Sunday, January 18, 2004

For A Long Time

I've just finished reading a review of a new translation of Proust's Swann's Way. This reading reinforced the reason why I read so much. Also, as far as one must allow Christopher Hitchen's (the reviewer) predilections concerning life and war as it is today, one cannot argue that he cannot write - the review is a small masterpiece in mixing his personal views with learned commentary of the subject at hand.

There is a small industry in authors writing love affair tell-alls about Proust. Notable examples are How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time. No other author gets quite this same reception. Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, etc. are respected, but no author really tries to identify with them and reflect on how reading them has affected them and their writing. The closest that I can think of who does have a somewhat similar situation is Virginia Woolf. Now why do I bring this author's affinity up? Because in reiterates why in particular Proust has a singular effect on readers. When one reads Proust, they are always reading two texts. They are reading the novel and they are reading the book of their life through the lens of the novel. They are looking back at previous loves and lost loves (among many things, but primarily these) and seeing the same things that Proust is writing about. They are reliving the jealousies and passions involved in those loves. How Proust has this effect on the reader is magical I think, and I believe that is why so many authors latch on to him.

And in a way, that is what happened when I read the review. Like the madeleine and tea at Marcel's aunt's that provoke the whole novel, reading passages of the novel brings back echoes of when I was reading the novel. A commonplace notion is that one shouldn't read In Search of Lost Time until one has had enough time to have lost. If I would have read it in my twenties I would have wondered what the hell the big deal was. But in my late thirties, I glimpsed what time does. Time burnishes and dims. Time can soften or harden. But whatever it does, it leaves a memory that you cannot get rid of - it is in your mind like a tattoo. Reading the novel makes you confront those tattoos - and this can be both a comforting and harrowing experience, and like the original events you've remembered, it is one you cannot forget.

In the review, Hitchens puts the traditional translation (Enright-Kilmartin-Moncrieff) against a new translation by Lydia Davis. In some ways, I was always disappointed by the new translation - the vernacular was too close to how we speak now. And this just seemed wrong. I wanted the prose to be reminiscent of the turn of the century - even if it is in fin de siecle English. Hitchens did point out passages that were improved - but that seemed to be because the traditional translation just really messed it up due to prudishness or a momentary lapse. In any event, in my opinion it would be hard to read any other translation than the one I read first. It would be like Marcel searching his memories of Combray and finding that Swann's Way and The Guermantes Way were not as he thought and he would have to scrap the novel. And where would we be then?

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