OF all the great twentieth-century novels, Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past
is unquestionably the most obsessional, both in its themes and structure. Proust is one of the great megalomaniacs of literature: he makes the most extravagant demands on one's time. The receptive reader will look forward to devoting months, even years to completing the saga. Given its circular character, a second reading may be required or advisable. Reading and rereading 3,300 pages is more of a commitment than some people put into their relationships.
Not surprisingly Remembrance is also the least read of twentieth-century literary masterpieces. Many of the other great modernists-Faulkner, Hemingway, Woolf, Kafka-despite the difficulties of their prose and the bleakness of their vision, are more widely read precisely because they write shorter books. Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain is mammoth in length but many have climbed it. Even Ulysses is under eight hundred pages. (But with its beefy heft and its burly complexities, it may be the second least read on the "greats" list; and perhaps some readers prefer the leaner Dubliners.)
Despite this, Remembrance has had devoted, even fanatical, readers since the complete work was published in the twenties. In the original French or in English translation, there are those who find Proust the modern novelist par excellence His work has had an enormous influence on the most brilliant writers of his time, as well as filmmakers, poets, critics, and psychologists. He was read and digested early on by Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Jean Cocteau, T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, and Walter Benjamin (who translated the first two volumes of Remembrance into German). More recently, Proust's influence can be seen in some of the seminal artistic achievements of the latter half of the twentieth century. The fiction of Alice Munro, as she has told us, would have been different without her reading of Proust. The title of Ingmar Bergman's autobiography, The Magic Lantern, echoes the lantern in Marcel's childhood, so critical to Bergman's great vocation. The spirit of the maestro's book is quintessentially Proustian.
What makes the book so off-putting? The longueurs of the first volume are as infamous as the transcontinental sentences and unconventional structure. Some argue, superficially I think, that the vision of the book is nothing more than that of a spoiled, sickly, rich, adolescent snob on the fringes of high culture and elite society. A more serious criticism, comes from those who have read far enough into the book: the shocking picture of human life that is gradually revealed. Almost no figure in the novel escapes the evils of selfishness, self-contempt, and snobbery.
What then makes the book addictive to some readers? After the initial longueurs, those who stick with Remembrance discover that it is both a tremendously comic and profound lament for our flawed humanity. Proust's insights into human character and his constant comic perspective spring from his unrelenting scrutiny of snobbery at all levels of society. Snobbery has its source, Proust implies, in our self-deceiving denial of our common humanity. Yet his indignation is transformed from rage into searing satire.
Such a influential, salutary, yet daunting book, if it is to reach a wider audience in our time, cries out for what George Steiner calls "intelligent vulgarization". Since the forties, there have been several ambitious attempts by a formidable array of international talents to film it: René Clément, Luchino Visconti, Joseph Losey, and Harold Pinter all tried and failed to realize their projected film versions. In 1984, a film was made of Swann in Love. It was reviled by audiences and critics alike: that vulgarization was not intelligent.
Several principles seem to have been overlooked. The traditional metaphor that the novel is "a mirror held up to nature" proves misleading. The novel offers words, not the direct visual images that a mirror reflects. It presents something deeper than visual images; Remembrance is studded with asides and speculations, aperçus and evocative metaphors, analyses of works of art and personalities of the highest philosophical, critical, and psychological order, none of which coincide with any simple sensation of sight and sound.
Then again, the greatness of a work of art lies in the idiosyncratic and sovereign use of its medium. Thus while second- or third-rate novels have, in the right hands, been made into first-rate films, a great novel cannot be adequately rendered. This is not only due to the difference between the mediums but also the similarity. There is just enough similarity and difference between a novel and a film to make one worry constantly about the loss in transit. To the extent that film is also verbal and narrative, we cannot forget the losses incurred in those areas.
What Proust's work needs above all in our day is not visualization but thoughtful abridging. An audio adaptation can preserve the expressive voice of the narrator. Although difficult, an abridgement must be attempted if the novel is to be made accessible to a new generation of listeners and readers; and it must be done according to an understanding of the structure of the whole book and its overriding spirit.
There is now an attempt to adapt Proust for the reader-listener. Naxos audio books has released the first of the seven parts of Remembrance in two abridged audio books, Swann's Way and Swann in Love. They have promised to record the remaining six parts over the next few years.
