The in­ter­na­tional Man Booker win­ner on the plea­sur­able chal­lenge of trans­lat­ing Proust

Point of view ‘It is im­pos­si­ble to blame him for be­ing fussy about his neigh­bours’ noise’ Ly­dia Davis

The Guardian - Review - - Arts - Mar­cel Proust’s Let­ters to the Lady Up­stairs, trans­lated by Ly­dia Davis, is pub­lished by 4th Es­tate.

As the in­ter­net al­lows us to walk along a Paris street that is al­most un­changed from the 1920s, so it also re­veals more of the life of the build­ing in which Mar­cel Proust lived: the wartime ac­tiv­i­ties of his down­stairs neigh­bour, the couchetôt Dr Gagey, who was com­mended in 1915 for his am­bu­lance ser­vice “in cir­cum­stances of­ten dif­fi­cult and al­ways per­ilous”; and the lega­cies of the for­mer up­stairs neigh­bour, Proust’s friend Arthur Per­nolet, who, af­ter his death, also in 1915, left funds to at least two Paris mu­se­ums for the ac­qui­si­tion of paint­ings. Fol­low ev­ery ref­er­ence in Let­ters to the Lady Up­stairs (his neigh­bour Madame Wil­liams) – the orig­i­nals spent many years in the Musée des Let­tres et Manuscrits in Paris be­fore be­ing brought to pub­lic at­ten­tion – and Proust’s world opens out be­fore us.

Proust, so very soli­tary, as he says in many of his let­ters, and de­vot­ing most of his wak­ing hours to his work, was also in­tensely gre­gar­i­ous and an un­in­hib­ited talker. When he was feeling well enough, he talked with­out pause, and the per­son he talked to the most, be­cause she was al­ways avail­able, was his house­keeper Céleste Al­baret, an in­tel­li­gent and re­spon­sive lis­tener. He of­ten rang for her af­ter she had gone to bed, and she would come as she was, in her night­gown and robe, her hair “down her back”, as she says.

An­dré Gide de­scribes, in his jour­nal, Proust’s style of talk­ing: “His con­ver­sa­tion, cease­lessly cut by par­en­thet­i­cal clauses, runs on …” This style, so nat­u­ral to him in con­ver­sa­tion, pours out also in his let­ters – let­ters, as his friend Robert Drey­fus put it, “in which he al­ways wanted to say ev­ery­thing, as in his books, and in which he suc­ceeded by means of an in­fin­ity of paren­the­ses, sin­u­osi­ties, and re­ver­sals”. It is the same style that is ev­i­dent, though more con­trolled, in the ex­tended sen­tences of his fin­ished, pub­lished work.

We are told that Proust wrote very fast. This, too, is ap­par­ent in the let­ters, in the sprawl­ing hand­writ­ing, in the ten­dency to ab­bre­vi­ate, in the oc­ca­sional miss­ing word, and per­haps, though not nec­es­sar­ily, in the miss­ing punc­tu­a­tion. Yet, at the same time, his syn­tac­ti­cal agility is al­ways in ev­i­dence, as in a let­ter in which he in­cludes in one fairly short sen­tence a rather elab­o­rate, and in this case in­dig­nant, par­en­thet­i­cal re­mark (“as I have been ac­cused”) that man­ages to en­close within it yet an­other clause (“it seems”): “I have been so ill these days (in my bed which I have not left and with­out hav­ing nois­ily opened or closed the car­riage en­trance as I have it seems been ac­cused of do­ing) that I have not been able to write.” Here he ex­em­pli­fies, in a rougher, more ur­gent way, his dec­la­ra­tion con­cern­ing his pub­lished writ­ing that a sen­tence con­tains a com­plete thought, and that no mat­ter how com­plex it may be, this thought should re­main in­tact. The shape of the sen­tence is the shape of the thought, and ev­ery word is nec­es­sary.

Per­haps the most ex­treme ex­am­ple, in Let­ters to the Lady Up­stairs, of his com­plex syn­tax and lack of punc­tu­a­tion, as well as his colour­ful and fer­tile imag­i­na­tion, comes in a let­ter which is mainly de­voted to the cathe­dral of Reims, which was heav­ily dam­aged by bom­bard­ment in the first au­tumn of the war. It ap­proaches the pre­ci­sion, rhetor­i­cal heights and lus­cious im­agery of In Search of Lost Time (and with a ref­er­ence to a Ruskin ti­tle covertly slipped in): “But I who in­so­far as my health per­mits make to the stones of Reims pil­grim­ages as pi­ously awestruck as to the stones of Venice be­lieve I am jus­ti­fied in speak­ing of the diminu­tion to hu­man­ity that will be con­sum­mated on the day when the arches that are al­ready half burnt away col­lapse for­ever on those an­gels who with­out trou­bling them­selves about the dan­ger still gather mar­vel­lous fruits from the lush stylised fo­liage of the for­est of stones.”

