Proust Regained

John Sturrock

In the spring of 1920 Marcel Proust was fretting because the good ‘Gaston’ (Gallimard, his post-war publisher) had been unforgivably slow in arranging for translations of his now successful novel to be started. In the past 12 months Du Côté de chez Swann had been published for a second time (the little-noticed earlier edition was in 1913) and A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs for the first time; and Proust had, strangely, won the Prix Goncourt, a corrupt award which he had wanted but which generally goes to works of uncomplicated mediocrity. There should, he thought, have been foreign editions pending of these first instalments of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and an English edition mattered most of all. English was a language which Proust knew and had read in; with help, he had translated his dear Ruskin into French. His sense of symmetry, if not of justice, called now for his own deeply Ruskinian work to be turned into English, and if nothing had so far been done the fault must be Gaston’s because the English themselves were hugely enthusiastic about it: there had, he promised Jacques Rivière, been ‘eight or nine articles in the Times alone’.

This was a wild exaggeration born of the real neglect which the novelist was then feeling. He had, however, an advocate on the Times who was quite unknown to him: a Scottish infantry officer, lately demobbed, who was well connected but unfortunate enough to have been appointed private secretary to the bizarre Lord Northcliffe. C.K. Scott-Moncrieff had been keeping up with the books that were being read in Paris, and had been led by the Goncourt prize to Marcel Proust. Indeed, he had already written to J.C. Squire, that hub of the literary journalistic world, to see if he couldn’t now make something of his discovery:

Do you think that Land and Water would consider for a moment running Marcel Proust’s book ... as a serial in English? I am reading it with great absorption in rare moments of leisure, and I am prepared to make a very palatable translation of it, which is not easy. Publishers here seem very shy of acquiring droits de traduction – which costs money – when they can sweat indigenous authors gratis.

Land and Water – or The County Gentleman and L – W to give that weekly its full title – was a wonderfully unsuitable outlet for a serialisation of Proust, for all that writer’s reverence for the nabobs of the Jockey Club in Paris. It didn’t bite; nor did any London publisher. But Scott-Moncrieff was inspired and convinced and began his translation just the same, without waiting until he had been given the commission. Quickly, and understandably, he came to find Proust more to his taste than Lord Northcliffe, and Combray more interesting than Printing House Square: he resigned from the Times to work at them full-time. He found a publisher, Messrs Chatto and Windus, who in 1922 brought out the two volumes of Swann’s Way, so inaugurating the single largest, most distinctive and most venerated work of translation into English of this century.

Literary translators rarely make a name for themselves, save among their own kind. They are hired dependents of the authors whom they translate. If Scott-Moncrieff stands alone among the translators of the 20th century, then that is very much Proust’s doing: their names go together. In fact, however, it was translating that Scott-Moncrieff loved, not Proust. He did not start by translating Proust, nor only translate Proust once he had come together with him. His first translations were of Beowulf and the Chanson de Roland, whose gory, impetuous verses were an odd preparation for the coiled introspections of Swann’s Way. For the Chanson de Roland Scott-Moncrieff marked himself at beta double plus, a mark literary translators are prone to favour, in my experience, as being an ideal compromise between their self-esteem and that chronic sense of betrayal of the original which haunts their working days. (The giving of marks in itself is a reminder that translation begins at school, and that it remains a discipline more than an art.) During breaks from A la Recherche, Scott-Moncrieff took refuge in the altogether shorter and more urgent sentences of Stendhal, and in the plays of Pirandello. If he was drawn so greatly to Proust this may have been for technical rather than temperamental reasons, for he was not, by all accounts, a Proust-like man: but the awesome elaboration of Proust’s style, and the effortless precision of his mind, offered an ultimate test of the examinee’s powers.

We are naturally suspicious when a translator acquires a name, as Scott-Moncrieff did, because translation, to be good, must be self-effacing. If the translator blocks our view of the original, he exceeds his brief. The great masters of literary translation of the past did just that, of course: Urquhart, Florio, Burton, FitzGerald set themselves up to be conspicuous intermediaries and not mere transparencies. The languid but superior FitzGerald saw no virtue in sticking too closely to what old Khayyam had written: ‘It is an amusement to me to take what liberties I like with these Persians, who (as I think) are not Poets enough to frighten one from such excursions.’