In condensing Swann's Way, the editor must consider that the first fifty pages are the hardest part of the book for most readers to penetrate. Proust himself acknowledged that the opening sections gave a distorted view of the whole work. (The first editor was outraged that he took so long to have the narrator turn over in his sleep.) One simply must suspend one's skepticism long enough to get beyond them. But then Proust repays the trouble one has taken at first to read him.
The Naxos audio version deftly solves the problem by presenting just enough of the "Overture" (the first part of Swann's Way)-its philosophical themes and its main dramatic incident-to whet our interest and compel us toward "Combray". The opening line "For a long time I used to go to sleep early" places us in the twilight zone of waking, sleeping, and dreaming in which are embedded the philosophic issues surrounding the limits of reason and the sway of the irrational. Proust's narrator prefigures Freud and reminds us of those great thinkers such as Nietzsche who make the undertow of the irrational the subject of their investigations.
The main incident in this part is the narrator's troubled memory of the night when, as a young boy, his mother, because she had M. Swann as a guest, did not give him his customary goodnight kiss. Disobediently, he waits up for her and she submits only because his usually strict father allows this. The narrator regretfully counts this submission by his parents to his will as the beginning of the end for him morally, the ruination of his character. Some readers will be astounded to find Rousseau's seminal insight into the deforming quality of parental authority on the will of a child forming the moral ground of the novel. The famous "Madeleine and tea" episode which concludes the overture is essential. Here by means of taste and smell, the narrator finally breaks through the wall of conventional memory so that he can go in search of his true lost time.
In "Combray", that idyllic, imaginary countryside where the narrator summers and undergoes the most significant part of his childhood, the major and minor characters are introduced. The abridgement skilfully includes just enough of the text to make us feel we have taken their measure. But one of Proust's profoundest strategies, and one of the reasons that devoted readers reread him, is that the characters are presented as they would have us see themselves, rather than as they really are. Nobody in the book is what he claims to be. One of the pleasures of the story is the gradual disclosure of their true being. Proust is the equal of Dickens in his creation of vivid, idiosyncratic characters who seem to have a life outside the books they appear in. Perhaps his only rival in this respect is Shakespeare.
But the book is as much the narrator's discourse as these characters. His unrelenting scrutiny of amour-propre, of the misjudgements we inevitably make in reading ourselves and others, of the cruelty just beneath the surface of society at every level, is truly pessimistic. But it is balanced by his rêveries about the happy days of idyllic, tranquil existence in the country town or by the seashore, the goodness of certain hearts, and above all, the redemption of life that art makes possible.
Even the notorious episode between M. Vinteuil's daughter and her female companion which young Marcel voyeuristically describes is here. If the frisson is not as sensational as it must have once seemed, it is still brilliantly done. It is followed by a well-ladled soupçon of the narrator's profound analysis of "the cruel side of the human psyche called sadism". (While Balzac's great novels included suggestions of homosexual and lesbian intrigue, Proust pushed the subject into the forefront, especially in the later volumes, such Sodom and Gomorrah, where the vast submerged homosexual continent of World War I Paris is exposed.)
Despite its longueurs, Swann's Way is compelling, as we gradually come to apprehend Proust's new way of telling a story: a combination of autobiography, psychological introspection, lyricism, and moralizing in the most rigorous French manner. Proust's narrator undertakes the most painstaking, treacherous, and uncertain of voyages-the quest for self-knowledge and the finding of his true vocation in life. From Socrates to Sartre, thinkers have attempted to do this. Proust can hold his own with the best of them. Self-knowledge for Proust implies a heroic effort to reclaim vast tracts of one's past which have been lost to oblivion. If one has ever been inclined to agree with Shakespeare's Richard II that "I wasted time now time hath wasted me," Proust provides a new way of thinking about such matters.
Time is merciless, nothing can keep it from going about its task of destruction. None of us can prevent the slide toward oblivion. But time can be fought, transformed, and preserved through retrieved memory made permanent by art. Our time-all the bad and good and foolish-our lost or wasted time can be recaptured and redeemed.
Yet, to be frank, readers have to work to appreciate Swann's Way, and not all intelligent readers will. When we turn to Swann in Love we turn to what is by common consent the most brilliant part of the entire cycle. Swann in Love is in fact a more conventional narrative than Swann's Way. It seems designed to shut the mouths of those skeptics who were sure to claim that Proust lacked the capacity to compose a pure example of this genre.
