Much or the last volume of Proust’s novel is devoted to life in Paris during the First World War. Proust, the least chauvinistic of writers, is nevertheless so moved by patriotic sentiment as to transgress the convention which keeps a fictional world separate from its author:
In this book in which there is not a single incident which is not fictitious, not a single character who is a real person in disguise ... I owe it to the credit of my country to say that only the millionaire cousins of Françoise who came out of retirement to help their niece when she was left without support, only they are real people who exist. And persuaded as I am that I shall not offend their modesty, for the reason that they will never read this book, it is both with childish pleasure and with a profound emotion that, being unable to record the names of so many others who undoubtedly acted in the same way, to all of whom France owes her survival, I transcribe here the real name of this family: they are called – and what name could be more French? – Larivière. (Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations in English are taken from D.J. Enright’s revised translation.)
This passage is astonishing for a number of reasons, but principally for showing us a writer, famed for his advocacy of the aesthetic solution to the problem of living, so relaxed about the rules of the relevant literary language game. For who on earth is speaking here? Strictly speaking it is the fictional narrator; in fact it is Marcel Proust. But this opens on to an impossibility: if the Larivières are the only real people in the book and none of the others is ‘a real person in disguise’, how then can Françoise the fictional character have relatives in real life? The confusion here between fiction and life is both casual and radical (it is compounded by the fact that the name Larivière is not only very ‘French’, it is also literary, the name of one of the most decent characters in the history of the French novel, Dr Larivière of Madame Bovary). This confusion of ‘levels’ or ‘identities’ also occurs elsewhere in the novel. The best-known instance is the moment when Albertine calls the narrator by his first name: ‘Then she would find her tongue and say: “My—”, or “My darling—” followed by my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be “My Marcel”, or “My darling Marcel”.’ In this spectacle of the narrator stepping outside the confines of the fictional world to speak of his own author, confusion in the reader’s mind becomes a veritable spin. The whole business finally collapses into pure playful disingenuousness, when, in Sodom and Gomorrah, the reader is imagined addressing the narrator (but logically it must be the author): ‘it is a pity that, young as you were (or as your hero was if he isn’t you) ...’.
All this suggests that the passage about the Larivières raises at least two questions that must preoccupy and perplex the translator of Proust. First, Proust’s patriotism, the emphasis on ‘my country’ (in counterpoint to the themes of exile and homelessness which recur throughout A la recherche), engages the nature of his prose as well as his sentiments; as Walter Benjamin said, in one of the finest essays ever written on the novel, Proust’s language is inseparable from his ‘intransigent French spirit’. It is a language with roots reaching deep into the history of French prose from Montaigne through Saint-Simon and La Rochefoucauld to Chateaubriand (there is, for instance, scarcely a Proustian maxim that one can read without hearing the tone and rhythm of the I7th-century moralistes). This sense of the text gaining sustenance from the rich soil of the French literary past is intimately connected to the conservative side of Proust’s imagination, its ‘vegetative’ aspect (if he famously compared his book to a cathedral, he also compared it to a tree). Being rooted in the soil, the tree is not readily transplanted across the Channel.
The second question the passage raises is initially quite different, but in fact overlaps with the first. However strong the commitments behind Proust’s conservatively ‘French’ manner, his world remains nevertheless chronically unstable, notably around questions of ‘identity’. The fluid relations between hero, narrator and author, fiction and reality, narrative and narration, past and present, reveal a subject in a state of flux, and raise an issue for the translator from the word go. The question of how to translate the peculiarly constructed opening sentence of A la recherche (‘Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure’) has become something of a party game. To my knowledge, there are five versions currently on offer. Scott Moncrieff renders it as ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early.’ Terence Kilmartin reproduced this in his revised translation, but Enright, in his revision of Kilmartin, has altered ‘used to go’ to ‘would go’. In addition, James Grieve’s Swann’s Way offers the refreshingly simple ‘Time was when I always went to bed early’, while Richard Howard proposes going into print with ‘Time and again, I have gone to bed early.’
