Sunday, June 30, 2019

Islomanes (1): Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia



Alberto Manguel & Gianni Guadalupi: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (1980)

'Now,' he said as we left the bridge and walked into Anglesey, 'now you are like Robinson Crusoe, you are on your island. How should you like to live in that house all the year round, winter and summer?' he said pointing at a white house on a little rock island in the straits. I said I thought there might be worse places. 'They live like fighting cocks there,' winked the old man with the merry twinkle in his eye and his tall white hat nodding from side to side. 'They have got a weir there and they catch all the fish.'
- Kilvert’s Diary: Selections from the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert, 1 January 1870 - 13 March 1879. 3 vols. Ed. William Plomer. 1938 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977): I: 360.


Walter de la Mare: Desert Islands and Robinson Crusoe (1930)


The fascination of islands and island living is something a great many people have written about. English poet and whimsical anthologist Walter de la Mare devoted an entire book to the subject, and of course that old reprobate Lawrence Durrell also had a good deal to say on the subject as well:



Lawrence Durrell: Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953)

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. These are people, Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. We islomanes, says Gideon, are the direct descendants of the Atlanteans, and it is toward the lost Atlantis that our subconscious is drawn. This means that we find islands irresistible.
― Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes (1953)
He went on to say, in a letter to a friend, that 'Islomania is a rare affliction of spirit. There are people who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are in a little world surrounded by sea fills them with an indescribable intoxication.'


One of my students, Carlota, comes from the Canary Islands. She tells me that it sometimes seems to her as if the whole of New Zealand were enclosed inside a bubble – 'like a floating island.'
'I know, because I'm from an island too,' she goes on. Hers, though, was first settled by a blue-eyed, fair-haired race ('perhaps Vikings') before the Spanish arrived to wipe them all out.
'Atlanteans?' I ask. She agrees that many people think so. She's a little sceptical, though.
'A floating island.' She describes it like something out of Jules Verne: a huge transparent membrane, sealing us off from the pressures of the world outside. Or perhaps a better comparison might be with José Saramago's 1986 novel The Stone Raft, where the whole Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and floats into the Atlantic Ocean, splitting apart, once and for all, the pillars of Hercules.
- Jack Ross, "The Stokes Point Pillars." 11 Views of Auckland. Edited by Jack Ross & Grant Duncan. Social and Cultural Studies, 10 (Auckland: Massey University, 2010): 155.
Carlota's islands, the Canaries, are a small archipelago of seven islands situated 100 kilometres off the coast of Morocco. By contrast, our two main islands, Te Ika a Māui and Te Waipounamu - complemented by 600-odd others - are pretty much on their own: 2,000 km east of Australia and 1,000 km south of New Caledonia. 'Next stop Antarctica,' as they say.



Janet Frame: To the Is-land (1982)


One more quote before we get going properly:
When the New Zealand writer Janet Frame was 7, she found in her school reader an adventure story, 'To the Island,' that she read as 'To the Is-land.' Though corrected by her teacher, she accepted the word thereafter as meaning what it said, the Land of Is, not the Was-Land, not the Future. In this first volume of her autobiography, which she calls 'a selection of views of the Is-Land,' it is the place of her childhood and adolescence.
Helen Bevington, 'The Girl from New Zealand.' New York Times (21 November, 1982)
All of which should serve to prepare us for the actual subject of this post, the strange utopian romance Islandia (1942), by eccentric American lawyer Austin Tappan Wright:



Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia (1942)


Wright had been dead for eleven years when his immense novel finally saw the light of day. Not that the publishers of the day were prepared to contemplate the publication of the whole thing. In her afterword to the 2001 paperback edition, his daughter Sylvia explains that this 1,000-page tome 'represents only a part of the total Islandia papers.'
The original novel, containing close to six hundred thousand words, was so vast as to be virtually unpublishable, particularly during a wartime paper shortage. It was in this form, however, a manuscript contained in seven thick spring binders, too heavy for me to carry by myself, that it was accepted by the publishers.
- Sylvia Wright Mitarachi, 'Afterword.' In Austin Tappan Wright. Islandia. Ed. Mark Saxton, Margaret Garrad Wright & Sylvia Wright. 1942. Introduction by John Silbersack (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2001): 1015.


