Since the original, prewar translation there has been no completely new rendering of the French original into English. This translation brings to the fore a more sharply engaged, comic and lucid Proust. IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME is one of the greatest, most enjoyable reading experiences in any language. As the great story unfolds from its magical opening scenes to its devastating end, it is the Penguin Proust that makes Proust accessible to a new generation. Each book is translated by a different, superb translator working under the general editorship of Professor Christopher Prendergast.
Picking up right where The Guermantes Way left off, the narrator is about to attend the party of the Princesse de Guermantes. By chance, he sees M. de Charlus and Jupien together, leading to a long digression on the nature of homosexuals. Certainly for them, love is as excruciating as it is for heterosexuals, but there's the added isolation, fear and shame that come along with it. At the party, the narrator attempts to secure an introduction to the Prince de Guermantes while musing on all 'types' of society. A flash forward reveals the Princess' passion for Charlus - completely random and well-described - as well as her friendship with the narrator.
An expected late night visit from Albertine - his Balbec girl - inspires sudden obsession when she doesn't show. She also plays a large role when the narrator returns to Balbec Of all the stellar portions in the novel, the best is his return and the accompanying flood of memories. The hotel is now familiar and pleasant, but this brings back sweet yet painful reminders of his grandma. She'd been dead for a while, however, that fact has not really sunk in. Identical situations at Balbec return his grandmother to the narrator - but only then can he actually comprehend his loss. Being in the same environment, she's more alive to him than she was when he actually had her but took her for granted. During the visit at Balbec - where all the new impressions were violent and discomfiting - she was his one stable, familiar face. Of course he's intellectually aware of her death, but the true emotions were delayed until his return to Balbec.
His thoughts on memory
"it is, no doubt, the existence of our body...that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession. Perhaps it is equally inexact to suppose that they escape or return...if the context of sensations in which they are presumed is recaptured, they acquire in turn the same power of expelling everything that is incompatible with them, or installing alone in us the self that originally lived them."
The pain leads to guilt over his selfishness during the first trip to Balbec and for a while he neglects Balbec society and Albertine. However, no pain can last so completely as that and eventually he starts worrying about Albertine's sexual orientation and possible lovers. The narrator is caught in a society battle between the Verdurins and the Cambremers and also gets drawn into the conflict between Morel and his lover Charlus. His obsession with Albertine parallels Charlus, who is actually somewhat vulnerable in his relationship.
Marcel finally goes to the Princess Guermantes dinner party (the one he was invited to in the last book). There are some funny moments there.
He talks to Swann for one last time.
He comes to terms with his grandmother's death when he travels to Balbec again - without her. He becomes a regular at the Verdurin's house (where Swann met Odette back in book #1) and he gets better aquainted with the Baron de Charlus and the baron's protege, Morel. He spends a lot of time with Albertine and struggles to figure out if he loves her or not.
I enjoyed the writing very much, as usual. Proust's descriptions are a bit long winded, but lovely. Again, I have to say that I love the way Proust shows us what people are thinking and feeling. It's easy to recognize modern day people in some of these characters.
Now, on to book #5!
But it is just a shift in focus; the picture itself is the same. That is, same elements, same quality of insightful observations on the mind and on society, same subtle and powerful language.
But even during the narrative, Marcel realized memory’s willfulness and the variation in hues, shapes, pitch and timbre between the actual object and its mental reconstruction. When he encountered an old friend, the facial features were so different from his recollection and reconstruction, for better or for worse pregnant with all the emotions, preoccupation, biases, that he could not match face with voice.
Because recollected sensation can never equate with the actual experience and time, like a patient thief, steals memories a morsel at a time until one day the owner would realize he was ruined, Marcel ultimately would fail to recapture and assemble stolen sensations and decayed seconds and in the end, must create new moments, new sensations and ultimately a new biography, through the synergy between past experiences and creative imagination. From those deceased hours and decayed memories sprouted In Search of Lost Time, not only Proust’s novel but also that of the narrator.
Whether we savor Marcel’s frailness, Swann’s infatuation, Charlus’s pompousness, Franscoise’s independent-mindedness, the sorties’ frivolousness or the social revelation of the Dreyfuss Affair, we can enjoy Proust’s classic without resorting to Marxist or Freudian or Feminist critique. And the sentences, like the serpentine Amazon, seemed to flow unceasingly into the distant horizon carrying with it the sparkling sunlight. Although ascending the novel’s three thousand pages appears precipitous, the effort will be well worth the while and, at the end of the adventure, the reader can rest on the crisp apex and savor time’s transience and memory’s playfulness as if they were alpine zephyrs.