One can argue the toss indefinitely over the respective strengths of these different renderings. Grieve’s ‘Time was’ and Howard’s ‘Time and again’ have the merit of beginning with the capitalised word on which the novel also ends, thus tracing a textual circle that mirrors the circular character so often assumed by Proustian Time. On the other hand, ‘Time was’ is a bit too colloquial for this notoriously indeterminate narrative beginning, while ‘Time and again’ carries an unwarranted implication of the compulsive. Similarly, while ‘used to go’ and ‘would go’ correspond rather to a French imperfect, Howard’s boldly literal ‘have gone’ takes on board the implied imbrication in Proust’s perfect tense of past narrated and present speaking; on the other hand, in French (but not in English) the perfect tense is also routinely the spoken representation of the written preterite.
This grammatical difference already suggests certain incommensurabilities between the systems of French and English. There is, however, a further detail of the opening sentence which none of the five versions captures, but which is directly related to the restless shuttling of the text between identities. The movement of Proust’s novel can be described as the attempt to close the gap between ‘hero’ and ‘narrator’, to join the two, like the two ways, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, which are discovered by the narrator in later life to connect up. The novel is based on a subject internally split and dispersed through time. It is therefore significant that its opening sentence should turn not on a transitive or an intransitive verb, but on a reflexive (‘je/me’). Proust’s grammar thus gives us a subject split into nominative and accusative, both speaker and spoken; and the book thus inaugurated is a many-thousand-page detour through that gap. Unsurprisingly, none of the English versions tries to do anything with this (‘I took myself to bed’ might just do, especially in connection with the semi-invalid side of the narrator’s condition, but again has connotations that the French reflexive does not have).
Here we encounter the translator’s problem at the outer limits of the transactable (at which grammatical differences would be joined by paranomasia, where inevitably Proust’s word play, or rather that of his characters, for the most part defeats the translator, who is forced to include the original French in parenthesis). Within these limits, however, there is a wide range of more local and contingent constraints. The most elementary concern the different editions of the French text the translators have worked with, the publishing history of the original being in turn bound up with the story Of Proust’s own working practices in the corklined room – that notoriously tangled because constantly expanded web of manuscript, typescript and proof (in the wonderful German film, Céleste, the notebooks with their endlessly intercalated pages, are shown as opening out like a fan or concertina). The original version as conceived by Proust on the eve of the First World War ran to about half a million words, the final version left by Proust at his death to around a million and a quarter.
The work of the scholars, research on the Recherche (incidentally one of the senses of the title which – like the double meaning of ‘perdu’, at once ‘lost’ and ‘wasted’ – is untranslatable), governs the history of French editions and, relatedly, of English translations. Scott Moncrieff worked from the first Gallimard edition (which, with some exaggeration, Samuel Beckett described in his early essay on Proust as ‘abominable’); Kilmartin worked from the far more reliable 1954 Pléiade edition, while Enright, taking over from Kilmartin (sadly prevented by illness from undertaking his projected revision of his own revision of Scott Moncrieff), has worked from the recently issued second Pléiade. The latter, however, though of great importance to Proust scholars, will not make much difference for the general reader where the main text is concerned. Far and away the bulk of the new material it incorporates consists of selections, placed in appendices, from Proust’s sketches. Some of this is reproduced in the Enright edition and some of it is good to have – for example, the following snippet from the conversation of Oriane de Guermantes in a sketch for The Guermantes Way: ‘That is why life is so horrible, since nobody can understand anybody else.’ This is just one of many instances of the narrator’s own world-view at once being recontextualised and ironically trivialised by other voices in the text. It is an example of Proust himself helping us to be on guard before his own sententiousness.
Yet a serious account of English translations of Proust will not turn decisively on the history of the text and publication in France, principally because it is easy to fall prey to a Whig theory of ‘progress’, a theory encouraged to some extent by the translators themselves. Kilmartin offers his version not just as a series of changes and additions in the light of textual information unavailable to Scott Moncrieff but also as a ‘revision’ in the sense of correcting and improving aspects of Scott Moncrieff’s translation of the same French text, while Enright’s endeavours are also billed as a ‘re-revision’. In many respects this is an entirely proper description (though Enright’s changes to Kilmartin’s English, while often felicitous, are not that extensive, encouraging the suspicion that this ‘new’ Proust is as much a publisher’s wheeze as anything else). There was much to be corrected in Scott Moncrieff, notably the egregious howlers, perhaps the worst of which, in this novel about Time, is the confusion between temps and fois, whereby Swann’s ‘il y a combien de temps?’ in his questioning of Odette about her lesbian past comes out, unbelievably, as ‘how many times?’
