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Seeking meaning, finding Proust

December 14, 2003|Alexander Nehamas | Alexander Nehamas is Edmund N. Carpenter professor in humanities, professor of philosophy and professor of comparative literature at Princeton. He is the author of several books, including "Nietzsche: Life as Literature."

Swann's Way

Marcel Proust

Translated from the French by Lydia Davis

Viking: 468 pp., $27.95

"In Search of Lost Time" is the longest novel in the world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it contains 9,609,000 characters, which amounts to 1.4 million words -- 3,054 densely printed pages in the Pleiade edition of 1987. Almost 400 characters appear in it; one of its prodigious sentences is 970 words long; the account of a single dinner takes up 130 pages. Alfred Humblot, among the several publishers who in 1913 rejected "Swann's Way," its first volume, remarked: "I just don't understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in his bed before he goes to sleep; it made my head swim."

In the meantime, of course, Marcel Proust has become very popular. Three biographies have appeared in the last few years, and three films have dramatized his novel, while a fourth depicts its writing. Cookbooks feature the dishes his characters consume and travel guides the parts of France they visit. A self-help manual -- advice for coping with life from a man who spent 13 years in a cork-lined bedroom -- has become an international bestseller; the bedroom itself is exhibited at the Carnavalet Museum in Paris. From all over the world, pilgrims go to Illiers, Proust's model for Combray and now officially renamed Illiers-Combray, to visit his house and take the Proustian equivalent of communion, a madeleine, the little scallop-shaped cake whose taste transports the novel's narrator to his childhood and sets in motion the story of his life. Two thousand of them, including the popular chocolate-chip version, are sold every week.

Eating a madeleine, of course, is one thing and reading the entire novel is another. Still, 90 years after Proust published "Swann's Way" at his own expense, at least six full editions of "In Search of Lost Time" compete with one another in France. And now a new English translation, giving new life and energy to his work and sure to widen its appeal, is being published in this country, in seven volumes, each produced by a different hand. Christopher Prendergast, a professor of French at Cambridge and the translation's "general editor," defends this controversial approach on the grounds that it is more likely to be true to "the shifting arrays of models and registers" of Proust's language. But Proust's sensibility is unmistakable throughout his text, despite his changing plans, the passing years and his interminable revisions. Prendergast's real reason is surely practical and perfectly good: The task is too much for one person. Even Proust himself, who took to his bedroom to write in the fall of 1909 and hoped to finish by the following summer, rarely left it again and died in 1922, leaving volumes six and seven incomplete. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, his first English translator, died before getting to volume seven; Andreas Mayor, who translated it, died before revising Moncrieff; Terence Kilmartin died before revising Mayor; and a final revision, by D.J. Enright, appeared only in 1992.

The price of timeliness is that there are more variations in style and quality among the volumes here than in either the original or Moncrieff. But there are compensating strengths, many of them evident in Lydia Davis' "Swann's Way," which is both accessible and faithful to Proust. Davis replicates the hesitations and digressions, the backward looks and forward glances that swell Proust's sentences and send them cascading to their conclusion -- without sacrificing the natural air of his style, which Moncrieff often obscures. Her Proust is fastidious without being prissy.

The effort to stay close to the original produces English sometimes less elegant than Moncrieff's and occasionally too literal to make sense. (What are we to make of people eating "with the backs of their spoons"?) But she avoids Moncrieff's Edwardian extravagances and tendency to expand Proust's already ample prose. Some people, according to Moncrieff, are obliged "to remain moored like house-boats to a particular point on the shore of life." What Proust writes is "rester attache a un certain rivage"; Davis' "to remain attached to a certain mooring" is more accurate, though "attached" (instead of "secured" or "fast"), while literal, is not idiomatic. But no translation is flawless, and Davis' sans-serif version is bound to attract new readers to Proust and offer new pleasures to those who know him already.

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