Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sortes Proustianae

Sometimes, readers of English, you see the Latin poet Vergil's name spelled "Vergil" (as in Publius Vergilius Maro, his actual name), but more often you see the traditional "Virgil" (as in virga, or "wand"), due to the medieval belief--and I am not making this up--that he was actually a wizard. The idea was that you could use the Aeneid like a Magic 8-Ball, opening it to whatever page you wanted and reading a line out of context for the purposes of divination. You still hear about people who do this with the Bible, although I wouldn't recommend it. I do recommend trying it with Proust. I am certain he was possessed of powers far beyond the reach of mere muggles. The other day, I attempted to explain to a Spanish friend the difficulty of approaching Proust as an anglophone--at every moment, one senses that something is missing. C.K. Scott Moncrieff's translation is exquisite, but weirdly idiosyncratic. He called Proust's novel Remembrance of Things Past, which is not at all an accurate translation of Á la recherche du temps perdu, and the titles of individual volumes were also translated a bit too freely, even bowdlerized: À l'ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs (something like, "shaded by young girls in bloom") became Within a Budding Grove, and Sodome et Gomorrhe became Cities of the Plain. Some of these lovely quirks are smoothed out in the revised version by D.J. Enright, and some are not (Sodome et Gomorrhe becomes Sodom & Gomorrah, though Within a Budding Grove, inexplicably, endures--maybe because it's such a musical turn of phrase, and maybe because saying the words "young girls" in English makes you feel like a pervert). Not having the French, myself, to read the original, I try to cruise through Enright, comparing the phrases that wrinkle my nose to the same lines in Moncrieff's rendering, and then perhaps to later English translations, and finally, maybe, to the French (with a dictionary). Thanks to Enright, the novel is now known as In Search of Lost Time, even in those new translations, but I would argue that even this is unsatisfactory. Remembrance of Things Past is lovelier (it should be--it's Shakespeare), and while the phrase "lost time" has echoes banal (LOST CAT) and portentous (Lost Ark), it fails to invoke the obvious model for Proust's title--another English poem! He writes of "paradises lost" in his novel; why not say "time lost"? It's less idiomatic than putting the adjective first, but not so unidiomatic that you wouldn't say Time Regained for the title of the last voume, Le Temps retrouvé. Francophones and Miltonists reading this--and I know you're reading this--am I nuts, or is In Search of Time Lost just a better title? A few days later, when JoJo and I took a short trip to Vermont, I--inspired by that conversation--tossed a copy of (ahem) Sodom & Gomorrah into my bag, having left off halfway into it months and months ago. The afternoon of our second day on Lake Champlain, I said, "Let's take out the rowboat, and read for a while on the water," and JoJo was foolish enough to agree, not realizing that he would be doing all the rowing, and I the reading. Here's where I opened up the book. Marcel's mother has asked him if he would like to read anything while he is on vacation. He asks for the Arabian Nights:

As, long ago at Combray, when she gave me books for my birthday, so it was in secret, as a surprise for me, that my mother now sent for both Galland's version and that of Mardrus.

An endnote in my edition explains that "Of the two French versions of the Arabian Nights, Galland's Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704-1717) is elegant, scholarly but heavily bowdlerised, and Mardus's Les Mille Nuits et Une Nuit (1899-1904) coarser and unexpurgated."

Happening upon certain of the tales, she had been revolted by the immorality of the subject and the coarseness of the expression. But above all, preserving like precious relics not only her mother's brooch, her sunshade, her cloak, her volume of Mme de Sévigné, but also her habits of thought and speech, invoking on every occasion the opinion that she would have expressed, my mother could have no doubt of the unfavourable judgment which my grandmother would have passed on Mardrus's version.

The narrator then reflects aloud on the outlandish pedantry of a classicist friend:

I told her what my grandmother had thought of the Greek names which Bloch, following Leconte de Lisle, used to give to Homer's gods, going so far, in the simplest matters, as to make it a religious duty, in which he supposed literary talent to consist, to adopt a Greek system of spelling. Having occasion, for instance, to mention in a letter that the wine which they drank at his home was true nectar, he would write "nektar," with a k, which enabled him to titter at the mention of Lamartine. Now if an Odyssey from which the names of Ulysses and Minerva were missing was no longer the Odyssey to her, what would she have said upon seeing corrupted, even on the cover, the title of her Arabian tales, upon no longer finding, exactly transcribed as she had all her life been in the habit of pronouncing them, the immortally familiar names of Scheherazade or Dinarzade, while, themselves debaptised (if one may use the expression of Muslim tales), even the charming Caliph and the powerful Genies were barely recognisable, being renamed, he the "Khalifa" and they the "Gennis." However, my mother handed over both books to me, and I told her that I would read them on the days when I felt too tired to go out.

See what I mean? Proust has the answer to every riddle, even the riddle of his own translation. Which is better: the familiar, beautiful rendition, or the "correct" rendition? Ulysses, or Odysseus? Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time? Virgil, or Vergil? And Proust demonstrates here that to choose one approach universally, to the exclusion of the other, is the fallacy of prudes and pedants alike. You and I, we can choose both.


Plattypus said...

dear miss lonelyhearts danblog,

if you had to sum up all of proust in two sentences, what would they be?

anonymous reader named josh

Dan Johnson said...

Thom Gunn
got it in one:

"All are unmasked as perverts sooner or later,
With a notable exception--the narrator."

(Readings in French III: Nothing Unusual about Marcel Proust)

Anonymous said...

wrzxvnSo "... A Pervert's guide to Proust?" would be like "Sex Characters in Search of an Author in Search of Time Lost"?