Talk about bad – or, perhaps, perfect – timing. Introducing this year's shortlist, our perkily populist Booker Prize jurors rubbished "heavyweight" and "pretentious" fiction in favour of the Thumping Good Read. This month, however, we have a chance to savour the first entirely fresh English version for 70 years of the giant grandaddy of all heavyweight novels. With seven translators, in six volumes, the new Penguin edition of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time – all 3,200 pages and 1.25 million words of it – is about to appear as a £75 boxed set. It will crown seven years of dedicated teamwork by Professor Christopher Prendergast, the general editor, and his scattered clan of colleagues.
With Proust – who is never pretentious, but simply exact – little words matter as much as the big ones. In his opening volume, there's a lovely passage where the narrator recalls the joy of watching the play of dappled reflections on a pond, during an autumn walk near his childhood home at Combray. Not yet an artist, and so lost for words, the writer-to-be can only exclaim, often and bathetically, "Zut!". For the previous translation (revised by Terence Kilmartin and D J Enright from C K Scott Moncrieff's original, Twenties effort), this tongue-tied ecstasy comes out as "Gosh, gosh, gosh, gosh!".
For Lydia Davis, translating the volume that Penguin now calls The Way by Swann's rather than Swann's Way, the young hero cries "Damn, damn, damn, damn". Given the period (this stuff, I warn you, can get seriously addictive), I might personally have plumped for "My, my, my, my!". And, stepping back to contemplate the glorious harvest of the Penguin team's toil, a more 21st-century brand of inarticulate homage came to mind: "Wow, wow, wow, wow!"
Proust fans and academic specialists will argue until the vaches come home about points of detail in the Kilmartin-Enright and Penguin renderings. For fascinated civilians, the summary verdict runs like this: English readers can now choose between two thoroughly excellent, readable, but powerfully distinct versions of the most linguistically complex prose epic in history. Crucially, both editions – despite differing principles – invite the casual reader in to enjoy the show with a minimum of fuss and ceremony. This might be news for Booker judges, but Proust ranks among the most engrossing, witty and moving of all novelists.
Christopher Prendergast, professor of French at Cambridge University, has just finished his years of far-from-wasted time as Penguin's editor. He sums up Proust's appeal: "the epic historical sweep of a world careering towards its destructive finale in the First World War; the restless intelligence peering into every corner of the life of the mind; the gift for comic mimicry rivalled perhaps only by Dickens; above all, the experience of the novel as a journey. This, I think, is what most people remember and treasure."
For complete novices, he suggests a dip into the racy, gamey 200-page episode in the first volume that Penguin now entitles "A Love of Swann's". "Since sexual obsession interests nearly everyone, this usually does the trick." However, even total Proustophobes may find a use for his serpentine sentences: "I once knew someone who suffered from insomnia – a very Proustian complaint – and who used a few pages of Proust in order to get off to sleep."
Proust, as even non-readers know, begins his fantastic journey through mind and memory, art and society, with a bedtime scene: Depuis longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Scott Moncrieff, opting for a version of the French that his revisers left intact, converted this opening gambit into "For a long time I would go to bed early". Lydia Davis, however, puts the stamp of renewal on the Penguin edition from its very first line: "For a long time, I went to bed early". As it happens, those slippery past tenses reach to the heart of Proust, and of the torments of translating a narrator who perpetually folds the past into the present (and vice versa). Prendergast also quotes a facetious idea for the first sentence that came into Penguin's special Proust website: "For absolutely bloody ages it was lights out early".
OTT, maybe – but that does have a nice whiff of Proust's fin-de-siècle, lounge-lizard characters. The glory, and curse, of the version that Scott Moncrieff heroically produced during the Twenties is that it sounds as if written by a milord straight from the pages of A la recherche du temps perdu. Scott Moncrieff acted as private secretary to the press baron, Lord Northcliffe. He was a suave Scottish gent of the kind whom the novel's protagonist might easily have run across in a chi-chi Parisian salon, gallery – or brothel. Behind the corrections offered by Terence Kilmartin and D J Enright, his purple flourishes and Edwardian swagger still give the old translation much of its enduring charm.
Despite the wide acclaim that greeted Enright's final polish in 1992, Penguin soon decided that they needed an in-house Proust for their classics list. The publisher invited Prendergast to oversee the Herculean task in 1995: "I'd done little bits and pieces of literary translation before, but nothing to write home about," he recalls. "I thought it would be interesting to go down this road for a while. And interesting it proved to be, confirming me in the view that the kinds of judgments and decisions bound up with literary translation make it one of the higher forms of criticism."
In general, the Penguin team offer fidelity to the versatile, mutable languages of the text, in place of the consistent period aura and mood found in Scott Moncrieff. Penguin's unity pivots on the author's diversity. "I wouldn't want this to be seen as an attempt to 'update' or 'modernise' Proust," remarks the editor. "It is rather an attempt to be faithful to Proust in the terms available to us." Does his little clan of colleagues promise an improved version? "Well, there are certain respects in which I think our translation is better ... obviously, I would think that. But, in terms of some overall judgement, I would prefer 'different' to 'better'."
