05 December 2008

On Reading Proust in French

I have been doing lately something I hadn’t done since I was 18: reading Proust in French. During freshman year, I was assigned to read Combray, the first part of À la recherche du temps perdu, in a discrete edition, as part of a class that was designed to make me a literary analyst and theoretician. Instead of theory, though, I opted for praxis, for while the prose of Proust — even in French — didn’t pose too many difficulties, I found most of the theory pointless, when not impenetrable. Brown boasted one of America’s first programs in semiotics, and my friends rhapsodized over the signs and signifiers in the Recherche, while others unlocked its hermeneutic code, and heaven knows what else: Proust was their baby, and they guarded him jealously from those who approached him with any purpose other than theirs.

I might have been intimidated by these people, but I wasn’t — at least, not where Proust was concerned. I recognized in Combray the beginnings of an awfully good story, evocative scene-setting and characterization, flashes of genuine wit and currents of deep feeling.

Often I had to look up the words I didn’t know, always troubled by the forlorn image of a character in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a Swedish student who passes a summer’s holiday in France by reading Proust with a dictionary. (Powell has a gift for these snapshot summations of awkwardness and alienation, most famously in the episode of Widmerpool and the sugar-caster; the images stick with you long afterward, much as the sugar stuck to the pomade in Widmerpool’s hair.) Yet I had the feeling that Proust meant for certain words to be unfamiliar, to give the reader pause; he even coined several, much as he invented paintings, books, and pieces of music about which he wrote exactly as if they were real, until a cultivated person responds with something like alarm: “Should I know that work? I must look it up.” The real obstacle within the prose was the sheer mass of it: it made me sleepy, and I never got through more than three paragraphs without nodding off.

In the opening passage of Combray, Proust describes nodding off over a book, and the momentary confusion, upon awakening, of text and reality; for him, this is one way in which a story insinuates itself in the subconscious. It is how we take possession of the writing. He would approve, I think, of my catnaps: they were not signs of boredom with his work but of absorption in it.

He had created a universe, which according to his rules would be not a place but a time and a way of thinking. In order to enter into that universe, I realized, I would have to immerse myself more fully than was possible for a struggling college student, distracted by other books and by the business of his life. Sometime before graduation, Rick Moody announced that he’d read the entirety of the Recherche, in English, but the job had required a summer, during which time (as I recall), he had mono and wasn’t good for any other occupation. Another friend, Jean Rather, sequestered herself in the garden for a summer, too, during which time her family were forbidden to approach her until she finished her reading. Cursed with good health, of a kind that would have baffled Proust, and lacking a garden, I would have to pick my moment to sit down with him, as I dearly wanted to do.

When at last the time came, I read him in English. I wasn’t ready for the original. Though I was living among French people at the time and speaking the language on a daily basis, my return to literature in French was achieved by easy stages: Astérix comic books; then Alain-Fournier’s Le grand Meaulnes, a kind of “young adult” novel that Proust himself admired; then shorter Balzac and the plays of Racine (which are absurdly easy) and Voltaire (less so); then longer Balzac and shorter, then longer Flaubert; and then the 20-volume odyssey of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle.

Reading Proust in French, all the way through, is still a distant goal. I mean to do it, but honestly — when will I find the moment? There is so much yet to be read! Not a word of Victor Hugo — how is that possible? Can I truly call myself a quasi-Frenchman if I haven’t read Les Misérables? And do I not owe it to myself to read more of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir than the high-school adaptation, notable for its brevity and its expurgations, that I read for Carlene Klein Ginsburg’s class? (That little book was so bowdlerized, I have since realized, that I do not in fact have any idea what the plot of the real novel is, and I am embarrassed, in retrospect, that I listed it among the books I’d read recently when I applied to colleges.)

It’s possible that, one day, I’ll arrive at Sainte-Beuve, and thus be able to appreciate Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve; and if I read widely enough, I may be able to appreciate the stylistic parodies with which — I’m told — Proust dotted the Recherche. Well, maybe. Of all the qualities of French literature, style remains the slipperiest to me. If you were to set a passage from Mme de Sévigny, that great stylist, against a passage from Amélie Nothomb, I’d know the difference, sure, but anything subtler than that will elude me.

Even as I busy myself with other writers, I’m aware that I have lost something in translation of Proust. The effects of him in English were powerful. My philosophy changed by the page; my aesthetics were transformed. Once Proust has hooked you, you can’t look at time or people or a painting, you can’t hear a conversation or a piece of music the same way. The ground begins to shift beneath you, and you will spend the rest of your life looking for something to hold onto — as his nearly-nameless narrator does. How much more powerful that effect would be if I were to receive it directly, undistilled, untranslated!

Of course, that would mean wading through his paragraph-long sentences in a language that is not native to me. Focusing on the words, already a challenge in English, would have to become, for a time, my life’s calling.

