Proust: Swann’s Way: ‘Overture’ (1913)

Clearly, I’ve decided to go with a translation (Moncrieff/Kilmartin), what seems to be considered the driest and most accurate translation available, as the new ones seem to carry the prose into something more contemporary. I never found an argument concerning that with which I particularly agree, even when modernizing Shakespeare, I think it should be done only with an emphasis on finding his likeliest original words and removing whatever adulteration printers added and propagated throughout the centuries. Well, so, here I am reading a translation. Fuck me, but I can’t wait any longer, and truth be known, I’m only making my halting way through Le Petit Prince in French and if I don’t get Proust started now, why, by the time I finish it I’ll be old enough to appreciate it.

It was probably Céline’s putting him back in my head as we snuck around the pathways between tombstones and stared at his own, somewhat austere. Nathalie suggested we touch it, we all wiped our noses, and Whitney finally choked out, “well, who is he?” It was Céline who answered, and I think she gave a better answer than Nathalie or I could have given, because she said something that made a lot of sense, and she didn’t stumble, and she made Proust almost sound interesting. “There is a phrase in French, the madeleine of Proust, which you use when something reminds you of a story from long ago, because he wrote a very long novel, very long and famous, and it all begins because he tastes a madeleine, which is a type of cookie.” Well, so there you have it.

I almost fear the taste of madeleines, and of clementines, I cannot recall their flavors now, but I know one taste will send me back to the dark streets of Paris, to the early morning snows, to sitting on the stones before the cathedral in Rouen and seeing all the clementine peels on the ground wherever I went, cigarettes, bottles, thinking about what a good American I was being by cleaning up my own messes.

Initial reaction? Not quite the same immediate joy I feel when reading Lawrence or Nin or Miller, but yet beautiful, and yes, he does go quickly, the first fifty pages are criticized because nothing happens–yet, it’s the sort of nothingness that we come to appreciate, it’s thoughtful nothingness, and it’s a compelling prelude to the work we’re about to embark upon.  It’s not only the obsessive attention to detail I love, but the insistence on resisting vulgarity, quite the opposite of Lawrence, actually, whose vulgarity is yet somehow an aesthetically cogent illustration of how beauty integrates itself within the animal, or perhaps vice versa, how it is that our instincts can be delicious. So far, Proust takes a higher road, one built of suggestions rather than directness, telling us things we already know, not how it could be, but how it is, not in the secret world between two people, not in the secret world of one’s heart, but in the secret world of the mind, of language, of the expressible, of art, of memory, all the things that Connie Chatterley is so far grown opposed to as she comes to need her lover.

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