‘Tiens! Une madeleine?’

Michael Wood

  • A la recherche du temps perdu: Combray by Marcel Proust, edited by Stéphane Heuet
    Delcourt, 72 pp, €10.95, October 1998, ISBN 2 84055 218 3
  • Proust among the Stars by Malcolm Bowie
    HarperCollins, 348 pp, £19.99, August 1998, ISBN 0 00 255622 7

There are all kinds of things to do with books apart from reading them, and one of the most pleasurable is to dream of reading them. Many of us keep scribbled or notional lists of such dreams, and happily speak of rereading works we haven’t read even once. In If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Calvino steers his reader and chief character through a bookstore, past heaps of dangerous objects identified as, among other things, Books You Haven’t Read, Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages, Books You Want to Own so They’ll Be Handy just in Case, Books You Mean to Read but There Are Others You Must Read First, and Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them. Even great readers can fall into this mode, and even books we have read can be dreamed. At one point in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, Roland Barthes casually said: ‘The other day, I reread ‘The Magic Mountain.’ I’m sure Barthes had read The Magic Mountain, probably many times, but I’m equally sure he didn’t reread it ‘the other day’. That day he just remembered reading it, or perhaps skimmed a few pages. He joined the club of dreamers.

On the basis of no statistical evidence at all, I suspect that Proust is at the head of the list, at least in Europe and the Americas, of authors people dream of reading, easily outclassing those former champions Tolstoy and Joyce. I also suspect that chiefly novelists enter this kind of dream, that those who think of reading Homer or Dante are more likely actually to read them. This may be because novels themselves involve quite a lot of day-dreaming, a lot of associative world-making, whereas poems, even long poems, usually get us to concentrate firmly on the language and the matter in hand. Proust himself was an expert on this subject, and wrote some wonderful pages about it, both in his fiction and in his critical essays.

Books about Proust are also coloured by this climate. Julia Kristeva, for instance, starts out by remarking on the madeleine, ‘which gives a taste of Proust even to those who have never read him’. Monty Python’s Summarise-Proust Contest is a contribution to this state of affairs, and not just a mockery of it, as is the proleptic and unacknowledged winning entry in that contest, Harold Pinter’s Proust Screenplay, written in 1972 for Joseph Losey, but never filmed: a brilliant, synoptic, allusive evocation of the whole of A la recherche du temps perdu. Völker Schlöndorf’s film Swann in Love (1983), by comparison, adapted just the second section of Proust’s first volume (about two hundred pages out of more than three thousand in the current Penguin translation), and produced only a rather plodding melodrama, with Jeremy Irons as a pained Swann and Ornella Muti as a rounded Odette – a movie redeemed in part by the elegant performance of Alain Delon as Charlus.

Even in this climate, however, we may not be entirely prepared for the comic-strip version of A la recherche (the first few frames from which are reproduced on page 10). Certainly the French weren’t, as Alan Riding’s recent report in the New York Times suggests. Or some of the French weren’t. The critic in the Figaro thought Stéphane Heuet’s graphic version of ‘Combray’, the first section of Proust’s first volume (200 pages, called ‘Overture’ and ‘Combray’ in the Penguin translation), was ‘cruel’, ‘horrible’, catastrophic’, ‘blasphemous’ and ‘prodigiously inane’. Even the critic in Libération could only manage to speak of ‘disarming innocence’. Meanwhile, though, the first printing sold out in three weeks. Heuet hopes to do a ‘dozen or so’ more volumes, taking us all the way through the novel, and says that for him, ‘any attempt to democratise Proust is valid.’

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