We’ll say there are two kinds of novelists: the snail and the swallow. The swallow is quick, agile, and able to speed across long, tireless stretches. Nothing a swallow does goes wrong; mistaken turns are instantly corrected, bad weather is put to good use, and poor judgment can be tweaked just enough to look like a flash of genius. In the implacable assembly line of prose, nothing is ever wasted or thrown away. By contrast, the snail is slow, deliberate, fussy, cramped. Swallows travel and seek out the world; the snail burrows into itself. The swallow acts; the snail retracts, guesses, speculates. A swallow chugs life down the way whales take in water, plankton and all, while the snail ingests choice bits down a multichambered spiral, where its appetite, like its vision, is eternally whorled. Balzac, Dickens, and Fielding are swallows, even Tolstoy.
Not Gogol, not Stendhal, not Meredith, certainly not Proust. The difference between them is neither the speed with which each author turned out works of fiction nor the emphasis some have placed on plot or style. It lies in something else. If to the swallow life is an open book, to the snail it is unfathomable. Everything, from love, friendship, desire, and death to the very art that portrays love, friendship, desire, and death, is essentially twisted and coiled along a narrow passageway where good judgment and clear thinking are less likely to lead to truth than paradox and guesswork.
Consider this passage from Jane Austen’s Emma:
Mr Knightley’s eyes had preceded Miss Bates’s in a glance at Jane. From Frank Churchill’s face, where he thought he saw confusion suppressed or laughed away, he had involuntarily turned to [Jane’s]; but she was indeed behind, and too busy with her shawl…. Mr Knightley suspected in Frank Churchill the determination of catching her eye—he seemed to be watching her intently—in vain, however, if it were so—Jane passed between them into the hall, and looked at neither….
In the crowded room where Mr. Knightley, Jane Fairfax, and Frank Churchill happen to be playing psychological hide-and-seek, Mr. Knightley begins to suspect that something is afoot between Frank and Jane. Frank, who just a while earlier had inadvertently compromised Jane by almost letting out the secret of their flirtation, is trying hard to communicate a silent apology to her. It’s all a very tricky, shifty business, and sorting out this congested traffic of touch-and-go signals requires not just an observant cast of characters but a highly articulate and agile pen.
We are in the domain of the snail.
Writing such prose may be difficult enough, but translating it—over and beyond the unavoidable problems of accuracy—is no easy task either. The subject is too subtle; one wrong word or misplaced accent and an insight is instantly flattened or snuffed out. One may succeed in translating these insights correctly and still fail to convey their luster, the sense of difficulties overcome, or the thrilled pleasure that went into writing them down.
What is reminiscent of Mme de Lafayette and of the roman d’analyse in this scene is not just the thoroughly disabused character of Austen’s observations on human nature, on human desire, on human dissimulation; it is, above all, her description of those ethereal, multilayered undercurrents that run between one person and another. This would become Proustian territory par excellence. Proust, like Austen, is meticulous when conveying these subliminal currents. Some are so elusive as to remind readers that they have just entered the universe of psychological verisimilitude, whose most telling landmark is the crafted insight. What flows between one person and another is so provisional, so measureless, and so indiscernible that one might be tempted to borrow the words of the medieval poet William IX of Aquitaine and call these subliminal currents dreyt nien, “just nothing.”
The chronicle of these insights, to echo Flaubert’s own word for the kind of novel he wished to write, could itself be called un livre sur rien. Between one character and another, nothing visible seems to happen, nothing is really being said, nothing actually intercepted, nothing touched, seen, heard, smelled, proven, etc. And yet writers like Jane Austen and Marcel Proust are clearly onto something when they talk of “confusion suppressed or laughed away.” Their talent lies precisely in taking these manifold, ineffable flutters of intuition and pinning them down like struggling butterfly wings.
Mr. Knightley, whose gaze is limited to seeing “symptoms of intelligence” and “symptoms of attachment between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax,” doesn’t quite know what these symptoms are symptoms of. Nor is he quite certain that they are symptoms at all. Nor does the narrator tip the reader off any more than is necessary. Mr. Knightley may see “disingenuousness and double-dealing” everywhere he looks, but that is all he sees. How does one catch someone’s desire to catch someone else’s eye? How does one describe a sign that is no more than an intention to emit a sign? One may catch a flustered inflection on a face, in a gaze, in a voice; but a flustered look that has been suppressed or laughed away has already been successfully concealed.
Enter Charles Swann. A guest at Mme de Saint-Euverte’s crowded soirée, Swann is still aching after having been made a total fool of by a woman he was fairly confident was in no position to cause him any sorrow. As he wanders through the crowd, Swann is asked by M. de Froberville, an army general, to introduce him to the young Mme de Cambremer.
