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Style Over Substance, Proust by Leland de La Durantaye,

Style Over Substance, Proust by Leland de La Durantaye,

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Published by Phoebe Hepzibah
The new Proust translation by Yale University is reviewed by Leland de La Durantaye,
The new Proust translation by Yale University is reviewed by Leland de La Durantaye,

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Published by: Phoebe Hepzibah on Jul 22, 2014
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved


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wann’s Way by
Marcel Proust translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff edited and annotated by William C. Carter  Yale University Press, $22 (paper)
 Just over a hundred years ago the first great novel of the twentieth century was published to absolutely no fanfare. After being turned down by a host of French publishing houses—including Gallimard, on the advice of André Gide—the first volume of
À la recherche du temps perdu
was printed at Marcel Proust’s own expense in November 1913. Half a year later war broke out, paper was rationed, the lead used to set the book was melted down for munitions, and public attention was drawn far away from the miracles of memory related therein. During the war Proust expanded his novel from a projected three volumes to seven. By 1919 Gide
had changed his mind about this work in progress, and Gallimard proudly published its second volume.
Within a Budding Grove 
 promptly won France’s most prestigious literary prize,
Le Prix Goncourt.
 National, then international, praise followed—in abundance. A few years later Virginia Woolf would sit down to thank a friend for sending her a slab of nougat from Saint- Tropez, but, put in mind of France by the package, she soon found herself talking only of the novel. “My great adventure is really Proust,” she wrote, “I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.” One of the most striking aspects of the reception of Proust’s work is how far and how fast that serenity and vitality stretched. One might think that a novel of more than 3,000 pages in which nothing of historical note happens would have a hard time finding an audience at home, and a still harder time abroad. But it did not.
Erich Auerbach wrote in 1925 in one of his first publications (recently made available in English in
Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbac
 The eruption of [Proust's] work—distinguished by its huge proportions, its complexity, and a difficulty caused by the unparalleled extravagance of its web of language—into the world was so sudden and so thorough that it is difficult not to see it as a result of some kind of spell that had been cast For how else might we explain the way that in those restless times, hundreds of thousands, all across Europe, gladly made their way through thirteen densely printed volumes, enjoying page after page devoted to conversations with no identifiable theme, to a few trees, to an act of waking up in the morning, and to the inner development of a jealous feeling, so that they might take pleasure in the variety of an individual’s emotions that lay hidden in every sentence? All the more astonishing is the fact that a great number of Proust’s admirers are not French.
While early advocates of Proust—among them Samuel Beckett (who would write the first book in English on Proust in 1930)—could read his work in the original, it was thanks to the efforts of translators, that it came to reach, and to hold, the global audience it has.  That international audience has been particularly well served this past year in celebration of the centennial of
Swann’s Wa
. Manuscripts of the novel that had never before left France were shown at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York. A collective “nomadic reading” was organized by the French Embassy in New York, with 120 participants reading aloud in locales as private as Ira Glass’s Brooklyn bedroom and as public as the New York Botanical Garden. Yale University’s Saybrook Underbrook Theater reconstructed the cork-lined bedroom in which Proust wrote much of the novel, and in which he died, so that one hundred participants could read aloud from the book in the language of their choice.  The anniversary saw not only public events but also a wave of new publications, from a special issue of Gallimard’s literary magazine, in which writers from George Steiner to  Jacques Jouet assess Prousts achievement, to a series of new scholarly studies. Most notable for the English language reader among these publications is Yale University Press’s new annotated edition of the original translation of Proust’s masterpiece, published to coincide with the centennial, clearly aspires to become the new pedagogical standard. • • •
Even under the most favorable circumstances translation is a difficult process, punctuated by moments of stark and alarming impossibility. In
Against Sainte-Beuve,
 the work that grew into
In Search of Lost Time,
 Proust declared that “les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère”—“beautiful books are always written in a sort of foreign language
Proust did not, of course, have in mind actual foreign languages, nor was he alluding to the exceptionally rare phenomenon of a beautiful book written in another language than the author’s native one (as would be two of the finest novels of the following generation—both inspired by Proust—Vladimir Nabokov’s
and Beckett’s
The Unnamable 
). Instead, the foreign language Proust had in mind was one he was in the process of inventing—the foreign language that is every great artist’s own. Proust experienced that foreignness himself when he translated John Ruskin’s
The Bible of Amiens
Sesame and Lilies
into French. His sense of the idiosyncrasy of the task was so strong, and his doubt as to whether he had sufficient mastery of the language to accomplish it was so pronounced, that he once remarked, “I don’t claim to know English. I claim to know Ruskin.” Like Ruskin, Proust has been fortunate in his translators. His first English translator, the Scottish writer Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff, who had already translated Stendhal as well as such different works as
The Song of Roland 
, began work before Proust finished the novel. In 1920 Moncrieff resigned his post at
The London Times
to dedicate himself entirely to translation of Proust’s work in progress. He would labor on it until his death in 1930, by which point he had translated six of the seven volumes.  The translation Moncrieff produced was a masterpiece. That said, it was not without its share of controversial choices—beginning with the very title. Faced with the formidable challenge of rendering the supple
À la recherche du temps perdu 
, with its final words meaning both lost
and wasted
time, Moncrieff decided simply to rename the book. The title
Remembrance of Things Pas
 was one he took, as more than a few authors of the period were inspired to do, from Shakespeare. (William Faulkner’s
The Sound and the Fury
is from
1929, and
Aldous Huxley’s
Brave New World
1932. Moncrieff renamed Proust’s work after Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 (nowhere referred to in Proust’s novel), going so far as to add Shakespeare’s lines as an epigraph. In a letter written from his deathbed, Proust thanked Moncrieff for his efforts but took issue with the title, pointing to the lost register of lost time—the past the narrator is trying, through the magic of memory, to recover.

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