Proust’s Way?

Swann's Way

by Marcel Proust, translated from the French by Lydia Davis
Viking/Penguin, 468 pp., $27.95; $14.00 (paper)

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.

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