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Marcel Proust's "A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu"
April 19, 2012 9:45 PM   Subscribe

"The Threat to Proust" by Roger Shattuck: When Proust’s novel fell into the public domain in 1987, three Paris publishing houses were ready with new editions that had been in preparation for several years. They all carry the same basic 3,000-page text with few variations. The differences lie in packaging and presentation. Laffont-Bouquins chose to publish three fat volumes prefaced by elaborate historical and biographical materials. Garnier-Flammarion produced ten pocket-sized volumes competently edited by Jean Milly. The new Pléiade edition, published by the original copyright holder, Gallimard, made the boldest, most ambitious, and most expensive bid to claim the market. In a combination of editorial, literary, and commercial decisions, Gallimard proposed to influence the way we read Proust and, to some degree, the way we approach all great literary works.

"English Proust" by Chistopher Prendergast: Scott Moncrieff worked from the first Gallimard edition (which, with some exaggeration, Samuel Beckett described in his early essay on Proust as ‘abominable’); Kilmartin worked from the far more reliable 1954 Pléiade edition, while Enright, taking over from Kilmartin (sadly prevented by illness from undertaking his projected revision of his own revision of Scott Moncrieff), has worked from the recently issued second Pléiade.
posted by Trurl (32 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Proust in his first book, wrote about, wrote about..."
posted by Windopaene at 9:50 PM on April 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


Interesting article. This passage pretty much sums up his concerns, I think:

The miraculous construction of a coherent roman fleuve out of an ocean of drafts and sketches is reversed by plunging the work back into that amorphous solution. The project is undertaken in the name of finding the genesis of the work, a genesis not recognized in Proust’s choices for inclusion and exclusion but tracked back into his whole extended life as a writer. We have no common word for this operation, the reverse of cutting or editing. Hypertrophize? Whatever we call it, we should not confuse this intended tribute in the new Pléiade with an acceptable way of honoring an author’s accomplishment. It shrouds and demeans the author’s work.
posted by jayder at 10:10 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Interesting article.

You know, I didn't find it that interesting to be honest. The author takes the abundance of riches found in Proust and In Search Of Lost Time, and focuses so minutely on one particular facet. Certainly, there's a wealth of detail, but the actual thing he's discussing - how much does context facilitate understanding - is hardly New to Criticism (geddit?), nor these books in particular.

Worse, the author wholly begs the question - the whole piece is premised on the fact it is an outrage publishers would do such a thing and the only possible motives are profit or venal egotism. Of course, it takes around 2000 words to spell that out.

Indeed, I actually think it reflects some of the worst aspects of criticism; using language as mantle with which to dress up opinion as statements of fact, and pretty poor writing in general.

These are - sometimes - interesting questions the author posits, but the answers are so banal and the frippery used to supply them is nigh-intolerable; it muddies the argument then drags it slowly under with the monotonous peace of death by drowning.
posted by smoke at 10:24 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


What fascinates and delights me about Proust (I made it through only three of the volumes of Remembrance of Things Past) is how he's such a good example of how, in literature, weirdness can sometimes take a quantum leap into greatness. I love how Proust was sort of a classic dilettante and social butterfly who nobody suspected of having great promise, his apparent literary abilities extending to the occasional feuilleton. And yet ... and yet ... he produced this masterpiece. This seemingly feeble person produced this beast of a novel. What would be the equivalent today? Perhaps the example of an unknown technical writer for Boeing whose blazes onto the literary scene with a complex, allusive novel that seemed like the work of a more seasoned author?

I just love Proust because he shows the surprisingness of genius, its tendency to blossom in the most unexpected of places.
posted by jayder at 10:28 PM on April 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


I love how Proust was sort of a classic dilettante and social butterfly who nobody suspected of having great promise, his apparent literary abilities extending to the occasional feuilleton. And yet ... and yet ... he produced this masterpiece.

Maddeningly, I can't find the exact quote. But John Updike wrote of the bewildered dismay of Proust's contemporaries on recognizing that "this queer half-Jew had vaulted over them into immortality".
posted by Trurl at 10:53 PM on April 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


Perhaps the example of an unknown technical writer for Boeing whose blazes onto the literary scene with a complex, allusive novel that seemed like the work of a more seasoned author?

