Reading Proust (pt.1)

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Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby toucana on December 20th, 2015, 12:15 pm 

Marcel_Proust_crop.jpg
Marcel Proust

"The book is unreadable, the author paid all the costs of publication himself "

This unflattering comment was supposedly made in private by Bernard Grasset, shortly after his firm published Du Côté Chez Swann ( Swann's Way) by Marcel Proust in 1913. It was the first part of Proust's monumental seven volume masterpiece A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (In Search Of Lost Time).

It is a masterpiece that remains hard for English readers to approach even today, partly because of its extreme length, but also because it is one of those particular works that almost defy satisfactory translation. Rather like the classical Ionian Greek of Homer's epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, Proust's mercurial French embodies a protean and lightning quick kaledoscopic quality coupled with a limpid lucidity that creates a poetic word play and unique music that is almost impossible to render adequately in any other language. A translation that captures the complexity and lucidity of his thought sacrifices the simplicity and poetry of his language.

If you plan to read Proust, and if you hope to 'get' him in any sense, then there is no alternative, you need to summon up your courage and make the effort to read his work in the original French. By all means use a crib like the Moncrieff English translation, but dive in at the deep-end first and read the French. You are unlikely to regret it, once you get over the shock.

A writer like Iris Murrdoch conceded that Proust could become long winded in his more complex phrasing, but also said that "he writes like an angel." In fact Proust often starts from the very simplest constructions using the language and narrative perspective of a young child. How difficult is this passage from near the beginning of 'Swann's Way' to understand in its original French ?

"Ma seule consolation, quand je montais me coucher, était que maman viendrait m’embrasser quand je serais dans mon lit. Mais ce bonsoir durait si peu de temps, elle redescendait si vite, que le moment où je l’entendais monter, puis où passait dans le couloir à double porte le bruit léger de sa robe de jardin en mousseline bleue, à laquelle pendaient de petits cordons de paille tressée, était pour moi un moment douloureux. Il annonçait celui qui allait le suivre, où elle m’aurait quitté, où elle serait redescendue. "

"My only consolation as I went upstairs was that mummy would come and kiss me once I was in my bed. But this happiness lasted for such a short time, and she went back down so quickly, that the very moment when I heard her coming up along the double door corridor with a slight rustle of her garden dress of blue muslin from which hung small tresses of braided straw was also for me a moment of sadness. It foretold what was to follow, that she would leave me and go back down."

If you are tempted to feel that you are treating Proust's works with a certain lack of respect by approaching them with an imperfect grasp of the language they are written in, then you may perhaps draw some comfort from the fact that Proust did exactly the same thing at a formative moment in his own development as a writer. Some years before he embarked on writing A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, Marcel Proust set about translating the writings of his own favourite English writer and thinker John Ruskin into French. Proust was quite undaunted by the fact that his own grasp of English was wholly inadequate to the task. He simply enlisted the help of his mother whose English was much better than his own, and several other friends as well, to establish a panel of translators to help him in his work. When he was challenged by his own editor about his lack of qualifications as a translator, Proust replied "Sir I never claimed to understand English, I understand Ruskin". If you find yourself paddling through A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu with the help of an English crib, then fear not, Proust of all people would smile and thoroughly approve.
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby Heavy_Water on May 4th, 2017, 9:54 pm 

Life's too short to read Proust.

Overblown, self indulgent verbose drivel.

Had to read him in undergrad school.

It was good for my insomnia, though.

LOL

Can't sleep?

Pick up some MP and you'll be off to lala land in minutes.

Just my dos centavos.
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby -1- on January 11th, 2019, 10:17 pm 

Undergrads ought not to be forced to read the overblown. They should read the underblown, and wait till they get to learn more stuff in a higher echelon of learning curve; as ubergrads should be the only ones to read any uberblown stuff.
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby Serpent on January 11th, 2019, 11:41 pm 

Would it be impolite to ask why one ought to make this effort?
Given that life is short and for some of us, alarmingly short, so -
What's the reward?
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby toucana on January 12th, 2019, 4:13 am 

Perhaps the best explanation I can suggest is one offered by the author Marcel Proust himself.

"Style is in no way a matter of ornamentation as some believe, nor is it a matter of technique. It is like the use of colour in painting - a quality of vision, the revelation of a particular universe that each of us sees, and which cannot be seen by others. The pleasure we gain … is that of getting to know one's universe better."

