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Remembrance of Things Past: Volume I - Swann's Way & Within a Budding Grove (Vintage) Paperback – August 12, 1982
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Text: English, French (translation)
From the Inside Flap
One of the great works of Western literature, now in the new definitive French Pleiade edition translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Volume one includes SWANN'S WAY and WITHIN A BUDDING GROVE.
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A few of my favorite sentences:
"In the evening, when I came in from my walk and thought of the approaching moment when I must say good night to my mother and see her no more, the steeple was by contrast so soft and gentle, there at the close of day, that it looked as if it had been thrust like a brown velvet cushion against the pallid sky which had yielded beneath its pressure, had hollowed slightly to make room for it, and had correspondingly risen on either side; while the cries of birds that wheeled around it seemed to intensify its silence, to elongate its spire still further, and to invest it with some quality beyond the power of words."
"And I should have liked to be able to sit down and spend the whole day there reading and listening to the bells, for it was so blissful and so quiet that, when an hour struck, you would have said not that it broke in upon the calm of the day, but that it relieved the day of its superfluity, and that the steeple, with the indolent, painstaking exactitude of a person who has nothing else to do, had simply--in order to squeeze out and let fall the few golden drops which had slowly and naturally accumulated in the hot sunlight--pressed, at a given moment, the distended surface of the silence."
"The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held together between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years."
I could go on and on.
This version, specifically, is a really beautiful book, the pages and typeface are very nice, and the translation is unbelievable. So good, that the French-English translation prize was named after C.K. Scott Moncrieff. I do recommend the box set with all 3 editions though.
Years ago the three grey volumes beckoned to me in a bookstore and I thought since I had loads of free time, it would fun to attempt. Fast forward nearly a decade to when I have much less free time and there is a small part of me that wants to build a time machine so I can slap myself in the back of the head. I bought these while having very little idea of what they were about and beyond comparing a couple different versions to see if the translations were wildly different (short version: not so much, at least in my eyes, although the fact that this edition was three volumes instead of the six or seven volumes of the other readily available edition did go a way toward sealing the deal) I didn't do much background. I knew they were long, I knew there was a scene where the narrator gets all euphoric in regards to a cookie and that they were originally in French. The only way to go in blinder was to have someone read me the books in the dark.
So, first impressions for those wondering if it's worth the attempt? It's actually pretty good. The length is frightening on its own, each volume can make a doorstop feel small and even when reading in hundred page chunks as I did the bookmark advances depressingly slowly through the bulk of the behemoth, until at times it seems that the book is somehow adding pages to itself. The prose can be maddening, as Proust's style more or less involves failing to recognize that a sentence doesn't have to be epic in length and indeed it will seem like there's not a sentence he ever met that he can't expand and allow to twist upon itself until each page can appear as a solid wall consisting of a single paragraph made up of about five sentences. It means you have to pay attention to stick with the thread of a particular thought as he likes to seed his prose with clauses all over the place, like some kind of really devoted literary Johnny Appleseed. Yet once you get over that hurdle the book itself isn't that difficult to read. I don't know how much of that can be attributed to the translation (I have the Kilmartin revision of the Moncrieff translation) and while I'm sure that people can have healthy debates all day as to which translation best captures the tone of his prose, this one reads just fine to me. If you have a halfway decent vocabulary and some degree of focus it all flows quite nicely.
Whether you'll find any of it interesting is a different matter. On some level the book functions as the world's longest flashback, as the narrator reflects on his life starting with his childhood and taking us through part of his teenage years by the time the first volume (which makes up the first two novels) concludes. Proust's fixation is on memory, how we define it and how it defines us, how certain cues can call back incidences from our pasts with a startling degree of reality, not only how it brings back the emotions surrounding the memory but also the tactile experiences that were associated with it. To that end he explores his own memory in what could be construed as somewhat obsessive detail.
What's remarkably is how well he captures not only a certain time and place but also a state of mind and attitude, bringing it to us with a kind of hazy clarity that comes when events are filtered through the veil of childhood and trying to be reinterpreted as an adult. Fortunately he doesn't turn the entire book into him reminiscing about what he was doing when he was holding certain objects but allows the flow of memory to carry him along so that the book tends to jump around through time while remaining committed to its narrow way. Nor does it strictly just spend time with the narrator, as he attempts to define his life by defining all that was tangentially connected to it. Most of the first volume, "Swann's Way" consists of the adventures of Mr Swann and his relationship with the woman who eventually becomes his wife and their relationship with her friends, most of which the narrator wasn't around for and is hearing through his parents or other people (in other words, a flashback within a flashback . . . across the boundless gap of time, Proust says, "You're welcome").
If you're keyed into this kind of thing, it's fascinating, especially when the loose recollection of events start to cohere into a sort of plot. "Swann's Way" introduces the beginnings of the large cast of characters, a host of major and minor names that will drift in and out of the story much like people do in real life before one of them (Swann) basically hijacks the narrative, at which point it becomes more about him and Odette, the lady he thinks he might be in love with. Proust has a way of capturing the relationships between men and women that manages to feel both fey and real at the same time. Being flashbacks, everything tends to have this fairy tale sheen about it and yet there are several moments between people that come across as startlingly real in both their passions and pettiness. There's a fair bit of comedy in the misadventures of Swann as he fumbles his way through romance and ticks off most of Odette's friends in the process. But some of it, especially their relationship to a certain musical phrase that they feel defines them, feels rather affecting in its own odd way and maybe it's the accumulated weight of the text wearing one down but as I burrowed deeper into the novel it started to hold me tighter. It's not unlike immersing yourself into a crystal pool, where the temperature doesn't matter and everything is shot through with great shafts of light, both blinding and illuminating at the same time.
To that end, the second volume winds up deepening the themes of the first. There's more of a focus on the narrator, which can be good and bad depending on how you feel about how whiny he gets over certain things (seriously, there's page and pages in the first volume where he mildly freaks out about not getting a good night kiss from his mother) but the cast seems to come into sharper focus as he gets older, has his first minor romances (with Swann's daughter, natch) and really comes to life when he details his experiences as a seaside town during a summer he spends there with his grandmother. The plot seems to lean into events that haven't happened yet, giving you the smallest glimpse of the arc of this piece and as it heads into the ache of his first real stirrings of attraction toward the end of the novel, you start to see where all focus on memory could be going. You do have to have an appetite for the privileged French as there's a fairly decent aura of snooty about some of the conversations but you also get a sense that Proust is capturing people as they are, in all aspects good and bad. People come across as capricious and petty but also capable of noble passion (a fellow who initially snubs the narrator later becomes one of his close friends) and its this constant intersection of people and feelings and desires that drive the narration beyond a mere recounting and instead into a recapturing of sorts. Or at least an attempt at it. After nearly every major shift in time and place, there's a passage that's nearly painful for its aching in the realization that what was once has already passed and even when you clutch as much of it to you as you can even after immediately departing it still isn't the same as being there. And in a sense the novel becomes an attempt to reconcile the joy and despair of life, the notion we all learn eventually that time carries us along without waiting to see if we're ready to go along, and what it leaves behind we can never fully reach to recover. All we can do is know feel it carry us forward with lightly thudding footsteps and hope that we wind up in that diminishing backwards view, someone will hold us as tightly to themselves as we desperately held onto that perfect day, the way she smiled and seemed to mean it or even the sounds that drift up through an open summer window at night when time itself seems to relent for just a bare moment and lets you linger for just long enough but pulling involuntarily along again.
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