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I am about to embark upon Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time (depending on which translation you read).

Has anyone read it - or any of it?  I don't remember many discussions about Proust on the various incarnations of the board, but there must have been some.

I am wondering about translations.  I have downloaded a free edition to my Kindle, but can't find out which translation it is - I presume it is the Scott Moncrieff one.  I was reading about a recentish translation (2003) and am wondering whether that is regarded as better.  I will certainly read my free version, but wondered if anyone had an opinion.

Of course as someone with a degree in French, I ought to read it in the original!  But I am going to start off, at least, in English...

Anyone's thoughts very gratefully received, on the book itself, not just translations.  I know it is often regarded as the greatest novel of the 20th century, while others think it's tedious and pretentious.  I am looking forward to finding out what I think!

Evie, I read the entire book (or set of books, maybe it should be), back in the late 1970s. I can be fairly sure of the dates, because I remember starting it before my third daughter was born, and she was toddling before I finished the final volume. That was the Scott Moncrieff  translation: I now have on my bookshelves the revised translation, still essentially Scott Moncreiff's work, but with revisions by Terence Kilmartin. The latter I treated myself to a few years ago, but have yet to read, so I cannot presume to comment on the comparative merits of the versions. I do clearly remember that the ones I actually read were library copies, and one of the volumes, despite having numerous date stamps in the front, still had uncut pages!

One of the things I promised myself I would do when I retired would be to read it in French, but so far I have not even laid my hands on any of the volumes in French, so that is a long way from happening. I might be tempted to read the English version again, but I don't think I would want to do it to any sort of deadline. It is very much a book to be savoured and enjoyed at leisure.

Thanks, Chris - good to know someone who's read it here, anyway, and maybe can share a few comments from time to time...  There was a completely new translation, apparently, which has good reviews, and I read an interesting comment that English has changed more than French in the last 100 years; I was thinking that the Scott Moncrieff language might be more appropriate, but this reviewer claimed that Proust's French is not as old-fashioned as SM's English, and that the new translation is more accurate.  I am going to read my free version, anyway, and see how I get on, and maybe have a look at the modern translation in a bookshop - won't spend money until I feel the need!

It takes posts on Proust & on Euripides (thanks, Mike H – I’ll reply to your post on Alcestis later!) to tempt me back into the fray after a sabbatical!

First, a note on the translations. The first translation of Proust was by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, and that is still regarded by many as a work of art in its own right. However, there are many important textual issues, and what is now regarded as the “definitive text” wasn’t available then. And also, Scott-Moncrieff was happy to add his own embellishments (such as translating the title as the sonorously Shakespearean “Remembrance of Things Past” rather than the more accurate “In Search of Lost Time”). So, in the 1980s, Terence Kilmartin, and, later, D. J. Enright, revised Scott-Moncrieff’s translation to bring it up to date with the latest edition of the French text, and also to remove many of the Scott-Moncrieff-isms that have delighted some readers by their brilliance, but have irritated others by their infidelity to the original. The Scott-Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright version is the one I read some twenty years ago now. It is currently published by Viking, and also in the Everyman Classics hardback edition. I don’t think the original Scott-Moncrieff edition is currently in print.

More recently, there has been a completely new translation published by Penguin/Viking. Here, each volume is entrusted to a different translator, with editor-in-chief Christopher Pendergast ensuring consistency across the different versions. It’s hard to discern the quality of these translations, as reviewers all have their own idea on how it should ideally be done, and have a tendency to ride their own particular hobbyhorses when writing the reviews. (I also can’t help wondering whether people capable of reading the thing in French will actually bother reading the whole thing in English just for the purpose of writing a review, but that’s perhaps being a bit too cynical.) The general consensus of opinion is that the new translation is more accurate than the Scott-Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright version, but, on the whole, not quite as stylish. So, basically, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

As for the work itself. When I read it, I wasn’t really prepared for it..I really didn’t know what to expect. I liked what I was reading, but I couldn’t really get a sense of the wider picture: I couldn’t get a sense of the structure of the thing – of how each individual passage fitted into the whole. Throughout the vast length of the novel, we are stuck in the narrator’s mind: his perspective is the only one we are allowed to see. And his is a strange mind, for many reasons. On several occasions – especially in the novel The Captive which depicts his obsessive and possessive love for Albertine – I found the effect claustrophobic. But there was something more than that. Of course, there’s barely any narrative momentum at all, but I had been used to that in the late Henry James. But James did set up powerful dramatic tensions, and here, that is missing also. I think I do look for dramatic tension in fiction, and I did find it somewhat disconcerting not to find it. Admittedly, in a novel (or series of novels) as vast as this, there is a wide variety, but the tone is not as varied as one might expect: it is contemplative rather than dramatic, and, even by the time I reached the end, I wasn’t sure that I had become accustomed to it.

The themes are vast – too vast even to be enumerated here. The central themes are, I suppose, time and memory –of what we remember, how we remember, of how we rec-create the past in our own minds. But spinning around these central themes are many others: love, in all its forms; sexuality – again, in all its forms; the awakening in adolescence of various types of consciousness; the individual’s interactions with society; the redeeming nature of art; obsession; prejudice – especially antisemitism (the impact of the Dreyfus Affair plays a large part in the proceedings); etc. etc.

This is a novel that needs to be lived with, and I haven’t lived with it enough to comment upon it to any depth. It took me a year to read the thing (I read the Scott-Mocrieff/Kilmartin/Enright version). Each individual novel (there are seven of them) I read uninterrupted, but I did take breaks between novels. As with late James, one has to read slowly, and savour each page, and not worry about the lack of forward movement. Or, indeed, the lack of dramatic tension.

I do need to return to this work, as much of it – far too much – went over my head. I do hope you’ll be posting here detailed updates of your impressions as you are reading it: I would be very interested in your comments.

