A Century of Proust
May 13, 2013 4:47 PM   Subscribe

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Swann's Way, the New York Times is publishing a series of blog posts on In Search of Lost Time. (via)

Centenary exhibition of Proust's notebooks at the Morgan Library

NYT review of same

Video showing the gallery proofs in the collection of France's National Library

Previously:

Proust's first poem

The huge Pléiade edition of In Search of Lost Time
posted by Rustic Etruscan (11 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
I approve of this post. If I were more Proustian, I would approve at a length of 30,000 words, minutely examining all aspects of my appreciation.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:40 PM on May 13, 2013


I am a shallow person and hope, at best, to get a good madeleine recipe out of the celebration.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:03 PM on May 13, 2013


Thanks for this post. I went to the Morgan Library exhibition on the last day, about thirty minutes before it closed. The room was very small and did not have an attendant inside. Every few minutes one would come in to tell us to keep our hands off the glass or to stop taking pictures, and warned us that we were being watched by camera.

I have only skimmed the NYT blog posts so far but they seem like good reading. I like John Williams comments about the madeleine scene ("Like many who haven’t read the book, I had pictured the madeleine moment as a moment, but it’s not; it’s an extended scene that reads like a psychology textbook in miniature").

Brian Morton's comment about not finishing Proust ("I've gone back to Proust many times since then, and never reached the end. I blame this on a tic that has led me, every time, to start over from the beginning.") reminds me of another writer's comments on finishing it after two decades and the approach that finally worked for him ("If I had forgotten events or characters that proved irrelevant to the last four novels, what harm? If I had forgotten important events or characters, Proust himself would come to my rescue, elaborately explaining his own retrospective self-allusions.").

Finally I have to hate a little bit on Caroline Weber's posts about all that's lost in translation from the French. Yeah yeah we get it, you can't really fully appreciate it unless you read it in the original. It seems like your typical academic fussiness over translation. I read Swann's Way in Davis' translation, and read through the first part of A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs in French (which took me a long time since my French is mediocre), and am now catching myself up to the same point in English with Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright. You know what? It's all good. There's a passage by Wyatt Mason that I keep in mind whenever I find myself worrying too much over translations (unfortunately the full essay is no longer online):
The trouble with translations, the reason so many Gides and Goethes find them galling, is that they erase a writer's every careful choice, and replace a burnished surface with a second-rate surrogate — and still manage to reveal a universe. We hate translations because they succeed despite their failures, and in so doing they reveal our easy ignorance. For we have misunderstood the true nature of great literary style. Fetishizing surface, we have missed substance. For style is not the conspicuous effect — the easy alliteration, the calculated repetition, the deliberate echo. These pleasures — and they are no less enjoyable for being, ultimately, incidental — are merely pleasures of the flesh. And style, however much its appealing skin suggests it, is not flesh. Flesh can be destroyed by a single, critical parasite. But bone endures, no matter the nature of its burial. And style, it turns out, is bone. I know this to be true.
posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 7:35 PM on May 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


That looks pretty interesting. I'll have to give it a look.

I was actually able to make it all the way through the whole set of "In Search of Lost Time" a few years ago, but taken in chunks, and with significant pauses in between volumes. I finished it with a concerted run through "The Captive", "The Fugitive", and "Time Regained" one after the other in the summer of 2009. I have to say the gentleman who felt he had to restart each time at the beginning was borderline masochistic. It really is a good read, but come on.

I have to admit that the first couple of volumes I finished on the strength of shear determination alone, but that somewhere along the way, perhaps in the Swann and Odette section of Swann's Way or somewhere in Within a Budding Grove (I still like that title best), it occurred to me that I could divide the narrative into the sections where Proust writes as observer of others, and sections that are just navel gazing, and that if I could muddle through the navel gazing, I'd be rewarded with some of the most delightful and perceptive social observation I'd ever read anywhere. At that point, it became only half determination, coupled with a great deal of anticipation at the delights to come, whether in the company of M. de Charlus, or Mme de Guermantes, or the Princess of Parma, or whomever.