On the other hand, while paying tribute to Scott Moncrieff (the true hero of the story), both Kilmartin and Enright can also be a little condescending towards him, as if he were some kind of Edwardian old duffer. Certainly if it is a matter of simply correcting errors, then this cuts more than one way. For example, Kilmartin criticises Scott Moncrieff’s grip on Proust’s syntax, but this can be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Consider the saga of the misplaced ‘only’. Perhaps Kilmartin and Enright took the view that it would have been unnecessarily pedantic to transfer the binding rigidities of French syntax to English. But if so, there can be little excuse for getting your syntactic knickers in a twist over a sentence that gets it wrong in one clause and right in the next (‘We can only be faithful to what we remember and we remember only what we have known’) and no excuse at all for the laxness with one of Proust’s most famous maxims: ‘one only loves that in which one pursues the inaccessible, one only loves what one does not possess.’
This kind of accounting exercise could go on indefinitely, but simply entering debits and credits bypasses the deeper and more interesting questions of Proust in English. These require us to address the body of English translations as a whole in terms of the kinds of assumptions made about the nature of his ‘style’ and the sort of English most appropriate to it, A starting-point here is Kilmartin’s preface, in which he describes that style as basically ‘natural’ and ‘unaffected’. This must be the oddest view of Proust’s style ever. While stripping out some of Scott Moncrieff’s period purple was obviously desirable in order to restore more of Proust’s unrelenting lucidity, the notion that his vastly elaborated figurative patterns and syntactic structures are aptly described as ‘natural’ gives hostages to fortune too numerous to mention. Kilmartin’s view of Proust’s style (or what he sometimes calls ‘tone’) is related to the issue of how best it might travel into English. In this connection Kilmartin proposes the following working hypothesis: ‘The main problem with Scott Moncrieff’s version is a matter of tone. A translator ought constantly to be asking himself: “How would the author put this if he were writing in English?” ’ If this is the determining question, we are unlikely to be staying for an answer.
Perhaps we can make some sense of the notion of what Proust would have written had he written in English by translating it into the question of how an English writer, of roughly the same period, background and outlook, might have written. But this also is a somewhat murky notion and in any case, Kilmartin’s practice often breaches, sometimes happily, sometimes disastrously, his own rule-of-thumb. The plot thickens considerably when we turn to Enright. For if Kilmartin rounds on Scott Moncrieff for translating literally where ‘English equivalents’ should have been used, Enright takes him to task for exactly the opposite, objecting, for example, to translating a character’s use of the idiom ‘partir à l’anglaise’ as ‘taking French leave’ on the grounds that it is absurd to have French speakers speak to one another of ‘French leave’. Indeed it is, unless of course they happen to be speaking English. It will be clear that the further one goes into this question, the more we find that behind the murkiness there lurks a potential madness (the kind of lunacy that all translators must at times feel close to).
It will also be clear that the relevant assumptions about translation involve cultural choices and values, such that we are here talking about not just the transmission of Proust into English but also the production of an ‘English Proust’. In this regard, the story once again begins with Scott Moncrieff, this time as initiator of a volume of essays on the occasion of Proust’s death, Marcel Proust: An English Tribute. This is a fascinating document in the cultural history of early 20th-century English literary taste. It is also somewhat discouraging. Apart from a small number of often brilliant pieces – notably an essay by Catherine Carswell on Proust’s women as always presented in terms of ‘the effect they have upon the men that love them’ – we have the all-too-familiar Proust of cakes, lime-blossom tea and hawthorns (‘when I met him as a reader’ [he] ‘filled my plate with one delicious fruit and sweet and cake after another’).