Thanks Himadri - and good to see you!   Cool

I have a friend who has given me advice about taking it slowly and approaching it in chunks and not trying to read too much in one sitting, to savour it and allow myself to get into its atmosphere and rhythm.  I know a fair bit about it from the outside, so feel relatively well prepared (honestly, am making it sound as though I'm going for major surgery or something!!), and am greatly looking forward to it.  I will, as I say, start with my free (ie cost-free) translation and see how I get on, but I feel it may be one where I want the feel of the book rather than the Kindle, so time will tell!

What finally prompted me to read it is that the character of Swann is apparently based on Charles Ephrussi, who is the first 'hero' of The Hare with Amber Eyes, the family memoir I have just read and which was so good.

Will definitely report as I go along, as I often find that helpful with longer works.

I think, Evie, there were a number of posts on the 2005-07 BBC Board but I didn't make a note of them as I thought Proust was out of date as a discussed author.

I am now in a quandry: as an admirer of Anthony Powell's writing, who was an avowed disciple of Proust, do I take the plunge or do I take refuge in Himadri's as usual authoritive guidance that Proust is late James with its lack of dramatic tension?

I am enjoying the early James short tales which are, let's say, sedate with a willingness to use words not current in today's fiction. If there was an occasion to read Proust then here it is. I am very tempted to put him at the top of my TBR list and displace Witi Ihimaera.

I wish I could write authoritatively about Proust. Before I could even think of doing so, I would need to immerse myself into his works for a few years. There are some writers in whose works I have immersed myself over the years: Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth, Flaubert, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Faulkner - and even Joyce if you don’t count Finnegans Wake; and, while I don’t claim any authority, I think I can speak of their works at least with some degree of confidence (while at the same time happy to bow to greater wisdom or insight). But there are other writers on whose works my grip is but slight: even Henry James I would place in this category, much though I love what I have read by him. Proust, for all his undoubted qualities, is really on the fringes of my literary world.

I have finally found out that my Kindle version is the original Scott-Moncrieff version - which one friend who has read the whole thing says is the only way to go!  But I was tempted by the version you mention, Himadri, so may buy it in hard copy.  I was also tempted by the Lydia Davis translation, but am not completely sure that I like the idea of different translators for each volume.  If I can find a bookshop that has a variety of translations (maybe Blackwells in Oxford...not sure I hold out much hope for anywhere else!), I will have a good browse and see which reads best to me.

However - I want to read the SM version anyway, as it is famous in its own right.

I have started on the first section of Swann's Way published in 1981 by Random House. The translation by Terence Kilmartin is a reworking based on the 1954 revision of Editions Gallimard, Paris, of Scott Moncrieff's version.

I agree with Evie that the style is light and I found humour in the part where the two great-aunts refuse to listen to conversations by a process of selective hearing when the subject is not to their refined taste and they refuse to thank Swann in a proper way for the case of Asti he has sent them.

Hello Castorboy - great that you are reading it too!  I have just read the hugely famous part about the madeleine (may have to go to Waitrose later to buy some!), and am trying to compose a few analytical thoughts about it all, but it's marvellous - the way he manages to reminisce and move the story on at the same time is beautifully done.

I agree about the humour with the great-aunts - lovely.

PS - the bar at the bottom of my Kindle page tells me I am now 10% of the way missing page numbers!
Gul Darr

I'm looking forward to hearing what you make of Proust, Evie. At Uni, I only managed a few pages of one of the volumes and discarded it in favour of Dostoyevsky. Fortunately it was only recommended and not required reading. If I ever do get around to tackling Proust again, I think I'd wimp out and go for an English translation Wink

I may be stating the obvious but by bringing in the reminiscence of the madeleine biscuit so early in the novel Proust is indicating that the overall title of the whole, In Search of Lost Time, means that the reader will be experiencing in some part how daily promptings will bring hidden memories to the surface of the conscious mind. He mentions taste and smell as the two stimuli to memory; I would say he will also make use of the other senses to provide more ways of recollection as the narrative continues.

I like the image of a memory anchored at the bottom of an abyss which is released by a totally unexpected sensation of pleasure such as nibbling a biscuit. The explanation of the retrieved memory is made clear in nearly four pages of flowing words (no wonder the whole is called a roman fleuve).

I am not sure I would agree with Proust that the voluntary memory is less vivid than the involuntary one. Occasions like wdddings, extensive holidays and artistic perfomances can be almost as thrilling when recalled as when they were experienced the first time.

In these early pages there seems to be so much that could be discussed in detail. The church of Saint-Hilaire in Combray seems to be a character in its own right and as for the humans, I am finding Francoise, the cook, dominates the household with her practicality and astute conversation especially when dealing with Aunt Leonie.

I have now finished the first section of Swann's Way and I am in complete agreement with Evie that it is light in tone but not in substance. That substance is plain in two ways. The obvious one is in the thought processes of his characters which Proust analyses in such a comprehensive manner that the routine of their lives seems almost tangible. Centred on the village of Combray one can almost believe they are real people and that this is an account of domestic dramas. The most complex character is naturally the budding author, not given a Christian name so far, with an imaginative life far more exciting than the restricted one he has due to a sickness which at this stage is not identified.

However he does enjoy his daily walks during which he observes the flora, naming each specimen and speculating about the effect each one has on his life. This interest in nature and the landscape become the other feature of substance in the novel; at one point he embraces hawthorn-trees to express his love of being alive, the future he plans as an author and the hopes he has of meeting a girl, preferably one from the next village. Later he glimpses Swann's daughter and it becomes his whole focus to meet and talk with her. This first section finished with a shocking discovery about a family acquainted with his parents which has equally scandalised them and the village.

I notice that occasionally Proust likes to compare his fictional creations with actual paintings and he is probably not the first novelist to use this idea to help the reader to visualise the literary characters.
In the house in Cambray a kitchen-maid(!) is very pregnant and it is Swann who points out the resemblance to Giotto's Charity in Padua where the cloak on the figure recalls the folds on the maid's smock. Furthermore her swollen face and squarish, elongated cheeks suggest the virgins in the artist's Virtues.

