The Acutest Ear in Paris - Marcel Proust

I have not been able to discover whether there exists a precise French equivalent for the common Anglo-American expression "killing time." It's a very crass and breezy expression, when you ponder it for a moment, considering that time, after all, is killing us. Marcel Proust was the man who, by contemplating in a way that transcended the moment, attempted to interpenetrate these two forbidding alternatives.

When the Monty Python gang acted out its "Summarize Proust" competition, one of the contestant teams, a madrigal group, was cut off abruptly by the master of ceremonies before it had got beyond the opening stave of Swann's Way. One can readily appreciate the difficulty; yet if I were asked to "summarize" the achievement of Proust, I should reply as dauntlessly as I dared that his is the work par excellence that exposes and clarifies the springs of human motivation. Through his eyes we see what actuates the dandy and the lover and the grandee and the hypocrite and the poseur, with a transparency unexampled except in Shakespeare or George Eliot. And this ability, so piercing and at times even alarming, is not mere knowingness. It is not, in other words, the product of cynicism. To be so perceptive and yet so innocent—that, in a phrase, is the achievement of Proust. It is also why one does well to postpone a complete reading until one is in the middle of life, and has shared some of the disillusionments and fears, as well as the delights, that come with this mediocre actuarial accomplishment. Because plainly, along with being "about" social climate and fashion, and the countryside versus the city, and sexual inversion and also Jewishness, with l'affaire Dreyfus one of the binding and constitutive elements in its narrative, Proust's novel ("the novel form," he wrote in one letter, is the form from which "it departs least") is all about time. And one does not fully appreciate this aspect until one has learned something of how time is rationed, and of how this awful and apparently inexorable dole may conceivably be cheated. The foregoing is intended as a word of encouragement. Proust can be regained, even if—in the very long run—time itself cannot.

My introduction to A la recherche du temps perdu came by way of Terence Kilmartin, who died in 1991, roughly a decade after completing his retranslation of C. K. Scott Moncrieff's original English rendering. Kilmartin was, as well as a translator, an editor of considerable verve and decision. He made the book pages of the London Observer into a necessary weekly resource for the literate—an infinitely elastic "section" in which more seemed to get itself discussed than the allotted space could conceivably permit. To give you an idea of Kilmartin's panache: I was once told by Gore Vidal that after turning in his first review to the Kilmartin regime, he received a telephone call from Kilmartin informing him that the piece had had to be shortened by half a dozen lines. Exigency at the printer's had meant that this pruning had been executed by the editor himself. "Oh, no you don't, Mr. Kilmartin," said an irate Vidal, shortly before replacing the receiver with a bang. "Nobody cuts my stuff except me. I shall not be contributing to your pages again." When he later seized that Sunday's offending Observer in a foul frame of mind, Vidal found that he could not tell where (or how) the excisions had been made. After duly going to Canossa, he gave Kilmartin full power of attorney.

Kilmartin wrote a highly amusing and illuminating account of his experience as a Proust revisionist, which appeared in the first issue of Ben Sonnenberg's quarterly Grand Street in the autumn of 1981. The essay opened with a kind of encouragement: "There used to be a story that discerning Frenchmen preferred to read Marcel Proust in English on the grounds that the prose of A la recherche du temps perdu was deeply un-French and heavily influenced by English writers such as Ruskin." I cling to this even though Kilmartin thought it to be ridiculous Parisian snobbery; I shall never be able to read Proust in French, and one's opportunities for outfacing Gallic self-regard are relatively scarce. It seems to be the case, at all events, that Scott Moncrieff aroused a possessive instinct in the French. He published his translation of Swann's Way just as Proust was dying, in 1922, and by the time of his own death, in 1930, had made the work into something like a vogue or a cult in the Anglophone universe. (He did not live to undertake Le temps retrouvé, which was Englished by other hands.) For decades Proust was eclipsed in France, first by surrealism, next by la littérature engagée, and then by the existentialists. Not until the 1950s, with the advent of André Maurois's A la recherche de Marcel Proust, did French literary opinion decide to reclaim Proust, and was the celebrated Pléiade edition published. This event in its turn began to generate concern among English-speaking Proustians that their treasured translation might not be quite up to standard, which meant that French precedence had been restored and that—in Cartesian terms, at least—reason had regained her Parisian throne.

When I was quite young, I often made the trip between suburban North Oxford and the wooded grounds of Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock. At some stage of my boyhood I was told that the Oxford-to-Woodstock distance was ten miles, and to this day, if at the end of any tiring journey I see a road sign indicating the remaining distance to be ten miles, I instantly feel that I am almost home. I am sure that everybody has a similar mnemonic prompting, and Marcel Proust wrote the book, so to speak, about mnemonic devices. But the distance to be traversed between, or as between, the Swann and the Meseglise and the Guermantes "ways" is measured also in metaphysics. Kilmartin thought a good deal about the responsibility this entailed. He didn't cite Hegel's famous observation about the Owl of Minerva taking wing only as its surroundings turn crepuscular, but he did realize that "the complexities of the opening pages of the novel are especially difficult to decipher without the hindsight provided by the later volumes." 

I myself noticed too late (after the new version had gone to press) that in the paragraph evoking the bedroom at Tansonville la chambre où je me serai endormi had become in English "the bedroom in which I shall presently fall asleep" (instead of "in which I must have fallen asleep"), thus giving the reader the impression that the narrator is writing at Tansonville instead of in Paris some years after. 

A similar bêtise—this time caught by Kilmartin—had altered the spatio-temporal significance of Swann's jealous questioning of Odette. He demands to be told, of her possible lesbian encounters, "Il y a combien de temps?" Perhaps to an extent giving away his own proclivities, Scott Moncrieff made this into "How many times?" instead of "How long ago?" Even my French would be equal to that, as it would have been on the occasions when Scott Moncrieff, astonishingly, gave actuel as "actual." If only the present and the actual were indeed the same. But what's the occasional faux ami between real friends?

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