Ted Chiang springs to mind, but he's doesn't write novels.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:59 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


his apparent literary abilities extending to the occasional feuilleton.

Though that's not entirely the case. He did write Les Plaisirs et Les Jours, which James Joyce found quite impressive, and which was recognized as talented enough to get a foreword from Anatole France; an 800-page unfinished novel in Jean Santeuil; some very good translations of Ruskin; and large tracts of essay in Contre Sainte-Beuve.
posted by shivohum at 11:00 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


which James Joyce found quite impressive

(not at the time, of course, but later)
posted by shivohum at 11:01 PM on April 19, 2012


Worse, the author wholly begs the question - the whole piece is premised on the fact it is an outrage publishers would do such a thing and the only possible motives are profit or venal egotism.

It's not an outrage. It is too expensive, it is too long, its architecture dilutes the achievement of the actual novel, the print is too goddam small, (especially for footnotes), and the better procedure would have been to publish the esquisses, the critical apparatus, usw., in a separate volume. Regarding the profit motive, it's explicitly stated that "It is difficult to attribute the hypertrophied Pléiade Proust edition to commercial motives".

I'm not sure how it in any sense begging the question to have arrived at an opinion over years of detailed consideration then to communicate same.
posted by Wolof at 1:04 AM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just to be clear: the article by Roger Shattuck was first published in the New York Review of Books in 1999. It's behind the NYRB paywall, but has been copypasted without acknowledgement by some guy on his blog.

I wish the NYRB would release more material from behind its paywall -- and as a non-subscriber I'm glad to have access to articles that have been 'liberated' in this way -- but some acknowledgement of the source would have been nice. Apart from anything else, Shattuck's reference to Edmund Wilson's 'Fruits of the MLA' as 'published in this journal' makes no sense unless you know which journal he's referring to.
posted by verstegan at 2:35 AM on April 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


I never know wat to think of Shattuck. The Banquet Years was a masterpiece; his later Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography struck me as a depressingly pinched call for more censorship. He does make the reasonable case that, perhaps, stretching a 3,200 page novel to 7,000 might be going a bit far, so this might be more the former than the latter, although the two halves of the essay don't seem well linked -- "Proust is too damn long" and "Proust may have been gay, but he didn't have to like it," make rather uncomfortable bedfellows.

The thing about Proust that I would urge the not-yet-Proust-readers to consider is McElhearn's comment (from the second link):

Nevertheless, his writing is easy to read, not hard. He’s no James Joyce, and he’s no proponent of the nouveau roman. Proust’s writing flows smoothly, lyrically, as if he was speaking to the reader.

Proust is a joy to read (probably more so in French, but he's pretty pleasant in English). Unlike the writers of many large fantasy bricks, I never felt that Proust would have been better if he had just edited out, say, 2/3 of his sentences. Even when Proust gets a bit much (there is a desert of 200 pages where he meticulously examines his feelings of jealousy), he follows it up with a succinct and perfect description of emotions you have had so well put that it is like a cool glass of water on a warm day. And, of course, there is a larger point to all his long discourses; by the end, we find that the entire world can be encompassed by Marcel's experience, even while he reminds us that his characters are aging people, rather silly and vain.

Thnaks for the FPP; I could fail, naturally, to be drawn in by it.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:50 AM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sorry, it's the third link; I am reading the FPP in the 7-volume version...
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:57 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


We have no common word for this operation, the reverse of cutting or editing.

If we were talking about a computer program or something, it'd be "reverse engineering". I suppose "reverse editing" would work.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:00 AM on April 20, 2012


Even Aristotle was concerned about size and warned us in the Poetics that the dimensions of a work should not exceed our capacity to grasp its beginning, middle, and end.
posted by fuq at 6:05 AM on April 20, 2012


GenjiandProust: For me, it's odd to see the dissertation on jealousy described as a desert. When I read the novel about eight years ago during the slow death of a long relationship, this part was the most clarifying and transformative. In fact, the very exhaustiveness of the treatment was key to my experience--I feel that reading it saved me a good deal of further personal suffering.

