BOOK REVIEW / Once written, twice deflowered: In search of lost time - Marcel Proust, trs C K Scott-Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D J Enright: Chatto 6 vols, pounds 15 each

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF Proust's grumbles in the not very many months of life granted him in which to be famous was that his Paris publisher was being typically unsupportive in not finding him translators - a translator in England especially, where the Times, so Proust said, had had 'eight or nine articles' about him (three at most, say the records). It was at the Times, by a curious chance, that a volunteer stood ready, C K Scott-Moncrieff, then suffering as private secretary to the mad Lord Northcliffe. Scott-Moncrieff fell for Proust, gave in his notice, and started work on the million and a quarter French words of A la recherche du temps perdu. As if out of loyalty to his author, he died before he could finish, but the volumes he completed have been admired since they first came out in the 1920s as no other translation made into English this century - for their beautiful finish, their consistency over an unduly long haul, and the grit they display in staying with the zig-zags of Proust's proliferating clauses as they inch towards a relieving full point.

There is no denying that Scott-Moncrieff produced a remarkable piece of English. But was it the right sort of English? I don't think in the main that it was. Proust as remade by Scott-Moncrieff is a lesser writer than the supernally intelligent analytical Proust whom it is so complete a pleasure to read in French. He is too precious, too camp even, and that is unfortunate because by the time he came at last to work at his novel Proust himself hated above all else being thought precious. It was a judgement that carried him all too uncomfortably back to his early years, when he had been little more than a fin-de-siecle trifler in literature, looked down on by the serious-minded among whom he belonged as a shallow arriviste, hovering about sycophantically in the philistine salons of the Faubourg St-Germain.

Once he was a novelist, that way of life and the affectations of language which went with it became the object of his satire. His prodigious novel (unlike the many letters he wrote) is the very opposite of precious - a sustained marvel of penetration and exactness in its caustic analyses of mood, character and all manner of human behaviour. Scott-Moncrieff was too gentlemanly quite to live with this. Where Proust goes sharply, sometimes coarsely to the point, Scott-Moncrieff takes graceful detours, choosing pretty words where plain ones are called for and using limp evasions where the original has either shocked or defeated him by its slangy explicitness.

For 50 years his version of the novel stood and was honoured. Then, in 1981, we finally got a revised Scott-Moncrieff, from Terence Kilmartin, who had gone through it conscientiously making many hundreds of small but very effective changes, all of them in the direction of a greater accuracy and plainness. He changed the English also to accord with the revised French text of the novel that had come out in the early Fifties. Kilmartin's was a better, because a more modern, more faithfully prosaic, Proust.

And now, 10 years on, we have a more modern, more faithfully prosaic Proust still, from D J Enright. Working from yet another revision of the French text, Enright has altered the late Kilmartin accordingly and tried to stamp out any lingering Scott-Moncrieffisms. He has not, that I can see, changed very much: whole paragraphs, in fact whole pages on end, remain word for word the same. But here and there an ornateness has been neatly toned down, a simplicity in the original restored. The biggest and the best change Enright has made is to the novel's title, which in the Kilmartin version was frustratingly left as Remembrance of Things Past. That was wrong first for being so studied and allusive (the phrase is from one of Shakespeare's Sonnets), and second, for implying that this is a work of voluntary remembering: the full line from the Sonnets starts 'I summon up . . .' when it is the involuntary memory whose creative workings provide the crucial compositional and philosophical key to the novel. In Search of Lost Time is the workmanlike title it should have had in English all along.

Physically, too, this second revision of Scott-Moncrieff improves on the first: it is in six volumes instead of an overweight three, and the more easily manipulable for that. It has the same apparatus as the Kilmartin, the synopses, the too scant notes and, in the sixth and last volume, a valuable 'Guide to Proust' serving as an index to the novel's characters, allusions to real people, places and themes. The volumes are spoilt only by being made to wear orange jackets of a loudness offensive to the refined Proustian's eye.

An entirely new translation of A la recherche, by Richard Howard, is soon to start appearing in the US: what Howard's Way with Proust is we shall know here before too long. Meanwhile Scott-Moncrieff, now textually updated and (you might say) twice expertly deflowered, is in the best possible shape to face the competition.

(Photograph omitted)

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