Proust: the revised translation
Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Random House. Three vols. $75.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
When Marcel Proust (1871-1922) ''retired'' to that custom-built cork-lined bedroom to spend the last years of his life completing his epochal seven-volume novel, the act was really only a logical extension of the eccentric and reclusive behavior long indulged by this most singular of all great writers. A sedulous social climber and the very incarnation of insecurity, Proust nevertheless, by his exemplary self-dedication and persistence, made himself into something very like a hero of art.
He had planned and worked on his novel ''A la Recherche du Temps Perdu'' (''In Search of Lost Time'' is the literal translation) for nearly 20 years before its first volume, ''Swann's Way,'' appeared in 1913. Though the outbreak of world war, of course, drew attention away from this apparent breakthrough in fiction, the succeeding volumes quickly fired the imaginations of sympathetic readers. There have always been detractors who find the novel's introspective concern with aesthetic growth slow-paced, yet this painstaking portrait of an artist is, for most readers of serious fiction, the ultimate roman-fleuve (serial novel) - the work that virtually ushered in the modern novel, and has profoundly influenced writers as dissimilar as Faulkner, Woolf, and Camus.
The novel is given form by the attempt of its narrator, identified, near the conclusion, as ''Marcel,'' to reconstruct in detail his life from childhood through middle age. The effect of this reconstruction is Marcel's realization that he has pursued ''false'' goals (romantic love, social success), and his emergence as the serious artist who will now recast his total life experience as fiction.
The choices that confront Marcel are embodied in unforgettably rendered places and people. ''Swann's Way,'' that first volume, and ''The Guermantes Way, '' the third, are the sites, respectively, of the newly powerful bourgeois class and the obsolescent landed aristocracy. Besides Paris, the settings include the village of Combray where Marcel's family vacations, the resort of Balbec where first love and first disllusionments overtake him, and the Faubourg St. Germain, enclave of that high society which obsesses him.
Most prominent among the many dozens of characters are those who most powerfully impress the ever-observing Marcel. The Jewish businessman Swann and his coy inamorata Odette stimulate his first awareness of sexuality. The Baron de Charlus, that striking image of depravity allied with elegance and power, represents the enervated core beneath the dazzling veneer of the aristocrats' world. Marcel's beloved grandmother and, in a different way, his family's cantankerous old servant Francoise keep him anchored to the ''way'' of his parents. The composer Vinteuil shows the young artist that his ''way'' to success will surely be arduous.
The essentially dramatic presentation of ideas about society and art does balance a concern with the subjects of time and memory that is virtually expository - though Proust's continual emphasis on character expresses vividly the way people change in our perceptions of them and in life. The novel is firmly grounded in the temporal. The rise of the bourgeoisie, the progress of the Dreyfus affair, and the threatened onset of war - all these demonstrate the chaotic fluidity to which human experience can be vulnerable - and justify Marcel's belief that the past, sure to escape us otherwise, must be ''recaptured'' through the willed exercise of memory.
An uncompromisingly analytical novel, then - and yet this is a work distinguished and enlivened by a number of memorable episodes and extended scenes. The best known incident is the occasion on which a small cake, ''petit madeleine,'' dipped in tea and eaten, triggers memories of Marcel's youth - and, in effect, opens the door to the bulk of the novel. An impression of Marcel's extreme sensitivity emerges from the scene in which he begs his mother to leave her dinner guests and come upstairs to kiss him goodnight.