I think the dirty secret of Proust is that he's really not all that difficult a read. Certainly not as difficult as, say "Ulysses", which I have totally foundered upon.
posted by hwestiii at 7:56 PM on May 13, 2013


On Goodreads, the group 2013: The Year of Reading Proust features interesting discussion centered around the goal of reading the entire series over the course of the centenary year.
posted by milkfish at 4:57 AM on May 14, 2013


I think the dirty secret of Proust is that he's really not all that difficult a read. Certainly not as difficult as, say "Ulysses", which I have totally foundered upon.

I don't think it is a dirty secret at all. Proust was not doing the same things with language as Joyce was, and he is much easier to read (in translation, at least. My French is limited to "Bonjour, Mssr. DuPont" with occasional forays into Ceci n'est pas une pipe.").

This does not mean that Proust is exactly easy. Reading him requires focus -- some passages go on for well over 100 pages, and you need to keep subject and context firmly in your grasp during the meandering examination of Marcel's emotional state. You have a fairly large cast of characters to keep in your head, along with their relations and squabbles, petty and otherwise. The world of the French fin de siècle upper class is pretty foreign, and developing sympathy and understanding for the characters takes effort. So, not easy, but not the same kind of difficulty as Joyce or even Melville.

So, why read ~3300 pages of the emotional wankery of a self-obsessed French rich (ish) kid? Because, just as you are growing infuriated with the 100th page of Marcel's examination of his latest sense of jealousy toward Albertine, he writes a passage that perfectly encapsulates something you have always felt but never had words to express. His descriptions of place and people are so fine and nuanced, it can make you dizzy. Toward the end of the book, you realize that the long slog through Marcel's emotional thickets prepares you for some consideration of very large issues. He depicts characters who are simultaneously attractive and repellent, so you see why others are drawn to them while knowing it is a terrible, terrible idea. And there is a bit of clever arrangements -- during the Swann part of the story, while Proust is giving us a very intimate view of the ill-fated affair between Swann and Odette, he drops a line that reminds us that Marcel has no direct knowledge of these things (being a child or possibly not born yet), and that, to some degree, you realized that the depiction of Swann and Odette is a pre-play of Marcel and Albertine (which doesn't occur until much later, and, given the book's focus on memory, may be the "real relationship" of which Swann and Odette are a mere reflection of Marcel's confused and jealous imaginination). Whew. Passage after passage makes you grapple with the ideas of emotion and memory and how the individual relates to the larger world. And there is some sparkling dialogue and fun and funny scenes.

So yeah, Proust is well worth reading. Certainly, if you've slogged through the interminable prose of any of a number of fantasy epics, you should have the stamina for reading Proust, although you will find wonders and horrors and the tedium of living on every page, rather than racing ahead to the next battle scene.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:34 AM on May 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, Proust often reprises scenes: Swann and Odette are the blueprint for Marcel and Albertine (who in turn resembles Gilberte); the social fall of Mme de Guermantes due to being too exclusive in society mirrors the late social rise of Odette and then there are the multiple parallels between the various artists in the book.

For my money, the biggest slog is right at the beginning of the book while Marcel is still young and later on when he's jealous, jealous, jealous of Albertine. Then again childhood and periods defined by jealousy are not the best of times.

I think my answer to "why read book X when you have to slog through parts" is that it's like trekking: you might be shoe deep in mud at points, but mostly you get to enjoy the views, enjoy the places you were promised that made you undertake the trek in the first place and discover things you didn't know before you set off. Proust's description of social settings and his commentary on art are exquisite; he offers a window in time and has the space to make the most out of it; he sketches some of the liveliest characters to grace a book (M. de Charlus alone is worth the price of admission and is someone that people who like Tyrion would enjoy spending time with) and he even delivers a truly satisfying last book that gives more meaning to the rest of his work. I'd love to re-read it.
posted by ersatz at 6:44 AM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


For my money, the biggest slog is right at the beginning of the book while Marcel is still young and later on when he's jealous, jealous, jealous of Albertine. Then again childhood and periods defined by jealousy are not the best of times.