Then there is the comparison of the narrator's friend Bloch to the Bellini portrait of Mahomet 11 with a similar likeness of arched eyebrows, hooked nose and prominent cheekbones. The only thing Bloch requires to make the resemblance complete is a small beard.

The second section has a sub-title Swann in Love and moves the action to Paris in the early years of the Third Republic.
Just below the highest level of the new society are the sycophants attending the dinner-parties run by the Verdurins, a rich middle class pair with ambitions and delusions of social advancement. Prominent among the sycophants is Dr Cottard who being from the provinces and anxious to succeed in Parisian life, takes everthing literally which is said in conversation. Figures of speech like devilish pretty or blue blood have to be remembered and used later to show how entertaining he can be. This habit can be irritating for his hosts so one New Year's Day, M. Verdurin instead of presenting Dr Cottard with a ruby worth three thousand francs, bought an artificial stone for three hundred and told him that it was something almost impossible to match!

However he did reset Mme Verdurin's jaw when she dislocated it from laughing too much – this led Mme to adopt a type of dumb-show of pretend laughter – she would shut her eyes preparatory to flinging her face into her hands. When her husband happened to laugh at the same time he would shake his head from side to side and then begin to cough so that they resembled two masks in a theatre each representing Comedy in a different way.
Then there was the pianist who played when he wanted to and who always brought his aunt to dinner, the fashionable painter of the moment who enjoyed arranging amorous liaisons between friends of patrons; he boasted that he had even arranged affairs between women!

The regulars were completed with the young woman Odette de Crecy described by Mme Verdurin as from the demi-monde.
It is by Odette's request that Swann is invited to the dinner-parties.

Reading the above post reminded me how funny Proust could be.

The Verdurins reminded me of the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend.

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:
Reading the above post reminded me how funny Proust could be.

H, that is one of the unexpected pleasures which I noticed earlier in the Combray scenes featuring the domestic staff. I find Francoise the cook even more of a delight now that she is employed by the narrator's (Marcel?) parents in Paris.

Writing of parents brings me on to Charles Swann and his personality. Here is a wealthy man, a stockbroker with influential fiscal connections at the highest level, who has properties in Combray and Paris and has access to the aristocratic society in the new government. He is in the nicest phrase, a philanderer who admits he has learnt from the women of rank all they can teach him (!) so currently he has a mistress from the lower class, a little seamstress. His predatory behaviour has upset Marcel's family to the extent that Charles' requests for an introduction to young girls in the village are ignored by means of various subterfuges.

The first meeting with Odette was nothing special – he didn't like her looks, her attitudes or her lack of sophistication. However true to form she quickly becomes another mistress (he has't given up the seamtress nor would he turn down any seductive moves by those aristocratic ladies who still find him attractive). He pays Odette both nightly visits and any debts she has acquired and is in the habit of sending monthly gifts in the hope of improving her cultural knowledge. And then for some reason he becomes insanely jealous of any time she spends away from him. He fantasises about the other men she might see and demands that she should say she loves him and no one else. From her point of view how can she say she loves him after all the money and gifts he's lavished on her? Maybe she is afraid he could turn round and say You don't really mean that. She refuses to comply with Swanns' wish, continues to meet other men and even departs on a year long cruise with the Verdurins and their little circle of intimates.

Why doesn't Swann realise that he will get his wish if he asks Odette to marry him? I haven't worked out why he will not ask her; it needs a few re-reads to obtain the answer. He spends pages and pages agonising over her past and present by questioning her friends, visiting brothels hoping to find out what he fears she has been indulging in, his deliberate memory providing enough lurid material out of flimsy evidence.

Reluctantly I have decided to concentrate on understanding the young Marcel's involuntary memory processes and experiences as he is a sympathetic character in comparison with a mature, rich socialite who has abundant free and paid love and who is, nevertheless, making himself unhappy and wallowing in self-pity.

On the other hand I am happy to think I have solved the reason for a piece of literary technique found in the Anthony Powell Dance to the Music of Time series of novels.
Swann in Love is over 200 pages in length with the Verdurin's dinner parties taking up to half and the remainder occupied with Swann's jealousy, visits to Odette's house, a number of pages on the structure and effects on the memory of a sonata for piano and a visit to an aristocratic house party where it is possible he has espied a young woman from Comray who could be a future conquest. So very few physical locations for a variety of people and their lives to be discussed and debated over.

Now I know why as an admirer of Proust's writing, Powell has only three or four at the most chapters of between sixty and seventy pages in his 200 plus page novels where, for instance, an art gallery, a country house, a hotel or a visit to a concert can be the settings for his characters who by bringing in anecdotes by and about others add to a complex plot. I consider that it is an achievement of literary skill to confine yourself to the one place whilst advancing the story without losing the reader's attention.

The third and last section has the sub-title Place-Names: The Name and concludes the novel as published in France in 1913. As it opened with Marcel in Combray, it closes with the ten year old Marcel in Paris with not just his parents but Francoise emplyed as his governess in addition to her primary function as cook to the family. To recover from another bout of sickness he is taken to the Champs-Elysees each afternoon for the fresh air. One glorious day he meets a girl with reddish hair who is Gilberte, the Swanns' daughter, and she is in the care of a governess with a blue feather in her hat. From then on they regularly play the game of prisoner's base which requires two teams and he always ends up on Gilberte's side. He is in love!

There is just one snag – he has to meet Charles whom he is embarassed to encounter because he remembers how he hated him for dining with his parents in Combray and keeping his mother downstairs instead of coming up and kissing him goodnight. He needn't have worried; Charles believes children can be safely ignored until old enough to join in adult conversation.

Marcel frets that as Franciose has to take him to Chez Swann she will not look smart arriving at the house. He tries to persuade his mother to buy Franciose a new waterproof coat finished off with the crowning piece of a hat with a blue feather in it!
Needless to say he is told not to be a nusiance. With his active imagination he mirrors the agonies of love that Charles suffered, though on a minor scale, but still very painful to a young boy.