So what got left out? Sylvia Wright goes on:
With the intelligent and sensitive help of Mark Saxton, then an editor of Farrar & Rhinehart, I cut the [twenty-three hundred pages of the] original novel by about a third. This is its form today. As I indicated in a note in the original edition, my father knew the exact lineaments of every scene John Lang saw, down to its geological causes, and enjoyed describing such things. Much of the cutting was of this sort of leisurely observation. Also, as Mr. Basil Davenport pointed out in his essay on the Islandia papers, published as a companion volume to the novel, my father's writing became more succinctly his own as he went on. The bulk of the cutting, therefore, was in the early part of the book. [1016]


Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia (2006)

It seems rather a pity that the decision was taken to include this essay by Basil Davenport as part of the original publication, rather than more of the ancillary papers associated with the novel itself:
My father knew the country so well because he had considered it and travelled around it in so many guises. In one, he constructed its history, a scholarly work entitled Islandia: History and Description, by M. Jean Perier, whom readers of the novel will recognize as the first French consul to Islandia.
This document, of about 135,000 words, is the major part of the remainder of the unpublished Islandia papers. In addition, there are a large number of appendices to the history, including a glossary of the Islandian language; a bibliography; several tables of population; a gazeteer of the provinces with a history of each; tables of viceroys, judges, premiers, etc.; a complete historical peerage; notes of the calendar and climate; and a few specimens of Islandian literature. There are also nineteen maps, one geological. To use Leonard Bacon's phrase from the introduction he wrote to the first publication, here one discovers, 'the very Devonian outcrop of Never Never country.' [1016]


John K. Wright: Map of Islandia


So what is the book itself like? That phrase 'never never country,' with its echoes of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, implies a kind of fantasy world, with fairies and elves and other mythological trappings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Islandia is a fully fleshed-out, realistic fantasy world with politics, history, and - above all - human relationships to the fore.

Ursula K. Le Guin, a big fan of the book, once wrote that she and her family was Islandia-philes in the same way as a later generation would be Tolkien-freaks. They quoted from it, argued over details, and generally lived through its pages.

So, it seems, did the entire Wright family. Austin's brother John, a professional geographer, contributed the splendid topographical map pictured above to the enterprise, and his daughter Sylvia recalls it having been an inextricable part of her childhood:
We always knew about Islandia, although apparently my father did not talk very much about it outside the family. We had ideas of what it looked like, from comments like, 'This view looks like Islandia.' Our boat was called Aspara, the Islandian word for seagull. [1019-20]
It's in this same section of her afterword that she explains how the word should be pronounced: 'Aye-landia' - rather than 'Iz-landia' or 'Ee-landia':
My father originated Islandia as 'my island' when he was a boy. This is why the name is the only exception to the rule that there are no silent letters in the Islandian language.


Interestingly, this genre of imaginary Islandian landscapes appears to be alive and well in the alternate Never-never world of Facebook. There are a number of pages devoted to the subject (though it is quite easy to confuse it with Ísland, Íslendingur - Iceland, Icelandic - especially when Islandia happens to be the word for "Iceland" in Spanish and various other languages).



It's important to emphasise the slightly ponderous - though very serviceable - nature of Wright's plotting and prose generally. Islandia is a perfectly readable novel, though its interests are not quite those of the 1920s, when it was written.



It bears only a slight resemblance to a work such as outsider artist Henry Darger's 15,000 page magnum opus The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger's work is unpublished, and will probably remain so, though extracts have appeared in various catalogues as well as in Jessica Yu's wonderful 2004 documentary about his life, also entitled (what else?) In the Realms of the Unreal.

A great deal of Wright's text, by contrast, is devoted to a rather wistful, Edwardian-flavoured exploration of the nature of love, which the Islandians divide into four separate concepts:
  1. alia: love of place and family land and lineage
  2. amia: love of friends
  3. ania: desire for marriage and commitment
  4. apia: sexual attraction
John Lang, the hero, experiences all of these in the course of the narrative, and it is this aspect of the book which is referred to specifically in Ursula Le Guin's almost equally ambitious fantasy work Always Coming Home (1985), devoted to the future anthropology of the Kesh, inhabitants of the land now known as Northern California (and now available in an expanded, 'definitive' edition through the Library of America):



Ursula K. Le Guin: Always Coming Home (1985 / 2019)


Curiously enough, Islandia is not really set on an island - in the strictest sense of the term, at any rate. The country of Islandia is merely the tip of the immense 'semi-continent' of Karain, whose location is as elusive as that of the lost continent of Atlantis.



Johnny Pez: Karain Continent, 1907 (2006)


Sylvia Wright (as usual) sums up the evidence judiciously, if inconclusively:
Elmer Davis, and other writers, decided that Islandia is in the South Pacific. Both Lang and Perier assume that everyone knows where the country is, so neither mentions latitude and longitude. M. Perier does say, however, that the Karain subcontinent is not on the Spanish side of the Pope's line, which I have been told by so eminent an authority as Dr. John K. Wright, former head of the American Geographical Society, means that Islandia cannot be in the Pacific proper. Dr. Wright has studied the situation. He also feels that the Atlantic is too crowded.


For those of you unfamiliar with the expression, the 'Pope's line' refers to an imaginary line drawn by Pope Alessandro Borgia in 1493 (and subsequently shifted slightly in 1494) which divided up the entire world into (respectively) the Spanish and Portuguese spheres of interest.

