- Reading Proust: Time Lost . . . but Not Wasted
The charm of Beckett’s short (very short) book on Proust is the claim that Proust had a bad memory, a statement so loony, it’s hard not to laugh. Needless to say, Beckett has a good argument for this howler; and, of course, “memory” (bad and good) is a term in play, if not in torment, through the entire multi-volume, million-and-a-half word A la recherche du temps perdu. To a Proustian, even the title’s two English equivalents cause a ripple of disquiet, if not of quiet torment. Remembrance of Things Past, from Shakespeare’s 30th sonnet was, of course, the bright idea of Proust’s first English translator, C. K. Scott Moncrieff; the elegant phrase has not, to this Proustian’s ear, been upgraded by the more literal In Search of Lost Time, a title that has stuck, even to the re-edited Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright version (my favorite). Proust altered a few of his own titles, toying for a time with the not-to-be-believed Stalactites of the Past. On the other side of the divide, the author was insulted by Moncrieff’s shortened version of the first volume’s title, supplying a snappy Swann’s Way for the fussy Du Coté de Chez Swann. Proust was irked, perhaps, because of how “way” suggests something more than pathway, something closer to “tendency”—a spoiler on the first page of what was to come into focus as the most significant theme after many, many words, many scenes, and many eras, finding its full value only in the very last pages.
What is a “Proustian,” anyway? Even to the ears of this most dogged of the faithful, the term sounds pompous, if not presumptuous. And, yet, may I make a case for myself? I’ve taught the six-volume English version in two back-to-back five-week summer sessions; I’ve read the million-and-half words in the two-volume Moncreiff; the three-volume [End Page 71] Moncrieff-Kilmartin, and the six-volume Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright, along with a handful of the now shabby paperback Gallimards, when my French was strongest. On the other hand, no Proustian worth a nibble of tea-soaked madeleine would have turned down the offer of a brand-new, Moroccan-bound Pléiade edition presented as a honeymoon gift. Why did I balk? Easy enough now to recall the moment of disquiet: did I have the cred to own such a treasure, or even enough time left on earth to penetrate the thick scrum of footnotes and variants assembled by that great Proustian Jean-Yves Tadié, editor of the Pléiade and author of the magnificent Marcel Proust: A Life, which was published by Gallimard in 1996 and weighs in at a mere 800 pages? (It’s only late in this reader’s life, I should note, that footnotes have become de rigueur. Tackling a work even longer than Proust’s, and one famous for its notes, I’ve vowed never to bypass a single bottom-ofthe-page trick by that backbiting cynic Edward Gibbon, as funny as he is wicked.)
Say again? Turned down the Pléiade Proust! I must have been out of my mind. What I accepted, in exchange, was an oversize paperback, with the whole of Recherche squished into a singlet. To add insult to injury, I owned, in years to come, two of these paperbacks, and gave them both away! But, I do retain, secure on my shelves, multiple editions of the faded and brittle French paperbacks (good enough for me), and a number of the translations. (I never cottoned to the most recent team endeavor, sensing that a different translator for each volume was a fool’s errand.)
As a pilgrim, I prowled the streets of Paris for the key nodes of the Proustian ambit—the école maternelle, the lycée Cordorcet, the parental and grandparental homes—and spent a sad day contemplating the place of rest, where the family Proust is interred under a black granite slab. (Note to those who care: a chrysanthemum spray, Odette’s flower, was...