Swann’s Way 
by Marcel Proust, translated by James Grieve.
NYRB, 450 pp., £16.99, June, 978 1 68137 629 5
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The Swann Way 
by Marcel Proust, translated by Brian Nelson.
Oxford, 430 pp., £9.99, September, 978 0 19 887152 1
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Ala recherche du temps perdu​ is founded on a gesture so famous that it’s hard to retain the idea of its risk. The narrator (and to some extent Proust himself) decides to build a whole long novel on an involuntary memory. Involuntary here means not only unintended but barred from the realm of intention. Whatever it is, it won’t happen if you try to make it happen. There is an element of myth and drama in the claim, a mild slighting of philosophical good sense, but that is part of the picture too.

In discussions of translation, we hear a lot about difficulty, impossibility, loss, riches, invention, triumph – all justified and interesting avenues. But texts may suggest something else: agreement, for example, or honourable hard work. In Proust’s case, when the topic is memory and chance, the convergences are remarkable. The original text says, ‘Il y a beaucoup de hasard en tout ceci,’ and we get to read, in the different translations I will describe in a moment:

There is a large element of chance in these matters. [Terence Kilmartin]

Chance plays a large part in all of this. [James Grieve]

There is a great deal of chance in all this. [Lydia Davis]

There is a great deal of chance involved in all this. [Brian Nelson]

It’s true that the first English version, Scott Moncrieff’s, has ‘There is a large element of hazard in these matters,’ but this has to be a mistake, or a visit from a linguistic false friend, since hasard is the ordinary French word for ‘chance’. A happy mistake, of course. The game of involuntary memory is full of hazards.

James Grieve’s new/old translation of Du côté de chez Swann was first published in Australia in 1982. Recently reprinted, it is a perfect invitation to time-travel in the world of translation. There are other remarkable prompts to such a journey. In 2017 Brian Nelson published a translation of a large portion of the same novel. And now Oxford has brought out his version of the complete Swann volume. This is the first part of a new translation of À la recherche du temps perdu, edited by Adam Watt. Nelson will also translate the last volume, but no announcement has been made about the intervening ones. Christopher Prendergast’s six-volume edition for Penguin (2002) is still in print and much read. The translators there are Lydia Davis, James Grieve, Mark Treharne, John Sturrock, Carol Clark, Peter Collier and Ian Patterson.

The afterlife of Scott Moncrieff’s 1922-30 version is interesting too. First, not all of it is his. He died before he was able to turn to Proust’s last volume, which was translated first by Stephen Hudson and later by Andreas Mayor. In 1981 Terence Kilmartin published a revision of the whole text, making ‘extensive alterations’ but hoping to ‘have preserved the undoubted felicity’ of much of the work. The new wordings were a matter partly of getting things right, and partly of trying to be a bit less ‘purple and precious’ than Scott Moncrieff is often taken to be. The French source text was different too, a 1954 Pléiade scholarly edition rather than the scattered single volumes of the first publication. In 1992 Kilmartin and D.J. Enright offered a new version corresponding to a later and different Pléiade text of 1987-89. At this point the old title, Remembrance of Things Past, was dropped, and the plainer In Search of Lost Time taken on.

There is more. In 2013, the first volume of William C. Carter’s ‘revised, annotated’ version of Scott Moncrieff’s work appeared from Yale. Four other volumes of the set are now also available, with one still to come. Carter speaks of Scott Moncrieff’s ‘missteps’, and of his style being ‘at times overblown’, but mainly he wants to leave the old text intact, describing it as ‘extraordinarily fine’. He thinks Kilmartin and Enright’s work was ‘not always felicitous or accurate’ and that ‘Scott Moncrieff seems to have been more sensitive … to the cadence of Proust’s sentences.’ It’s worth adding that Carter’s notes are excellent and that Watt’s introduction to the Oxford volume admirably sets the scene for reading Proust.

Du côté de chez Swann was published in 1913. The whole was to be composed of two volumes. In this one the adult narrator reflects on time and memory, has an extraordinary experience that restores the full, rich past to him, as distinct from the paltry, loaded stuff that ordinary, intentional remembering provides. On the basis of this experience, he narrates a piece of his rural childhood, and then inserts, as a kind of prelude to his own sentimental education, the story of a love affair, that of Charles Swann and Odette de Crécy, which took place around the time of his birth. He then picks up his own later life in Paris, and his desperate, teenage passion for Swann and Odette’s daughter (when the love affair ended, they felt it was time to get married). In the second volume the narrator would have passed through various social and amorous disappointments, and finally, inspired by recurrences of the involuntary memory event, would evolve a redemptive theory of time in which nothing was lost or wasted, though nothing could be guaranteed to return. There is ‘a great deal of chance involved in all this’, as Proust reminds us, including the possibility of dying too soon.