The idea was to keep the Spanish out of the Portuguese discoveries in the far East, and the Portuguese out of the Spanish discoveries in the Americas. However, as you'll observe, the existence of one Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America - Brazil - is due largely to this shifting of the lines. Moreover, as you'll see from the image below, any line drawn on a sphere such as the earth must come, literally, full circle, so considerable latitude for debate remained even after this apparently 'definitive' decision had been reached.



There's an indescribable atmosphere to the slow unfolding of Wright's long tale which makes it immensely beguiling to read. I'm on my second run-through myself, and am finding it quite as attractive as the first time round. What's more, I'm fascinated to discover that the entire text is finally available online, through the good offices of Harvard University Library.



Here's what you'll see if you click on the link above. You can (if you wish) read the typescript of the entire novel there, without the 1942 cuts, as well as examining in detail the text of M. Jean Perier's comprehensive guidebook Islandia: History and Description.



Like all utopias, however, Wright's has its fly in the ointment. Isolationist Islandia is unquestionably dominated by white people. The 'natives' to the south are regarded by the Islandians with a certain disdain (not unmixed with fear). As described, in fact, the continent of Karain sounds a lot more like South Africa than, say, Australia, with which it would otherwise tempting to identify it.

Is it a racist state? Certainly it betrays many of the characteristics of its era. Wright describes the 'blacks' and 'mulattos' who surround Islandia with the patronising attitudes of his time. He is, moreover, careful to make it clear that the people he is interested in originated somewhere in Northern Europe. They sound quite a bit like Icelanders, in fact - stubbornly independent and proudly different - albeit displaced from the North to the South of the globe.

Hard though he tries to sideline it, this is one of the features of his work which makes it difficult for me to embrace it quite so wholeheartedly as Ursula Le Guin and all of its other fans. It also explains why this constitutes only part one of my consideration of Islomania.

In part two I'd like to look further - at the risk of being accused of reductionism - into this political dimension of such 'pure' creations of the imagination. It is with a certain discomfort that many New Zealanders, myself included, have observed the conscious transformation of our country into an ersatz simulacrum of Tolkien's Middle-earth over the last couple of decades. The fact that so many Māori were cast as Orcs (albeit with a leavening of whining Dickensian cockneys), while the Elvish roles were reserved for willowy Europeans, was, to say the least, a trifle disconcerting.



Let's not romanticise this island-mania too much, then. One of the important points about islands is that they are more easily policed and kept under control than other parts of the earth - witness the infamous rounding-up of the aboriginal population of Tasmania: a pointless enterprise in other parts of that vast, turbulent continent.

The Celtic New Zealand hpothesis does not exist in a vaccuum. Many of us would like to rewrite the history of our world to our own satisfaction, leaving certain key aspects out - islomania, in its more extreme forms, could be seen to lend itself awfully easily to ethnic cleansing ...

For the moment, though, I would like to emphasise the immense charm and complexity of Wright's Islandia. Little could be said to happen in the novel, but then it exists really to provide a setting for his own sense of displacement and Heimweh: that belief we all share that there is a true home for us, somewhere, if only we could find it - if not in the real world, than in memory, or (better) still, the realms of the imagination.

That, it seems to me, is at the heart of this thing called Islomania.



Ursula K. Le Guin: Always Coming Home (1985)



Friday, June 21, 2019

Excursions in the Proust-iverse



Marcel Proust (1871-1922)


For quite a long time, 'reading Proust' has ranked as just about the most impressive (= pretentious?) literary feat you can accomplish.



Geoffrey Willans & Ronald Searle: The Compleet Molesworth (1958)


When one of the schoolmasters in Willans & Searle's classic 'Molesworth' series asks the eponymous hero about his holiday reading matter, the answer is an obvious one:
'What hav you read, molesworth?

gulp gulp a rat in a trap.

'Proust, sir.'

'Come agane?'

'Proust, sir. A grate fr. writer. The book in question was swan's way.

'Gorblimey. Wot did you think of it, eh?'

'The style was exquisite, sir, and the characterisation superb. The long evocative passages - '

'SILENCE' thunder GRIMES. There is no such book, impertinent boy. I shall hav to teach you culture the hard way. Report for the kane after prayers.'


Monty Python: Summarize Proust Competition (1972)


Some of you may be more familiar with the Monty Python 'All-England Summarize Proust Competition' sketch:
Harry: Proust's novel ostensibly tells of the irrevocability of time lost, the forfeiture of innocence through experience, the reinstallment of extra-temporal values of time regained, ultimately the novel is both optimistic and set within the context of a humane religious experience, re-stating as it does the concept of intemporality. In the first volume, Swann, the family friend visits...

(Gong goes, chord of music, applause. The meter has hardly risen at all.)

Mee: Well tried, Harry.


Then, of course, there's Steve Carrell's poignant performance as the hapless, suicidal Proustian in Little Miss Sunshine:
Dwayne: I wish I could just sleep until I was eighteen and skip all of this, high school, everything.

Frank: Do you know who Marcel Proust is?