English Proust emerges from this discourse (a summarising marker might be the recurrence in these essays of the word ‘charm’). Kilmartin’s claim is, in certain respects rightly, that Scott Moncrieff’s translation is complicit with this view and that to sharpen the edge of the prose is to wipe it clean of the detritus of the English teatime. On the other hand, just how clean is something of an open question. Take the vexed issue of the title. Rarely can the question of a title have stirred such a hornets’ nest (or created, so to speak, such a storm in a teacup). As reported in the New York press, there has been some kerfuffle between publishers over who ‘originally’ thought of using In Search of Lost Time to replace Scott Moncrieff’s pretty but useless Shakespeare quotation, Remembrance of Things Past. Richard Howard signalled his intention long ago to use the new title in the Farrar, Strauss translation, the first volume of which is due to appear this year. Kilmartin informed us that he wanted to use In Search of Lost Time for the 1981 Chatto edition but was overruled. This little quarrel proves only that the spirit of capitalism is alive and well in corporate publishing (Howard himself has been extremely laid-back about the whole business). The truly intriguing element of the story, at least as reported in the New York Observer, is that, according to his wife, Enright actually wanted to retain the Scott Moncrieff title when Chatto this time decided to respect Kilmartin’s original wishes: ‘It was a grand phrase, and it’s what it’s known as. That’s my husband’s position as an English reader and as an Englishman for whom Shakespeare is quite important.’
If this report is true, it would seem that a certain kind of English nostalgia is also alive and well. While being in or on the verge of sleep is one of the highly valued states in A la recherche (‘Perhaps some of the greatest masterpieces were written while yawning’), it is doubtful that Proust would have relished association with the prolonged English post-imperial trance. He took vigorous exception to Scott Moncrieff’s title, complaining to Gaston Gallimard, ‘I cherish my work and I won’t have it ruined by Englishmen.’ Among other things, the English Proust of the nostalgia market is a class Proust, and the relevant assumptions are in part social ones. Proust’s social vision is itself a problematical affair, starting with the meanings of the words ‘social’ and ‘society’ in his text, where they are generally restricted to life in the aristocratic salon and dining-room. Within this restricted definition, he supplies a merciless anatomy of a dying world, not just, as in the familiar emphasis, through a dissection of ‘snobbery’ but in making the crucial connection between the manners of the snob and, in Benjamin’s words, the symptoms of a ‘class everywhere pledged to camouflage its material basis’.
Proust deepens the convention of the novel of ‘manners’ by placing the obsession with the petty rituals of rank and etiquette in the distinctively modern context of the abstracted, sterile world of consumption severed from production. This is one reason why we hardly ever meet the working class, other than as immediate appendages to the upper classes (domestic servants, hotel staff, casino operators and shop girls, the latter having use-value for sexually deprived men of means, including the narrator). If we do not see the world of industrial work, that is because its invisibility is part of the point. On the other hand, Proust’s fastidiousness can degenerate into fussiness and fascination, and after some of the more extended stretches chez les Guermantes it may well be with a sigh of relief that we find even the narrator himself giving up: ‘I should never get to the end of it if I began to describe all the different types of drawing-room.’
A translation must of course respect the assumptions of the original; but there can be no brief for making matters worse. ‘English Proust’ often does just that, from Scott Moncrieff through to Enright. Consider the case of ‘Maman’ (where Proust’s narrative in many ways both begins and ends). In the sociolinguistics of French ‘maman’ is not marked for class. English ‘mamma’ is very strongly marked for class, especially the pronunciation implied by the double ‘mm’ (Grieve tries to weaken this with the spelling ‘Mama’). ‘Mamma’ transforms Combray into a Laura-Ashleyfied English nursery and the dilemmas of the neurasthenically Oedipal boy into the problems of a little Lord Fauntleroy, best dealt with by a vigorous spanking at a suitably brutal public school (to take an alternative example, could one imagine that great Oedipal lover, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who freely addressed Mme de Warens as ‘Maman’, calling her ‘Mamma’?).
If ‘revision’ is in order, why did neither Kilmartin nor Enright do something about this? One reason appears to be that their attachment to cute Proust is occasionally even stronger than Scott Moncrieff’s. For example, the question of mother is also related to the question of George Sand. When Maman, in the famous good-night-kiss scene, reads François le Champi to her agitated son, the latter is calmed by the presence in Sand’s text of ‘des expressions tombées en désuétude et redevenues imagées’. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of ‘redevenues imagées’ is uselessly but harmlessly literal (‘returned as imagery’). The phrase connotes both visual and rhetorical meanings (something like ‘metaphorical colour’). Kilmartin and Enright render it as ‘quaint and picturesque’ (a bit rich then for Enright to accuse Scott Moncrieff of being ‘quaint’). This is cakes-and-strawberries Proust to surplus requirement; we don’t need it. Nor do we need the lamentably sentimental ‘damsel’ for Proust’s ‘fillette’, designating the Parisian laundry girl whom the narrator fancies (Scott Moncrieff simply has ‘girl’).