For my birthday this year, Bernard gave me a little book called Jalousie, which purports to be a short novel by Marcel Proust. It is in fact an extract, roughly two chapters, from Sodome et Gomorrhe, which Proust published in a literary review primarily to piss off the publishers of the complete Recherche. In a sense, then, I am going over old ground. But that is — one can’t stress this enough — precisely what anyone who has read Proust will spend the rest of his life doing.

So I am treated to a rediscovery of a long party scene at the home of the Prince de Guermantes. It’s much, much funnier than I remembered it, almost a drawing-room comedy. At this stage of the Recherche, the narrator has only just discovered the Baron de Charlus having it off with Jupien — that morning — and his growing awareness of “inversion” (homosexuality) colors much of his perception here. (Spoiler alert! By the end of the Recherche, the narrator will conclude that almost every character is gay, and leading a double life.) Charlus attends the party, and he is in sublimely bitchy form, which the narrator, knowing more about him now, is better able to appreciate and to analyze. The Baron is one of the supreme creations of literature, and it’s great fun to spend time in his company again.

We’re also concerned with poor old Swann, ostracized now for his unsuitable marriage to Odette and for his undisguised support of Col. Dreyfus. The Dreyfus Affair becomes a central conflict in the Recherche: lines are drawn, friendships demolished and unlikely alliances forged, society shaken. When I began to read Proust in English, I knew almost nothing about the Affair, and so I compared it to the O.J. Simpson case, which was playing out at the time. This was a mistake on my part, because among people I knew, opinions about the case didn’t vary much. Perhaps indeed the case called into question the nature of justice in America, whether it is possible for a black man — or a wealthy man — to get a fair trial. Perhaps indeed there were legitimate reasons to suspect that Simpson, like Dreyfus, had been set up with falsified evidence; perhaps we did struggle to reconcile a corrupt, racist system with the brutal murder of two unlucky people. Was the path to judgment somehow worse than the crime itself?

Yet all-consuming as the Simpson case was, in those days, it was a sideshow, not a revolution. Proust would have dismissed it in a few pages — which is not, you understand, his usual treatment of topics that interest him.

Soon, Albertine will make an appearance, visiting the narrator in his apartment, and the promised theme of jealousy will expand beyond the ballroom to the bedroom. That scene, as I recall it, is a doozy, and I’m looking forward to it.

Much of my reading of Proust will necessarily be sentimental, always, and I might have benefited from greater study of theory and interpretation. I surely ought to familiarize myself better with Bergson and Ruskin before delving further into Proust. Yet I wonder whether more skilled readers are moved, as I am, by the death of the narrator’s beloved grandmother; whether they gasp, as I do, at the rise of Mme Verdurin or the brilliance of the housekeeper Françoise; whether they strain, as I must, to hear the “little phrase” of the composer Vinteuil when they are alone with a lover.

Rediscovering Proust, in this new way, has brought me back to those moments, the feelings I had: about the death of my own grandmother, about the rise and brilliance of people I’ve known, about the Chopin nocturnes I used to listen to while reading, and while falling asleep over the pages. These things are, ultimately, what one can hold onto — all that one can hold onto, Proust says — and so long as I have his books, they will always be within my grasp.


onscrn said...

Your French is almost certainly better than mine (which is mainly a reading knowledge), and I've made it through Proust twice. No point waiting. One never knows how much time one has left. I recently wrote a blog post myself called Reading Proust for the Last Time partly on that subject. I also come from Texas, and you might be interested in the novel way I first became acquainted with Proust (or his name). See Ronnie Knox, Marcel Proust, and I for that.

William V. Madison said...

True, one never knows how much time one has left — and that’s what scares me about Victor Hugo! Yet I’ve found the reading of Jalousie almost breezy, so perhaps, as you say, reading the Recherche in full is not so great a challenge, and not so distant in my future.

I’m not sure when I first encountered Proust’s name, but the moment surely didn’t involve anyone so remarkable as the intriguing Ronnie Knox — most likely it was the “Summarize Proust Contest” on Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

That show was also the first place I heard of Henri Bergson, which makes me wonder which, if any, of the Python sketches Proust would have enjoyed. The ones that feature rats, of course, but what else?

Michael Leddy said...

Anyone who's debating whether to make the investment in reading Proust, in any language, would be inspired by reading what you've written.

I'm guessing that your fellow students were keen on Deleuze, Proust and Signs? (I have it but haven't read it.)

It's a nice surprise to see the comment from On-Screen Scientist, whose Ronnie Knox story got me looking through the online archive of Sports Illustrated and writing about SI references to Proust (of which there are a surprising number).

Anonymous said...

I came across your Proust by accident. I am attempting to read Proust in French. I am fortunate in having large blocks of free time.

I have also been reading Gaston Bachelard's works. As I was reading your Proust commentary I was reminded that reading Gaston Bachelard's "The Poetics of Reverie" (La Poetique de la Réverie) is a wonderful preparation to one's reading of Proust.

William V. Madison said...

Interesting timing, as I just picked up Du côté de chez Swann to read on the plane this week. I've never heard of Bachelard, but will look him up. Thanks so much!