The scene is very short—157 words in French—and one that a reader can overlook, for the simple reason that the scene would seem to describe very little and gives absolutely no evidence that its reading of Mme de Cambremer’s manner is based on anything other than the narrator’s odd mixture of insight and cunning. Here is the passage in French:
Quand enfin Swann présenta M. de Froberville à la jeune Mme de Cambremer, comme c’était la première fois qu’elle entendait le nom du général, elle esquissa le sourire de joie et de surprise qu’elle aurait eu si on n’en avait jamais prononcé devant elle d’autre que celui-là, car ne connaissant pas les amis de sa nouvelle famille, à chaque personne qu’on lui amenait, elle croyait que c’était l’un d’eux, et pensant qu’elle faisait preuve de tact en ayant l’air d’en avoir tant entendu parler depuis qu’elle était mariée, elle tendait la main d’un air hésitant destiné à prouver la réserve apprise qu’elle avait à vaincre et la sympathie spontanée qui réussissait à en triompher. Aussi ses beaux-parents, qu’elle croyait encore les gens les plus brillants de France, déclaraient-ils qu’elle était un ange; d’autant plus qu’ils préféraient paraître, en la faisant épouser à leur fils, avoir cédé à l’attrait plutôt de ses qualités que de sa grande fortune.
And here it is as translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, the original English translator of Proust, who began translating À la recherche du temps perdu in 1922, while Proust was still alive:
When Swann did finally introduce M. de Froberville to the young Mme. de Cambremer, since it was the first time that she had heard the General’s name, she hastily outlined upon her lips the smile of joy and surprise with which she would have greeted him if she had never, in the whole of her life, heard anything else; for, as she did not yet know all the friends of her new family, whenever anyone was presented to her, she assumed that he must be one of them, and thinking that she would show her tact by appearing to have heard “such a lot about him” since her marriage, she would hold out her hand with an air of hesitation which was meant as a proof at once of the inculcated reserve which she had to overcome and of the spontaneous friendliness which successfully overcame it. And so her parents-in-law, whom she still regarded as the most eminent pair in France, declared that she was an angel; all the more that they preferred to appear, in marrying her to their son, to have yielded to the attraction rather of her natural charm than of her considerable fortune.
The passage is fairly straightforward in French. Having been introduced to a total stranger, Mme de Cambremer would like to appear both tactful and genuinely warm when meeting someone who could easily be a friend of her new in-laws. She would like this “friend” to receive her beaming attention as though he were someone she had heard spoken of a great deal. But she restrains her amiability, for it would be unseemly on her part to appear overly familiar with a stranger. She must, therefore, temper her behavior to suggest that she has too much tact not to forget herself, but that her innate sympathy is so genuine that it could easily overflow the bounds of tact. Does it actually overflow, or does it simply suggest that it might? Or does she display a struggle to contain it and, by so doing, allow her “struggle” itself to pass for evidence of sympathy? Or, to put it otherwise, does she want to get credit both for her reserve and for her friendliness, without exhibiting much of either? “Disingenuousness and double-dealing” indeed!
Some reflections on the above passage as rendered by Scott Moncrieff:
(1) Would Proust ever have said “to outline a smile on her lips”? Where else in the body are smiles outlined?
(2) “In the whole of her life” is equally pure invention on Scott Moncrieff’s part. Nothing in the sentence in French suggests anything like it. Moreover, “in the whole of her life, heard anything else” is simply hyperbolic. What “anything else” might mean is “anything else about him.” But what the French is referring to is “any other name but that one.”
(3) “With an air of hesitation which was meant as a proof” sounds unnecessarily wordy and laborious compared to the French, “elle tendait la main d’un air hésitant destiné à prouver….”
(4) The quotation marks surrounding “such a lot about him” are a classic way of emphasizing reported speech. Proust frequently puts quotation marks to suggest another voice than the narrator’s, usually with ironic intent—but in this particular case, he doesn’t do so. Scott Moncrieff has simply inserted something his trained ear has encountered many times before in Proust.
(5) There is a big hiccup in the last sentence. “…All the more that they preferred to appear, in marrying her to their son, to have yielded to the attraction rather of her natural charm than of her considerable fortune.” “In marrying her to their son” is a prepositional clause which is almost immediately followed by an adverbial clause “rather of her natural charm”—awkward and a touch archaic. Moreover, the close parallel construction “of her natural charm” and “of her considerable fortune” governed as it is here by “the attraction rather” risks being lost on the reader. The emphasis on the contrastive adverb “rather” might well have come after, not before, the items being contrasted.