What we need – and at their best what we get from all three translators – is Proust out of the nursery and on the wild side. For example, he is one of the great explorers not only of the multiplicities of human sexuality but also of the complex and shifting relation between sexuality and speech. There are many challenges here to the translator, above all perhaps in capturing the manic rhythms of the discourse of Charlus at once concealing and revealing his homosexuality in the polite society of the salon. Charlus’s speech is an extraordinary mix of the exquisite, the demotic and the camp. How one stays ‘faithful’ to this in English is by no means obvious. Scott Moncrieff was on the whole very successful here. Kilmartin interestingly throws caution to the winds, abandoning his hypothesis about what Proust might have written had he been writing in English, in favour of a series of hit-and-run, though sometimes hit-and-miss, raids on late 20th-century slang. When this goes wrong, it can go badly wrong. It is surely inconsistent with his hypothesis concerning what Proust himself might have written in English to translate ‘petits truqueurs’ (male prostitutes who engage in blackmail) as ‘rent-boys’; the latter is certainly an ‘English equivalent’ but nearly a hundred years too late for Proust, thus raising questions as to what model of linguistic and cultural relevance Kilmartin had in mind in advancing his hypothesis. As for ‘mômes’ coming out as ‘a bit of brown’, this misses the point of Charlus’s tortured verbal behaviour; it is not just a lapse of literary judgment but an actual category-mistake. For, even as his incredible tirades shift into semi-delirious overdrive, ‘a bit of brown’ is wrong for Charlus in the Guermantes or even the Verdurin salon, not so much because it is anachronistic but because it is excessive; it would be to go too far in his high-wire act of slumming it with socially unavowable desires while lording it with his social self-image: Charlus skates on ice, dangerously but also skilfully, though beneath the ice madness always threatens (‘madman’ recurs as a description of him in this mood). But if anachronistic ‘camping’ of the text can produce misreadings, all is forgiven when, on leaving the Verdurins, Charlus is to be found eyeing young soldiers on the train: ‘ce n’est plus un chemin de far où nous sommes,’ remarks the sculptor, Ski, in a hideous pun, ‘c’est un funiculcur.’ Scott Moncrieff doesn’t appear to have noticed the obscene deformation of ‘funiculaire’, though perhaps he thought the more attentive reader might have caught ‘cul’ in ‘funicular’. Kilmartin comes up with another anachronism, but one so brilliantly appropriate to both occasion and character that all other considerations evaporate. ‘this isn’t a puffer-train, it’s a poofter-train.’
This is emphatically translation joining original on the wilder side. It is no accident that it should be in connection with the languages of sexuality. Desire is Proust’s greatest theme and the most active motor of his text. In terms of his characters’ fate, it is also the motor of catastrophe. All Proust’s lovers are psychopaths, but teleologically as well as psychologically: the ‘way the psychopathological universe is constructed’, muses the narrator in connection with his love for Albertine, is ‘disastrous’, because whatever you do is destined to go wrong. However you play it, the outcome is necessarily and absolutely awful. In this most non-Aristotelian of novels, the narrative of Proustian love is rigorously Aristotelian in the sense that, if its beginning is arbitrary and its middle wayward, its end is preordained. One of the main achievements of Proust’s translators is to have caught with great precision the mix of intolerable suffering, monstrous egocentricity and high comedy in this baleful view of human intimacy. Albertine casually, inadvertently reveals to the narrator the truth behind the veil of lies: ‘I felt as though I were in a town that had been razed to the ground, where not a house remained standing, where the bare soil was merely heaped with rubble.’ The extended metaphor is to be read at various levels, suitably powerful for the intensity of subjective disorder, but also sufficiently detached to reveal it as self-indulgently theatrical, and not a little comical. It is of a piece with the whole final sequence of Sodom and Gomorrah, where the emotional disaster visited upon the narrator by Albertine’s disclosure of her previous friendship with Mile Vinteuil is both extraordinarily poignant and hilariously funny.