I am finding my own recollections are being prompted by sentences like the following on memory and reality: paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one's memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses.

In 1999 I went to see three of the houses I lived in as a ten year old, houses which I always thought were a long way from each other.
In reality, of course, it was only perhaps half a mile in total to find them all. As a child I either had to walk, cycle or bus to travel anywhere so distances must have seemed great due, maybe, to the preparation and planning needed instead of just jumping in a car as I can today.  


...the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

On that same trip I went to the street where my wife's parents lived in a quiet cul-de-sac in a house with a beautiful front garden which the father took an especial pride in. Alongside were double gates which allowed his car to pass through with perhaps an inch on each side to spare. Now the garden is paved over and the gates are removed to allow the parking of three cars. I shall never go to that street again; I prefer to keep afresh the memory of that wonderful garden so I can visit it anytime I like.

Now on to the next novel in the series hopefully to find out if Proust has explained what caused the Swann marriage given that Charles is not in love with her and Odette has other men friends. That is my meagre excuse for being immersed in a Proustian world and I don't want to get off Laughing

Castorboy, thanks so much for your posts!  I am sorry, I have fallen a bit behind...but feel confident about getting back on track very soon.  Not Proust's fault at all.

I do think, in fact, that the Kindle experience didn't I have ordered a copy of the book in old-fashioned paper format!  The Kindle will have its uses, but as a reading experience to look forward to, I still long for a book.

Evie wrote:
I do think, in fact, that the Kindle experience didn't I have ordered a copy of the book in old-fashioned paper format!  The Kindle will have its uses, but as a reading experience to look forward to, I still long for a book.

I feel I should use the new e-book formats but am too set in my ways this year.
As for Proust there is so much of interest on what seems like every page that I would guess I am getting as much pleasure as you are from AMS.

I am sure that, as Mike A says, Kindle will eventually replace paper books, but for people of my generation - or perhaps it's just me? - I 'm too old and set in my ways to change. I don't know why reading a paper book should give me greater satsfaction, but it does. I cannot imaginne reading an entire novel from a screen.

It's fascinating reading your posts on proust, but one thing I remember as i was reading it is that Icouldn't always figure out the narrator's age: I had to try to infer it from the way the narrator reacts to different things around him, and I didn't always find that easy. Is his age actually specified anywhere? I really can't remember!

That long digression about Swann's obsession with Odette, I remember, struck me as very funny at the time: after all, here was Swann, an erudite, wealthy man, a man of the world, etc etc, and this manstarts behaving like a lovesick adolescent. But in retrospect, there is something sinister about it as well: the theme of sexual obsession seems to keep returning in different keys. I had forgotten until you pointed it out that immediately after the section about Swann and Odette, the theme returns in a surprising key with young Marcel. There seems to be such key changes throughout the work.

Not just his age but his full name is not specified so far.
I wonder if his family were quite wealthy and influential and possibly distantly related to the Guermantes' and that Proust is keeping quiet on these facts till later in the series.
There are a few clues to his age though.
Gilberte and Marcel are of an age so when the Dreyfus case came at a period later than Marcel's first visit to the Swanns' house, if we can guess how long a period that is, that will be useful in determining his age.
As a system analyst you would have a better idea than me but I'll make a guess and say It has to be less than a decade but more than a few years so let's say four to eight years.
The Dreyfus case was 1894 so we are back to 1886 to 1890 for the visit. Now the Marquis de Norpois remembers being introduced to the 14 or 15 year old daughter of the Swanns' in one of those years. Might it might be possible to pinpoint the year from this extract: Norpois.... was actually an ambassador on the 16th May 1877 when there was a constitutional crisis... he had since been several times chosen to represent France on special missions – even as Controller of the Public Debt in Egypt – by Radical cabinets under which a simple bourgeois reactionary would have declined to serve.

My guess is that special missions and a post as a Controller could take eight years plus two years back in France serving on a Commission with Marcel's father brings me to 1887 as the year he met Gilberte.
That makes it 1872 or 1873 as her birth year and for Marcel – very close, of course, to his real birthday.

And here is something intriguing about Gilberte's mother.
Near the end of Place-Names: The Name Marcel is walking through the Bois de Boulogne hoping once again to see Odette pass by when he overhears two men talking and one says that he remembers sleeping with her on the day the President of France  Patrice de Mac-Mahon, resigned on 30 January 1879.
Which seems to be confirmation that she was still a courtesan (with Swann's complicity?) after she married.

H, you write the theme of sexual obsession seems to keep returning in different keys. Do I understand correctly that key in this context means guises, levels, situations, ways? We agree on the obsession all right but I am obviously missing some interpretation or other.

Castorboy wrote:
H, you write the theme of sexual obsession seems to keep returning in different keys. Do I understand correctly that key in this context means guises, levels, situations, ways? We agree on the obsession all right but I am obviously missing some interpretation or other.

Yes, all of that, I think, and perhaps more: it's also the tone of voice of the narration. The image of musical keys occurred to me from something you'd said in an earlier post:

With his active imagination [the narrator] mirrors the agonies of love that Charles suffered, though on a minor scale, but still very painful to a young boy.

There does seem to be a musical aspect in this, as the same theme appears and re-appears, but transformed. Swann's pangs of jealously struck me as faintly comic: there was even a scene straight out of farce where Swann climbs up a ladder, Basil Fawlty style, to peer into a window. The idea of an aesthete and sophisticate reduced to such a level cannot be but funny. However, in such a level of obsession, there are also at least seeds of the sinister, and that comes back in full force, i think, in the later novel The Captive, in which the sexual jealousy and obsession becomes oppressive and deeply sinister.

When I was reading it, I didn't try to knit together the various references to external events to create a timeline: I tried to infer Marcel's age from his perceptions, and I didn't always find it easy. It is extraordinary, given the length and scope of the work, just how much is not stated directly that one might imagine would be basic information.

