The Thing

Michael Wood

What was it Proust said about paradise? That all paradises are lost paradises? That the only true paradise is a lost paradise? That it isn’t paradise until it’s lost? That paradise is a name for a favourite form of loss? He can plausibly be read as saying any of these things, and perhaps more than one at once. But the propositions are not identical, and it’s not easy to choose among them. Can’t we look at what Proust actually wrote? We can look at what he literally wrote, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Proust’s phrasing was ‘les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus,’ either ‘the true paradises are the paradises that one has lost’ or ‘true paradises are paradises that one has lost’ – I don’t see what we can do with the definite article except take it or leave it. Translating this sentence in its context, in the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Ian Patterson has ‘the only true paradise is a paradise that we have lost.’ This is good because idiomatic, and it gets rid of the troubling plural. How many paradises could we bear to lose, and how many chances do we think we have? ‘Only’ seems a reasonable touch of emphasis. But should we get rid of the plural? And why has Patterson switched ‘the’ to ‘a’? Quoting the same sentence in his preface to the full set of new translations, Christopher Prendergast writes: ‘all paradises are lost paradises.’ This is impeccably aphoristic, and assumes that false paradises are just not paradises at all. Proust himself could be more accommodating, and at one point implies that almost anything may be paradise if it keeps us out. The life of the Duchess of Guermantes, the narrator says, ‘appeared to me to be a paradise I would never enter’. Scott Moncrieff, the earlier and best-known translator of Proust, is in this case quite literal about the famous sentence, and gives us ‘the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost,’ although even here there is a little slither, since in the summary of the same volume the phrase appears with a contraction and ‘we’ becomes ‘one’: ‘the true paradises are the paradises one has lost.’ The wording of Patterson and Prendergast is clear and self-contained, makes sense on its own. Scott Moncrieff sounds oracular rather than aphoristic; we shan’t know what his words mean until we have worked on them.

There is nothing wrong with any of these versions, and there is no court of appeal in the French text. As Prendergast puts it, ‘no one has monopoly powers over the “correct”.’ We can prefer one version to another, but then we are choosing one understanding over another: either (mostly) the understanding we ourselves have, or (better) an understanding we hadn’t thought of before. We often think the art of translation is all about accuracy and fidelity, and these are important issues. Many translations are full of elementary errors, and some are so literal as to be non-existent as translations – this is not fidelity but dogged transcription. But when accuracy is assured as far as it can be, and when we have seen that fidelity can take many forms, we are left with two far more interesting questions: what I am calling understanding, translation as a ‘take’, a way of hearing another’s words; and the endlessly fascinating differences among national languages.

‘The thing had been attempted,’ Shirley Hazzard writes in The Proust Project, ‘it had been done. It was incontrovertibly there . . . if it is to be challenged, it cannot merely be “redone”; it must be conspicuously bettered.’ ‘The thing’ is Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, and I assume the faint pastiche of Virginia Woolf in Hazzard’s language is a homage to the era: the translation appeared between 1922 and 1930. Scott Moncrieff died in 1930, and the last volume was translated by Andreas Mayor. The whole work was substantially revised by Terence Kilmartin for an edition of 1981 (in relation to the Pléiade text of 1954), and revised again by D.J. Enright in 1993 (in response to what Prendergast calls ‘the curiously monstrous 1987 Pléiade edition’). Along the way the Shakespearean title Remembrance of Things Past turned into the more literal, and less literary, In Search of Lost Time.

Hazzard is grateful for Kilmartin’s revisions of ‘the thing’: ‘for the most part necessary and pleasing’, she says, and that is putting it mildly, since Scott Moncrieff’s triumphs of cadence were now and again interrupted by very broad errors. One at least still lingered for Carol Clark to correct in her version of The Prisoner. When sleeping, Albertine is said to shed ‘the various marks of humanity which had so disappointed me’, ‘ses différents caractères d’humanité qui m’avaient déçu’. Even in the most recent revision of Scott Moncrieff décevoir is still read as if it means ‘deceive’. Albertine sheds ‘the different human personalities with which she had deceived me’. Many readers have come to feel that Scott Moncrieff, for all his grace and flow, was a little more Edwardian than Proust was (or Proust was more modern than his translator) but Hazzard detects ‘translation fatigue – or more explicitly, version fatigue’ in the later work, even Kilmartin’s. In her view, no one can get over the fact that someone else got there first.