Marcel Proust made this observation in a rare interview with a journalist called Élie Jospeh Bois that was published on 13 November 1913 in the periodical Le Temps.
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby -1- on January 12th, 2019, 6:04 am 

There has been a lot, and I mean a lot, of debate over what's more important: style or content. If we, philosopher types are agonizing over unanswerable questions, like what's the best moral arrangement weighing in societal and individual needs; or what's our consciousness made of; or if there is a God, why don't they have self-waxing dance floors; then you can imagine that other disciplines have them too, unanswerable, and highly debatable questions.

Well, this is it, in literature. I love style; or the lack of it. I love content; or the lack of it. There are no hard-and-fast rules about the issue. One lit-lover's junk is another lit-lover's treasure.

Each can bring up reasons to why they like or dislike something. And though they are all opposing the other, they are each right.

Arguing about style vs content is as futile (although encouraged in universities, high schools and bars) as trying to stamp out social inadequacies, or postage fees, or ants.
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby -1- on January 12th, 2019, 6:37 am 

Toucana, I loved your third paragraph, starting with "It is a masterpiece that...". It was a nice homage to him whom you exalt there.

On a different note: how many famous and well-respected writers of the long-ago past eras have got commercial success in their lifetimes?

I know Mark Twain was financially successful with his writing alone, and the Great Russian novelists and poets, too. (Tolstoy, Dostoyeffskiy, Pushkin, etc.) But anyone else? Did A.A. Milne make money with writing? Somerset Maugham? Rudyard Kipling did, I know. Of the current ones, Stephen King and Joanne Rowling stand out, but they are not touted for literary innovation or other merit aside from being popular.

I wonder how much money Homer got for his work. If any. The negotiations with the publisher must have been iconic, if not titanic.

Or Mark, Luke, John and Matthew. They wrote the world's top-ranking best-seller, yet their income from it was zilch. Their negotiation with the publisher must have been huge, too, ... I dare say it was of Biblical proportions.

Same for Moses.

Some European writers lived and died in poverty, despite enjoying an ENORMOUS popular success in their lifetimes and after: Karl May, (maybe Stephen Leacock, and Jerome K. Jerome as well, if it weren't for their other professions), Frigyes Karinthy, Jaroslav Hasek.

So the big question is: If they teach in school how great writers are this and that, and how great their writing is, and how we, the unworthy cretins, ought to be like them, how come I can't effin' publish anything in literary fiction? (Please don't answer this, I'm well aware of my shortcomings and those of my work.) But please answer something.

Thanks.
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby toucana on January 12th, 2019, 8:40 am 

As the title suggests, I originally planned a three part post when I first created this thread around three years ago.

Part 2 was meant to be a translation of the full 1913 Le Temps interview between Marcel Proust and E.J. Bois, and Part 3 was meant to be an essay about Proust’s theory of ‘involuntary memory’, and the crucial role it played in his creative process.

I never posted them, partly because I realised that I was in some danger of inadvertently writing an entire book of my own about Proust, and I wasn’t sure anyone else was that interested in the topic.

My own take is that literature should never be treated as an imposition. The key thing is whether you regard yourself simply as a reader, or whether you have any interest and ambition to practise the craft of writing yourself as well. If you choose to take up the craft of being a writer, then you will find that you have taken on a solitary hobby that is the work of a lifetime (and beyond) to perfect. But it is one that requires endless daily practice, and a close study of the writings of other authors to make it work.

if you set out to develop your own writing skills, then sooner or later you will wind up reading authors like Marcel Proust, not because they are part of some prescriptive academic curriculum that says you *must* read them, but simply because they are the technical geniuses in their chosen craft.
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby Serpent on January 12th, 2019, 11:09 am 

Thanks.
Unfortunately, my French is barely up to les orphelines.
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby -1- on January 12th, 2019, 11:17 am 

Hear ye, hear ye. Yeah, I hear you, Toucana.

My favourite books and films (tv series) have all been based on characters that were consistent (not monotonous or one-dimensional, but consistent) in their behaviour and responses. Thus: "Winnie-the-Pooh", by Milne, any or most episodes of Seinfeld, "The Island" by French writer Robert Merle, all the recurring characters in the books of P.Howard (Jeno Rejto), and of course in the hand of the most prolifically punny and wise and crafty and clear-seeing writer, Frigyes Karinthy. The characters in the cartoon strip "Dilbert" also belong here.

I read one, just one half-paragraph by Proust, spread over seventeen pages, back thirty years ago. In German, of all languages. Proust, as hard as he is to put into English, translates almost seamlessly into German. At any rate, I called my German friend Inge, and asked her to translate a tiny part of it, because I had difficulty just with one little thing in the text. She said, sure, read it up. I started to read, and by the bottom of the first page we were both rolling on the floor, laughing.