On a side note, I cried the first time I read the narrator's vision of his grandmother, and I cried this time too.
In this volume, it seems our narrator discovers that there are a lot of gay people in the world and seems rather obsessed by it. This all ties in with his enormous jealousy regarding any time Albertine spends away from him.
I actually enjoyed the portions of the story involving Albertine, but they actually make up so very little of this book. The digressions about the changing world in French social circles at this period weren't so interesting this time around. Proust continues to be the wordiest man alive... he can turn a sentence like "She opened a door" into a five page essay.
Sadly, my interest in the series seems to diminish with each volume... and this started out so well. I hope things get better in the final three books.
Sodom is volume 4 out of 7 of ISOLT. That is, it is the center of the set. As such there is a certain psychological satisfaction that comes from completing it: “I’ve read more that half of Proust!”, along with the confidence that I will complete the whole work.
The book of course is great - five stars. But after four long volumes, I mainly want to write down my complaints. And my main complaint is about the narrator.
The narrator (we can also call him Marcel) is a severely underdeveloped character. Despite living inside his head for a couple of thousand pages (so far), he remains a cipher. What is his personality? If you met him at one of these dinner parties he loves to describe, how would he strike you? Is he extroverted, a joke-teller or raconteur? Or a serious conversationalist, getting into long detailed discussions on esoteric or artistic topics? Or a quiet introvert, mainly sitting quietly, listening to others? He must be a likeable person, judging by the way so many hosts and hostesses try to invite him. But why? We don’t know, although there are occasional circumstantial clues in the form of comments from the people around him.
Yes, he sometimes describes, in loving detail, the fine shading around certain emotional experiences, such as his mourning loss of his grandmother. But his thoughts, his internal monologues, are left out. How does he think about his life, his goals, his problems, and his plans?
Let’s take one glaring example. During Sodom, we learn that Albertine is being considered as a marriage candidate for him, at least in the eyes of others. Is he considering marrying her? Is he spending a lot of time thinking about whether to marry her? How does he approach the possibility? Does he mentally weigh up the pros and cons? Is he trying to visualize married life with her, to picture her as his wife, possibly even as the mother of his children? Does he compare her against other single women he knows, or against the wives of friends and relatives? He must be going through such thoughts and mental exercises while at Balbec during the course of the book, but all this is left out of the book.
Proust doesn’t share these key internal moments, to the reader’s great frustration,, and as a result it becomes hard to identify with the narrator, or to like him very much. So when Marcel behaves poorly to others - especially to Albertine - we end up rather disliking him, while she, Albertine, gets our sympathy.
And this lack of characterization of the narrator - who is the main character after all - is all the more ironic given the novel’s reputation as an introspective, interior-oriented novel. It’s not at all. It does share, at great length, Marcel’s acute perceptions of the world around him, and especially his delving into the thoughts and motivations of the people he encounters. But it doesn’t share the stream of thoughts of the narrator, as do other modernists such as Joyce and Woolf, or even the great nineteenth century novelists. This creates distance between the reader and the main character, instead of the identification that would lead us, the reader, to root for him, or even sympathize with him very much.
Now more than halfway through ISOLT, I’m not sure I can even identify what the protagonist’s main problem is - what is he trying to solve, or to achieve? What is he searching or struggling for? Where is the main tension or dilemma of the novel? I don’t see it yet, and that concerns me.
For the record, I still love the book, from the texture of the prose to the long unexpected digressions. I just wish I could know Marcel better. Let’s see if this issue gets resolved - or exasperated - in the upcoming volumes.
Even in their Kindle version the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time can be an expensive purchase, if one chooses a modern translation rather than the one by Charles Scott Moncrieff (1889-1930). Cities of the Plain, the fourth book in the Scott Moncrieff series, which he completed in 1921, has several modern and acclaimed modern adaptations of his text, now appearing under the more transparent title of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Penguin edition of In Search of Lost Time, under the general editorship of Christopher Prendergast, assigns a different translator to each book. The Penguin Sodom and Gomorrah was translated by the distinguished English editor and translator, John Sturrock. Though it is much praised, I have reservations about the Sturrock version of Sodom and Gomorrah after reading the first three books of ISOLT in the Yale University Press edition, edited and annotated by William C Carter. (The difference between ‘translation’ in the Penguin edition and ‘editing’ in the Yale is one merely of terminology: both are modern adaptations of the original by Scott Moncrieff.) The switch from Carter was unavoidable. The third of his Yale volumes, The Guermantes Way, was published in 2018 and it is uncertain whether he will complete another.