Dwayne: He's the guy you teach.

Frank: Yeah. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he's also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he, uh, he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life, 'cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn't learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18 - ah, think of the suffering you're gonna miss. I mean high school? High school - those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that.


Circling back a little closer to the era of Proust's first appearance in English, there's James Thurber's 1932 New Yorker story "The Black Magic of Barney Haller":
On this hot morning when I saw Barney coming along with his faithful storm trudging behind him, I went back frowningly to my copy of "Swann's Way." I hoped that Barney, seeing me absorbed in a book, would pass by without saying anything. I read: "... I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francis I and Charles V ..." I could feel Barney standing looking at me, but I didn't look at him.

"Dis morning bime by," said Barney, "I go hunt grotches in de voods."

"That's fine," I said, and turned a page and pretended to be engrossed in what I was reading. Barney walked on; he had wanted to talk some more, but he walked on. After a paragraph or two, his words began to come between me and the words in the book. "Bime by I go hunt grotches in de voods."

If you are susceptible to such things, it is not difficult to visualize grotches. They fluttered into my mind: ugly little creatures, about the size of whippoorwills, only covered with blood and honey and the scrapings of church bells. Grotches . . . Who and what, I wondered, really was this thing in the form of a hired man that kept anointing me ominously, in passing, with abracadabra?
So there you have it: something close to a century of smart gibes designed to show the hopelessness of trying to read the 3-4,000 pages (depending on which edition you use) of his seven-part masterwork À la recherche du temps perdu - whether (like his first English translator, Scotsman C. K. Scott Moncrieff) you approximate that title as Remembrance of Things Past, or (like a more recent team of Anglo-American translators) you render it more correctly as In Search of Lost Time.

So what's the big problem? Why is it so difficult to get to the end of his book?



Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Death in the Family (1932)


I was surprised when I read a number of reviews which compared Karl Ove Knausgaard's rather joyless autobiographical chronicle My Struggle (2009-11) with Proust. Why? Because they both came in a number of volumes, and could both be described as minutely detailed, I suppose - oh, and because both were by foreigners.

I've only read the first of the books in Knausgaard's six-volume sequence, but I certainly found it a powerful account of some of the nastier aspects of death and funerals in general - very evocative to anyone who's been through anything approaching the same ordeal. But Proustian? No.



Edward Stanley Mercer: C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1889-1932)


I think a lot of it comes down to an unfortunate initial choice of English translator. It's true that C. K. Scott Moncrieff's decision to translate the first volume of Marcel Proust's long novel came long before its distinction had been recognised even in France. But some of the more egregious additions he made to the text - particularly his choice of titles for the individual volumes, not to mention the series as a whole - caused a certain amount of consternation even at the time.

Proust himself wrote to Scott Moncrieff on 10 October 1922, thanking him for "the trouble you have taken," and complimenting him on his "fine talent." However, he added:
The verses you have inserted and the dedication to your friends are no substitute for the intentional ambiguity of my Temps perdu, which corresponds to the Temps retrouvé that appears at the end of my work.
Proust also felt that Swann's Way might have been better translated as To Swann's Way.

Scott Moncrieff clearly regarded this as a piece of impertinence from a mere author, rather than a helpful suggestion. He riposted:
My dear Sir, I beg that you will allow me to thank you for your very gratifying letter in English as my knowledge of French — as you have shown me, with regard to your titles — is too imperfect, too stunted a growth for me to weave from it the chapelet that I would fain offer you. Are you still suffering — which I am very sorry to hear, and wish that my real sympathy could bring you some relief — I am making my reply to your critiques on another sheet, and by the aid of a machine which I hope you do not abominate: it is the machine on which Swann and one-third of the Jeunes Filles have been translated. Thus you can throw away this sheet unread, or keep it, or inflict it upon M. Gallimard.
Proust died soon after. It's hard to imagine what he could have said in reply, in any case, to one so "fain" to "weave chapelets" with his own flowery prose.

The problem, put simply, is that Scott Moncrieff's prose is pompous where Proust's is subtle and quick. This can be illustrated most economically in his choice of titles. The French phrase À la recherche du temps perdu means "In Search of Lost Time" - no more, no less. Scott Moncrieff's choice: Remembrance of Things Past - an allusion to Shakespeare's sonnet 30 ("When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past") - does not mean the same thing at all. Shakespeare's sonnet continues:
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste.
In other words, the sonnet is about memory, tinged with regret. Proust's book, by contrast, is about memory in an entirely different sense: it's concerned with the nature of time itself. Proust, greatly influenced by his contemporary, the philosopher Henri Bergson, saw memory as something which could change and grow over time - not a stable commodity at all. And, of course, in the famous image of the madeleine in the cup of tea, he described the way in which sense memories could almost literally recreate a lost reality.