Is this for Saturday the 21st

Ooh, thanks,  Castorboy - would love to have a go at those.  Waitrose sell the Bonne Maman ones, which are delicious, but if I can get the moulds, they look quite easy to make.

I now have a copy of the book, rather than my Kindle version, and seem to be overcoming my reader's block, so hope to catch up with you and also post some thoughts before too much longer!  As I have the Scott Moncrieff version on my Kindle, I bought the new translation in book form, so I can compare them.  Thanks so much for your posts, and sorry I have left you to fend for yourself here despite my early enthusiasm!

Evie wrote:
I now have a copy of the book, rather than my Kindle version, and seem to be overcoming my reader's block, so hope to catch up with you and also post some thoughts before too much longer!  As I have the Scott Moncrieff version on my Kindle, I bought the new translation in book form, so I can compare them.  Thanks so much for your posts, and sorry I have left you to fend for yourself here despite my early enthusiasm!

Excellent news - I really need your thoughts on a novel which has really caught my imagination. I had this idea that he would be too difficult to understand, which at times he is - this is definitely a re-read not once but a multiple read novel - and yet once I got used to the flow of his words it has become an absolute pleasure. Although the one I am reading has been augmented by Terence Kilmartin I trust any changes in the text will be minor.

I don't think Conan Doyle would have anticipated that so many biographies of Sherlock Holmes would have been concocted from the limited details of his life and the unrecorded cases mentioned in the canon. I am guessing that not many fictional characters can inspire such affection and dedication that enthusiasts would want to supply more details that a author has left out or not thought important enough to include at the time.
In this spirit of affection I would like to give my speculations on a small detail in a novel that is dominating my reading, and will continue to do so, for the rest of the year.      

There is something not quite convincing about Marcel's obsessional love for Gilberte. His life has been restricted in that he is an only child, sickly at that, his hobby has been reading novels especially by Bergotte and he aspires to be a writer. He doesn't keep a diary, there is no mention of attendance at a school and his one friend is the socially awkward Bloch. Then at a young age, unspecified, he sees a girl (as it happens, Gilberte) in Combray and focusses on her as someone of his own age to love. Fair enough so far. Move forward ten years, still no friends, and then by accident he meets her in the Champs-Elysees and a friendship ensues. Every day they meet at the same time and he admits to himself that he loves her even when she doesn't say the same to him. In fact she boasts that she knows other boys whom she prefers but it still doesn't deter Marcel from metaphorically torturing himself over her disregard for his passion.

Is it because he is a typical loner who has just never had the chance to mix with people of his own age and share the same fears and joys of the growing up process? And would he really be able to explain his obsession by using words with such sophistry?  

So is there a link to the reason why Charles and Marcel's views of love, despite their different ages, are similar?
I wonder if that link can be found in the childhood reading of Marcel's. Suppose Charles unburdened his heart to his friend Bergotte, an ambitious novelist, on the agonies he is experiencing in his love life with Odette. Bergotte uses the material for a novel and makes the man's age much younger than Swann's in order to protect Swann's reputation. Ten years later Marcel, who had been told by Charles in Combray that Bergotte takes Gilberte to visit old towns and castles, remembers the novel, thinks it shows him how young people in love behave and feel so that when he meets Gilberte again he convinces himself that he must behave and feel in almost the same way towards her.

A whimsical solution and the more I read about the farcical antics of Swann whose thoughts and actions seem to be copied by the younger Marcel the more I think of Malvolio and Himadri's suggestion that he should be played by a younger man. Why not indeed.

At the beginning of the novel Marcel mentions seeing Mme Swann and a man in a suit of linen 'ducks' in Combray. Now I find that Odette badgered Swann for years to marry her and even stopped his contact with Gilberte unless he did so. Am I to treat Marcel as an unreliable narrator or accept that he was told a fib by his parents to cover the fact that Charles and Odette were not married at that particular time? I want to believe the latter; the alternative is that Marcel's account of his anguish over Gilberte could be suspect!

It's strange, isn't it, that although we are taken into the narrator's mind, and although the contents of the narrator's mind are described in such painstaking detail, there is so much we do not know about him! Proust tells us so much that other novelists wouldn't bother with, but at the same time, he holds back so much that any other novelist would, I think, have given us. I remember it bothering me that at no stage are we told the narrator's age: we have to figure that out for ourselves, and, given thatthe narrative covers a number of decades, this is not always easy. Indeed, we aren't even sure of the narrator's name (Proust tells us at one point that we may call him Marcel). Under the circumstances, your conjectures are not merely reasonable, they seem a lot more likelythan some of the things conjectured about Holmes & Watson!

And incidentally, I still do not know what precisely to make of that long narrative section in the first novel describing Sann in love. It's the only part of the section that doesn't involve Marcel. Is it still Marcel who is narrating this passage? if so, how can he know all this? If not, who is the narrator who has taken over for this section? It's all most confusing!

It's no good - I just have to read Paintings in Proust the beautifully produced book described by MikeH on his blog. The author Eric Karpeles has listed all the paintings mentioned by name along with others appropriate to a sequence in the novel. I was planning to wait till I had read the whole novel but as it is a library edition in three parts by the time I reached the end I would have to take them all out again! So now I am embarking on a mini art appreciation course which is doubling my enjoyment of Proust.

Early on in the section entitled Madame Swann at Home from Within A Budding Grove, Proust gives me two pieces of information one of which I consider useful, the other not. The narrator’s mother is giving a dinner party and regretting that Professor Cottard is not available. Now he and his wife are two of the most interesting people in this series, Proust knows it, so he assures me that I shall meet them again when the Verdurins arrange a party at their country house La Raspeliere. I  anticipate further pleasure from reading about them. But I did not need to know that an ambition of Swann to present his wife and child at a social function would not happen until after his death. I haven’t reached the part where he expresses such an ambition; it is possible it is a minor social meeting which Swann over dramatises or not but it is something I would have liked to have read about at the time rather than be told now what is to happen. I feel this is an example of Proust giving me more information than I need.