In this sort of area Kilmartin excels, having stressed in his preface the importance of Proust’s ‘humour’, his fabulous gift for mimicry, pastiche and parody. What also needs stressing is the extent to which the comedy is self-referential, and the parody self-parody, in particular gems of ironic mise en abyme that refract back a tonically sceptical sense of Proust’s compulsive analogy-spinning. Metaphor is not only his principal literary device for rescuing experience from the ravages of Time; it is also thematised and discussed, notably in Le Temps retrouvé, with a reverence at times close to mystic awe. But the reflexive register can also take an ironic and potentially self-mocking turn, as, for example, in Albertine’s outrageously baroque speech on the subject of ice-cream: ‘Those mountains of ice at the Ritz sometimes suggest Monte Rosa, and indeed, if it’s a lemon ice, I don’t object to its not having a monumental shape, it being irregular, abrupt, like one of Elstir’s mountains ...’
Try as the narrator might to distinguish Albertine’s ludicrous speech from the use of figures in his own writing (‘her eagerness to employ in speech images ... which seemed to me to be reserved for another, more sacred use’), with the injection of Elstir into the discourse, and thus of the narrator’s typical analogical movement from nature to art and back again, the dividing-line has been compromised; like both ice-cream and language in Albertine’s mouth, there is here a sense of structures melting, collapsing. This may have some relation with one of the novel’s very last metaphors, where the theme of a life-in-time is dizzily spatialised: the narrator, ‘perched on its giddy summit’, is seized with a ‘feeling of vertigo’. In the next paragraph the final one of the book – this image of heights is transferred to the aged and tottering Duc de Guermantes, figured as walking on ‘living stilts’ from which one must inevitably ‘fall’. The clownish metaphor of stilts is a comic transformation of the metaphor of altitude. But it is arguably also a parody of metaphor tout court, the prop, the crux of Proust’s work, what holds the whole thing up. The novel thus ends with a stress on frailty and fragility, not only of the human body but of all human enterprises, including perhaps that which this finale otherwise celebrates, the great work of metaphorical art the hero-narrator will undertake.
These last sentences combine exhilaration and comedy with the melancholy contemplation of decay and death and implicate both Proust and us as, coming to the end, we look back over a work of writing and reading, in either the original or translation. Proust himself calls the writing a form of ‘translation’ (‘The function and task of a writer are those of a translator’). In his Foreword, Enright speaks of the ‘melancholy’ nature of his own task as translator. He is referring of course to the sad circumstances in which he took over from Kilmartin. There is more however to the relation between melancholy and ‘translation’. Benjamin links melancholy to the modern condition of exile and homelessness. Proust belongs here; if all paradises are paradises lost, there can be no homecoming. For all his talk of ‘my country’, he knows, as does his narrator, that ‘the artist is a native of an unknown country’ and that, for all the corresponding talk of buildings, cathedrals and ‘foundations’, his book is like those of Bergotte, irritatedly described by that super-patriot, Norpois, as having ‘no foundation’ (and as ‘altogether lacking in virility’).
Benjamin also relates the condition of melancholy and exile to the displacement of the ‘symbol’ by allegory; the symbol is the prelapsarian, paradisiac mode of expression, at one with, embodying, that which it symbolises: allegory is on the side of the ‘sign’ and its endless interpretability. For some incomprehensible reason Kilmartin and Enright translate ‘signes’ in the famous passage about the work of art being the deciphering of ‘un livre intérieur de signes inconnus’ as ‘symbols’. Although Proust uses the term ‘symbole’ elsewhere, it is crucial to translate as ‘sign’ here, precisely because of his own emphasis on art as ‘translation’ and reading as a constantly renewed retranslation. Proust’s book is allegorical rather than symbolic in that the work of interpretation is never done once and for all.
Melancholy, however, is not the end of the story. Melancholy can become mourning, and mourning is accorded an altogether upbeat metaphorical value by Proust, specifically in connection with his own literary medium: ‘certain novels are like great but temporary bereavements, abolishing habit, bringing us back into contact with the reality of life.’ This joins with the more active senses he gives to both desire and suffering, which enable as well as disable, above all as powerful generators of text. The narrator writes that ‘to seek happiness in the satisfaction of a desire of the mind was as naive as to attempt to reach the horizon by walking straight ahead.’ If this is a formulation of the futility of desire, it is also the case that the writing of desire in Proust remains true to this insight, always moving laterally, either as the vibrant intellectual curiosity manifested in the tentacular, speculative sentence, with its proliferating hypotheses, or as the restless pleasure of metaphorical elaboration travelling, for example, across the collective body of the ‘jeunes filles en fleurs’, gleefully scattering predicates and identities with transgressive abandon.