But famous or not, Scott-Moncrieff was not of this piratical company. He was a genuine translator, unfailingly respectful of the text before him. There is a serious and consistent difference of tone between his English and Proust’s French, as we shall see, but that does not invalidate what one salutes as a prodigious effort of translation, incomparably resourceful in its vocabulary, fiercely attentive to the logic of Proust’s sometimes interminable periods, beautifully even in its style over a length of a million words. (Scott-Moncrieff did not live to finish it – it was completed, rather clumsily, by Sydney Schiff.) A la Recherche found an English translator worthy of it, and at once: it did not have to wait, as so commanding a masterpiece might expect to wait, to be matched with someone who had the understanding, the fluency and the stamina to overcome it.

Given the splendour of Scott-Moncrieff’s translation, why now should his first publisher be bringing out Remembrance of Things Past in a revised version? There are two reasons. One is that since the 1920s the French text of the novel has changed; the second is that there were things wrong with Scott-Moncrieff which a long stint of quiet and informed editing could finally put right. Terence Kilmartin has thus altered the original translation in two ways: changing it where changes in the French text determined changes in the English one, and improving it where Scott-Moncrieff was found to have nodded or been carried away. This is hard and public-spirited work, admirably carried through – Scott-Moncrieff benefits on every page from Kilmartin’s remedial attentions. Remembrance of Things Past is now, for sure, in its definitive state.

Such a revision has been slow in coming. The opportunity for it was given by the French publication of the revised text of Proust’s novel, and that appeared in 1954, when Pierre Clarac and André Ferré produced their fine Pléiade edition. The differences between the text of that and the earlier text were not momentous but they were significant; they grow more frequent and more radical in the later sections of the novel. They are significant because the Pléiade Proust is as close as we can ever come to Proust’s Proust: the variations introduced by Clarac and Ferré were based on whatever manuscript evidence still exists for the novelist’s own wishes for his book. If the earlier text was faulty, that was largely Proust’s own fault: his notorious method of rewriting his novel at the proof stage, and driving publisher and printers to distraction with his scrawled and spiralling interpolations, transpositions and other second, third and fourth thoughts, meant that his directives were not always followed. And since he was still, when he died, deep in the correction of the later volumes these suffered more than the rest in the printing.

What every Proustian, and every Scott-Moncrieffian, will most want to know about this revision, however, is why, where and how Kilmartin has edited the original wording even though the French remains the same. He has made many hundreds of changes, mostly very small, a word or two at a time, to what Scott-Moncrieff wrote. He has proceeded carefully and worked sensitively. Almost every change that I came upon, in a prolonged sampling of four separate volumes of the novel, I thought to be a clear success for the reviser over the revised. There are chances that Kilmartin has missed, whether through diffidence or fatigue: but he has taken as many as he could humanly have been asked to. This is a better because truer edition of Remembrance of Things Past than the earlier one.

What Kilmartin has done to Scott-Moncrieff is the thing which one knew – or to be truthful, since I have never before stopped to compare at length the English with the French – which one had been told needed doing: he has sobered him down. SM (as he must from here on become) is too mannered to be quite faithful to Proust, too bellettristic, seeing invitations to poetry where Proust offers only the most dauntingly exact prose. He cannot, suppress his own undeveloped taste for the pretty phrase, and anyone coming to Scott-Moncrieff’s English straight from a page of Proust’s rigorous French gets a feeling of alienation and of slight impatience with a translator so ingenious and painstaking who spurns settling for the plain answer even though plainness is so obviously wanted.