Lydia Davis, trans.: The Way by Swann's (2003)


Sacrificing meaning for sonorousness is the hallmark of Scott Moncrieff's approach generally. Proust's titles do not go easily into English, admittedly. Du Côté de chez Swann, the first, translates literally as "By way of Swann's place." Lydia Davis calls it The Way by Swann's in her 2002 translation. Swann's Way is a far more ambiguous title - and, while it may sound better than Proust's own suggestion of To Swann's Way - it definitely favours euphony over sense.

Scott Moncrieff's next choice, to turn the vivid French of À l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleur into Within a Budding Grove is, however, far less defensible. And it wasn't for lack of good advice, either. He even wrote to Joseph Conrad asking for his opinion. Conrad replied that "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower" seemed to him the obvious translation. James Grieve, the most recent (2002) translator, apparently agrees: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is his choice, too.

And so he blundered on. Le Côté de Guermantes is fine as The Guermantes Way, but how could even Scott Moncrieff persuade himself that the mealy-mouthed Cities of the Plain would be a good fit for Proust's brazen title Sodome et Gomorrhe? No prizes for guessing what that particular section of his book is about ... La Prisonnière is okay as The Captive, but The Sweet Cheat Gone is a dreadful travesty of Albertine disparue (aka La Fugitive).

Of course, simply criticising someone's choice of titles is not entirely fair. The last volume of the series, Le Temps retrouvé, which Scott Moncrieff didn't live to translate himself, has been variously Englished as Time Regained (by Stephen Hudson, in 1930), The Past Recaptured (by Andreas Mayor, in 1971) and Finding Time Again (by Ian Patterson, in 2002).

But - as you can imagine - it wasn't just the titles that were affected by C. K. Scott Moncrieff's fatal taste for the sonorous and polysyllabic: so different from Proust's nervous, electric style.



Here is the opening passage of Proust's Du Côté de chez Swann:
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire : « Je m’endors. » Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu’il était temps de chercher le sommeil m’éveillait ; je voulais poser le volume que je croyais avoir encore dans les mains et souffler ma lumière ; je n’avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour un peu particulier ; il me semblait que j’étais moi-même ce dont parlait l’ouvrage : une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François Ier et de Charles-Quint. Cette croyance survivait pendant quelques secondes à mon réveil ; elle ne choquait pas ma raison, mais pesait comme des écailles sur mes yeux et les empêchait de se rendre compte que le bougeoir n’était pas allumé. Puis elle commençait à me devenir inintelligible, comme après la métempsycose les pensées d’une existence antérieure ; le sujet du livre se détachait de moi, j’étais libre de m’y appliquer ou non ; aussitôt je recouvrais la vue et j’étais bien étonné de trouver autour de moi une obscurité, douce et reposante pour mes yeux, mais peut-être plus encore pour mon esprit, à qui elle apparaissait comme une chose sans cause, incompréhensible, comme une chose vraiment obscure. Je me demandais quelle heure il pouvait être ; j’entendais le sifflement des trains qui, plus ou moins éloigné, comme le chant d’un oiseau dans une forêt, relevant les distances, me décrivait l’étendue de la campagne déserte où le voyageur se hâte vers la station prochaine ; et le petit chemin qu’il suit va être gravé dans son souvenir par l’excitation qu’il doit à des lieux nouveaux, à des actes inaccoutumés, à la causerie récente et aux adieux sous la lampe étrangère qui le suivent encore dans le silence de la nuit, à la douceur prochaine du retour.

J’appuyais tendrement mes joues contre les belles joues de l’oreiller qui, pleines et fraîches, sont comme les joues de notre enfance. Je frottais une allumette pour regarder ma montre. Bientôt minuit. C’est l’instant où le malade qui a été obligé de partir en voyage et a dû coucher dans un hôtel inconnu, réveillé par une crise, se réjouit en apercevant sous la porte une raie de jour. Quel bonheur ! c’est déjà le matin ! Dans un moment les domestiques seront levés, il pourra sonner, on viendra lui porter secours. L’espérance d’être soulagé lui donne du courage pour souffrir. Justement il a cru entendre des pas ; les pas se rapprochent, puis s’éloignent. Et la raie de jour qui était sous sa porte a disparu. C’est minuit ; on vient d’éteindre le gaz ; le dernier domestique est parti et il faudra rester toute la nuit à souffrir sans remède.


[480 words]


C. K. Scott Moncrieff, trans. Swann's Way (1922)


Here's Scott-Moncrieff's version of that opening:
For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’m going to sleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.

I would ask myself what o’clock it could be; I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, shewed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again at home.

I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and blooming as the cheeks of babyhood. Or I would strike a match to look at my watch. Nearly midnight. The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens in a moment of illness and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight shewing under his bedroom door. Oh, joy of joys! it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and some one will come to look after him. The thought of being made comfortable gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; some one has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him any help.