In this series of novels with many characters I have decided that Marcel is the one to focus on and that his memory or lack of memory, as he remembers it, is to be trusted. I don’t mind if his memory of certain events, conversations or judgements is a little inaccurate as long as I can believe that he is really trying to record his life in detail. So it was unusual that a significant episode in Paris was not fully explained.
Marcel even from his Combray days has expressed a wish to meet girls so that when he meets up with Bloch in Paris who promises those wishes can be met, Marcel agrees to frequent a brothel. Typically it is one that Bloch no longer uses – a fact he doesn't convey to Marcel. The house is rather sparsely furnished which prompts Marcel to give the mistress of the house items of furniture, including a large sofa, left to him by Aunt Leonie. Marcel recalls that it was on this very sofa that he exchanged a kiss with a female cousin years before and it is because of those fond memories that he decides not to return to the brothel.

Now I am wondering why he doesn't remember that it was Bloch's suggestion that Aunt Leonie at one time was a 'kept' woman that led to Marcel's parents banning Bloch from the house in Combray. Doesn't Marcel realise that subconsciously he may be confirming in his own mind that the suggestion is true by giving the furniture to a brothel?
And that a member of the family Uncle Adolphe ceased visiting his parents when Marcel had told them of arriving at Adolphe's home in Paris uninvited and finding his favourite uncle entertaining ladies of the demi-monde. Has he forgotten that his parents disapproved of Mme Swann for years because of her life as a courtesan? It all adds up to a strict moral family code of conduct to follow.

I suppose the adolescent Marcel has suppressed such uncomfortable thoughts now that Bloch seems to be showing him the pleasures of the flesh. He is also ignoring Bloch's suspicious use of the name M. Moreul when employed in the secretariat of the Ministry of Posts. The Permanent Secretary is M. Bontemps whose wife is a friend of the Swanns and even more significantly, their niece is the famous 'Albertine' who is forecast to be dreadfully 'fast' when she gets older. I think Bloch will be around to witness that behaviour.

Just as I can only conclude that Marcel is intrigued by Bloch and is prepared to remain friends with him despite indications that he could be leading Marcel into new and possibly uncomfortable situations.

There is also a dinner party in this section which has a significant effect for Marcel. His father has invited a colleague, M de Norpois who is deeply interested in the arts, to dine.
Marcel's father is conscious of his position as a diplomat in the service of a republican government. He works alongside the Marquis de Norpois an aristocrat with ministerial experience who has been kept on as an advisor in the years following the Franco-Prussian war. It is after discussing Marcel's ambition to be a writer rather than follow his father into diplomacy that M de Norpois suggests that a successful and influential career is possible in the arts. He also sees no objection to Marcel attending a performance of a play – an activity, because it was indoors, considered by the family to be of no help to anyone prone to sickness.

So to encourage Marcel's literary desires his father asks him to write something to show de Norpois when he arrives for dinner. To his horror he finds despite all the wonderful stuff going through his mind he cannot write anything. In desperation he shows de Norpois a prose poem he wrote years ago in Combray – and is devastated when it is dismissed without any comment. Why doesn't he question himself on that failure? It seems ever since he started to read he has wanted to create fiction. He can in his head but somehow he seems incapable of committing anything to paper. However later on in the section he writes a sixteen page letter to Swann about his deep friendship for Gilberte. Emotion succeeds where imagination fails him? Perhaps the answer is explained in a future volume.

Marcel has another reason to recall the dinner party as it was the afternoon of the same day that he went to a matinee to see Berma (based on Sarah Bernhardt?) in the play Phedre by Racine. He had always wanted to see the play after reading about it in a book by one of his favourite childhood writers, Bergotte; now he was actually going to see it! Accompanied by his grandmother (how humiliating for a teenager although she doted on him and was the one who encouraged him to take exercise in the fresh air) he had mixed emotions after the performance. He expected some life transforming insight and yet it didn't register. It wasn't till the play was discussed over dinner by de Norpois and his parents and had heard their views that he began to appreciate what he had seen.

Not a good day for Marcel as he finds he cannot express his feelings by either the written or spoken word when requested.

Castorboy, I have had to put aside Proust for the moment, as I just don't have the time and space to concentrate on him - but am loving your posts here, and once the next week is out of the way, I will have more leisure time, and will definitely be back on the Proust wagon.  I doubt if I will catch up with you now, but your posts will be my companions!  And of course I hope to add some of my own - even posting seems to take more mental energy than I have been able to muster recently.  Quieter times on the way, though - hurray!

Evie, I can connect with you on at least one aspect and that is that I couldn't read Proust when I was in full time work. There is so much to absorb on almost every page. The only way I could describe it is that Proust is a reading experience which requires time and concentration to appreciate what and why he is writing in this way.
This novel in eight or twelve parts requires a leisurely pace, and would I believe need a number of re-reads, a pace I do not mind and knowing you will contribute your views at some stage allows me to indulge my own fancies about the characters plus I find my enthusiasm has been augmented by checking the artistic references with Paintings in Proust, a book recommended by Mike H,

The dinner party may have been a disaster for Marcel; it was a triumph for Francoise. New to Paris she would be anxious to adjust to a changed routine. She is of peasant stock, very sure of the dignity of that stock but still aware that the aristocracy demand respect. She probably didn't like moving to Paris and would let the family know about it. The dinner must have been a revelation not just from the praise of de Norpois for her cooking; she proved to herself that she knew how to impress. She went herself to the Halles to procure the best cuts of rump-steak, shin of beef and calves'-feet as if she was a female Michelangelo choosing the perfect marble blocks from Carrara for her creations. Overnight she had cooked what she called a Nev'-York ham because she didn't think she had heard correctly and that the English dictionary couldn't include a York and a New York!

When Francoise first came to the family she was sent to several of the large restaurants to see how the cooking there was done. Marcel took great delight in hearing her dismiss the most famous of them as mere cookshops. No doubt buoyed by the praise of de Norpois who says he knows of no place where he can get cold beef and souffles as good as hers, she decides there is only one cafe that does know a bit about cooking (their souffles had plenty of cream). When pressed to name the cafe she can only remember it as being along the main boulevard, a little way back and having a very good family table. Marcel's father eventually identifies the one she means, the Cafe Anglais!