Of course, it makes sense that something so rich, long, and varied would be apprehended so differently by different readers (that's a long-form YMMV).
posted by Idler King at 6:52 AM on April 20, 2012


Perhaps the example of an unknown technical writer for Boeing whose blazes onto the literary scene with a complex, allusive novel that seemed like the work of a more seasoned author?

Ted Chiang springs to mind, but he's doesn't write novels.
jayder was in fact referring to someone in particular, though.
posted by yz at 6:54 AM on April 20, 2012


Even Aristotle was concerned about size and warned us in the Poetics that the dimensions of a work should not exceed our capacity to grasp its beginning, middle, and end.

Heh. A very good rule for authors is: "if you story takes more than 3000 pages to tell, this suggests that you think you have more to say than Proust. You almost certainly do not. Please edit accordingly. Thank you. The world."
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:57 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm slightly confused now. I read the last two tomes in the English translation of Carol Clark and Peter Collier & Ian Patterson (according to wiki), which is based on the new Pléiade version. However that translation adds up to about 3500 pages for the entirety of ISoLT. I wonder if they discarded the added text.

Interestingly, the last thing I did yesterday was write down some of the reasons why I love In Search of Lost Time.
posted by ersatz at 7:14 AM on April 20, 2012


It should be called "In Search of Lost Time". "Remembrance of Things Past" is a reference to a Shakespeare sonnet to which the original title does not refer.
posted by goethean at 7:35 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


^^^ *(The English title, anyway.)
posted by goethean at 7:36 AM on April 20, 2012


I am reading the FPP in the 7-volume version...

There's a torrent of the Moncrieff translation that has each volume as a separate .epub - except for combining volumes 5 and 6, I guess since they would have been too short to "publish" separately. I found that amusing.

But e-text has rendered moot all debate over how many volumes to use for Proust. While the "way we read Proust" link describes the 2,400 page single-volume French edition as "too bulky to read comfortably", the entire-novel-on-one-page at the "Scott Moncrieff" link converted to a 2.8 MB .epub is as (physically!) easy to read as any other e-book.
posted by Trurl at 7:37 AM on April 20, 2012


But e-text has rendered moot all debate over how many volumes to use for Proust.

The problem with e-book versions of Proust is that, instead of having the experience of turning the pages and seeing the text take you back to the first time you read the great work, reveling in that state of sadness and exultation, you just click on the links at the edge of the page that takes you to the facebook posts, tweets, blog posts, and minutes of your Proust reading group from that first time. Marcel would be overcome with ennui, I think.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:42 AM on April 20, 2012


he follows it up with a succinct and perfect description of emotions you have had so well put that it is like a cool glass of water on a warm day.

Yes, that's nicely put. Proust has a way of making you aware of thoughts and feelings and experiences you've had but never fully recognized or understood so clearly before. I can't think of another writer who so often gives you that shock of recognition: "yes, that's exactly what it's like." You come away from reading Proust with a renewed attentiveness to how you perceive the world and how you relate to other people that can be quite transformative.
posted by yoink at 9:30 AM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


"In the course of our drives together she had boasted to us of his extreme cleverness, and above all of his goodness of heart; already I was imagining that he would have an instinctive feeling for me, that I was to be his best friend; and when, before his arrival, his aunt gave my grandmother to understand that he had unfortunately fallen into the clutches of an appalling woman with whom he was quite infatuated and who would never let him go, since I believed that sort of love was doomed to end in mental aberration, crime, and suicide, thinking how short the time was that was set apart for our friendship, already so great in my heart, although I had not yet set eyes on him, I wept for that friendship and for the misfortunes that were in store for it, as we weep for a person whom we love when someone has just told us that he is seriously ill and that his days are numbered."
posted by blucevalo at 9:59 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I do feel it's absurd that a man of his intelligence should let himself suffer for a woman of that sort, and one who isn't even interesting, for they tell me she's an absolute idiot!" she added with the wisdom invariably shown by people who, not being in love themselves, feel that a clever man should only be unhappy about a person who is worth his while; which is rather like being astonished that anyone should condescend to die of cholera at the bidding of so insignificant a creature as the comma bacillus.
posted by dfan at 11:32 AM on April 20, 2012


I've always wanted to read Remembrance of Things Past, and this FPP makes me terribly confused. Many commeters in this thread seem very knowledgeable, so can anyone recommend any particular one of the like 50 different English versions? Is there some general consensus on which is better?
posted by Sangermaine at 12:25 PM on April 20, 2012


Is there some general consensus on which is better?