It is the innumerable and uncalled-for preciosities, therefore, that Kilmartin has hunted down, and substituted with something more suitably prosaic. The substitutions are mostly slight in themselves but their general effect is thoroughly salutary. Some examples: Pr(oust)’s flatly descriptive où l’eau bleuit turns in the too excitable hands of SM into ‘where the water glows with a blue lurking fire’, which K(ilmartin) now reduces once again to ‘glows blue’ – though even ‘glows’ might be criticised as overdoing it, when bleuit means no more than ‘shows blue’; Pr comme le jour quand le soir tombe becomes SM ‘like the day when night gathers’, and K ‘like the daylight when night falls’; Pr qu’il n’avait pas la place d’honneur becomes SM ‘who was not set in the post of honour’, and K ‘who did not have the place of honour’; Pr s’expatrier becomes SM ‘remove to another place’, and K ‘move elsewhere’; Pr dévote becomes SM ‘instinct with piety’, and K ‘devout’; Pr en rapport avec becomes SM ‘in some degree of harmony with’, and K ‘in keeping with’; Pr orageux et doux becomes SM ‘dear tempestuous’, and K ‘delightful stormy’.

In such modest but necessary doses has Scott-Moncrieff’s heightened prose been subdued. In rare instances he has been allowed to get away with his embellishments, and on other rare occasions Kilmartin has succumbed to embellishments of his own: Pr si innombrablement fleuri gives SM ‘so countlessly blossomed’, and K ‘so multitudinously aflower’ which is scarcely better; donnant à la journée quelque chose de douleureux gives SM ‘had given the day a sorrowful aspect’, and K ‘infused the day with a certain poignancy’, where ‘infused’ and ‘poignancy’ are out of key with Proust’s matter-of-fact psychological notation, which might best read ‘giving the day a certain sadness’.

Kilmartin finds more work to do in the later volumes of the novel. Scott-Moncrief’s health may not have been as weak as Proust’s was but it was not good during the later 1920s and could not in his case, unlike the novelist’s, be compensated for by a fanatical, unresting will to complete what would be his own cenotaph. Scott-Moncrieff was living moreover in Italy, somewhat isolated from the language into which he was translating, which can be risky for a translator. In the second half of Remembrance of Things Past he finds it hard at times to break sufficiently free from Proust’s admittedly enthralling syntax, and clings wearily to the clause-structure of the original. Kilmartin has done some patient and convincing rearrangement in these cases, where the need for it is glaring. SM’s barely intelligible ‘In this light, we might see only the transposition, into odd terms, of this universal rule in the irritation aroused in an invert by a man who displeases him and runs after him’ is sorted out into K’s more coherent ‘In this sense, we might regard the irritation aroused in an invert by a man he finds repellent who pursues him as simply the transposition, in a comical form, of this universal rule.’ (A further sign of SM’s exhaustion at this point is that he leaves the next sentence of the French out altogether.) Again, SM’s startlingly un-English ‘he used often to say of Mme de Cambremer who, in ’70, in a house that she owned in the East of France, surprised by the invasion, had been obliged to endure for a month the contact of the Germans’ is now naturalised by K into ‘... of Mme de Cambremer who, caught by the invasion of ’70 in a house that she owned ...’ These and their like are telling revisions, which silence the echo one increasingly hears in Scott-Moncrieff of the French word-order beneath the English.

Kilmartin scores further in the matter of colloquialisms, at which few translators are talented. They come a good deal into A la Recherche as enclitic marks on the diction of certain characters, at once identifying and humiliating them, since it is perfectly clear that the novelist himself holds a higher idea of language than they do. SM is ill at ease with the barbed vulgarities of the Verdurin circle, for instance, and the fact that he translates the word cénacle in their connection as ‘symposium’, so endowing those catty gatherings with an unmerited classical sheen, makes one wonder whether he actually thought them so very bad. Mme Verdurin’s favourite young pianist is said by SM, where Pr uses the transitive verb enfonçait, to ‘leave both Planté and Rubinstein “sitting” ’, which is downright eccentric on the part of both translator and speaker, when the words Mme Verdurin is given to speak should surely show her to be both ridiculous and possessive: K’s ‘licked both Planté and Rubinstein hollow’ is just about right. SM, indeed, remains culpably deaf to the effects of ‘indirect free speech’. Still amidst the Verdurins, he turns Pr’s si ça lui chantait, which is artfully slangy, into the insipid ‘if he felt inclined,’ which does not sound like reported speech at all: K again catches the tone ideally with ‘if the spirit moved him’ – Verdurin-talk if ever I heard it. It is more excusable that our honourable Old Wykhamist should falter when faced with Proust’s open indelicacies: a woman who in the French se soulage is said by SM to be ‘doing something’, but in K to be ‘relieving herself’; while another salty character who exults in the thought je puisse un peu les emmerder has to make do in SM with the hyphened ‘I can s–t on them,’ though K now naturally gives us the full four letters. As, finally, for SM’s actual howlers, these too seem to have been regularly caught, but it would be unjust to linger over them because they were, in my sampling, extremely few and surely inadvertent rather than ignorant.