It seems likely, and appropriate, that people will always refer to Scott Moncrieff when they speak seriously about reading Proust in English, but I’m not sure that a new translation has to ‘better’ his version, conspicuously or not. It’s unfortunate that neither Hazzard nor the editors at Farrar, Straus remembered that Prendergast’s first name is Christopher rather than Terence: the appearance of two Terences in three lines does rather turn the whole thing into a battle over an inheritance. For what it’s worth, and to get the verdict out of the way, I think the new translation does, overall, better Scott Moncrieff’s version, if not conspicuously, then soundly. It is generally accurate, often rather literal, sometimes eloquent, and makes Proust stranger than he seems in the earlier version – that is, almost as strange as he seems in French. It was Proust who said, as Prendergast reminds us, that a writer inhabits his native language as if it were a foreign country; and Proust too who said that writers don’t invent books, they find them within themselves and translate them. Prendergast shrewdly suggests that ‘the strangeness of translation’ may be a ‘privileged place’ for our encounter with this great novel.

This was certainly my experience with this version. I was reading a writer who was recognisably Marcel Proust, and I learned in the process what I should have known already: that Proust’s style, so often a matter of striking analogies, dizzying speculation and an irony which prefers paradox to anything else, travels rather well into English, in a way that, for instance, Thomas Mann’s sly tones and perpetual self-parody never do. But I was also reading a Proust I hadn’t read before, and I had to keep checking to see if he really was as awkward as the English made him appear. Nearly every time he was, and the awkwardness came to seem, if not a virtue, certainly a kind of signature. Of course not everything travels, and Ian Patterson describes the situation well. ‘Questions of vocabulary are not, in the end, all that difficult to resolve. And much of Proust’s curious syntax, with its sinuous sideways movements . . . can be more or less adequately imitated. What remains a constant frustration, for this translator at least, is the near-impossibility of conveying the detailed pleasures of Proust’s writing, its poetic features, alliterations, anagrams and paragrams.’

A strangeness in English can hint at a greater strangeness in the French. I was struck by the slight oddity of the word ‘only’ in John Sturrock’s ‘their only honour is precarious, their only liberty provisional . . . their only position unstable’ and found nothing like it in Scott Moncrieff, although all the nouns and adjectives are the same. Proust’s idiom is the almost baroque ‘sans . . . que’, ‘without . . . except’: ‘sans honneur que précaire, sans liberté que provisoire . . . sans situation qu’instable’. He is describing homosexuals, whom he calls ‘inverts’, and to Edmund White’s analysis of this passage in The Proust Project – White sees Proust’s writing on homosexuality as both ‘venomous’ in certain of its assumptions and productive in the sheer array of its contradictions – we should add our sense of Proust’s bid for pathos, which this syntax so elaborately enhances. Proust’s ambivalences on this subject are considerable, but among his feelings is clearly not only a desperation at the doom he has assigned to homosexuals – he alludes to the fate of Oscar Wilde in his very next words – but a deeply romantic love of the idea of doom itself.

But any comparative verdict on the old and new translations is going to be a very rough summary of a complicated game. Along the way the new translation is sometimes worse than the old, even more old-fashioned. When did you last hear anybody use the word ‘squireen’ or call a woman of easy manners a ‘light-o’-love’? Quite often the versions seem equally good, and they are frequently identical. Would you say that ‘actual life’ would be a good translation of ‘la vie véritable’? In context it is – Proust is telling us that the countries we long for occupy more space in our lived life than the country we physically inhabit – and both Scott Moncrieff and Lydia Davis settle for it. ‘Like a halcyon’s downy nest’ sounds distinctly Edwardian. This must be Scott Moncrieff’s language, and it is. It’s Clark’s too. But then, to stay with the same passage, an elaborate evocation of the narrator’s responses to his watching Albertine sleep, there are differences that have their respective attractions. For the lyrical ‘je m’étais embarqué sur le sommeil d’Albertine,’ Scott Moncrieff has ‘I had embarked upon the tide of Albertine’s sleep,’ while Clark writes: ‘I had set sail on Albertine’s sleep.’ ‘Set sail’ is crisper and more elegant, and more modern. But the tide is a lovely invention too.

