustian sentence as a sacred cow. Proust's sentences are, of course, exotic and magnificent beasts which translators massacre at their peril. A positively Proustian amount of critical comment exists about the contribution which the idiosyncrasies of the novel's syntax make to the larger progress of its philosophical investigations into time as a dimension of human being. Nevertheless, the fact must be faced that aiming to replicate every twist and turn of Proust's sentences puts an unbearable strain on a translator, and may lead to an unreadably strained translation.
Prendergast suggests that, since Proust's "extraordinary syntactic structures" are themselves "often strange even to French ears", "there may well be a respectable argument to the effect that oddly unEnglish shapes are sometimes the best way of preserving their estranging force". But, respectable or not, that argument smells strongly of academe. Beyond a certain point, the effect of "oddly unEnglish shapes" on general readers of a translation tends to be estranging and forceful, in the sense of making it sound strange and so forcing them to stop reading it. Those of the Penguin volumes which are most doctrinaire in their refusal to lay a hand on Proust's sentences, not presuming so much as to disturb the sequences of their clauses - Lydia Davis's The Way by Swann's , and John Sturrock's Sodom and Gomorrah - go well beyond that point. Others teeter on it at times. Carol Clark's The Prisoner seems to me to stay almost entirely clear of it, achieving a quite remarkable degree of fluency by means of no more than deft minor adjustments to the original syntax, altering the function of a clause here, dividing a sentence into two there. More fluent still is James Grieve's In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, though his constant and bold grammatical interventions will not be to the taste of purists.
In the end, one is prompted to ask who this translation is for. It's a question addressed neither by Prendergast in his general introduction nor by the individual translators in the brief prefatory essays they have provided to each volume (excellent though some of them are, notably those to The Guermantes Way and The Prisoner , as thumbnail critical sketches of the novels). Certainly, the Penguin Proust, as compared with Moncrieff/Kilmartin/ Enright, establishes a new benchmark of fidelity; but, since it does so at the price of much oddly un-English prose, what sort of reader will stay the whole course? Perhaps one adept in French but not quite up to the task of scaling Proust unaided, who might keep the Penguin open alongside his French text to help him over craggy sections of the original. Yet readers willing to toil through the 3,300 pages of the novel in this sort of do-it-yourself parallel text will surely be few and far between.
For those without French considering setting out on the Proustian journey, the Moncrieff/ Kilmartin/Enright translation, remains, in my view, the best available read ing text. But it's well worth moving over into Penguin for Mark Traherne's The Guermantes Way , which catches much of the comedy, by turns black, bitter and slapstick, of this most immediately appealing of the novel's volumes (when the Princess of Parma is described waiting wide-eyed with "admiration a priori" to hear the latest of the Duchesse de Guermantes' celebrated puns, Traherne brilliantly gives "with admiration aforethought"); or else for volume five, which contains both The Prisoner and The Fugitive , well-executed by Carol Clark and Peter Collier respectively and something of a self-contained unit, the so-called "Albertine story", added by Proust to his initial scheme at a late stage in the composition of the novel.
I think Proust might have advised something similar. What he wanted for In Search of Lost Time , above anything else, was that it be read; "deprived of everything", he wrote to a friend from the isolation of his bedroom at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, "my only care is to give my books, through their absorption by other minds, the expansion that is refused me".
If, in order to get them read, to secure their absorption by the minds of foreign readers, translators have to inflict a measure of structural damage on those books, there are reasons to suppose that Proust would have considered this a necessary evil. One comes near the beginning of Le Temps retrouvé : Marcel and M de Charlus are discussing the destruction of France's great cathedrals in the German bombing raids, a matter of special pertinence to Proust's novel since he had once planned to name each of the volumes after a feature of cathedral architecture. When M de Charlus observes that if the "uplifted arm of St Firmin" on the cathedral of Amiens has been destroyed, "the highest affirmation of faith and energy has vanished from this world", Marcel responds: "The symbol of it, Monsieur... I adore certain symbols as much as you do. But it would be absurd to sacrifice to the symbol the reality which it symbolises. Cathedrals should be adored until such time as their preservation becomes dependent on our denying the truths that they teach."
· Paul Davis teaches English literature at University College London, specialising in translation.