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.
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.
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.
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