A version of this concluding volume did appear, as Le Temps retrouvé, in 1927, five years after Proust’s death, but the novel had acquired five other volumes in the meantime. The narrative encompassed plenty of new material, including the death of a grandmother, the Dreyfus Affair, male homosexual life, the elusive same-sex life of women, portraits of a crumbling high society, a world war, and much more. And of course, it includes the story of a novel in the writing, either this one or one deceptively like it. Fashions change in the interpretation of these matters, and much depends on the way we see Proust’s relation to his narrator. My current sense is that it is like Eliot’s relation to Prufrock, or Joyce’s relation to any of the voices he parodies in Ulysses: in one sense intimate and confessional; in another sense a linguistic show, dedicated to the high-wire risks of overacting. Translation is a great place from which to look at how this all works.

There was a moment when translators, even the best of them, made quite a few basic mistakes, like old-style classical pianists. They also often felt that their job was to rework, rather than render, the text they were working on. Mistakes are fewer now, and reworking is usually frowned on. We no longer need to rush to judgment about what’s best; we can think about the value of differences. ‘Translation is not a zero-sum game,’ Prendergast says in the introduction to his edition of In Search of Lost Time, ‘nor is it a competitive agon in which sons slay fathers.’

In many respects Grieve represents the old school. He doesn’t make mistakes, but he does believe Proust needs a new, properly English home. In Swann’s Way one of the narrator’s great-aunts makes a little speech about the irrelevance of social difference, saying: ‘What does it matter whether [a man] is a duke or a coachman? Kind hearts and coronets, after all!’ The reference to Tennyson (or an English movie) is entirely Grieve’s contribution. As is the later idea that the narrator’s mother used to ‘send [him] to Coventry’ when he misbehaved. And when things change because of a ‘turn of the tide in the affairs of men’, we may be surprised to hear a French narrator adapting Shakespeare – though why shouldn’t he? No need to go for Racine every time. I think this method is entertaining but perhaps not generally to be recommended, even if it is what Samuel Beckett does on a well-known occasion where he translates himself from the French. A character in Molloy reports that his employer said life is a beautiful thing, ‘une bien belle chose’; in English he opts for ‘a thing of beauty and a joy for ever’. Still, Keats doesn’t have anything to do with the great punchline. Moran, the person listening to this report, says: ‘Do you think he meant human life?’

Grieve’s decision to represent the French lower orders as having comic English accents does seem distinctly old-fashioned. Bad grammar and dropped aitches abound, as in ‘I seen her earlier’, ‘good ’eavens’, ‘look ’ere’ and ‘’ot water’. ‘Break your bleedin’ heart, so it would,’ the housekeeper Françoise says, commenting on the narrator’s behaviour as a child and pronouncing her aitches for once, ‘to have a kid like that!’ The French phrase is idiomatic rather than incorrect (‘C’est-il pas malheureux pour des parents d’avoir un enfant pareil!’) and it doesn’t bring us quite so close to Monty Python.

Grieve is trying to understand Proust rather than imitate him, and his occasional awkwardness actually helps us see where we are. In his text, as in that of Lydia Davis, we begin to wonder who the writer is, or how many writers there are. This question doesn’t really come up in smoother versions. And Grieve’s ‘some original sin of unworthiness’ for ‘une indignité originelle’ is the perfect loaded counterpart to Nelson’s modest ‘original unworthiness’.

In fact, Proust is quite close to Monty Python in some ways. Another mistake by Françoise provides one of the best sly jokes in the book. She thinks ‘relationship’ and ‘parenthesis’ (parenté and parenthèse) are the same thing. As they are, almost: just an angle of accent and an extra sound away. And of course, as with all good/bad jokes, there is a kind of truth lurking in the mistake. How many parents don’t feel parenthetical sometimes? None of the available translations has a good time here. Three try to do something with ‘kith’ and ‘kin’, and three go for ‘genealogy’/‘geology’.

There is a lot more of this kind of stuff in Proust, including a very funny conversation that Charles Swann and Oriane de Guermantes have about the name Cambremer, and its fortunate lack of two letters that would turn mer into merde, ‘sea’ into ‘shit’. ‘It ends just in time,’ Oriane says. Swann counters by saying: ‘And it doesn’t begin any better.’ Cambronne was a general whose famous verbal response to defeat at Waterloo created a polite synonym. If you don’t want to say ‘shit’ you say ‘le mot de Cambronne’.

But of course there is no translation issue here. The characters speak English but allude to French matters, and the larger point is that translation, like language itself, involves contexts, conventions, class, irony, posture and many other regions where speech acts hang out. This is why it helps to compare translations, and why we may begin to understand how lucky we are with Proust in English, even more than we were in 1982.