Her desire to speak to the workers of her own peasant class and to treat anything they say in a positive slant leads to an amusing encounter in the park in the Champs-Elysees where Marcel is accustomed to meet Gilberte. In the little pavilion converted into a series of water-closets Francoise has a conversation with the attendant of the place, an elderly dame with painted cheeks and an auburn wig. It turns out that her daughter has married 'a young man of family' which to Francoise meant that he was of a high rank and therefore the old dame was really a 'marquise' down on her luck!

I do find these garnishings of follies from Francoise enhance the already palatable portions from proust.

In the second and last section entitled Place-Names: The Place two years have passed since Marcel saw Gilberte and he is finally on his way to the long awaited holiday in Balbec on the Normandy coast accompanied by his grandmother and Francoise. Because the grandmother decides to break her journey half way to visit one of her friends Marcel is allowed to travel on and to meet up further down the railway line. Everything would have been fine except that Francoise has been sent on ahead with all the luggage to prepare the hotel rooms for them. Unfortunately the grandmother has given the wrong instructions and Francoise has boarded a train for Bordeaux. When he finally arrives at Balbec it is from his room over looking the sea that Marcel goes into rhapsodies with himself over the play of light on the waves, the blue peaks of the sea, the crests that crash down on the sand, tides which bring the water in close one day and then on another day take it far out to the horizon etc.  

This theme of aqueous observation is continued when he enters the dining room for the evening meals. There the concealed lighting creates the effect of a huge aquarium where through the outside glass wall the passing promenade walkers can watch the richly dressed occupants moving to and from the tables or catch the motions of individuals masticating like so many exotic fish served by the black-coloured fish going by the name of waiters.

So it is inevitable that when Marcel encounters a group of young girls who were for ever jumping, running or chasing each other along the sands, each different in dress, hair style or attractiveness that he immediately likens them to a shoal of darting and dazzling fish. He looks closely at one girl wearing a polo-cap pulled down low over her forehead with plump cheeks and brilliant, laughing eyes.
Her name is Albertine who along with another of the group, Andree, become the subjects of his main confessional and obsessional desires during the remaining time he spends in Balbec.

Among the guests at the Grand Hotel, Balbec, is a wealthy old lady of title the Marquise de Villeparisis a relative of the Guermantes family, the feudal lords of Combray. One day she asks Marcel how his father , the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry, is enjoying his holiday in Spain with M de Norpois (thus we find out that his father must be the civilian head of the Foreign Ministry) after losing their luggage. She is better informed than he is! However when Marcel develops a fever she takes him and his grandmother for daily rides in her private carriage. It is on one of these rides that he remembers that she was the lady who had given him a chocolate duck filled with chocolates when he was small.

The rides are suspended for the moment after the arrival of her nephew the young Marquis Robert de Saint-Loupe-en-Bray for a few weeks leave from his army training in a nearby town. Marcel imagines that he could be his best friend as he has qualities of intelligence and kind-heartedness. His appearance is startling; dressed in a suit of soft, whitish material and walking so fast that a monocle keeps dropping out of one of his sea-blue eyes and yet he is famed for his elegance.

It is not just Mme de Villeparisis who returns to the novel at this point – two more key characters are in Balbec each with his own role to perform in the continuing series. The first, Robert's uncle the disreputable Baron Palamede de Charlus, is recognised by Marcel as the man in a suit of linen 'ducks' in Combray in the garden of the Swanns' estate on that famous occasion when Marcel saw Gilberte and became infatuated with her. Back at the house and out of his hearing the family had talked over the rumour widely known in the village that Charlus was having an affair with Mme Swann.

Then there is the painter Elstir who has rented a viila nearby with a large studio to which Marcel is invited to visit. Whereupon he discovers a picture of an actress, a picture Elstir doesn't want his wife to see. It seems that in his younger days he knew the Verdurins and that he was the fashionable painter  who enjoyed arranging amorous liaisons between friends of patrons; he boasted that he had even arranged affairs between women! There is a four-letter word for men who arrange this kind of procurement but I don't think Proust lowers himself to provide the French equivalent. When I think back over all the sexual liaisons that appear in the novel, he is very discreet in his choice of words!

The adage a picture is worth a thousand words is demonstrated by Proust with his depiction of Estir's Carquethuit Harbour in just under that figure. I could 'see' the fishermen in their boats, the women gathering shrimps, the hulls of the boats reflected in the water. Eric Karpeles believes that the character of Elstir is modelled on James Whistler and Paul Hellue so I wonder if either of those artists did paint a Normandy harbour scene and thus provided an  inspiration for Proust.

At the beginning of chapter one of The Guermantes Way Marcel has returned from his holiday in Balbec and his obsession with Albertine and is living with his family in an apartment of the Guermantes mansion in Paris. In a matter of days Francoise is making friends of the servants while Marcel is imagining that he is in love with Mme de Guermantes.
My immediate thought was why? What happened to those desirable thoughts he had about Albertine? At a superficial glance there would seem to be a pattern in his behaviour. His adolescent mind focuses on Gilberte then agrees to part from her but cannot keep away from the Swann house because he now wants to become more familiar with Madame Swann even walking with her in the Bois de Boulogne and seeing himself as her escort. Then in Balbec and completely forgetting her, there are the group of girls to fantasize over. So I suppose it is perfectly logical that it is the turn of another older woman, Mme de Guermantes to occupy his mind. Maybe this fixation on women is the result of his nervous debility, the life of a neurasthenic that he has to endure.

