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Far from Proust’s Way

The six volumes of the new Viking Penguin translation of Proust received rave reviews in England. And yet the titles of the first two volumes approach monstrosity. Du côté de chez Swann, traditionally translated—despite Proust’s initial objection—as Swann’s Way, appeared in England as The Way by Swann, which echoes something along the lines of “How’s by you?” “By me is fine.” It is fortunate for Lydia Davis, the translator of Volume One, that Penguin USA decided to delete all traces of The Way by Swann and restored the old way, Swann’s Way. À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, the title of Proust’s second volume, for which he was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt, was not so fortunate. C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s title Within a Budding Grove was a most felicitous rendering of an untranslatable title. The title of James Grieve’s translation, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, is gobbledygook. What is a young girl in flower? Is she dressed in Laura Ashley prints? Or is a young girl in flower a girl who is just about to blossom? This punctilious and ultimately priggish commitment to word-for-word accuracy turns out not only to be a cunning way of attracting attention and of publicizing a radically new translation out to make sweeping changes, but it is, all said and done, thoroughly deceptive. Accuracy, particularly in this volume, is proclaimed, not practiced, promised, not delivered.

On the subject of titles, the final volume of the series, which is not out yet in the United States, is translated as Finding Time Again. What a thoroughly absurd title when Miltonian English is staring us right in the face: Time Regained. This is D.J. Enright’s title. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin erred with Time Recaptured.

Enright had made “cosmetic” changes to Scott Moncrieff’s Remembrance of Things Past and changed its title to In Search of Lost Time, this, of course, being an exact translation of the French. Conversely, however, Remembrance of Things Past, derived from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, was a good enough title, and changing it was like deciding to change the title of the Book of Genesis to In the Beginning. So much for the title of the volume.

The very first words in James Grieve’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower do not bode well. While Lydia Davis’s treatment of Swann’s Way was always scrupulous, exacting, and judicious, here a romp around the china shop is the norm. In French, the volume begins with two words: Ma mère, “my mother.” But “my mother” is not the subject of the sentence. Here is the text in French:

Ma mère, quand il fut question d’avoir pour la première fois M. de Norpois à dîner, ayant exprimé le regret que le professeur Cottard fût en voyage et qu’elle-même eût entièrement cessé de fréquenter Swann, car l’un et l’autre eussent sans doute intéressé l’ancien ambassadeur, mon père répondit qu’un convive éminent, un savant illustre, comme Cottard, ne pouvait jamais mal faire dans un dîner, mais que Swann, avec son ostentation, avec sa manière de crier sur les toits ses moindres relations, était un vulgaire esbroufeur que le Marquis de Norpois eût sans doute trouvé selon son expression, “puant.”

Following is Scott Moncrieff’s version:

My mother, when it was a question of our having M. de Norpois to dinner for the first time, having expressed her regret that Professor Cottard was away from home, and that she herself had quite ceased to see anything of Swann, since either of these might have helped to entertain the old Ambassador, my father replied that so eminent a guest, so distinguished a man of science as Cottard could never be out of place at a dinner-table, but that Swann, with his ostentation, his habit of crying aloud from the housetops the name of everyone that he knew, however slightly, was an impossible vulgarian [Kilmartin and Enright have “vulgar show off”] whom the Marquis de Norpois would be sure to dismiss as—to use his own epithet—a “pestilent” fellow.

This is called an anacoluthon, described in The American Heritage Dictionary as “an abrupt change within a sentence to a second construction inconsistent with the first.” “My mother, when…, having expressed…, that…, and that…, since…” All of this is followed abruptly by a sudden reversal of the sentence with the appearance of the real subject: “my father.” It is, in short, a syntactic Stromboli.

Ideally, since in both English and French the intransitive verb “to reply” requires the preposition “to,” À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs should have opened with À ma mère, quand, “To my mother when…” But it does not. Here is Grieve’s version:

When it was first suggested we invite M. de Norpois to dinner, my mother commented that it was a pity Professor Cottard was absent from Paris and that she herself had quite lost touch with Swann, either of whom the former ambassador would have been pleased to meet; to which my father replied that, although a guest as eminent as Cottard, a scientific man of some renown, would always be an asset at one’s dinner table, the Marquis de Norpois would be bound to see Swann, with his showing-off and his name-dropping, as nothing but a vulgar swank, “a rank outsider,” as he would put it.

It seems so obvious that Grieve has unstitched and sewn back the sentence—in tailor parlance he has thoroughly “altered” it. Grieve’s paragraph says everything that is said in Proust’s paragraph; it may even say it better, and more lucidly. But it’s not Proust’s sentence at all. This reads more like a cross between Anthony Trollope and Nancy Mitford.

Let me just highlight the last five words in Grieve’s version: “as he would put it.” Now Proust happens to be a supreme craftsman when it comes to the closure of each sentence: every sentence, especially a long one, tends to close with something resembling the clang of cymbals, the applause that shouts “Q.E.D.” The last word of any sentence is the “send-off,” the surprise morsel that was left for last, the thing that resonates most and forces the reader to utter a surprised “Why, yes, of course” and wonder why it had never occurred to him sooner.