In​ his translator’s note Nelson distinguishes helpfully between foreignness and otherness in translation. Reversing Grieve’s practice, we could make Proust sound foreign in English because he is French. Nelson thinks this is the wrong tack. What we need to keep, if we can, is Proust’s ‘verbal strangeness – a stylistic otherness’. He should sound strange to us in the way he once sounded strange to his compatriots. Nelson does very well in this respect, though Davis perhaps catches even more of this kind of otherness. In return Nelson does the best job so far with the title. Du côté de chez Swann mingles two idioms: ‘by way of’/‘down by’/‘in the direction of’/‘on that side’, and ‘at the house of’/‘in the zone of’. Swann’s Way sounds like a suburban address. Davis’s The Way by Swann’s is interesting, but we may feel something is missing: Swann’s what? The Swann Way leaves out the idioms, but creates space for double meanings, geographical and psychological. The narrator as a child is already mentally caught up in the Swann way, quite apart from his walks in that direction. And even before the narrator is born Swann was confusing a desire for possession with being in love and identifying love itself with a crippling anxiety.

Perhaps we should be collating rather than dividing the English versions of Swann. The moment when Proust’s narrator tries to explain how a sadist can be a fundamentally moral being is a good test. He is talking – in Nelson’s version – about ‘an impression’ he received as a child, from which ‘emerged long afterwards, my conception of sadism’. The child goes for a walk and falls asleep among some bushes very close to the house of Vinteuil the composer. Vinteuil is dead at this point, but the child, waking up, and looking through the house’s window, soon learns that the man’s daughter and her gay friend take a special pleasure in insulting his memory. The daughter pretends not to know why a photograph of her father is so visible (she has placed it in an obvious position), and her friend, accepting an implicit invitation, says she would like to spit on it. The daughter says: ‘Oh! You wouldn’t dare.’ The friend pretends to be angry (‘I wouldn’t dare spit on him? On that thing?’) and speaks ‘with calculated savagery’. This is all the child outside sees, since the daughter closes the shutters. Her manner, he says, ‘was at once weary, awkward, fussy, prim and sad’, and these feelings are what the whole story is about. The narrator thinks that even after seeing this action, Vinteuil ‘might still have continued to believe in his daughter’s goodness of heart’ because he would have understood how complicated her feelings were. ‘The appearance of evil’ was both a reality and an appearance, the narrator suggests, an act both in and against Mlle Vinteuil’s nature. ‘A sadist of her sort is an artist of evil, which a wholly wicked person couldn’t be, for then the evil would … seem quite natural to her … It was not evil that gave her the idea of pleasure … it was pleasure itself that she saw as evil.’ Throughout this scene the narrator insists on Mlle Vinteuil’s ‘scrupulous and sensitive heart’, on her being ‘so purely sentimental, so naturally virtuous’, along with her repeated failure to be ‘the depraved person she wanted to be’. This is all dizzying enough, even without the concept of being cruel to a photograph.

Here again the convergences in the translations are striking. But the minor variants talk to us too. Proust’s narrator speaks of ‘l’idée que je me suis faite du sadisme’. Nelson’s phrase ‘my conception of sadism’ is close to Scott Moncrieff and Carter’s ‘my idea of sadism’, while the original Scott Moncrieff version expands the phrase into a sort of commentary: ‘my idea of that cruel side of human passion called “sadism”’. Kilmartin and Davis respond more openly to the mention of the idea’s making – ‘the notion I was to form’ (Kilmartin), ‘the idea which I formed’ (Davis) – and Grieve does so at greater length: ‘a certain notion of the meaning of sadism was to form … in my mind.’ The little train of words Proust’s narrator offers to describe Mlle Vinteuil’s ‘air’ as she closes the shutters (‘las, gauche, affairé, honnête et triste’) creates a quietly interesting puzzle. All the translators but one start with ‘weary, awkward’ (Kilmartin goes for ‘languid, awkward’) and they all end with ‘sad’. ‘Affairé’ and ‘honnête’ turn out to be more elusive or questionable. The suggestions here are ‘fussy, prim’ (Nelson), ‘fussy, honest’ (Davis), ‘busy, trustworthy’ (Grieve), ‘bustling, sincere’ (Kilmartin and Carter), ‘preoccupied, sincere’ (Scott Moncrieff). Small differences, but our view of the narrator’s view of Mlle Vinteuil shifts quite a bit as it moves among them. And in this context, the choice between staying with Proust’s grammar and speeding it up is intriguing. Four translations out of six convert Proust’s ‘might perhaps still not have lost faith’ (‘n’eût peut-être pas encore perdu sa foi’) into ‘might still have continued to believe’; Grieve elaborates a little: ‘preserved some scrap of faith’. We are looking perhaps at the difference between relaying meaning and tracking movements of thought.

