August 29, 2020


In search of 'English Proust' (Christopher Prendergast, 28/08/2020, Standpoint)

Writing to his publisher Gaston Gallimard, Proust opted for an unusually crisp register: "I refuse to let the English destroy my work." He was protesting at translator C. K. Scott Moncrieff's use of a pretty Shakespeare quotation (Remembrance of Things Past) for his analytically more precise title (À la recherche du temps perdu), not to mention the now iconic but misleading Swann's Way (for Du côté de chez Swann). He softened, though his subsequent communications with Scott Moncrieff himself are best represented as polite rather than cordial. Scott Moncrieff remains nevertheless the true hero in the story of Proust in English, and any bad feeling on Proust's part is a mere bagatelle compared to how he would have felt about John Middleton Murry's unintelligible proposition: "No English reader will get more out of reading 'Du côté de chez Swann' in French than he will out of reading 'Swann's Way' in English." It is, alas, the sort of thing that also infected Conrad, who came up with the lunatic claim that Moncrieff's Proust was superior to Proust's Proust.

In short, where the reception of Proust is concerned, the English have form. It would be a truth pretty well universally acknowledged that À la recherche du temps perdu is a "masterpiece" were, for example, it not for the undiluted nonsense of Evelyn Waugh. In a letter to John Betjeman, he wrote of Proust, "the chap was plain barmy". His barminess, Waugh maintained, consisted in being constitutionally unable or wilfully refusing to narrate things in the right order. In another letter, joshing with Nancy Mitford, Waugh casts the barmy chap as a lamebrain simpleton: "I am reading Proust for the first time--in English of course--and am surprised to find him a mental defective. No one warned me of that. He has absolutely no sense of time." Proust suffered from all manner of ailments, but dyschronometria certainly wasn't one of them. The challenge here lies in swallowing one's astonishment at the number of times Brideshead Revisited has been described as "Proustian" without throwing up.

If you frequent used book sales and shops, a fun exercise is to try and find a copy of Proust, Joyce, Foster Wallace, etc. that has ever been read.  You'll fail.

Posted by at August 29, 2020 8:23 AM