It sounds altered, most conspicuously, in the orchestration of seven idiosyncratic voices. Prendergast reflects that the vast burden of translating Proust is now "beyond a single individual". Yet his original dream-team would have looked a bit different to the magnificent seven that he finally recruited: Lydia Davis, James Grieve, Mark Treharne, John Sturrock, Carol Clark, Peter Collier and Ian Patterson. Early on, he approached Harold Pinter, who had published his inspired (but unfilmed) Proust Screenplay in 1977. It was "no surprise when he turned me down". As did Julian Barnes. He also "toyed with the idea" of Paul Auster.
The Penguin chorus of strong voices draws attention to the shifts in tone and style between volumes. Proust began his novel in earnest in 1908. At his death in 1922, he left the final parts unedited, in the famous cork-lined room at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. Between Edwardian summer and postwar chill, the world – not to mention the social micro-climate of artistic and aristocratic Paris – had changed utterly. "A translation by diverse hands is likely to throw these changes into sharper relief," comments Prendergast.
Yet the editor did insist on imposing coherence when it came to verbal conventions: slang, quotations, and those formal French titles that at first mean so much to the social-climbing narrator, but which he later comes to dismiss as worthless defences against time and decay. "I did this in consultation with the team," recalls Prendergast: "We had a running, e-mail-based workshop through the whole process."
One effect of his interventions is to restore a slightly alien sense of time and place: a background hum of foreignness, nothing to do with obscurity or inaccessibility. Kilmartin, in particular, made his English Proust a little too homely for some readers' tastes. He operated on the rash assumption that a translator should ask, "How would the author put this if he were writing in English?" For Prendergast, such a "weird counterfactual" makes no sense. "In any case," he argues, "I favour the other school of thought, which has it that the reader should always have some sense that what they are reading is a translation." So a fully "naturalised" Proust "risks eliminating the sense of strangeness".
Strange or not, Proust has been blooming. The 1992 English edition helped spread the word about a funny, direct, involving writer, as adept at social or sexual comedy as at rhapsodic introspection. With How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton improbably, but engagingly, recruited the Parisian recluse into the ranks of self-help gurus. Although Prendergast's preface growls about "a kind of consumerist postmodern Proust", he tells me that "It would be quite wrong to be snotty-nosed about this, and I entirely welcome the more democratic dissemination of Proust." On the other hand, he points to some pretty gruesome collisions between Marcel and the market: Proust's Chocolate Chip Cookies Madeleine, or the Dior cosmetics range "les Rouges de Swann", advertised as "poetic, sensitive emotional lip and nail colours as inspired by Marcel Proust".
If you seek a deeper shade of Proust, though, the master of time and all its tricks still demands a generous donation of days. "We live in a culture of speed, instant obsolescence and rapidly processed information," comments Prendergast. "Proust is the antithesis of all this, an invitation to slow down and take one's time. The conditions of being able to accept this invitation are under massive pressure. On the other hand, it's not mission impossible. I knew someone who, over many years, read the whole of Balzac's Comédie humaine in those most pressured of conditions – on the way to and from work, on the Tube." Prendergast argues hopefully that "I think one should take a bet on readers getting addicted". Over the long haul, "You start somewhere in childhood and come out in late middle-age. Once you get to the end, you feel you have been on a long and amazing journey."
Penguin's polyphonic Proust takes you on that amazing voyage, via an intriguingly different route. Perhaps we ought to remember that the entire novel turns on the idea of two divergent paths with a single destination. In youth, the narrator is torn between walks that represent alternative ways of life: the artistic, inward-looking way of M. Swann, and the snobbish, worldly way of the Guermantes. They exist in "the airtight compartments of separate afternoons" (Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright) – or, if you prefer, in "the sealed and uncommunicating vessels of different afternoons" (Lydia Davis for Penguin). Yet he will find out that these opposing paths end up in the same place.
With the advent of the Penguin edition, Proust's magnum opus has now been superbly served, twice over, by English-language devotees. Prendergast even denies that his posse of translators, or anyone's, could claim the final word: "If anyone wants to take the trouble, and is willing to finance it, then the more the merrier." For the moment, the way by Penguin's will show its readers plenty of fresh and surprising scenery. Yet the ultimate terminus – of understanding, of vocation, of wisdom – remains the same. Newcomers who take either path may find themselves delayed (for delay is of Proust's essence) but never, ever disappointed.
'In Search of Lost Time' is published by Allen Lane at £75 for a six-volume set, or £14.99 for each volume. D J Enright and Terence Kilmartin's revision of the C K Scott Moncrieff translation is published by Vintage, at £8.99 per volume
A PAIR OF MADELEINES
Lydia Davis's translation of 'The Way by Swann's' (Allen Lane)
For many years already, everything about Combray that was not the theatre and drama of my bedtime had ceased to exist for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, suggested that, contrary to my habit, I have a little tea. I refused at first and then, I do not know why, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called petites madeleines that look as though they have been molded in the grooved valve of a scallop-shell. And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of a sad future, I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a piece of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake-crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening in me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.
C K Scott Moncrieff's translation, revised by Kilmartin and Enright, of 'Swann's Way' (Vintage)
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, except what lay in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines", which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.
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