Huh. I loved 'Combray'. But I am kind of a sucker for childhood perspectives in literature, like the first part of Portrait of the Artist or What Maisie Knew. Also 'Combray' has a stunning passage hardly thirty pages into it (« Va avec le petit »...).
posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 7:04 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Excellent post, and it almost makes me want to start Proust again (but I think I'll wait a few more years). The Times blog posts are of varying quality but generally thoughtful and interesting. This, from Adam Gopnik, astonished me, however:
Well, the narrator in Proust — let us defy academic fastidiousness and call him Marcel — struck me then, and strikes me still, as the most high-hearted, self-deprecating, joyously observant, tender, frequently funny, always attentive voice I had encountered in literature.
I feel like he was reading a different book than I did. As I wrote here:
Another problem that became more and more evident as the book progressed is that the central character is repellent—probably the most unlikable protagonist of any major novel I've read (other than Humbert Humbert, of course, with whom he shares remarkable similarities). He starts out being nasty to the grandmother who loves him, moves on to ditching friends in order to stalk whatever "little girl" he's obsessed with, keeps poor Albertine in his thrall for months (though he doesn't love her, wishes she weren't there so he could go to Venice, and goes out in search of urchin girls to debauch) before driving her out to her death (whereupon, after a decent period of crazed obsession, he forgets all about her), and ends up by deciding that, having decided to dedicate himself to his Great Novel, he can no longer afford to waste time on friends ("our powers of exaltation are being given a false direction when we expend them in friendship, because they are then diverted from those truths towards which they might have guided us to aim at a particular friendship which can lead to nothing") but thinks "a little amorous dalliance with young girls in bloom would be the choice nutriment with which, if with anything, I might indulge my imagination." Mind you, he's not interested in the particular girls he's already been "in love" with, since "the action of the years" has transformed them "into women too sadly different from what I remembered." So in response to his former love Gilberte's offer of "little intimate gatherings... with just a few intelligent and sympathetic people," after noting to himself that he doesn't particularly want to see her again he says "that I should always enjoy being invited to meet young girls, poor girls if possible, to whom I could give pleasure by quite small gifts, without expecting anything of them in return save that they should serve to renew within me the dreams and the sadness of my youth and perhaps, one improbable day, a single chaste kiss." Uh-huh.
(More vitriolic summary at the link.) And I thoroughly agree with Brian Morton, who writes "would it be philistine to suggest that it would be a service to literature if someone were to put together an Abridged Proust?" As I said in the same LH post: "Proust originally intended it to fill three volumes, and I can't help but think he should have stuck to that intention. Obviously there are those who revel in every new restatement of whatever point he's trying to drive home at the moment (you can't love anyone who loves you, gays are weird, etc.), but my wife and I kept saying 'Yes, yes, we get it, move along please.'"

None of which is to deny that it's a great novel, well worth the time and effort of reading it, but it's not a flawless masterpiece, any more than War and Peace (another of my favorites).

> Finally I have to hate a little bit on Caroline Weber's posts about all that's lost in translation from the French. Yeah yeah we get it, you can't really fully appreciate it unless you read it in the original. It seems like your typical academic fussiness over translation.

I hate to say it, but that strikes me as know-nothingism of the purest variety. Why don't you react with "Neat, I can find out a little of what I'm missing" rather than stopping your ears and hollering "Shutupshutupshutup"? I haven't read it in French beyond the first volume—I know the language, but it's just too much work—and I'm delighted to have some of the niceties explained. But I guess haters gotta hate.
posted by languagehat at 9:12 AM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I hate to say it, but that strikes me as know-nothingism of the purest variety. Why don't you react with "Neat, I can find out a little of what I'm missing" rather than stopping your ears and hollering "Shutupshutupshutup"? I haven't read it in French beyond the first volume—I know the language, but it's just too much work—and I'm delighted to have some of the niceties explained. But I guess haters gotta hate

That's a fair point. I don't mean to suggest that her posts (and similar pieces like it) are useless or offensive to me in some way. Only that I sometimes find them frustrating; to me they seem to sometimes focus so much on what one misses in translation that it almost takes away from the vastness of what one gains by it. Her point about Saint-Simon is actually pretty interesting and she obviously put a lot of thought into explicating some of the subtleties of Proust's French, so perhaps my ire was unfairly directed towards her.
posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 10:02 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm posting just because Marcel Proust deserves as many comments as Joss Whedon. Reading "In Search of Lost Time" was one of the great experiences of my life.
posted by acrasis at 4:51 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


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