In retrospect I wish I had made a more careful comparison with other versions before opting for the Sturrock version of Sodom and Gomorrah. Though it is preferable to the original version by Scott Moncrieff, constrained as he was by English sexual pruderies of the 1920’s, there are moments, infrequent but annoying, when Sturrock left me puzzled or even baffled by his rendition. Proust’s labyrinthine, braided sentences require clear threads of sense, if one is to enjoy the sparkle of his wit.
I have three sorts of objection. The first is Sturrock’s handling of the to-and-fro of conversation. He is overly economical in his use of quotation marks, so that once a character begins to speak, interpolations by a listener are marked by a dash rather than a quote mark as for example in the following passage, in which it is not entirely clear whether it is Oriane or the Princesse who promises Marcel an invitation:
‘You ought to make up your mind to let me fix up a cottage for you at Guermantes,’ the Duc went on [addressing his brother, Baron de Charlus]. ‘It’s nice to see the two brothers so affectionate with one another, said the Princesse to Oriane. - Oh, indeed, I don’t think you can find many brothers like that. I shall invite you with him, she promised me. You’re not in his bad books? … But what can they find to say to each other?’ she added, in an anxious tone, for she could hear their words only imperfectly.
One does get used to the technique, but I preferred the traditional spatter of quotation marks in the Scott Moncrieff version which mark a clear separation among the interlocutors’ voices.
Sturrock is equally economical, at the cost of fluent understanding, in his omission of helpful footholds in following some of the more taxing Proustian parentheses. Here is an minor instance of the technique, which can be problematic in longer passages:
[A] soldier in time of peace will sacrifice his social life to love, but once war is declared (and without there being any need even to introduce the notion of a patriotic duty), love to the passion, stronger than love, for fighting
Scott Moncrieff is more helpful. He resumes, after the parenthesis, with a reference back to the original train of thought, ‘…a patriotic duty) will sacrifice love…etc’
There are occasional jarring departures from anything resembling standard English in the Sturrock version. As for example:
‘Although it was after nine o’clock, the daylight it was still which, on the place de la Concorde, had given to the Luxor obelisk an appearance of pink nougat.’ The pleasure that one might derive from the comparison of the obelisk and the nougat is vitiated by the peculiarity of Sturrock’s account of the persistence of daylight. Similarly peculiar departures from idiomatic fluency are apparent in his characterization of a woman and her son as being ‘of a vegetable disposition’. And, on another occasion, Mm de Vaugoubert is supposed to have been driven to Marcel by a ‘vegetable attraction so strong as to seize his arm.’ Google failed to assist me in discovering just what nuance was meant to be conveyed by the vegetables in these passages. Elsewhere, in describing the mental torments of Baron de Charlus, ;they are likened to sculpted marble peaks, ‘as if some statuary, instead of carrying the marble away, had carved it where lay’. No reason is apparent for this resort to the archaism of ‘statuary’ instead of ‘sculptor’. On another occasion Marcel remembers a Balbec girl ‘whose thin reversible face resembled the winged seeds of certain trees’. Scott Moncrieff has a more idiomatic reference to her ‘symmetrical face’.
Enough carping. Sturrock is an improvement on the Scott Moncrieff which I have used in these comparisons and worth the additional cost. But cost conscious purchasers would be advised to make a comparison for ease and fluency between the Penguin Sodom and Gomorrah and one or other modern versions before making their investment.
Finally, to change the subject, there is a puzzle about the colour of Baron de Charlus’s hair. In the earlier books of ISOLT he is presented as an arrogant and darkly glittering personage. His sad descent into a wobbling parody of himself is well under way by the conclusion of Sodom and Gomorrah. People are certainly transformed over the decades encompassed by ISOLT. But for a moment in Sturrock’s translation Charlus seems unrecognizable. Mme de Cambremer remarks to Marcel that he does not seem old at all, ‘see, his hair’s still yellow’. A blonde Baron de Charlus is too much. Scott Moncrieff is more cautious, though oddly unidiomatic in his rendering: ‘he doesn’t seem at all old, look, the hair is still young'.