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This Week in ‘Nation’ History: 100 Years of Writing About Marcel Proust’s ‘Almost Wizard Power’ | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: 100 Years of Writing About Marcel Proust’s ‘Almost Wizard Power’

A portrait of Marcel Proust.

The Nation has always been enthusiastic about Marcel Proust's work. (Licensed through Creative Commons (Flickr user : LWY)

“The mere dimensions” of À la recherche du temps perdu, the critic Ernest Boyd wrote in The Nation in 1924, “are sufficient to inspire respect, and to arouse curiosity in that section of the public which likes to talk about books rather than read them…. The result is that there has been much more enthusiasm displayed over Marcel Proust than knowledge of his work.”

Almost ninety years on, that has never been truer than it is now, as some of the writing occasioned by last month’s centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume in Proust’s magnum opus, showed. It is nearly impossible to find an article on the anniversary not containing the word “madeleine.”

From our first notice of Proust to our most recent—the first-ever publication in English, in 1971, of excerpts from Proust’s prefaces to the writings of art critic John Ruskin—The Nation has always displayed both enthusiasm for his work and knowledge of it, consistently marveling over “Proust’s conviction that we recapture the past, with its emotions, not by any effort of the intelligence but through the accidental stimulus of an odor, a musical phrase, an involuntary movement, a flavor upon the tongue” (Dorothy Brewster in 1926), or “his power to communicate an egotistical absorption in the poignancy of a cherished pain” (Joseph Wood Krutch in 1930).

Even our first review of his work, in the December 7, 1921, issue, recognized the permanent impact the Recherche would have upon world literature.

“Of all that has been written of Marcel Proust,” Ellen FitzGerald wrote, “little has been said of what he is contributing to the novel in this growing landmark.”

Some critics dismiss it as a novel of manners; others appreciate it as a product of style. No one has pointed out that this “Recherche du temps perdu” is a reviving and even recreating of old matter and old method into new effects, is what every novel should be—a discovery of something new both in life and art.

This novel has no hero, no dominant character whose destiny is the reader’s concern. Yet unless the reader of these volumes sees that the anonymous, negative, impersonal character of the child, boy, and youth who successively has the place of hero is a triumph of creative skill, all the more powerful because his unobtrusiveness is the very vantage point from which he observes, analyses, projects, paints whole groups, he misses the first marvel of M. Proust’s skill…The prologue, an exquisite bit of reverie, establishes the poetical mood of the hero, how he is to see his world. Memory has perhaps never been so demonstrated to be what Plato called it—the mother of the Muses. The pain, the sensitiveness, the inexplicable suffering of a child have never been distilled into more wistful poetry. Child psychology has something precious in these pages, just as it has in James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist.” M. Proust’s method is of the two the more rational…  

Poetry deepens as memory penetrates unafraid into the sanctuary of emotion, passion, beauty of every kind. A temperamental, intellectual youth and his world live for us again, a world where the pale cast of thought admits little gaiety but touches instead to new issues a whole epoch where mood gives perspective to all the scenes. How everything expands and deepens because the mental reliving quickens consciousness to an almost wizard power!

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Timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Swann’s Way last month, Yale University Press published Proust biographer William Carter’s “new, more accurate, and illuminating” revision of the first volume of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s classic translation, itself published from 1922 (the year of Proust’s death) through 1930 (the year of Moncrieff’s death), which “corrects previous translating missteps to bring readers closer to Proust’s intentions.”

As early as 1924, The Nation’s Ernest Boyd—a signer of the famous Greenwich Village Bookshop Door—recognized the need for such a revision, arguing in his review of the second Moncrieff volume that he didn’t see it as “anything more than an ordinarily competent piece of translation…an exercise in the manner of Henry James.” Moreover, Boyd wrote, “Mr. Scott Moncrieff is guilty of actual blunders, which are rather elementary in many cases, and indicate, at best, an unfamiliarity with the fine shades of French, which is a serious defect in the translator of a work which rests upon a perfect feeling for the nuances of French speech and manners.” He then went on to skewer a few glaring mistakes—“Mr. Scott Moncrieff’s misfortunes with ‘barbante,’ ‘barbifant,’ and ‘raseurs’ are worthy of a place in a collection of schoolboys’ ‘howlers’ ”—and to declare his work “not the greatest translation,” but adding, “nor is Proust himself, for that matter, the greatest French prose writer of the age.”

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Beginning with The Cities of the Plain, or in the more recent style, Sodom and Gomorrah, in 1928, The Nation’s longtime drama critic (and resident Proustian) Joseph Wood Krutch reviewed each new Moncrieff translation as it was published. (The last, Time Regained, was completed by Frederick A. Blossom after Moncrieff’s 1930 death.) Perhaps the most telling feature of the series of reviews, excerpted below, is that almost every single one calls each successive book under review at least as good, if not better, than its predecessors. One “yields to none of the previous volumes in interest or beauty”; another “is at least an example as striking as any other of the nature of that sensibility peculiar to him”; and another, the last, is “more essential than any of the other single volumes to an understanding of Proust.” Reading Krutch’s (uncollected) reviews of Proust now, one is reawakened not only to the power of Proust’s writing and of the best writing on Proust, but also to the thrill it must have been to read his work, as Krutch wrote, “as they have appeared one by one” rather than “at a single gulp.” Perhaps the closest contemporary readers will get to retrieving that irretrievable experience is in the publication of William Carter’s revised Moncrieff translations, scheduled to be released annually for the next several years. Krutch’s commentaries from the pages of The Nation will be an invaluable aid for newcomers and veteran Proustians alike.