The acute un­der­stand­ing of psy­chol­ogy and so­cial be­hav­iour dis­played so richly in the novel is an­other con­tin­u­ing thread in the let­ters: “I al­ways de­fer let­ters (which could seem to ask you for some­thing) to a mo­ment when it is too late and when con­se­quently, they are no longer in­dis­creet.”

And the gen­tle touches of hu­mour, so preva­lent in the novel, also have their place: “Con­sid­er­ing how lit­tle time it took to do the work on Ste Chapelle (this com­par­i­son can only I think be seen as flat­ter­ing), one may pre­sume that when this let­ter reaches An­necy, the beau­ti­fi­ca­tions of Boule­vard Hauss­mann will be nearly done.”

How revealing let­ters can be, in the era when they were writ­ten by hand by the suf­fer­ing Proust who so of­ten, ac­cord­ing to him, had barely the strength or en­ergy to write even a short note. Un­re­vised, a let­ter may show the thread of the thought as it de­vel­ops: “When it has sub­sided”, Proust writes, of one of his at­tacks and then re­alises it may not sub­side, and so goes on to add what has just oc­curred to him: “if it sub­sides”.

The let­ters, writ­ten over a span of years and in dif­fer­ent moods and phys­i­cal con­di­tions, show dif­fer­ent as­pects of his per­son­al­ity and char­ac­ter. He may be gra­cious and flat­ter­ing: “At least I would have the joy of know­ing that those lovely lu­cid eyes had rested on these pages”; or flowery and elo­quent: “My soli­tude has be­come even more pro­found, and I know noth­ing of the sun but what your let­ter tells me. It has thus been a blessed mes­sen­ger, and con­trary to the proverb, this sin­gle swal­low has made for me an en­tire spring.” Or, in con­trast to his po­etic de­scrip­tions, he may sud­denly de­ploy, with cool adept­ness, a metaphor taken from the world of chem­istry: “Al­ready I carry around with me in my mind so many dis­solved deaths, that each new one causes su­per­sat­u­ra­tion and crys­tallises all my griefs into an in­fran­gi­ble block.”

He is metic­u­lous and par­tic­u­lar not only in his re­quests as to when and where his up­stairs neigh­bours might nail shut their crates; but also in de­scrib­ing the na­ture it­self of dis­tur­bance from noise (as he con­tin­ues the sen- tence): “… since a noise so dis­con­tin­u­ous, so ‘no­tice­able’ as blows be­ing struck, is heard even in the ar­eas where it is slightly di­min­ished.”

And he goes into de­tail about the ef­fect of noise: “What both­ers me is never con­tin­u­ous noise, even loud noise, if it is not struck, on the floor­boards … And ev­ery­thing that is dragged over the floor, that falls on it, runs across it.” I think we read­ers, peer­ing over Mme Wil­liams’s shoul­der, may find his pre­ci­sion amus­ing, but he him­self, though so likely at other times to see the hu­mour in a sit­u­a­tion, here seems in deadly earnest. Proust’s style, in these let­ters, is a mix of el­e­gance and haste, re­fine­ment and con­vo­lu­tion, grav­ity and self-mock­ery, marked by abbreviations and mis­takes, very lit­tle punc­tu­a­tion, and no para­graph­ing to speak of, or al­most none, as he shifts from topic to topic.

My ap­proach to trans­lat­ing this style has been to hew very close to it, not sup­ply­ing miss­ing punc­tu­a­tion or cor­rect­ing mis­takes, but at the same time try­ing to re­tain as much of its grace, beauty, sud­den shifts of tone and sub­ject and dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter as I could. It was a plea­sur­able chal­lenge to at­tempt to re­pro­duce his non se­quiturs, his flowery con­struc­tions, his lit­er­ary ref­er­ences and his metic­u­lous in­struc­tions for less­en­ing the in­tru­sions of noise. One is bound to feel com­pas­sion – as his neigh­bours did – for the be­lea­guered Proust, push­ing ahead, against all odds and in the worst of health, with his vast project; it is cer­tainly im­pos­si­ble, in any case, for any­one with neigh­bours to blame him for be­ing so fussy about their noise.

How revealing let­ters can be, in the era when they were writ­ten by hand by the suf­fer­ing Proust

Mar­cel Proust, pho­tographed in about 1896

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