In search of ‘English Proust’

Can the Recherche be adapted and remain Proust? And should it really be seen as therapy?

“Portrait of Marcel Proust”, 1892, by Jacques-Émile Blanche

Writing to his publisher Gaston Gallimard, Proust opted for an unusually crisp register: “I refuse to let the English destroy my work.” He was protesting at translator C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s use of a pretty Shakespeare quotation (Remembrance of Things Past) for his analytically more precise title (À la recherche du temps perdu), not to mention the now iconic but misleading Swann’s Way (for Du côté de chez Swann). He softened, though his subsequent communications with Scott Moncrieff himself are best represented as polite rather than cordial. Scott Moncrieff remains nevertheless the true hero in the story of Proust in English, and any bad feeling on Proust’s part is a mere bagatelle compared to how he would have felt about John Middleton Murry’s unintelligible proposition: “No English reader will get more out of reading ‘Du côté de chez Swann’ in French than he will out of reading ‘Swann’s Way’ in English.” It is, alas, the sort of thing that also infected Conrad, who came up with the lunatic claim that Moncrieff’s Proust was superior to Proust’s Proust.

In short, where the reception of Proust is concerned, the English have form. It would be a truth pretty well universally acknowledged that À la recherche du temps perdu is a “masterpiece” were, for example, it not for the undiluted nonsense of Evelyn Waugh. In a letter to John Betjeman, he wrote of Proust, “the chap was plain barmy”. His barminess, Waugh maintained, consisted in being constitutionally unable or wilfully refusing to narrate things in the right order. In another letter, joshing with Nancy Mitford, Waugh casts the barmy chap as a lamebrain simpleton: “I am reading Proust for the first time—in English of course—and am surprised to find him a mental defective. No one warned me of that. He has absolutely no sense of time.” Proust suffered from all manner of ailments, but dyschronometria certainly wasn’t one of them. The challenge here lies in swallowing one’s astonishment at the number of times Brideshead Revisited has been described as “Proustian” without throwing up.

There have of course been notable and even noble exceptions. Eton and Oxford educated, but wonderfully impervious to the narcissistic strain of English exceptionalism, Anthony Powell was a confessed disciple. One’s heart goes out to Cyril Connolly: “I tried to talk like Proust, think like Proust, and write like Proust, and had to destroy it all later.” In the early years of English fandom, there was a lot of epiphanic swooning over madeleines (in the draft manuscript it was originally a biscotte, while Proust himself much preferred croissants). But there was also a class aspect to this, bound up with notions of “good taste”. Virginia Woolf’s adulation of an exquisitely refined Proust had in part to do with her supercilious detestation of that disgustingly vulgar James Joyce (“a self-taught workingman” and “ultimately nauseating”). I wonder what Woolf made of Albertine’s “casser . . . le pot” or the audible grunts of the coupling of Charlus and Jupien alongside the masturbating Leopold Bloom.

And then there is that later English Proust, the one allegedly good for your mental health. I can well imagine Proust laughing out loud at the tale of a student friend of mine whose cure for chronic insomnia wasn’t Proust’s (a cocktail of drugs which came close to killing him), but Proust: the first page of the Recherche, itself about falling asleep and waking up, was enough to send him off.

On the other hand, I very much doubt that Proust would have been well disposed to How Proust Can Change Your Life, the point of which can only be that the Recherche is best understood as a contribution to the genre of the self-help manual. Proust falling out of his bed in the cork-lined room when presented with the notion that he might be of some use in couple-therapy, as the author of a primer on “how to be happy in love” is one thing. But an irrecoverable loss of the will to live would surely have been the response to the suggestion that his book could plausibly be read as offering a lesson in “how to suffer successfully”. Alas, this sort of thing still clings to the reception of Proust, including the reception of the most recent incarnation of English Proust, the ambitious and admirable BBC radio adaptation broadcast last year

Adaptation confronts its makers with the risky business of abbreviation. Prima facie, compressed Proust is not just a problem but a contradiction in terms. From story to syntax, Proust’s is an art of expansion, detour and return that locks the reader into the repeated experience of forgetting and remembering, losing and (re)finding—the very things the novel is fundamentally about. Yet only the purist intent on putting adaptation out of business is going to use this as a sort of veto. Ellipsis (a figure often used by Proust himself) is simply an unavoidable function of the conventions of the adapting medium. For example, the only film maker who aimed at doing the whole thing on screen was Joseph Losey, an ambition sadly unfulfilled because the funding wasn’t there. What remains of the project is the screenplay by Harold Pinter (described as a million and a half words brought down to 455 shots). It is a brilliant mosaic of fragments as well as a miracle of reduction to a form of Pinteresque dialogue, but with the inevitable question: is this Pinterised Proust, and, if so, what do we feel about such a creature?