What I shall linger on, however, is a major change which remains unmade: that of the English title for Proust’s great work. Remembrance of Things Past is an improper title, long familiar to English readers but dispensable – it is not much used as a title, since most people, I fancy, talk of the novel as simply ‘Proust’. Scott-Moncrieff was being particularly arty and self-indulgent when he chose it, and Proust himself protested against it in a letter he wrote to his English translator only weeks before he died. The French title he had first wanted for his novel was no more than ‘Le Temps Perdu’, though he had come to accept the longer A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. But by rendering that as Remembrance of Things Past Scott-Moncrieff had missed the ‘deliberate amphibology’ of the title. ‘Time Lost’ at the beginning was to be balanced against ‘Time Regained’ at the end: the vast architectural scheme of the whole, which could not be understood except as a saving progression from desolation to triumph, was embodied in the title. Scott-Moncrieff should have looked to Milton for his English equivalent and not, as he did, to Shakespeare.

Proust felt aggrieved by the two lines quoted on the title-page of the translation:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past.

He might have felt more aggrieved still had he examined them in their full implication. The words ‘I summon up’ contradict brutally the profound intention of his entire work, which is first and foremost a monument to the un-summoned. A la Recherche was composed in the belief which Proust had long held that intelligence as such is not the force which presides in the creative mind, as shallow thinkers in France, Sainte-Beuve notoriously, had liked to argue. In Proust’s hyper-intelligent novel, intelligence has to be seen working on what has been given to it, or restored to it by another, deeper power: of the unconscious, or the normally inaccessible far reaches of the individual memory. Proustian memories are unsought ones, a secular grace bestowed on the hitherto wordless writer. A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is a title descriptive of the work’s vital origin and I wish Terence Kilmartin could have rid us of Scott-Moncrieff’s false interpretation of it, that we could have had ‘In Search of Time Lost’.

When Swann’s Way first appeared here, nearly sixty years ago, it did not prosper. Joseph Conrad commiserated with Scott-Moncrieff, whose maîtrise de langue he thought unrivalled: ‘The lack of response from the public does not surprise me. And I don’t think it surprises much Messrs Chatto & Windus. The more honour to them in risking that shot for which no great prize can be obtained.’ Remembrance of Things Past has prospered since then, and Proust has done well by the publisher who did well by him. But a revision of the order of this one, in days when translation languishes because of its costs, earns its publisher fresh honour. This is a generous piece of publishing, since the great majority of those who read Proust in English might have been perfectly content to go on as before with their imperfect but exquisite Scott-Moncrieff.

The three volumes of the revision are inconveniently fat, double the thickness and the poundage of the corresponding Pléiade volumes, which are printed on thin paper; they would scarcely fit into a haversack, let alone the pocket. They are better, on the other hand, for the loss of the weedy and intrusive line-drawings from the prevalent 1957 ‘illustrated’ edition; and better also for the inclusion, as appendixes, of passages from Proust’s manuscripts which were never incorporated in the published text. Terence Kilmartin has also provided translations of the invaluable Pléiade ‘synopses’ of the episodes to be found in each volume, which is the one guarantee one has of being able to locate some beloved passage without the loss of face that comes from leafing this way and that through those massive paragraphs in puzzled frustration. Each volume of the revision has, additionally, two or three pages of ‘notes’ to the text. This is far too few. Many more or none, I would have said, were the alternatives, when to annotate so patchily first raises and then defeats expectations of a full apparatus.