In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust


(Alien Lane £75)

Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time holds the record for the book most likely  be found alongside the Bible and Shakespeare on Radio Four’s celebrity-packed Desert Island. In part, this reflects the book’s sheer length, the enforced isolation allowing the castaways to tackle its three thousand densely packed pages, but it is also a tribute to its widely held status as the greatest novel of the twentieth century… perhaps, even, of all time.

In his masterpiece, Proust (who was bom in 1871 and died in 1922) married the predominant impulse of the nineteenth century novel, which was to portray an entire society, with the predominant impulse of the twentieth, which was to chart an individual consciousness. So he offers both a panorama of Parisian life at a time of immense upheaval, with the aristocracy losing power to the newly rich middle class, and an intimate study of a man as he moves from a privileged childhood to a disillusioned middle age.

Although the popular image of Proust is of a highly strung hypochondriac confined to a cork-lined bedroom, his early years were extremely active. He was a familiar figure in the most exclusive Parisian salons, and one of his happiest experiences was his military service. When he later recollected the personages of his youth, whether socialites or soldiers, for his novel – and recollection; as the title suggests, is its great philosophical theme – he captured them with awesome accuracy.

There are over a hundred major characters in the book and every reader will have his or her own favourites. These may be the heart-warming portraits of his mother and grandmother or of the family maid, Francoise, full of peasant prejudice and dogged devotion. They may be the satiric portraits of the middle-class patrons, the Verdurins, and their pretentious salon or of the great aristocrats, the Due and Duchesse de Guermantes, the former so infatuated with his own importance that he is unable to feel any emotion at the news that his old friend, Swann, is dying while being moved to fury at his wife’s wearing the wrong coloured shoes.

Love in its myriad forms is a central theme of the novel, although the narrator’s passion for Albertine, the young girl whom he meets on holiday in Normandy, is, arguably, its weakest strand (Proust never satisfactorily transforms his homosexual inspiration into a heterosexual narrative). Literature contains no more powerful account of sexual obsession, however, than that of the cultivated Charles Swann for the demimondaine Odette de Crecy, or of self-destructive masochism than that of the Baron de Charlus’s taste for flagellation.

Proust not only took the novel into unmapped regions but found a new language in which to do so. His complex sentences (the longest of which, a comparison between gay men and Jews, runs for well over two pages) pose particular problems for the translator. The standard English version was made in the 1920s by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.  This was revised in the 1980s, first by Terence Kilmartin and then by D.J. Enright, who amended Moncrieff’s errors and took account of new editions in France. Now Penguin has brought out a fresh translation from by a six-person team under the editorship of Christopher Prendergast.

Prendergast and his colleagues have the laudable aim of correcting both the mistakes and the ‘class-bound aestheticism’ that Moncrieff allowed to creep in to his work. But, while no translation is writ in stone, the image of Moncrieff, despite his Wildean surname, as a fin-de-siecle dandy steeped in purple prose is neither fair nor accurate.  It is true that the English ‘mamma’ is a more loaded word than the French ‘maman’ and that Moncrieff was sometimes coy and euphemistic, but his translation does not domesticate Proust in the manner of Constance Gamett’s celebrated versions of Dostoyevsky.

Moncrieff was a poet. His prose has a richness and a rhythm which convey both the beauty and complexity of Proust’s thought.  By contrast, the new version is depressingly utilitarian. The translators may have more accurate dictionaries but they have cloth ears. Even the titles of the individual volumes (The Way by Swann’s for Swann’s Way, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower for Within a Budding Grove; Finding Time Again for Time Regained) are clumsy.  It is to be hoped that, when the castaways are thrown up on their desert-island, the translation of Proust they discover, however sandy and dog-eared, remains the Scott Moncrieff.