Proustians can’t get enough of Proust, no matter how often they return to A la recherche du temps perdu – not, probably (certainly in my case), embarking on the journey from the first sentence and continuing to the terminus, but rather dipping into the novel to read one or two hundred pages, an experience that is in itself, if you first read Proust when you were in the eager flush of youth and capable of unbridled enthusiasm, a recapturing of time lost. Somerset Maugham, who claimed to have read the whole novel five times, three times in French and twice in English, or perhaps the other way round, once said he would rather be bored by Proust than delighted by lesser writers. As we grow older, some of the philosophical and analytical passages are likely to be skipped. An essential truth one may have missed in the first impassioned reading, however, is that Proust, like the Joyce of Ulysses, is essentially a comic novelist, and that some of the dialogue that one first took to be serious is as gloriously exaggerated and funny as anything in Dickens. Proust is without doubt wonderfully intelligent, but he is also comic and charming.
Comedy and charm are the characteristics of Proust’s recently discovered ‘Letters to the Lady Upstairs’, now published by Fourth Estate in a deft translation by Lydia Davis, who supplies an afterword (the foreword is by Jean-Yves Tadié, Proust’s best French biographer). Madame Marie Williams lived two floors above Proust on Boulevard Haussmann, while her husband, an American dentist, had his surgery immediately above the bedroom where Proust passed his days and nights writing and suffering from appalling asthma. Some of the letters are concerned with the building work being done and the noise, which Proust found intolerable. But rather than complaints, the letters contain requests that the work be done when the noise might disturb him least. They are invariably polite and the requests are also accompanied with gossip, reflections on his work in progress and flowery compliments.
Mme Williams’s own letters have disappeared, sadly; one would like to have both sides of the correspondence. According to Proust’s devoted housekeeper, Céleste Albaret, the two never met, though there is talk in the letters of when a meeting might some day be possible, if his health permitted it. Yet there is affection and humour, and it is clear that Proust was happily engaged in a epistolary amitié amoureuse. The letters must have been delightful to receive, assuming that Marie Williams could read Proust’s sprawling handwriting and get over his disregard for punctuation.
The recent revelation that Proust organised and paid for favourable, even adulatory, reviews of the first volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, Swann’s Way, even writing some himself, have occasioned a good deal of tut-tutting. A number of letters written by Proust to his editor surfaced with a rare copy of Swann’s Way, which has just been auctioned at Sotheby’s in Paris. In them, Proust supplies glowing reviews of his book (a ‘little masterpiece’ which ‘like a gust of wind blows away the soporific vapours’ of other contemporary writing) and asks his editor to type them up ‘so there is no trace of my handwriting’.
Of course it’s not unknown for authors to review their own works. Walter Scott did so at least once (though he amused himself by being sharply critical), and so did Anthony Burgess. Proust’s determination to get good publicity for his novel is easily defensible. Two publishers, Fasquelle and Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF), had turned it down. NRF did so because, as André Gide sniffily told Proust’s friend Prince Antoine Bibesco, ‘we publish serious books. There can be no question of our bringing out something like this, the work of a fashionable dandy.’
Actually, if we are to believe Albaret, the people at NRF hadn’t read the book and hadn’t even opened the parcel containing the manuscript. She knew this because Nicolas Cottin, Proust’s valet, who tied the string on the parcel, ‘was something of an artist with knots, with a particular and more or less inimitable style’, and it was returned ‘intact’, with Nicolas’s peculiar knots as they were when it had been dispatched. This caused Proust ‘a good deal of amusement. He always laughed when he told me about it.’ As for Gide, Proust, ‘his eyes sparkling with irony’, told Albaret, ‘my camellia boutonnière had probably made him and his friends imagine I was good for nothing’. In the end Proust had to pay for the publication of Swann’s Way himself. He knew he had written something that was both unusual and great. It’s understandable that he should have had no scruples in doing whatever he could to make sure it was noticed. In any case, it was by no means uncommon in France then for authors to arrange that their books be given to reviewers who would praise them; it’s not unknown today in England either, of course.
How should you read Proust? In French, obviously, if you can. Yet, even if your French is good enough to enable you to read Balzac, Stendhal or indeed Gide with ease and pleasure, you may find Proust, with his sentences that sometimes extend over more than one page as luxuriantly as a Virginia creeper may cover a wall, hard going. The classic translation by Charles Scott Moncrieff was made from a text that, in the later volumes especially, was imperfect; the translation has been subsequently well revised by Terence Kilmartin and D J Enright. Yet their versions were brought out in three fat volumes and are rather daunting. A twelve-volume edition of Scott Moncrieff’s translation, published by Chatto & Windus in the 1950s, is beautifully printed and elegant, and far more reader-friendly than any subsequent edition, no matter what mistakes Scott Moncrieff may have made.
That’s how I first read Proust in my last year at Cambridge. I was urged to read him by my friend David Kenrick. I immersed myself in the novel, neglecting all the work I should have been doing. Then, night after night, David and I would talk Proust for hours. It was one of the most exciting months of my life. So when I am in the mood for Proust, it’s always one of these twelve volumes to which I return. Anyone coming to Proust for the first time could do worse than to seek out that Chatto & Windus edition and take it at a gallop, without being afraid to engage in what Sir Walter Scott called ‘the laudable practice of skipping’ – first time round, anyway.