After encouraging the reader to side with Swann in the previous volume, what Proust does now is introduce a Swann perceived as an esbroufeur…puant—a “show off…a stinker.” This is the revelation, the twist nailing a sentence, which, from its very inception, seemed to be going everywhere and nowhere. In fact, the slangy puant closes the whole sentence like the thump of a clubfoot. But it is the last word. It leaves the reader totally stranded. How ever did Proust get there? And how immeasurable the distance between Ma mère and puant now.

It is irresponsible to alter Proust’s word order and add something like “as he would put it.” What that tiny, gimp-legged “as he would put it” does is rob puant of its status as the last word. This, to repeat, is something that Lydia Davis would never do, because her impulse is to go to the other extreme and abide by every clause in the order in which it is given.

To a translation that pretends to give the English-speaking world a new Proust and wants to set itself up as the new official standard-bearer of Proust studies in translation, this kind of legerdemain does not bode well at all.

Let us take a closer look at another sentence from Grieve’s translation.

Marcel and his grandmother have just returned to their hotel. They are in the company of the aristocratic Mme de Ville-parisis, with whom Marcel’s grandmother had been to school. Keenly aware of the class differences between Mme de Villeparisis and his own middle-class background, Marcel detects in the aristocrat’s obliging manner “a melodic inflection” that rings false because it “contrasted with her usual simplicity.” Once again, this is the realm of Proustian hermeneutics, where every sign unleashes manifold meanings. Proust writes:

Et le seul manque de véritable politesse qu’il y eût en elle était dans l’excès de ses politesses; car on y reconnaissait ce pli professionnel d’une dame du faubourg Saint-Germain, laquelle, voyant toujours dans certains bourgeois les mécontents qu’elle est destinée à faire certains jours, profite avidement de toutes les occasions où il lui est possible, dans le livre de comptes de son amabilité avec eux, de prendre l’avance d’un solde créditeur, qui lui permettra pro-chainement d’inscrire à son débit le dîner ou le raout où elle ne les invitera pas.

Here is Scott Moncrieff:

And her one and only failure in true politeness lay in this excess of politeness; which it was easy to identify as one of the professional “wrinkles” of a lady of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, who, always seeing in her humbler friends the latent discontent that she must one day arouse in their bosoms, greedily seizes every opportunity in which she can possibly, in the ledger in which she keeps her social account with them, write down a credit balance which will allow her to enter presently on the opposite page the dinner or reception to which she will not invite them.

Here is Kilmartin/Enright:

And her one and only failure in true politeness lay in this excess of politeness—which it was easy to identify as the professional bent of a lady of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, who, always seeing in her humbler friends the latent discontent that she must one day arouse in their bosoms, greedily seizes every possible opportunity to establish in advance, in the ledger in which she keeps her social account with them, a credit balance which will enable her presently to enter on the debit side the dinner or reception to which she will not invite them.

This, again, is not just the analytical Proust writing, but it is, as with Legrandin, Mme de Cambremer, Dr. Cottard, or Mme Verdurin, Proust the moralist, writing in the great tradition of Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, and La Bruyère. Everyone is thoroughly insincere, and kindness, genuine or otherwise, belies intentions that are quite unkind. Like virtually everyone in Proust’s universe, Mme de Villeparisis is not to be trusted.

As usual, there are minor differences between the Scott Moncrieff and Enright versions. They are not significant. But let us take a look at Grieve’s:

The only deficiency in Mme de Villeparisis’ politeness was the excess of it, for it could be seen as the professional mannerism of a lady of the Faubourg Saint-Germain who, accustomed as she is to seeing in certain middle-class people the malcontents who she is bound to make of them sooner or later, takes full advantage while she can of any opportunity to have the account books of her friendly relations with them record in advance a credit balance, so that, when she is debited with not inviting them to her next dinner party or reception, it shall be without qualm.

There is no question that Grieve writes with supple grace. His prose knows how to follow the bends and twists of Proust’s wry humor. Grieve, for example, saves a lot of lexical footwork by transforming the noun “debit” into a verb. Mme de Villeparisis, in effect, puts everyone in her debt because she knows that a time will come when she will “owe them” and “be debited,” which is when she will dip into her prearranged credit line with her indebted friends. We are suddenly in the realm of Saint-Simon, the shamelessly astute and penetrating memorialist whom Proust admired so much. What evidence do we have of her credit line? How does Proust know that she is constantly stocking up bonus points for that time when she’ll need to cash them in? These insights, so irresistibly plausible because we understand them and see them so clearly and are almost ashamed to own they are true precisely because they are true in us, are to his novel what London ruffians were to Dickens, Parisian “physiognomies” to Balzac, or drunks and epileptics to Dostoevsky. Proust “invents” psychological insights that are, as readers said of Dickens’s and Balzac’s characters, true to life because we, his readers, may most likely have already come across them.