And sometimes both versions just lose, and perhaps couldn’t win. How are we to translate ‘un peu tory’, for example? ‘Somewhat Tory’ (Scott Moncrieff) misses the exoticism of the idea in French. ‘Rather reactionary’ (Clark) gets the idea but seems judgmental. And what about the truly intractable? The perpetually impossible French ‘chez’, for instance, as in ‘du côté de chez Swann’, or ‘chez la Duchesse’, or ‘chez une femme’? The first two at least have to do with someone’s house or flat, but the third one, in context, refers to things a woman may have at home or be wearing. James Grieve’s ‘on or about a faithful wife’ seems both brave and helpless. To take a more powerful and significant example, how to translate ‘comme la souffrance va plus loin en psychologie que la psychologie,’ the brilliant second sentence of The Fugitive? (The first is ‘Mlle Albertine est partie.’) Scott Moncrieff thinks suffering and going further are not enough, and tries to make sense of the apparent nonsense: ‘How much further does anguish penetrate in psychology than psychology itself!’ Peter Collier decides on something more clinical: ‘How much more sharply suffering probes the psyche than does psychology!’ I don’t have a better suggestion, but I like to think of Proust as trusting his tautology: suffering is not different from psychology, it is the master psychologist.

Above all, the new translation is different, even when it looks the same. Here’s an example borrowed from Shirley Hazzard. After Albertine has left the narrator of the novel, she writes to him about their last outing: ‘Croyez que de mon côté je n’oublierai pas cette promenade deux fois crépusculaire (puisque la nuit venait et nous allions nous quitter) et qu’elle ne s’effacera de mon esprit qu’avec la nuit complète.’ The narrator thinks this is just fancy talk (‘je sentis bien que cette dernière phrase n’était qu’une phrase’), but is also fatuously flattered, because he sees that the once ignorant Albertine now writes and thinks the way he does. Here are four versions of the sentence. The second and third (by Kilmartin and D.J. Enright) are revisions of the first (by Scott Moncrieff), the fourth (by Peter Collier) is a fresh start.

You may be sure that for my part I shall never forget that drive in a twofold twilight (since night was falling and we were about to part) and that it will be effaced from my memory only when darkness is complete.

You may be sure that for my part I shall never forget that doubly crepuscular drive (since night was falling and we were about to part) and that it will be effaced from my memory only when darkness is complete.

You may be sure that for my part I shall never forget that drive in a double twilight (since night was falling and we were about to part) and that it will be effaced from my thoughts only when the darkness is complete.

Please believe that for my part I shall never forget this excursion and its twofold twilight (since night was falling and we were destined to part) and that it will never be erased from my mind until the blackest night finally invades it.

The first thing to be said is that the differences are not huge, and many readers may even feel they are trivial. But then the slightness tells a story, or several stories. Hazzard thinks ‘doubly crepuscular’ is ugly and heavy, but mainly, I think, it makes Albertine seem to be straining for rhetorical effect. Collier’s ‘destined’, ‘blackest’ and ‘invades’ are pretty emphatic too, but again, must form part of his sense of what Albertine is up to. If we feel, as many do, that Albertine’s sentence is rather graceful and not necessarily insincere, then of course we need a different diction, and perhaps Enright matches this sense best. But it is a sense, an interpretation. And with a word like esprit we just have to take our chances: ‘memory’, ‘thoughts’, ‘mind’. Although we can wonder why Albertine didn’t use any of the alternatives available to her, and we may think the word ‘spirit’ – scarcely plausible in an idiomatic translation of this sentence but not entirely out of the question – does suggest a slightly different location for the memory.

There is a running difficulty with this family of words in all the translations. Lydia Davis translates pensée as ‘mind’ and intelligence as ‘knowledge’. James Grieve translates intelligence as ‘mind’. And so on. Subtle shifts occur all the time, and we can always choose to hear the French differently. In Proust I invariably hear intelligence, this so Proustian word, as Roland Barthes said, as ‘intelligence’ and nothing else, but I can see this doesn’t always work.

Here’s an instance of a tie between the versions. I couldn’t understand either of them at this point, and I didn’t do much better with the French. The first translation is Scott Moncrieff’s; the second John Sturrock’s.

Notre âme totale n’a qu’une valeur presque fictive, malgré le nombreux bilan de ses richesses, car tantôt les unes, tantôt les autres sont indisponibles, qu’il s’agisse d’ailleurs de richesses effectives aussi bien que celles de l’imagination, et pour moi pour exemple tout autant que de l’ancien nom de Guermantes, de celles combien plus graves, du souvenir vrai de ma grand-mère.