Volume 4: The Cities of the Plain (1928): “One of the earliest English commentators upon the work of Marcel Proust was disturbed by what he regarded as a moral obtuseness on the part of the author…. but he who cannot accept…our author’s willingness to sink the gentleman as well as the man when his curiosity is aroused had best make up his mind once and for all that Proust is not for him, because Proust would not be Proust had he not renounced all the obligations of life at the same time that he renounced life itself…

“When, burying himself in his chamber, [Proust] brought his life as a human being to an end the result was not at all to detach himself from it in the sense of freeing the logical faculties from the bondage of the senses, since his consciousness remained, what it had always been, primarily a realm of finely discriminated sensations, and since he turned not from perceptions to thoughts, but merely from perceptions to the memory of perceptions. But the fact that he was dead in the sense that he no longer planned to take any part in life, that he no longer felt any desires capable of eventuating in an act, not only made it possible for him to live passionately in memory and to approach more nearly than, perhaps, any other man ever did to that ‘total recall’ which is a psychological impossibility, but also made inevitable that disappearance of all ethical or conventional standards which distressed the English commentator.”

Volume 5: The Captive (1929): “Proust was doubtless led to his all but obsessive interest in the contrast between the absolute value of our desires while they last and the rapidity with which they can, nevertheless, utterly disappear, by his own experience with the complexities of the sexual passion. Though assigning a wholly romantic value to this last he nevertheless completely dissociated the idea of love from the idea of permanence, and his realization of the fact that a change in his dominant desire made, in effect, a new person of him led him to notice how many similar if less striking examples of the same phenomenon are to be observed when we consider the interests, opinions, and even manners of a man. And at last it came to seem to him that it was folly to speak of himself, of Albertine, or of Charlus as though any one of them were an entity maintaining its identity while time flowed past, and that a novel could be significant only if it were everywhere dominated by the sense that even the personalities for which the constantly recurring names stand are as fluid as the medium through which they float…. Others have struggled to rescue something from the flood; they have cherished at least the delusion that there are certain rocks around which the waves break. But his is a universe in which every molecule is fluid.”

Volume 6: The Sweet Cheat Gone (1932): “Disillusioned enough he was with many things, with morals for example, and he had neither any code nor any standards besides those which his tastes supplied. Yet there were capacities and faiths which he still retained. He still believed, for example, in the sufficiency of the senses and in the value of art. He never, like so many moderns, found himself in a world limited and debased by the impossibility of escape from psychology, anthropology, and Freudianism. The world was still absorbingly, still amazingly, interesting. Women, most women, were to him magical and mysterious. Conversations were witty, salons were thrilling, and artists—even contemporary artists—incalculably great. In a word, he respected his desires, his tastes, and his amusements, and hence, though experience might be predominantly painful, it was neither meaningless nor mean. And that perhaps is the secret of the individual charm of his world. It is one viewed with the critical freedom of modern thought and one in which skepticism rules. Yet it is somehow glamorous as well.”

Volume 7: The Past Recaptured (1932): “Once [the Recherche] has been read, it is literally unforgettable. The experiences which it affords become never-to-be-lost parts of one’s own experience. Half a dozen of the individual characters, as well as the conception as a whole, are solid, unescapable, and like some event of history they are always there whether one approves or disapproves, admires or despises. No student of literature, whatever his opinions or his tastes, can forget its existence, and it could no more be done away with in response to an aesthetic whim than a pyramid or a cathedral could be done away with by some advocate of an exclusively “modern” world. Of how many other books written during the last thirty years can that be said?

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Krutch’s status as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Proust in his time—and perhaps any time—was affirmed in 1934, when he provided the introduction to the four-volume Random House edition of Moncrieff’s translation—described by Random House publisher Bennett Cerf as “one of the typographical masterpieces of 1934” and “one of the most successful publishing projects in the history of Random House”—which was reviewed in The Nation by Krutch’s close friend (and former literary editor of the magazine) Mark Van Doren. Though he dutifully complimented a “compact and beautiful introduction,” Van Doren wrote that Proust’s work itself would probably not survive the advance of his novel’s great subject, Time. Van Doren’s self-described “minority report” argued that Proust—the hero of whose books “spends most of his time in bed with three women—his mother, his grandmother, and [his housekeeper] Francois—always there to caress him and indulge him, to kiss him goodnight, to draw his curtains in the morning, to roast him a delicious fowl when he is hungry, and to tiptoe out of hearing when he wants to think”—was “preposterously, insufferably, spoiled,” and therefore condemned to supply his readers with an incomplete world stocked with incomplete characters.” The Recherche, Van Doren concluded, would not be popular forever, and seemed upon reflection “both wonderful and trivial, both mammoth and minor.”

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Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.

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