One thing I am convinced of is that he has never had the experience of the act of physical intercourse. Yes he has been to a brothel with Bloch and he has seen women naked but he never describes his feelings, thoughts, sensations if such a personal contact had taken place. If it had I would have expected at least ten pages on the delights of sex and just as many on the feelings etc. of the woman. After all he can take, famously, a whole page to set forth the memories that arise when consuming a biscuit or, more recently, three pages on a description of a painting by Elstir. Anyway I am now satisfied that whatever obsessions and dreams he has about any woman he may meet in the novels to come the stimulus is going to be generated by his neurosis.

In the meantime I can enjoy the frequent moments of humour – in only eighteen lines he has an anecdote about a barber in the garrison town of Doncieres who persuades Saint-Loupe's commanding officer to grant Robert a leave pass merely by having an open razor very close to his exposed throat or to appreciate the four pages relating to a phone call for  Marcel's grandmother where he starts off not wishing to speak to her and finishes by wanting to ring her straight back when overcome by family devotion.
Green Jay

I've just found this thread and have enjoyed looking back over all your comments. I have only read the first volume, Swann's Way. It's the only one I own and I'm not sure I completed it. But this is a work I would love to retunr to when the time is right,and I could take time over it, too. (I'd need to ! Very Happy ) I have read the Combray section several times for various reasons. I was interested in the comments on translations; and think that, for me, a Kindle & Proust would not seem quite the right combination. I read bit of French but not nearly well enough to tackle something like this, though I'd love to look at a simultaneous translation.

On the whole translation is something that interests me, the decisions taken, the sense of a thing that cannot be quite got in another language. It's odd that one can find that at times, even when one is not terribly fluent in that language. I just read in the jokey bit of New Scientist about a translation of Henning Mankell that must have used an automatic programme for translating US English into UK English and ended up with the word "canmobileation". It sounds like a surgical procedure, but is just an insensitive glitch where the word "cell" for cell-phone has been switched to "mobile" for UK usage. The programme has found it within a word and made a substitution - I get this when I use find+replace on my word programme, but I'm then not doing it for publication. Preserve us from automatic translation!

I was able to keep going because I have the time; there is no way I could have concentrated on it when in full time work. There seems to be so much of interest on just about every page e.g. politics, writers, painters.
Among quite a few other literary blogs there is one  written by a French lady who is able to point out the different translations of some words in the original text.

It is during the phone call to his grandmother that Marcel has a premonition that all is not well with her health. He is content to talk about the happy times they had together both at Combray and Balbec but when her voice sounds faint over the line due to the distance between Doncieres and Paris it is easy to be apprehensive about her. Despite her plea that he remain where he is and further his writing career he decides to return to Paris where his grandmother's health is, indeed, alarming the family. The doctor advises a little exercise in the Champs-Elysees – joy to her as she had always even from the Combray days advised Marcel to walk in the fresh air – and they visit the little pavilion remembered from the days with Gilberte. It is on the way home that she suffers a stroke and he realises that she is so ill that she will not recover. Her death concludes chapter (or part) one and its 350 pages with these sentences:

As in the far-off days when her parents had chosen for her a bridegroom, she had the features, delicately traced by purity and submission, the cheeks glowing with a chaste expectation, with a dream of happiness, with an innocent gaiety even, which the years had gradually destroyed. Life in withdrawing from her had taken with it the disillusionments of life. A smile seemed to be hovering on my grandmother's lips. On that funeral couch, death, like a sculptor of the Middle Ages, had laid her down in the form of a young girl.

Just prior to his grandmother's last illness there is an indication that Marcel is going to face another very personal emotional challenge.  Mme de Guermantes' brother-in-law and Robert's uncle the disreputable Baron Palamede de Charlus, offers to guide his life by means of daily instruction in the arts of diplomacy. But Marcel already has this knowledge through the position of his father in the civil service. From his writer's point of view Marcel would surely find it more informative to have experience of the working conditions of the artisan or peasant class. An invitation from the waistcoat-maker Jupien to spend days with him for instance. The illness of his grandmother gives Marcel time to decide whether to take up Charlus' offer. However, there is one condition he has to agree to – that he will not tell his family of the offer. Twice Charlus  urges Marcel not to tell anyone, to keep it confidential despite it being a disinterested and charitable proposal he is making. Why the secrecy? Is there is something rather ominous about this condition?

As in previous novels in the series there are the set-pieces where Marcel can observe and record the demeanour of people;  a night at the theatre where the marks of decorum are decided by those in the private boxes; a day, not at the races, but at the bases where Robert and the other officers are on maneuvers with the soldiers followed by dining and revelry at Robert's hotel. All of this puts Marcel in a love happy mood!

Near the beginning of Cities of the Plain, a more mature Marcel meets Charles Swann on a regular basis and it is during one of those meetings that he recalls how he hated Swann  in the Combray days when he dined with his parents and deprived him of a goodnight kiss from his mother. Now with Swann becoming a sick man Marcel remembers how he felt all those years ago:

Certainly, with that face of his from which, under the influence of his disease, whole segments had vanished, as when a block of ice melts and whole slabs of it fall off, he had of course “changed’. But I could not help being struck by the much greater extent to which he had changed in relation to myself. Admirable and cultured as he was, a man I was anything but bored to meet, I could not for the life of me understand how I had been able to invest him long ago with such mystery that his appearance in the Champs-Elysees in his silk-lined cape would make my heart beat to the point where I was ashamed to approach him, and that at the door of the flat where such a being dwelt I could not ring the bell without being overcome with boundless agitation and alarm. All this had vanished not only from his house but from his person and the idea of talking to him might or might not be agreeable to me, but had no effect whatever upon my nervous system.

Now that Marcel is a man about town it is somewhat surprising that he is unaware of the homosexuality amongst some of the people he knows.
It is the theme of this novel, a theme explained in a long section where Proust describes such males and females as a man-woman in a sympathetic, precise and compassionate way. Another word he uses for them is invert which is a kinder term than any of the ‘popular’ words used today. These descriptions of how inverts are an accident of nature and how they cope with life are so informative that the scientific and clinical explanations centred purely around faulty genes seem inadequate and lacking in humanity when applied to people.

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