It looks like Proust does the bait-and-switch thing. He lures you in with one innocent-looking, tiny little sentence, and before you know it, within a page, he has fattened his sentences so you are facing a sentence of the size and extent and beauty of Biblical proportions.

The opposite is not good, either. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, believed in short sentences and short sentences only. Fine, for him. But there is lots of beautifully written English prose that are replete with easily understood complex and long sentences.

However, Hemingway was a strong influence on American culture. He had won the Nobel prize, so all Americans listened to him, out of patriotism, and because he won a name for the nation abroad. So by the time I went to school in Canada, in the nineteen-seventies, the short sentence was the F()KING RULE!!! I hated that. It's for idiots, and for servantile minds that unquestioningly accept authority in their creative work. That's the stupidest thing.
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby davidm on January 12th, 2019, 1:39 pm 

Interesting thread. One of my favorite poets is Arthur Rimbaud, but I do not speak French, so I must read him in translation. It is striking how many different translations there are of his work, some of which seem to make individual poems differ in style, content, meaning. But even French speakers don’t always agree on the meaning or symbolism of some of the poems, which seem, certainly in translation, to be at once ethereal and opaque. I am quite sure, in any case, that I would love Rimbaud even more if I spoke French. Even without knowing (much) French, it strikes me as by, far, the most musical of languages. One can realize this just by sounding out the words, even without necessarily knowing their meanings.

I am a big fan of the Russian writers, particularly of the 19th century. I love Dostoevsky above all, but also Gogol, Tolstoy, Pushkin, others. I do know a little Russian (self-taught) and once kind of successfully navigated Gogol’s classic short story The Nose (Нос in Russian, the Cyrillic, without an article; Russian does not employ articles) with an English translation on the opposite page of the Russian version, in the book I was using. The Cyrillic alphabet is unbelievably beautiful to me, not just the guttural sounds of the letters, but the visual beauty of many of the letters themselves. Russian has sounds we do not ever use in spoken English, and vice versa — there is, for example, no “th” sound in Russian, nor a “w” sounds that you’d use for a word like “white.” To transliterate the word “white” into Russian, you’d have to use the Russian letters “O,” pronounced like our “O”, followed by the Russian letter “A,” which is pronounced “Ah.” So the sounds “ooo-ah” are the closest reproduction of the “w” sound made in English.

I’ve never fully read Proust, though I suppose I should, since I am a published fiction writer, and writers should read as many great writers as possible.

Hemingway’s short and staccato style was an innovation for his day, and subsequently coopted by imitators and made the subject of parody, which angered Hemingway. It led to the minimalist school in American fiction, which I find mostly tedious. But I love much of Hemingway’s work, in particular the short stories “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” a story about lion hunting that I often think is misinterpreted as a paean to macho toughness, but which I read in many ways as just the opposite, particularly from the point of view of the female character, which was quite well realized.

People like Faulkner and Joyce were the anti-Hemingways, and more recently Cormac McCarthy came along. His great novel Suttree has every long, elaborate, embroidered sentences and imagery that are evocative of Faulkner — just read the opening to that novel! You can find it online. But in his later works he became another Hemingway, with sentences pared down to the bone. He even went one better than Hemingway — he banned quotation marks, apostrophes, exclamation points, colons and semi-colons from his prose! He said that those “little marks,” has he called them, “have no place in literature.” He even mostly dispenses with commas. I don’t agree with him, but it’s a point of view, anyway! Even in his stripped-down prose, the lack of quotation marks is often confusing, sometimes making it hard to tell dialogue from exposition — which, of course, is the whole point of quote marks, to make it easy to tell the difference.
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Re: Reading Proust (pt.1)

Postby -1- on January 13th, 2019, 7:56 am 

I must read Rimbaud. Thanks for the tip. Currently my fav English poet is John Keats. He is so lyrical in every line he writes... kind, silky, easy to read yet pleasure-inducing. Not connived, not overly symbolic so as to appear like the moderns, who hide their meaning at any cost, as if meaning were a nasty part of the body or body sensation.

Keats is tangible, accessible, yet wonderful. As if an angel touched your face.

I think Keats was a narcissistic boob, well documented for posterity, exactly because of his own poetry. When you poe, you excrete something out of your system. Keats excreted all the "nice" out of his existence, he was able to focus the "nice" of his, and funnel it all in his poetry... hence what remained, was completely void of "nice".
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