[549 words]


Terence Kilmartin, rev. Remembrance of Things Past (1981)


Here's Terence Kilmartin's revision of Scott Moncrieff:
For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself: “I’m falling asleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would make as if to put away the book which I imagined was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I awoke; it did not offend my reason, but lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to apply myself to it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for my eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, something dark indeed.

I would ask myself what time it could be; I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, showed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller is hurrying towards the nearest station; and the path he is taking will be engraved in his memory by the excitement induced by strange surroundings, by unaccustomed activities, by the conversation he has had and the farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp that still echo in his ears amid the silence of the night, and by the happy prospect of being home again.

I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and fresh as the cheeks of childhood. I would strike a match to look at my watch. Nearly midnight. The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakened by a sudden spasm, sees with glad relief a streak of daylight showing under his door. Thank God, it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and someone will come to look after him. The thought of being assuaged gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; someone has just turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him relief.

[526 words]





And here's Lydia Davis's 2002 translation:
For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: “I’m falling asleep.” And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This belief lived on for a few seconds after my waking; it did not shock my reason but lay heavy like scales on my eyes and kept them from realising that the candlestick was no longer lit. Then it began to grow unintelligible to me, as after metempsychosis do the thoughts of an earlier existence; the subject of the book detached itself from me, I was free to apply myself to it or not; immediately I recovered my sight and I was amazed to find a darkness around me soft and restful for my eyes, but perhaps even more so for my mind, to which it appeared a thing without cause, incomprehensible, a thing truly dark. I would ask myself what time it might be; I could hear the whistling of the rains which, remote or nearby, like the singing of a bird in a forest, plotting the distances, described to me the extent of the deserted countryside where the traveler hastens toward the nearest station; and the little road he is following will be engraved on his memory by the excitement he owes to strange places, to unaccustomed activities, to the conversation he has had and the farewells under the unfamiliar lamp that follow him still through the silence of the night, to the imminent sweetness of his return.

I would rest my cheeks tenderly against the lovely cheeks of the pillow, which, full and fresh, are like the cheeks of our childhood. I would strike a match to look at my watch. Nearly midnight. This is the hour when the invalid who has been obliged to go off on a journey and has had to sleep in an unfamiliar hotel, wakened by an attack, is cheered to see a ray of light under the door. How fortunate, it's already morning! In a moment the servants will be up, he will be able to ring, someone will come help him. The hope of being relieved gives him the courage to suffer. In fact he thought he heard footsteps: the steps approach, then recede. And the ray of light that was under his door has disappeared. It is midnight; they have just turned off the gas; the last servant has gone and he will have to suffer the whole night through without remedy.

[504 words]


None of these translations is terrible. All of them say more or less the same thing. But what Proust has said in 480 words, Scott Moncrieff has expanded to 549. Kilmartin is able to cut this down by twenty or so words to 526, and Lydia Davis down by another twenty to 504.



Lydia Davis (1997)


Davis's is by far the most elegant of the three. Only she is able to turn Proust's famously long sentences into something equally eloquent in English: "The hope of being relieved gives him the courage to suffer" or phrases like "the imminent sweetness of his return."

Compare that with Scott Moncrieff's far less vivid word choices: "The thought of being made comfortable gives him strength to endure his pain" or "the delightful prospect of being once again at home."

Of course, Davis has the advantage of being a great prose stylist in her own right, but it's her determination to stick as closely as possible to Proust - to his paragraphing and phrasing, rather than Scott Moncrieff's continuous feather-bedding and over-explicit expansions of his meaning - which enables her to keep her own version so light and airy.

Translation is a hard thing to do; it's pointless to pretend otherwise - and literary translation is particularly hard. French is a more economical and concise language than English - as a general rule. If, however, a translator averages an expansion of roughly 10% on every passage he renders (as is the case with Scott Moncrieff) it does, in the long run, have the unfortunate effect of making your author seem exceptionally verbose.

The real problem arose with Scott Moncrieff's heirs. They insisted on his monopoly on Proust translation for as long as they legally could: prohibiting other English versions from appearing. This is why the next two 'translations' were billed as 'revisions' of Scott Moncrieff rather than independent versions in their own right.



Terence Kilmartin (1922-1991)


After Terence Kilmartin's 1981 attempt to reconcile Scott Moncrieff's text with the new (1954) French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade version edited by Pierre Clarac and André Ferré, there was a further revision of a revision by D. J. Enright in 1992, which changed the title (finally) to In Search of Lost Time, in order to update it further to match the even newer (1987) Bibliothèque de la Pléiade version edited by Jean-Yves Tadié.



D. J. Enright (1920-2002)


At this point it was clearly time to go back to the text and work from that alone, ignoring Scott Moncrieff altogether, which is what Christopher Prendergast and his team did in the 2002 Penguin translation. I can't speak for the other volumes, but certainly Lydia Davis's translation of the first part (retitled - ironically - Swann's Way for the American edition) is a triumph.



