Impressions de la recherche

Although my knowledge of French literature is rather shamefully fragmentary, I’ve at least, this year, managed to close one gap: I read À la recherche du temps perdu between January and last week-end. This was where I found a very funny allusion to esoteric monographs (it’s in the second book, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs).

Did I like the book? This is probably far from the right question to ask in any case, but it’s therefore worth investigating in a post-modern spirit. Since I finished the whole of the seven volumes in about seven months, during which time I had to take care of many other activities, and also started (and often stopped) reading a fair number of other books, I was certainly finding something in Proust that kept me engaged in his work.

One technical aspect of Proust’s style that struck me was how he manages to capture the way that crucial events or characters will first appear informally and casually in life. Here’s for example the first time the narrator meets Gilberte while playing at the Champs-Élysées:

Retournerait-elle seulement aux Champs-Élysées? Le lendemain elle n’y était pas; mais je l’y vis, les jours suivants; je tournais tout le temps autour de l’endroit où elle jouait avec ses amies, si bien qu’une fois où elles ne se trouvèrent pas en nombre pour leur partie de barres, elle me fit demander si je voulais compléter leur camp, et je jouai désormais avec elle chaque fois qu’elle était là.

And here is the first appearance of the jeunes filles, among whome is Albertine:

J’aurais osé entrer dans la salle de balle, si Saint-Loup avait été avec moi. Seul je restai simplement devant le Grand-Hôtel à attendre le moment d’aller retrouver ma grand-mère, quand, presque encore à l’extrémité de la digue où elles faisaient mouvoir une tâche singulière, je vis s’avancer cinq ou six fillettes, aussi différentes, par l’aspect et par les façons, de toutes les personnes auxquelles on était accoutumé à Balbec, qu’aurait pu l’être, débarquée on ne sait d’où, une bande de mouettes qui exécute à pas comptés sur la plage — les retardataires rattrapant les autres en voletant — une promenade dont le but semble aussi obscur aux baigneurs qu’elles ne paraissent pas voir, que clairement déterminé dans leur esprit d’oiseaux.

This comes with no warning or no articifial build-up of something is going to happen, drumroll, drumroll.

I was also very touched by the last pages, which certainly affected my overall impression and reaction in a way that I’ve only felt before when finishing Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (after which I went into a rather intense faulknerian phase during my PhD years). It seems that to understand Proust (as much as I can…), I would have to re-read the whole text, in the light of these last pages. Is that the expected reaction? It could well be… Will I do it? Who knows…

On a different note, I was amused to see that while the first Pléiade edition is a rather straightforward edition of the novel with short notes and biographical information (rather like the Library of America editions of Faulkner, for instance), the second edition succombs

Proust, compared
Proust, compared

to editorial inflation on a magnificent scale: the variants, esquisses, notes and notes on the esquisses, take up more space than the actual text!

Here is the first volume of the old edition:


compared with the second of the new edition:


This can of course be helpful, as are certainly useful the 125 pages of Liste des personnages cités which allow you to quickly locate all the places where Rembrandt, or the Marquis de Norpois, or Saint Simon, or any other character, real or imagined, makes an appearance in the whole text.


(There is a similar list for names of places and names of works of arts, again real or imagined).

Another thing I noticed is that the first edition doesn’t use accented letters as capitals at the beginning of sentences, while the second does:

No accent
No accent

compared with

Second, accented
Second, accented

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

3 thoughts on “Impressions de la recherche”

  1. Congratulations! Not many people can claim they have read the entire work! (I haven’t yet.) You are lucky that you can read it in the original French and don’t have to agonize over which translation to read. I had to spend a lot of time researching translations of Hugo in order to avoid all the garbage. I found a good translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (Lydia Davis), but I see a lot of complaints about translations of his other novels.

    Do you see À la recherche du temps perdu as a single coherent novel divided into many parts as volumes, or is it a somewhat looser structure?

    I would wait a while before re-reading the entire text. Several months ago I finished reading the six major novels of Victor Hugo (along with two biographies of the author and two books of literary criticism). All six of the works left me somewhat stunned with powerful images and ideas, and I realized as I finished them that I would have to re-read the novels sometime in the future. As time went on, I began to realize that the individual works are not completely discrete stories, and they began to coalesce in my mind into a whole much greater than their parts. Even his infamous digressions seemed to make more sense and take on greater value. The experience seems to age and acquire complexity with time. But what is the optimum age at which to open the bottle?

    The translations that I read had a lot of end-notes; Les Misérables had 135 pages of end-notes by itself. All the notes did slow down the reading a bit, but did in fact enhance the experience by providing context that I would otherwise be missing.

    I believe that there is a book published in English specifically about all the art work mentioned in À la recherche du temps perdu.

  2. Totally unrelated, but given your taste for literature, here’s a funny english appropriation seen on wikipedia that I can’t help mention (I had seen the word used as a noun several times, but not as a verb in the past tense yet, surprising): “Ground controllers rendezvoused Rosetta with Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 6 August 2014.”

  3. That “rendez-voused” is rather funny…

    This reminds me somehow that Proust uses a few times the word “téléphonage” to mean “a phone call”…

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