"Which Translation of Proust Should I Read?"

The Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation has the advantage of not having needed to shoulder its way into crowded marketplace and most of the reference materials use its page numbers. I don't see how anyone could go seriously wrong with it.
posted by Trurl at 1:10 PM on April 20, 2012


Many commeters in this thread seem very knowledgeable, so can anyone recommend any particular one of the like 50 different English versions?

I really liked the new Penguin translation, with Lydia Davis starting Swann's Way. It's the only translation I've read, though I've compared a few pages of it to the Moncrieff/Kilmartin and prefer Penguin. Another advantage with Penguin is that you get a different translator for each volume, and so a different light shed on Proust. They're all excellent.

The disadvantages with Penguin are that the last two volumes are (absurdly) still under copyright in the US so you'd have to buy them from abroad (easy enough via Amazon) and also that Moncrieff is considered the "standard" for the purposes of reading groups and the like.
posted by shivohum at 1:13 PM on April 20, 2012


I've always wanted to read Remembrance of Things Past, and this FPP makes me terribly confused. Many commeters in this thread seem very knowledgeable, so can anyone recommend any particular one of the like 50 different English versions? Is there some general consensus on which is better?

A lot of the arguments over English translation amount to academics arguing over tiny subtleties most readers are unlikely to notice, I think.

Last time I checked, due to absurdities of American copyright law, the only complete English translation available for sale in America (outside of imports) is the Modern Library edition, which is basically Terence Kilmartin's reworking of Scott Moncreiff's original, but also with further revision by D.J. Enright. (Linked in Trurl's post above.) It's the one I read a few years ago, and I think it's fine. It's been the standard English version for a long time, so most scholarly stuff you might read about Proust is referring to this one, and quoting from it.

I've heard a lot of praise for the Penguin edition, which has 6 different translators, one per volume. Lydia Davis's version of "Swann's Way" is particularly singled out, I think. But American copyright laws changed mid-publication, meaning only the first four got officially released in the US before the rules changed. I forget when the last two can finally be published here, but with the Internet it's not that hard to order them imported from the UK. Personally, I didn't go with this for my first reading because I just instinctively feel skeptical of the "six translators" idea, but that's just me.

I think you'd be fine with either of those.
posted by dnash at 1:14 PM on April 20, 2012


If the plan is to read the whole thing - easier attempted than accomplished - Penguin's multiple translators seem to me to rule it out of consideration from the beginning.

YMMV. (Your madeleines may vary.)
posted by Trurl at 3:20 PM on April 20, 2012


I concur with Trurl; I don't understand why a publisher would choose to go with multiple translators for a work like this. I have to wonder whether they had a dispute with the first translator, and "papered over" the issue by saying that it was All Part Of The Plan.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:13 PM on April 20, 2012


I read the new translations after each volume of the old translation - this is a good way to do it if you have the time, because you pick more up on re-reading. I came to the conclusion that I mostly like the new translation, though I think that Lydia Davis is too clunky & feels wrong – that was the only volume where I thought that the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright was decidedly better. Moncrieff's prose is distinctly more pleasurable than any of the new translators - he could really put together a sentence - but it does sometimes get in the way of Proust.

It's true that you have to get the last two volumes from Canada, but it's not very hard & they're especially fantastic - having them as small volumes (the American book design ) makes them seem more like small novels; I find myself going back to those more often than other parts of the book.

The notes in the new edition are mostly helpful. One thing the old version does have going for it is Terrence Kilmartin's A Reader's Guide to Remembrance of Things Past, which is a book-length index to the novel - very helpful if you're trying to remember the last time something appears. Long out of print, but not hard to track down & really useful.
posted by with hidden noise at 11:36 AM on April 22, 2012


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