If you actually want to read Proust, as opposed to the somewhat shopsoiled Wildean sprite that C. K. Scott Moncrieff made of him, it's nice to know that there's now a valid alternative to his formerly ubiquitous version.





George D. Painter: Proust (1959-65)


As far as filling in the rest of the background goes, George D. Painter's 2-volume biography of Proust remains a wonderfully readable and beautifully arranged piece of work. It's worth noting, parenthetically, the statement in his preface that "all translations from the French are my own." Even then, the shortcomings of the Scott Moncrieff version made it impossible to use for scholarly purposes: especially after the appearance of the new Pléiade text in 1954.

A more recent perspective is given by Jean-Yves Tadié's 1996 life. By far the most delightful piece of secondary literature on him, however, was contributed by his housekeeper Céleste Albaret in her 1973 memoir, which inspired Percy Adlon's 1982 movie Céleste.



Céleste (1980)


You'll find below a basic library of Proustiana. If you read French, the best and most complete text is undoubtedly to be found in Jean-Yves Tadié's four-volume 1987 Pléiade edition. It is extremely expensive, though, so it's as well to be aware that the same basic text is available for a fraction of the cost in the Gallimard Folio series.

If it's a good English version you're looking for, I'd go no further than the new Penguin edition. Forget Scott Moncrieff. "Throw away them records 'cause the blues is dead," as Elton John once put it. He's ruled the roost for far too long, and is no longer - if he ever did - doing poor old Marcel any favours. Why read 4,000-odd pages when Proust's actual book only contains 3,600 in the original French?





Jacques-Émile Blanche: Proust a 21 ans (1892)

Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust
(1871-1922)


    Œuvres en français:



    Marcel Proust: Les plaisirs et les jours (1988)


  1. Proust, Marcel. Les plaisirs et les jours. Préface d’Anatole France. 1896. Collection L’Imaginaire. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1988.



  2. Marcel Proust : À la recherche du temps perdu (1954)


  3. Proust, Marcel. À la recherche du temps perdu. Preface by André Maurois. Ed. Pierre Clarac & André Ferré. 3 vols. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1954:
    1. Du Côté de chez Swann - À l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleur. 1913 & 1919. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 100. Paris: Gallimard, 1964.
    2. Le Côté de Guermantes - Sodome et Gomorrhe. 1920-21 & 1921-22. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 101. Paris: Gallimard, 1973.
    3. La Prisonnière - La Fugitive - Le Temps retrouvé. 1923, 1925 & 1927. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 102. Paris: Gallimard, 1954.



  4. Marcel Proust : Du côté de chez Swann (1972)


  5. Proust, Marcel. À la recherche du temps perdu. 1913-1927. Ed. Pierre Clarac & André Ferré. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 100-2 (1954):
    1. Du côté de chez Swann. 1913. Collection Folio, 821. Paris: Gallimard, 1984.
    2. À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. 1919. 3 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1961.
    3. Le Côté de Guermantes. 1920-21. 2 vols. Collection Folio, 87-88. Paris: Gallimard, 1978.
    4. Sodome et Gomorrhe. 1921-22. Collection Folio, 102. Paris: Gallimard, 1983.
    5. La Prisonnière. 1923. Collection Folio, 146. Paris: Gallimard, 1982.
    6. Albertine disparue. 1925. Collection Folio, 159. Paris: Gallimard, 1984.
    7. Le Temps retrouvé. 1927. Collection Folio, 785. Paris: Gallimard, 1978.


  6. Marcel Proust : À la recherche du temps perdu (1987-89)


  7. Proust, Marcel. À la recherche du temps perdu. 1913-1927. Ed. Jean-Yves Tadié et al. 4 vols. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 100-2, 356 (1987-89):
    1. Du côté de chez Swann. 1913. Ed. Antoine Compagnon. Collection Folio, 1924. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1988.
    2. À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. 1919. Ed. Pierre-Louis Rey. Collection Folio, 1946. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1988.
    3. Le Côté de Guermantes. 1920-21. 2 vols. Ed. Thierry Laget & Brian Rogers. Collection Folio, 2005-6. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1988.
    4. Sodome et Gomorrhe. 1921-22. Ed. Antoine Compagnon. Collection Folio, 2047. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1989.
    5. La Prisonnière. 1923. Ed. Pierre-Edmond Robert. Collection Folio, 2089. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1989.
    6. Albertine disparue. 1925. Ed. Anne Chevalier. Collection Folio, 2139. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1990.
    7. Le Temps retrouvé. 1927. Ed. Pierre-Louis Rey, Pierre-Edmond Robert, Jacques Robichez & Brian Rogers. Collection Folio, 2203. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1990.


  8. Proust, Marcel. L’Indifférent: Nouvelle. Préface de Philip Kolb. Nouvelle Revue Française. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1978.



  9. Marcel Proust: L’Indifférent (1978)


  10. Kolb, Philip, ed. Cahiers Marcel Proust, Nouvelle Série 3: Texts retrouvés. Avec une bibliographie des publications de Proust (1892-1971). Édition revue et augmentée. Nouvelle Revue Française. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1971.