Our total soul has only a more or less fictitious value, in spite of the rich inventory of its assets, for now some, now others are unrealisable, whether they are real riches or those of the imagination – in my own case, for example, not only of the ancient name of Guermantes but those, immeasurably graver, of the true memory of my grandmother.

Our total soul has an almost fictitious value only, for all its great wealth of assets, for now some, and now others of these are unavailable, whether they be real assets, as well as those of the imagination, and in my own case, for example, fully as much as that of the ancient name of Guermantes, those, so very much more solemn, of the true memory of my grandmother.

I was baffled by the repeated ‘ofs’, and couldn’t make sense of the idea of grave riches or solemn assets, if that’s where the adjectives belong. Then I read Richard Howard’s version in his brief essay in The Proust Project:

Considered in its entirety at any given moment, the human soul has no more than a fictitious value for all its array of riches, since now some of these, now others, whether actual or imaginary, are inaccessible – in my own case, for example, not only the ancient name of Guermantes, but the much graver instance of the true memory of my grandmother.

Got it: the name and the memory are unavailable assets. Still, it’s a tangled sentence in French – Howard speaks more kindly of its ‘coiling elaboration’ – and so we are all the more bowled over by the cool, sad clarity of the one that follows it: ‘Car aux troubles de la mémoire sont liées les intermittences du coeur’/‘For with the perturbations of memory are linked the intermittencies of the heart’ (Scott Moncrieff)/‘For to the disturbances of memory are linked the intermittences of the heart’ (Sturrock)/ ‘For to memory’s flaws are linked the intermittences of the heart’ (Howard). No difficulty here except for the elusive quality of the French word troubles – which has the sense of clouds as in a clouded gaze, or indeed troubles in troubled waters. ‘The intermittences of the heart’ was at one point Proust’s title for the whole novel.

Reading Proust is a great antidote to reading about Proust. I don’t mean to slight André Aciman’s admirable Proust Project, an anthology of moments from Proust, accompanied by brief essays by 28 writers, which has some excellent work, including subtle meditations on losing and finding by Aciman himself as well as the pieces I’ve already mentioned by Hazzard, White and Howard. But if you ask writers to talk about Proust, as Aciman did, most of them will talk about themselves, and in consequence Proust begins to sound like a Victorian sage, a sort of gay Matthew Arnold, dispensing thoughts on music, art history, birthdays, illness, death, ageing, infatuation, time, envy, much more. He does all this, of course, but within the dense texture of a huge (and funny) novel the thoughts don’t come across as isolated bits of wisdom: more like the performance of a wit, often kindly, sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, sometimes malicious, and sometimes all of those things at once. Here’s a case, for example, where both translations do us proud.

M. de Charlus’s evening, and indeed his whole relationship with the young violinist, Charlie Morel, has been wrecked by the scheming and cattish Mme Verdurin. The Queen of Naples sweeps him away from the party, managing a finely casual bit of rudeness as she does so. Mme Verdurin approaches, eager to talk to her royal guest, and says, ‘Your Majesty doesn’t remember me,’ not believing anything of the kind. The Queen says ‘Quite well’ (Scott Moncrieff) or ‘Quite so’ (Clark), but in such a way that Mme Verdurin doesn’t know whether these words are addressed to her or part of a conversation with Charlus. Precisely the point, of course, and Charlus, even in the midst of his suffering and disgrace, doesn’t miss it, offering ‘the grateful and epicurean smile of an expert in the art of rudeness’ (Scott Moncrieff) or ‘the grateful, appreciative smile of a connoisseur of insolence’ (Clark). ‘Un sourire de reconnaissance expert et friand en matière d’impertinence’: each version is so good you can’t imagine the other.

And we should in any case insist on the pleasures of translation as well as the difficulties. Both James Grieve and Mark Treharne provide fine passages about the former diplomat and continuing fraud, M. de Norpois, and Treharne has the additional good luck of having the ineffable Dr du Boulbon in his assignment. Here is Norpois, profuse and pedantic, in James Grieve’s translation, on his contacts with European royalty:

His Majesty, whose memory for faces is remarkable, was gracious enough to recall, when he noticed me in the front stalls, that I had had the honour of seeing him over a period of days at the court of Bavaria, at a time when he had no thought of his Eastern throne – as you know, it fell to him as a result of a European congress; and he even had some serious hesitation about whether to accept it or not, as he saw it as not quite up to his lineage, which is the noblest in Europe, heraldically speaking.