The last pages of Du côté de chez Swann bring together a lot of what Proust wants to display (and delay) in this first volume of his novel. The Bois de Boulogne, in Nelson, becomes a capitalised Garden, ‘zoological or mythological’, and although it is called a wood, it’s more than that for the narrator, for whom ‘it fulfilled a purpose foreign to the life of its trees.’ It created in him an ‘exhilaration’ quite different from anything inspired by the beauties of autumn that he came out to see. A question of ‘desire’, he says, but desire for what? All he knows is that he experiences an ‘unsatisfied longing’ that leads him to think of the high society women who used to take their walks in the Bois. He recalls ‘the happy days of my youth when I believed the world was a thing of beauty’. The echo of Keats passing from Beckett to Proust is an eerie accident, but perhaps says something about culture and translation.

There is something else going on here. Translators have a real difficulty with the narrator’s idea of an erstwhile creative faith, the life of his ‘croyante jeunesse’. Nelson, as we have seen, needs to find an object for it. Grieve turns believing into ‘trusting’, Kilmartin converts it into ‘unquestioning’, and Carter’s revision of Scott Moncrieff give us ‘credulous’. Davis is quite literal (‘my believing youth’), and the first Scott Moncrieff has ‘when I was young and had faith’.

Then the Fall comes – another thing that happens in gardens. The old carriages are gone, and people are driving cars. No mythological horses – just, to take Proust literally again, ‘moustached mechanics’. The women have terrible hats and dresses, and the men have no hats at all. ‘Quelle horreur!’ the narrator says, twice. Some of the women he sees now are the ones he saw then, having become old, ‘terrible shadows’ of what they had been, ‘desperately searching for who knows what in the Virgilian groves’. Zoological rather than mythological creatures after all, perhaps. The narrator suggests that we love what is old because we can’t bring ourselves to care about what is new. He can’t lend today’s women the kind of reality he feels they lack. ‘I no longer had any belief … to give them substance, unity, life.’ As he says a little more clearly much earlier in the book, ‘whether it’s because the spark of creative faith has dried up in me, or because reality takes shape only in memory, the new kinds of flowers I’m shown nowadays never seem to me to be real flowers.’ The narrator isn’t suggesting the flowers or the women are not real in an ordinary sense – they wouldn’t bother him if they weren’t. He is saying rather dramatically that a fully lived present reality requires more than a documentable existence, that it calls for an act of faith of the kind that religion offers to a god.

What we chiefly need to understand about this faith is that for Proust’s narrator it is irrevocably dead, and that conscientiously looking back is not going to help. Space collapses into disappearing time, and the last words of the book are: ‘the memory of a particular image is only regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.’

I think Proust probably wants us to fall for this lyrical finality, and the narrator isn’t going to tell us any more in this volume. But we can prepare somewhat for the later action of involuntary memory, restoring space to time, replacing faith, so to speak, allowing us a perception of the material world that will feel real and contemporary, not lost. This is what we saw with the madeleine episode in the early part of the book, though the narrator was too preoccupied with the evocation of his complicated feelings to get far in understanding them. He does suggest that the senses remain active when all other instigations of memory are dead. Smell and taste especially are ‘more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial but more persistent, more faithful … remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest’. Of course, there is a great deal of chance involved in all this.

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Vol. 46 No. 2 · 25 January 2024

Michael Wood gives Molloy as an instance where Samuel Beckett ‘translates himself from the French’ (LRB, 4 January). Actually it was Patrick Bowles who translated Molloy into English, though he did so with Beckett’s supervision. Bowles’s translation repeats the choice of Scott Moncrieff, to which Wood draws our attention, to translate the French hasard as ‘hazard’. He renders Beckett’s ‘par l’effet d’un hasard extraordinaire’ as: ‘For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four.’ This is the ‘sucking stones’ passage, and hasard stays as ‘hazard’ two more times, but only in this episode: ‘then even the most diabolical hazard could not have prevented me from sucking at least eight of my sixteen stones, turn and turn about’; ‘I could never reach the goal I had set myself, short of an extraordinary hazard.’ Perhaps Wood’s judgment about Scott Moncrieff’s choice – ‘a happy mistake’ – is relevant. ‘Hazard’ still conveys the idea of ‘chance’, yet it is mixed with connotations of the risk here of ‘always [sucking] the same stone, until the end of time’. Elsewhere in the novel, Bowles joins Terence Kilmartin and James Grieve and Lydia Davis and Brian Nelson in translating hasard as ‘chance’.

James Knabe
Georgetown, Texas

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