Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"Swann's Way" By Marcel Proust

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust. Translated by Lydia Davis. 468 pp. Penguin Classics. $17.00 (paperback)

Years ago, my mother told me that after reading Proust, she thought about her background and the fact that ultimately no one will know about the life her family led. Proust, with his concern about time, the past and impermanence, is certainly the author to inspire such thoughts.

"Swann's Way" is the first volume of Proust's six-volume, 3,000-page "In Search of Lost Time." I read this first volume a long time ago and came back to it with a resolve to read the entire magnum opus. I did a fair amount of research regarding which translation to read. The original translation was done by Scott Moncrieff, who was known for embellishments and prudery that were supposedly corrected by Terrence Kilmartin and Kevin Enright for the Modern Library. A little over a decade ago, Penguin came out with six volumes by six different translators, whose aim was to present an updated, more straightforward rendition based on a new French translation. Lydia Davis, the translator of "Swann's Way," wrote in an exchange in The New York Review of Books, "The adulterations of Proust’s text by the Scott Moncrieff translation, even after the two revisions, proliferate on every page, and their two main sins are (1) to pad the text, and (2) to intensify it artificially." I found the Davis translation to be thoroughly engaging.

Regardless of how straightforward this rendition is, there's no denying the fact that Proust must have written the longest, most digressive sentences in literature. This may require an adjustment from some readers, who perhaps are best off trying to get into the flow of Proust and understand the gist of his writing instead of trying to parse every sentence. Once one does get into this flow, the reading experience is remarkable. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who read "In Search of Lost Time" in the original, said, "Proust is the Shakespeare of the inner world." This first volume testifies to Breyer's statement. It's divided into four sections, with an un-named first-person narrator throughout who is presumably the author. The book starts with the famous scene in which the narrator, after tasting a piece of madeleine dipped in tea that his aunt used to give him as a child, recalls by association his entire hometown of Combray. He then recollects his childhood in that town, including his family, the church, the homes and the landscapes. The third section is a novella, "Swann In Love," in which Charles Swann, a dilettante and social climber, falls for Odette de Crecy, a woman known for loose morals and one who does not possess Swann's cultural interests. Swann is somewhat critical of her physical appearance, but convinces himself that she resembles women in great paintings. After an initial courtship, Odette keeps her distance from Swann except when she needs money. We watch Swann go from despair to jealousy to endless mental gyrations trying to convince himself that Odette still is interested. In the fourth section, the first-person narrator recalls his attraction as a child to Gilberte, a young girl he played with in the park. His jealousy and ruminations resemble Swann's. The volume movingly ends years later when, looking back at the park he visited while young, he recalls those he no longer sees there and reflects upon the transitory nature of life.

In considering what "Swann's Way" is about, one must look at it as the first volume of a massive novel. Certainly Proust introduces us to some of his major concerns: family, social class, the past, mortality, love, jealousy, subjective perception and the relation between language and experience, all rendered by finely drawn characters and psychological portraits. I'm ready for the next 2,400 pages.

Written in memory of my mother, Dorothy Tone (1923-2006)

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