Marcel Proust

by Gary Goldschneider on July 10, 2011

in Literature

marcel proust

Marcel Proust
Born July 10 (The Day of Passive-Active Duality)
As George Steiner pointed out in his critical work entitled Real Presences, the author himself in his own writings probably makes the most profound observations about them, and therefore the comments of critics are really superfluous.  Thus, the most profound remarks about Shakespeare’s plays are found within the plays themselves, the most insightful observations about Proust’s gigantic novel are to be found within that novel. Yet, this problem of criticism is not so simple, because most of us never read Proust in the original at all, but in an English (or other language) translation. So the actual words we read, and to an extent the characters, themes, settings and ideas of Proust’s novel, or any novel written in a “foreign language” are almost entirely dependent on the translation, and ultimately the translator of such works. Thus the critical mind of a good translator becomes the essential filter through which the original language version must pass.

This became strikingly evident when the veracity of the title of Proust’s novel, always until that time called in English Remembrance of Things Past (in French: A la recherche du temps perdu), was called into question. So many mentions of that English translation of the title given by the translator C.K. Scott Moncrieff had already been made in writing and in university lectures, so many intellectuals had read and referred to that title in conversation, that Proust’s novel was indelibly branded on the literary mind as Remembrance of Things Past despite the fact that the title of the original French had been badly translated. And such a misunderstanding also suggested that perhaps the entire work that English readers had grown up on gave a thoroughly incorrect, misleading and ultimately false representation of the original.

It was Vladimir Nabokov who pointed this out again and again, insisting that the work was really called In Search of Lost Time, when correctly translated as it is now in most editions and newer translations. He also went on to discuss in detail how terribly harmful that mis-translation was in that Moncrieff had overlooked  the obvious point that the huge novel was about Time. Time itself was really the main character, the setting, the theme….without an awareness of the importance of Time for Proust in the mind of a translator, an accurate translation of the book was not possible. In fact, Nabokov implied that Moncrieff’s translation was all wrong. In addition, it was not about Remembrance at all but an active search for Time, and the Time itself was not just in past, but had been Lost. Incidentally, it is easy for a reader to get lost in this gigantic work that totals between 3000-4000 pages (depending on the edition) and features thousands of characters.

Marcel Proust was an inwardly directed hermit, who hid himself away for many years in a cork-lined apartment while creating this longest of all classic novels, only writing in bed in the silence of his room or venturing outside in darkness. From a wealthy Jewish family on his mother’s side, he had no need to seek gainful employment, and could indulge all of his personal pleasures and fantasies, including hiring a string quartet to play music for him at night in his own inner sanctum, these selected  sounds often being required for his writing. He spent almost all of his time when writing his one novel in one city, one house, writing in one language, meeting very few people, locked up in the recesses of his own mind. And through this permanence, this static structure, swirls the maelstrom of Time, and particularly Le Temps Perdu, Lost Time, and his active Search for it, pursuing his past  within the deep, convoluted recesses of his mind. His books become not only an autobiographical account of his life but also a penetrating philosophical study of the nature of time itself, and also of memory. We have the responsibility to at least accurately translate the title of his masterpiece, which Nabokov referred to as the greatest  narrative novel of the first half of the 20th century, and many feel is the greatest novel of all time, in any language.

– Gary Goldschneider

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