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ON READING RUSKIN by Marcel Proust Translated and edited by Jean Autret, William Burford and Phillip Wylie (Yale University Press: $11.95 , illustrated)

June 25, 1989|CHARLES SOLOMON

Proust's aesthetic beliefs crystallized during the years he devoted to translating John Ruskin's "The Bible of Amiens" (1905) and "Sesame and Lilies" (1906). He used the Prefaces to the translations to begin exploring the themes that he would examine in "A Remembrance of Things Past."

The Preface to "Sesame and Lilies" was first published in English in 1971 as "On Reading," but this volume offers English readers their first access to the equally significant "Bible of Amiens." Both translations are clear and evoke the author's rapidly evolving literary style.

In the Preface to "The Bible of Amiens," Proust published his first thoughts on the limits of conscious memory, the essential theme of "Remembrance." He regrets that he can only describe the passion he once felt for Ruskin's thoughts through a cold memory "of facts telling us, 'you were thus,' without permitting us to become thus again, affirming to us the reality of a lost paradise instead of giving it back to us through recollection."

Written as a first person recollection of the joys of a childhood spent reading, the Preface to "Sesame and Lilies" suggests a rough draft of the Combray sections of "Swann's Way." The well-intentioned but intrusive servant who interrupts the boy's reading will become Francoise; his gently discerning great-aunt, the Narrator's adored Grandmother. The bedroom where the boy surreptitiously reads at night is the first of the many rooms the Narrator will visit in his spiraling journey through Time and Memory.

In 1904, Proust wrote to novelist Maurice Barres that after finishing with Ruskin, "I shall try to translate my own poor soul, if it doesn't die in the meantime." These Prefaces demonstrate that he had already embarked on that translation.

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