Let’s take a look at the last few words of the above sentence: “so that, when she is debited with not inviting them to her next dinner party or reception, it shall be without qualm.” This sentence proves that, not unlike Davis, and for all his grace as a writer, Grieve has not in the least bit intuited one of the essential aspects of Proust’s style. And this is not because there is absolutely no mention of “it shall be without qualm” in the French, or because such an observation is basically irrelevant and does not deserve so privileged a place as the end of the sentence. What Grieve does not see is that Proust had written the whole sentence as he did precisely because he wanted to let it spiral its way up and suddenly snap shut with the revelation that, when it comes to those with whom she shows so much congeniality, Mme de Villeparisis defrays in advance the cost of giving a dinner party to which she will omit to invite them.

To which she will omit to invite them” is the last word, the startling fillip, the close, the epiphany, the click of a camera’s shutter. To end with “it shall be without qualm” is like catching a fish and letting it slip back into the water while trying to drop it in the basket. If Davis failed to understand how Proust used parallel constructions to highlight the indissoluble collusion and chiaroscuro effect of successive clauses, Grieve fails to abide by Proust’s habit of leading his sentences up to an unexpected yet clamorous closure.

A translation not only compels a translator to come up with the best rendition in another language, but by a sort of countervailing mechanism implicit in all translations, it also forces that translator to reinterpret the wording of the source language. Take Proust’s opening to the second volume, for example, the invitation to M. de Norpois: Should English resolve the ambiguities that were conveniently overlooked or left intentionally opaque in the original French?

One might be tempted to say “yes,” but “no” is the correct answer. An author says what he says in the very way he says it not necessarily because he is after the utmost clarity, or, for some mysterious reason not unrelated to what we call the creative process, because he wishes to see so far and no further, to see one thing without highlighting all of its ancillary, shadow meanings, but because the words he has selected in the order that he selected them allow him to suggest things he does not wish to say or know how to come right out and say. In short, what we call style may not only be the deployment of the fewest possible words for the sake of strategic clarity; but to use Stephen Greenblatt’s more recent coinage, style may also be a form of “strategic opacity.” An author fudges and cuts corners and wriggles in between impossible options and gets away with all manner of ambiguities and contradictions precisely because what he is after cannot be invoked otherwise, because he himself may not even see or wish to see beyond a certain threshold.

If rewriting is a fault in Grieve, it is a disquieting one when it becomes obvious that the much-touted team translation by Viking Penguin is the product of writers who are each translating a different Proust and whose practical operating principles and guidelines could not be more different or ill-defined. The voice of Davis, forever faithful to Proust’s word order, and the voice of Grieve, who doesn’t get it, could not possibly belong to the same novel.

But if the intention of the Viking Penguin translation was to give us a Proust that would read well enough in English, then they have certainly succeeded. There is nothing egregiously wrong in Grieve’s volume. Its tone is much more relaxed and far less exacting than Davis’s, and, as far as I could tell, it does not mistranslate anything, certainly not as was the case with Scott Moncrieff before both Kilmartin and Enright came to his rescue.

But well enough is not good enough. Will Grieve’s translation, for instance, serve the scholar who is not entirely at ease with the original French? Absolutely not. If anything, because it does not follow the rhythm of Proust’s sentences, it is a dangerous translation. It fails to see—and, more importantly, to convey—that the drama of discovery and revelation inscribed in each sentence by Proust is indissolubly fused to Proust’s style. If one likes to say that Flaubert’s obsession was the mot juste, with Proust it is the style juste. And perhaps the only writer who knew a few tricks he might have taught Proust about style juste was Joyce. Perhaps. That both also began as aspiring poets should remind us that behind every great prose stylist there is not a creative writing major but a poet more or less resigned to his failure as a poet. That Proust should have started À la recherche in the wake of his efforts as a translator of John Ruskin, England’s greatest stylist of the nineteenth century, should also remind us that every great writer comes by his voice in the most unforeseen and adventitious of ways.

Ruskin too was an inner poet. The job of a great translator is never to forget this inner poet. If he so wishes, the translator may want to give us discreet reminders of the poet hiding in the recesses of his words. Scott Moncrieff attempted such a feat, and those who followed in his steps were all too well aware that if poets nod at times, they never plod, and that, even in prose, they can never afford to plod. That, in the end, is also how Scott Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright came by their voices.

How Grieve’s version came by its voice, however, is beyond reckoning. It does not translate Proust. It rewrites Proust. The spirit is gone. As for the letter, well, it’s there—but not really.

In any other writer than Proust the rewriting would have done well enough. But try rewriting James Joyce or Laurence Sterne or Herman Melville and you have an entirely other writer. To rewrite Proust is to deny that he remains one of the very few writers who knew—and we know he knew it because he said so himself—that style is ultimately vision. Not to understand an author’s style may often be excusable; but not to understand Proust’s style is to miss the vision—and without the vision, unfortunately, all we’re left with is…prose. Just prose. And that’s not good enough.

—This is the second of two articles.

Letters

Proust’s Way?’: An Exchange April 6, 2006

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