This too has implications for translation. For we have also to remember that, if mourning and desire go together as creative forces, the habit-abolishing ‘bereavement’ which novels give us is only ‘temporary’, just as elsewhere we are told of ‘the almost hypnotic suggestion of a good book which, like all such influences, has very transient effects’. Habit reasserts itself, dulls the wits, consigns to oblivion. The process has to be started over again; even after we fall off the stilts, we must keep on the move. Where translation is concerned, this requires not just new translations from time to time but also a rethinking of what it means to make and remake an ‘English Proust’. The prospects are encouraging. There is for example a remarkable text by the poet, Tom Raworth. It is best to read this after reading the last paragraph of A la recherche. As, with the Duc de Guermantes, we totter through that last long sentence, landing for the last time on the word ‘Time’, we would do well to proceed immediately to Raworth, where we can start again, not only by going from end to beginning but also from bottom to top. The text is called ‘Proust From The Bottom Up’, in a collection of poems with the apposite title, Tottering State. It takes the key passage about literature as deciphering the ‘book of unknown signs’ and rewrites it, irreverently and literally, from bottom to top, while at the same time redistributing its elements in wilful disregard of normal syntax and sense (beginning with ‘not traced by us is the only book that really belongs to us’ and ending with ‘if i tried to read them no-one could help me with’).
We make of this splintered Proust what we will, but it is entirely reasonable to see it, within the extended sense of the term, as a form of ‘translation’, as creative translation around the Proustian themes of interpretation and decipherability, forgetting and remembering, losing one’s way and re-finding it (though what negotiable ‘way’ is opened up here remains moot). The more general point is that ‘English’ Proust can mean many things. It also means, for the time being, ‘Australian’ Proust (Grieve), ‘Irish’ Proust (for example, Beckett making hay with the hawthorns in Molloy, or, as in the early essay, giving us the Irishly memorable: ‘Proust had a bad memory’), and finally ‘American’ Proust. Where this last is concerned, we eagerly await the new Richard Howard translation. It promises to be a more freewheeling affair altogether. This is very good news, for it is especially in America that a certain ‘English’ cult of Proust is treated with the contempt it deserves. It is probably only in the New Yorker that we would find a cartoon depicting a woman and a salesman in a bookstore with the caption: ‘I want something to get even for that new translation of Proust he gave me last year’ (the cartoon is reproduced in Margaret Gray’s Post-Modern Proust).
This points the way to the happy end of the madeleine as cultural fetish, and to other kinds of alignment; for example, since I have spoken of stilts and falling, with Bob Dylan’s view of the artist; ‘she’s nobody’s child, the law can’t touch her at all/she never stumbles, she got no place to fall’ (Elstir, who paints the sea as land and the land as sea, would have liked her: ‘she can take the dark out of the night-time and paint the day-time black’). And while I’m at it, I hope Howard won’t think it excessively presumptuous to ask that he begin with the great Proustian theme of Names by doing something about the persistence, historically understandable in Scott Moncrieff, but inexcusable in Kilmartin and Enright, of ‘Christian name’ for ‘prénom’. This might just pass in the case of ‘Palamède’, Charlus’s ‘Christian name’ mentioned in connection with ‘this or that Podestà or Prince of the Church’. But if the complexities of the fictional language game render the narrator somewhat coy over ‘his’ own first name, it is unthinkable that Proust the author would have appreciated ‘My Marcel’ being represented as ‘my Christian name’. And to describe ‘Odette’ as a ‘Christian name’ when it is Jewish Swann uttering it, or Lady Rufus Israels as addressing Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, ‘by her Christian name’, not only has nothing to do with Proust’s French but also implies that the Church of England has had a hand in the translation. It is to be hoped that a more informal and ecumenical American Proust will put us on first-name terms with ‘préniom’, as with so much else.