And here is Norpois, in Mark Treharne’s, prevaricating about the Dreyfus case:

It is imperative that the government should make it apparent that it is no more in the hands of the factions of the left than it is forced to surrender, bound hand and foot, to the demands of some praetorian guard or other which, mark my words, is not the same thing as the army. It goes without saying that, should any fresh evidence come to light, there would be further proceedings. It’s as clear as daylight; to demand it is to belabour the obvious. When that day comes the government will say what it has to say.

And here is Dr du Boulbon praising neurosis to the narrator’s grandmother, the least neurotic of persons, who is gravely ill and will shortly die. This is the same doctor that the writer Bergotte recommended to the narrator on the grounds that intelligent people need intelligent physicians. The narrator is sceptical, and doubts that geniuses need a different medical regime from imbeciles. To the grandmother the doctor says her only illness is merely ‘the idea that one is ill’, a ‘pathogenic agent a thousand times more virulent than all the germs you can name’.

Feel comfortable to be called a neurotic. You belong to that splendid, pitiable family which is the salt of the earth. Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics . . . We appreciate good music, fine paintings, a thousand exquisite things, without knowing what they cost those who created them in terms of insomnia, tears, fitful laughter, nettle rash, asthma, epilepsy, and worse still, a fear of dying, which you perhaps have experienced yourself, Madame.

She is dying, and it is part of Proust’s greatness as a novelist that he can attack as mindless and heartless thoughts that in other contexts are true and of which he himself was a living embodiment.

We can think of the pleasures and difficulties of wordplay too. Is there anything to be done with the language of the man who thinks pissotières are pistières, or of the person who half-adopts the error and says pissetières? Yes. Patterson has ‘urals’ and ‘urials’, dropping an ‘in’ for an ‘o’, and putting back an ‘i’ for the half-measure. And Patterson’s ‘manuscribbles’ for Proust’s paperoles is even more brilliant. By contrast there is almost never anything to be done with slangy or colloquial language, and it is a mystery why any deviation from standard speech, in any translation, it seems, of Proust or anyone else, has to be registered as stage cockney. The narrator’s friend Gilberte puts on a demotic accent and drops her ‘e’s, saying ‘j’sais’ and similar phrases. Grieve has her saying ‘hubby’, ‘like’ and ‘I dunno, do I?’ Treharne has slightly better luck with the dropped ‘g’ in aristocratic speech, as in ‘somethin’ and ‘amusin’.

We have seen that, alongside his famously long sentences, Proust can write memorable short ones, and even, we should add, memorable non-sentences. ‘Elle était ma grand-mère et j’étais son petit-fils.’ ‘Bouleversement de toute ma personne.’ ‘Profonde Albertine, que je voyais dormir et qui était morte.’ The first of these, admirably discussed by Aciman in The Proust Project, is so simple that we can hardly speak of translating it. ‘She was my grandmother and I was her grandson.’ There is just the verb ‘to be’ and the name of a family relationship which must surely exist in all languages, a genuine universal. Nothing could be simpler, and in context nothing could be deeper than this statement of the obvious, since the obvious, in Proust, is precisely where the depths are.

For the second instance Scott Moncrieff has ‘Upheaval of my entire being’ and Sturrock has ‘A convulsion of my entire being’. Both are good readings, but we miss the sheer, sudden, spinning sound and sense of ‘bouleversement’. Here, perhaps, we need just not to be greedy, and to accept Patterson’s reminder of what happens to the detailed pleasures of reading.

‘Profonde Albertine’ is the most difficult and haunting of these examples. Scott Moncrieff’s ‘profound Albertine’ doesn’t really make any sense. Patterson’s ‘the depths of Albertine’ is an interesting interpretation, but still leaves us wondering what Proust’s narrator is actually saying. While Albertine was alive, he never gave up worrying about whether she was a lesbian or not, and as Clark comments in her introduction to The Prisoner, never settled the matter conclusively. Now he knows that the pain of uncertainty dies with the death of a loved person, or indeed before, but regards even the death of pain as an incommensurable loss. A human body, he says, contains ‘every hour of the past’, and from the thin ice of his present life he can long for ‘the depths of Albertine’ because she is gone (‘Mlle Albertine est partie’) in so many ways: dead; no longer desired; scarcely remembered; and soon to be not even the memory of a memory. Profond Marcel. The true paradises are even more lost than we thought.