One is quickly overcome by the sensitivity to nuances of feeling that we all have experienced but few can express. Few will be immune to Proust's genius here. It may only be a love story but it is a love story that has few peers in literature and none in modern literature. Here Proust's only rival is Shakespeare's Othello. The love affair between the middle-aged rich dilettante Swann and a woman who is inferior to him, Odette, is a story filled with magic and poetry, which yet manages to retain the most hard-headed analysis of human motivation.
The great theme of Swann in Love is sexual enslavement: the enslavement of a sensitive, intellectually superior man by an ignorant yet cunning woman.
Swann belongs among "that class of intelligent men who have led a life of idleness." He does not fall in love with Odette at first sight. In fact, Odette seems to him at first to be endowed "with a style of beauty which left him indifferent." He falls into a habit of seeing her regularly out of boredom or spiritual inertia. In the beginning, Odette is the pursuer of Swann.
But she gradually relinquishes her active role to Swann, who succumbs to the insidious influence of the habit of seeing her that he has thoughtlessly contracted. It is he who grows uneasy at the notion that she may become satiated with his company. Imperceptibly, Swann's bondage increases nightly. The accidental breaking of his habit lays bare the existence of his enslavement. The truth is evident one evening when Swann comes to call for Odette too late and she has already left without him. Proust now provides a remarkable analysis of the misery of the human condition in general: a monotonous alternation between pain and boredom.
From this point on, sexual jealousy becomes the great theme of Proust's entire work. He excels in rendering the pathology of jealousy. Here he is the great rival and the precursor of Freud. This is what fanatical readers of his work most appreciate. One by one, Swann experiences all the terrors of a lover's hell. He is brought from a state of complete indifference to the nadir of despair, where his mental anguish is so unbearable that he looks for physical signs of some fatal disease that will terminate his torture and his life.
And yet, Swann finally overcomes his obsession. "To think that I've wasted years of my life, that I've longed to die, that I've experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn't appeal to me, who wasn't even my type." With these words, M. Swann coldly, even caddishly, concludes his great obsession with Odette. He's over her, as we say nowadays.
Turning from the story itself to the audio books, we are fortunate to have Neville Jason, a classically trained British actor, as the highly competent reader and adapter. If Mr. Jason seems at times to be doing an impersonation of the young John Gielgud, that is, after all, an excellent model. One must especially commend his superb portrayal of Proust's many different women.
The Englishness of all the characters' voices, high and low, may grate on some listeners' ears. How far can this quintessential French classic be Anglicized? We must remember that Proust felt the greatest kinship with the English writers of the nineteenth century. His favourite critic was John Ruskin, whom he translated, and his favourite novelist was George Eliot. Given these cultural affinities, I, like most readers of the translation, have come to find the Englishness to be appropriate.
The translation by C. Scott Moncrieff is a masterpiece in its own right. But though Proust handpicked Moncrieff, he protested the beautiful, Shakespearean mistranslation of the title. It should be In Search of Lost Time. There are other mistakes: the translation is sometimes overly fruity, while Proust never is, and the sexual passages are bowdlerized. In l981 a revised translation by Terrance Killmartin was published, based on the best available French text. This is the version that should be used, especially when Naxos records the latter volumes.
Naxos laces the abridgement with selections from Fauré, Debussy, Chabrier, and David. Fauré and Debussy were Proust's own favourites. Neither the narrator nor Proust himself ever mentions Chabrier or David but we hear very clearly the names of those nineteenth century titans, Chopin, Wagner, and Debussy, in the book. Moreover, if Naxos wishes to bring us Proust it should not hesitate to give us as much as possible and avoid including blank tapes.
The greatest praise I can give these recordings is they made me want to read the entire book-a book that I had neglected for many years-in order to recapture more lost time, my own as well as Proust's. If Proust conveys the fundamental human condition, then rehearsing his experiences can help explain ourselves to ourselves. If Proust redeemed himself by composing this symphony, perhaps we can also redeem ourselves in a similar manner? These are the questions that a great book compels us to ponder, demonstrating that reading, like listening to music or looking at art, is an absolutely essential human activity.