FOR MORE than half a century, when turbulence or depression had made life seem precarious. I have escaped to the realm of Balzac, of Tolstoy, and of Marcel Proust. No one after associating with the characters in Le Cousine Bette io Le Pere Goriot could find persons who seemed blameworthy as heartless as they appeared to be. War and Peace is not only enriching through the permanent place Prince Andrei, Natasha and Pierre take in the reader's mind. It also carries one away into an attention-absorbing epoch of history that banishes all disturbing awareness of the present.
The experience of reading Proust's great novel is differnet. Although his characters are more real, more than three-dimensional than people we know, if we have a more complete picture of them than of our closest friends, it is the scope of Rememberance of Things Past, the range of background and analysis that feeds our imagination with unthought of riches. For Proust's conception of what he wished his novel to be differed from that of his predecesors. Not only are the vents preceived and recounted through the eyes of a narrator, but that narrator is both the author and a character in the novel. He analyzes and describes in detail his own reactions, thoughts and emotions, his whole psychology as well as that of the characters, in the beginning subjectively, as the book goes on with ironic detachment.
"There are novelists who envisage a brief plot with few characters," Proust wrote in a letter to a friend who was helping him find a publisher for Swann's Way. (It was eventually published at his own expense.) "That is not my conception of the novel. There is a plane geometry and a geometry of space. And so for me the novel is not only plane psychology but psychology in space and time, that invisible substance I try to isolate . . . some unimportant little event will show that time has passed . . . Characters will later reveal themselves as different from what they were in the present."
The passing of time, the significance of involuntary memory evoked through a sensual experience, are the main themes of the book. A madeleine, a little spongecake dipped in tea brings back to life his whole childhood in the village of Combray: his family; the great Guermantes tribe, feudal aristocrats who kindle the boy's romantic imagination; the neighbor Swann, who like so many other characters in the book turns out to be quite another person from what he first appears to be.
It is this apparent change in character that is the clue to the nature of love throughout Proust's novel. As long as the love object is an external image, the pursuit is gratifying. But once friendship or intimacy is achieved, disillusionment or jealousy poison the relationship. From childhood, when he had barely caught a glimpse of her, Marcel cherished a romantic passion for his conception of the Duchesse de Guermantes. When as a young man he finally fell into friendship with her, he discovered that in spite of her beauty, her charm, her wit, she was vain, shallow and heartless. In the final volume of the novel, after not having seen her for many years, he found that "her personal charm was visable to me only at a distance, and vanished as soon as I was near her, for the reason that it resides in my memory and imagination."
Although a large part of the novel is devoted to Marcel's passion for Albertine, the anguish caused by his jealousy gradually reduces his obession to indifference and after her death he finds that his "love for Albertine had been but a transitory form of my devotion to youth."
Bleak as is Proust's concept of love, the exhaustiveness of his exploration of the various aspects of its expression, the wonderfully described details, kindle recognition in every reader who has ever been in love. But it is not only the phenomenon of love that Proust anatomizes. No experience, no aspect related to the lives of his characters and therefore to his readers is neglected. No subject is treated superficially. The range of these essay-like descriptions or analyses is both a part and a puncutuation of the main narrative -- sleep, dreams, military tactics, loneliness in a hotel room, illness, old age, death. Sometimes these reflections of the narrator may seem too long, too detailed or intrusive. But always the reader is stimulated into a fresh train of thought.
Into Proust's world I was introduced piecemeal. For the first 10 volumes of the American edition of Rememberance of Things Past were published individually in 1923, 1924, 1925, 1927, and 1930 by three different publishers, all long since extinct. Not only have those well-printed volumes become an intrinsic part of my intellectual furniture but they are marked up in such a way that I can easily find a passage I want to refer to. The information, therfore, that there was to be a revised translation with hitherto neglected additions to the text set me on the defensive. To what extent would the new version alter the emphasis of the novel, force me perhaps to reconstruct the pattern so deeply established in my mind?
Not that one had the illusion that the work was perfect. The last three volumes were published posthumously. Proust died before he could correct the proof and do the rewriting which was his habit. The margins were filled with corrections and changes in his difficult handwriting. Long strips of paper with new material were pasted onto the pages both of the manuscript and the proofs. Inevitably the editors or printers were frequently unable to decipher the handwriting or find the order in which the new passages were to be inserted. Nevertheless, a whole greak work of art appeared, all but the last volume translated by Scott Moncrieff who himself died before his task was accomplished.
Thrity-two years after Proust's death a definitive edition of A la recherche du temps perdu appeared in France, the text based on a re- study of both the manuscript and many notes and unpublished passages previously unavailable. This Pleiade edition, published in 1954, is the source of the revisions that Terence Kilmartin had made in Scott Moncrieff's translation.
Six new segments and many other passages missing in the original French version but restored in the Pleiade text are included in this new edition. Although none of the additions hitherto unpublished in English changes the basic structure of the book, the longest one -- a striking illustration of Proust's black humor in portraying the tragicomical homosexual Baron de Charlus -- adds an element to the characterization of the Princess de Guermantes, who had not previously attempted suicide because of Charlus' neglect.
Another additional passage exemplifies Proust's extraordinaly visual sense, his way of perceiving his characters in terms of paintings. In the description of his mother as an old woman in Carpiccio's St. Ursula series we are reminded of Swann's version of Odette as a Botticelli, of the resemblance of the pregnant kitchenmaid in Combray to Gitto's Charity, of the Duc de Guermantes who had "the charm of some of rembrandt's subjects." Undoubtedly the additions to the text are of the greatest interest to confirmed Proustians. First-time readers will take them for granted, as they will the revisions in the translation.
In his prefratory note Terance Kilmartin writes, "complicated, dense, overloaded though it often is, Proust's style is essentially natural and unaffected"! Natural to whom? No other modern writer's style is so dependent on metaphors, so frequently lyrical. Scott Moncrieff's interpretation of these passages had laid him open to the charge of preciosity, of indulging in purple passages. In the passages I have collated the changes do not seem to me striking. It is rather in instances where Moncrieff has been too faithful to the original that the revised translation is an improvement. For example, Moncrieff writes: "The mother of a girl in her first season could be no more unrelaxing in her attention of the public." Revised version: "The mother of a debutante could be no more anxiously attentice to her daughter's repartee and to the attitude off her audience." There are other instances, however, where the changes seem arbitrary. The advantage of "leaving the heat of open air" over "coming from the warm air outside"; of "luncheon" to "lunch" is questionable.
One important aspect that cried out for change was the anachronistic expressions in colloquial speech. The updating of dialouge poses an unexpected problem for American readers. The difference between British and American English is generally recognized, a fact that bothers the English public more than the American. But there are a number of places, often humorous, where both translations are remote from any French aura. In the up-to-date slang she thinks smart, the young sister of Marcel's friend Bloch asks about the famous writer, Bergotte, "If he really an amazing good egg, this Bergotte?" in Moncrieff's version. In the revised version she says, "Is he a really amazing cove, this Bergotte? Is he in the category of the great Johnnies?" I leave it to the reader to translate that into the American language.
Naturally this reviewer, who has experienced the difficulties of translating Proust, is tempted to enlarge on both the faults and virtues of Kilmartin's version. But such details will not be noticed by the new readers whom one hopes this edition will attract.
"In reality," Proust writes, "every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book he would never have perceived in himself . . . In order to read with understanding, many readers require to read in their own particular fashion, and the author must not be indignant at this; he must leave the reader all possible liberty, saying to him: 'Look for yourself, and try to see whether you see best with this lens or that one or this other one."