  11. Works in translation:



    Marcel Proust: By Way of Saint-Beuve (1958)


  12. Proust, Marcel. By Way of Sainte-Beuve. Trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner. 1958. Introduction by Terence Kilmartin. London: The Hogarth Press, 1984.



  13. Marcel Proust: Jean Santeuil (1955)


  14. Proust, Marcel. Jean Santeuil. Trans. Gerard Hopkins. Preface by André Maurois. 1955. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.



  15. Marcel Proust: Remembrance of Things Past (1922-30)


  16. Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. 1913-27. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff & Andreas Mayor (1923-30; 1971):
    1. Swann's Way. 1913. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff. 1923. Introduction by Lewis Galantière. 1928. New York: Modern Library, 1956.
    2. Within a Budding Grove. 1919. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff. 1924. New York: The Modern Library, 1951.
    3. The Guermantes Way. 1920-21. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff. 1925. New York: The Modern Library, 1952.
    4. Cities of the Plain. 1921-22. 2 vols. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff. 1928. Illustrated by Philippe Jullian. London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.
    5. The Captive. 1923. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff. 1929. New York: The Modern Library, 1941.
    6. The Sweet Cheat Gone. 1925. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff. 1930. Vintage Books. New York: Random House, 1970.
    7. The Past Recaptured. 1927. Trans. Andreas Mayor. Vintage Books. New York: Random House, 1971.



  17. Marcel Proust: Remembrance of Things Past (1981)


  18. Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. 1954. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Andreas Mayor. 1923-30; 1971. Rev. Terence Kilmartin. 1981. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.
    1. Swann’s Way / Within a Budding Grove
    2. The Guermantes Way / Cities of the Plain
    3. The Captive / The Fugitive / Time Regained



  19. Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time (2002)


  20. Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time. Ed. Christopher Prendergast. 6 vols. Allen Lane. London: Penguin, 2002.
    1. The Way by Swann's. 1913. Trans. Lydia Davis
    2. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. 1919. Trans. James Grieve
    3. The Guermantes Way. 1920-21. Trans. Mark Treharne
    4. Sodom and Gomorrah. 1921-22. Trans. John Sturrock
    5. The Prisoner and The Fugitive. 1923 & 1925. Trans. Carol Clark & Peter Collier
    6. Finding Time Again. 1927. Trans. Ian Patterson



  21. Marcel Proust: The Collected Poems (2013)


  22. Proust, Marcel. The Collected Poems: A Dual-language Edition with Parallel Text. Ed. Claude Francis & Fernande Gontier. 1982. Ed. Harold Augenbraum. Trans. Lydia Davis, Richard Howard, Cole Swensen et al. Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.

  23. Letters:



    Marcel Proust: Selected Letters (4 vols: 1983-2000)


  24. Proust, Marcel. Selected Letters. Volume One: 1880-1903. Ed. Philip Kolb. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Introduction by J. M. Cocking. 1983. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

  25. Proust, Marcel. Selected Letters. Volume Two: 1904-1909. Ed. Philip Kolb. Trans. Terence Kilmartin. London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1989.

  26. Secondary:



    Céleste Albaret: Monsieur Proust (1983)


  27. Albaret, Céleste. Monsieur Proust: As Told to Georges Belmont. 1973. Trans. Barbara Bray. London: Collins and Harvill Press, 1976.



  28. Lorenza Foschini: Proust's Overcoat (2008)


  29. Foschini, Lorenza. Proust's Overcoat: The True Story of One Man's Passion for All Things Proust. 2008. Trans. Eric Karpeles. 2010. London: Portobello Books, 2011.

  30. Hindus, Milton. A Reader’s Guide to Marcel Proust. London: Thames & Hudson, 1962.



  31. Terence Kilmartin: A Guide to Proust (1983)


  32. Kilmartin, Terence, ed. A Guide to Proust: Remembrance of Things Past. London: Chatto & Windus / The Hogarth Press, 1983.



  33. André Maurois: The Quest for Proust (1949)


  34. Maurois, André. The Quest for Proust. 1949. Trans. Gerard Hopkins. 1950. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

  35. Mein, Margaret. A Foretaste of Proust: A Study of Proust and His Predecessors. Saxon House. Farnborough, Hants, England: D. C. Heath Ltd., 1974.

  36. Painter, George D. Marcel Proust: A Biography. 1959 & 1965. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.



  37. Peter Quennell, ed.: Marcel Proust (1971)


  38. Quennell, Peter, ed. Marcel Proust, 1871-1922: A Centenary Volume. 1971. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971.



  39. Jean-Yves Tadié: Marcel Proust: A Life (1996)


  40. Tadié, Jean-Yves. Marcel Proust: A Life. 1996. Trans. Euan Cameron. 2000. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001.