The Threat to Proust

A la recherche du temps perdu, 1987-1989: Vol. 1

by Marcel Proust, edited by Jean-Yves Tadié
Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, 1,547 pp., FF360

A la recherche du temps perdu, 1987-1989: Vol. 2

by Marcel Proust, edited by Jean-Yves Tadié
Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, 1,991 pp., FF380

A la recherche du temps perdu, 1987-1989: Vol. 3

by Marcel Proust, edited by Jean-Yves Tadié
Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, 1,934 pp., FF395

A la recherche du temps perdu, 1987-1989: Vol. 4

by Marcel Proust, edited by Jean-Yves Tadié
Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, 1,707 pp., FF390

As in all branches of science, from subatomic physics to astronomy, order of magnitude can have great importance in literature. A consideration of size and scale in literature, moreover, soon provokes opposing claims. One might claim that all literature tends to the miniaturized condition of haiku and the maxim. And one might claim that all literature tends to the condition of the roman fleuve, the overflowing epic of everything. Even Aristotle was concerned about size and warned us in the Poetics that the dimensions of a work should not exceed our capacity to grasp its beginning, middle, and end. Many writers have produced unified works that may strike us as inordinately long: Lady Murasaki, the authors of the Roman de la rose, Tolstoy, Musil. But it is primarily in respect to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time that we work out our problems and our impulses concerning order of magnitude.

Until his late thirties, the Paris dilettante and apparent snob published mostly social gossip, short stories, and translations. Then, during a period of seemingly helpless hesitation between writing a novel and writing philosophical criticism, he grasped that he could do both by having the narrative lead up to the philosophy. In 1912, he sent out the first of two projected volumes. By the time the full novel appeared in 1927, five years after his death, it had grown to thirteen volumes. To read Proust in that paperbound, unannotated form requiring a papercutter, as was necessary for three decades, carried the challenge of exploring an unmapped continent without a reliable compass. In 1954 the French Pléiade collection brought out the full novel in three compact volumes with indexes and résumés and notes. Random House consolidated Scott Moncrieff’s translation into two large readable volumes in 1934. In these editions one can, with attentive reading, perceive the underlying shape of the novel sustaining its great length. In subsequent years, scholars produced a series of substantial biographies, from George Painter’s in two volumes to the most reliable and discerning of all, the 950-page opus of Jean-Yves Tadié. It is due out soon in English. Meanwhile Proust’s correspondence has appeared in twenty-one volumes.

When Proust’s novel fell into the public domain in 1987, three Paris publishing houses were ready with new editions that had been in preparation for several years. They all carry the same basic 3,000-page text with few variations. The differences lie in packaging and presentation. Laffont-Bouquins chose to publish three fat volumes prefaced by elaborate historical and biographical materials. Garnier-Flammarion produced ten pocket-sized volumes competently edited by Jean Milly. The new Pléiade edition, published by the original copyright holder, Gallimard, made the boldest, most ambitious, and most expensive bid to claim the market. In a combination of editorial, literary, and commercial decisions, Gallimard proposed to influence the way we read Proust and, to some degree, the way we approach all great literary works.

The difference is immediately visible and palpable. The Pléiade edition of A …

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Letters

The Threat to Proust’: An Exchange May 6, 1999