The 2019 BBC radio adaptation is also a reduction, in the form of a radio play in ten parts with a voice-over narrator. It is an example of what in broadcasting parlance is now called the Long Listen, a niche marketing term, but which here also expresses solidarity with a higher cause, as a gesture on behalf of what Proust’s great work asks of its reader: to find time for his intricate exploration of time. “Who has the time to sit down and read Proust cover to cover?” is the question put by the adaptation’s director, Celia de Wolff. It is a fair question, though whether what she calls “event radio” provides what she also terms “something comprehensive” depends on what you mean by the latter. Where the plot of the Recherche is concerned, what we get is basically a structured anthology of the key stages and turning-points in the story of a young man exiting boyhood, embarking on a “search”, and who, after multiple digressions and much delay, completes the quest in the equation of the “true life” with the discovery of the artistic vocation. In short, a skeletal narrative compendium which effectively places the work in a tradition to which it indubitably belongs—that of the European Bildungsroman, the genre of the “initiation” novel, but with most of the detours excised.

However, the play’s the thing, and it’s thus best to look beyond the bare bones of story line to the real core of the production: the dramatic personae and the acting. The cast itself is stellar and the quality of the acting for the most part excellent. The Proust snobs are terrific, with a scintillating Oriane de Guermantes and a hilarious Madame Verdurin, along with a magnificently pompous Norpois. Simon Russell Beale’s rendering of Charlus (sometimes called Proust’s Falstaff; the analogy has its limits) is stupendous. On first appearance there is an alarming hint of English sitcom bonhomie but it’s a false alarm. Beale gives us the full-works Charlus: amiable, witty, seductive, outrageous, haughty, abject, demented, and finally broken. It’s an unforgettable performance, climaxing in the at once affecting and absurd roll-call of the now dead gents and aristos who have cropped up here and there throughout the course of the novel: “Hannibal de Bréaute, dead! Antoine de Mouchy, dead! Charles Swann, dead! Adalbert de Montmorency, dead! Boson de Talleyrand, dead! Sosthène de Doudeauville, dead!” Doudeauville? It’s the name of a town and an erstwhile ancestral estate, but you have to believe this one came to Proust while in dodoland.

The elephant in the room is of course that artistically difficult and complicated beast: the Narrator who is also a character evolving in the time of the narrative. The character “Marcel” (a naming that opens a whole can of worms) is divided between two actors, the boy Marcel and the older narrator. The former is unfortunately all too often stamped with (ha!) a Brideshead inflection; the childhood world of Combray is a cosseted one, but the boy didn’t attend Eton. The latter falls to one of our greatest living actors, Derek Jacobi, who brings his hugely versatile gifts to bear on two key dimensions of the narrating voice: rhythm and register. The key challenge is Proust’s notoriously elaborate syntax. Jacobi provides a master class in how to navigate these hypotactic structures. First comes rhythmic modulation as “melody” (what Proust called “the melody of the song beneath the words”). But there is also something else, linked to Proust’s life-long breathing difficulties. Walter Benjamin shrewdly observed that “asthma became part of his art . . . Proust’s syntax rhythmically and step by step reproduces his fear of suffering”. Benjamin’s point is that as we read we hear someone listening to himself breathing as he writes and sometimes pausing for breath. Jacobi gives a hint of this with beautifully placed mini-hesitations. It qualifies as one of the finest tributes a practising artist could pay to another.

With a work like Proust’s, “adaptation”, however carefully it combines the inventive and the sensitive, will always be a problem. Yet, when all is said and done, and given the constraints, this is a signal achievement, an authentic and valuable contribution to the story of “English Proust”. Where there is genuine cause not just for lament but for outright lamentation is the spectacle of the commentariat reaching yet again for therapeutic Proust. One reviewer saw fit to consult a specialist in “psychology” assuring us of the incomparable benefits to be had from the interaction of “epic audio” and “neural response”. But the specialist then ups the ante with the claim that there is greater “richness to a voice than there is to plain text”. This would have bemused Proust, who wrote ardently of silent reading as what brings us to “the threshold of spiritual life”. Whatever the neural benefits of listening, the passive consumption of the latter is no match for the more arduous but rewarding challenge of reading. Recall the Gallimard ad for its collection of the classics, the poster featuring a young woman lost in the Recherche and with the caption: “Soyez jeune, lisez la Pléiade”. The clue is in the word “lisez”.

In the meantime, as counter measures to what in another connection Samuel  Beckett termed “pitiless therapeutic bombardment”, there’s always the Monty Python “All-England Summarise Proust Competition”, that gloriously anarchic parody, the Recherche as if edited by an English Ubu Roi. Or if your thing for stress relief is a short, sharp shock to the neural pathways, we can go all in, with a Proust in the service of English poetry. When in 2015 Al Johnson (some call him Boris) announced his intention of becoming an MP again, writer Nick Tyrone marked the moment with a poem organised around four basic components: Johnson’s statement of intent to run; a substantial chunk of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech; a list of “10 top things to do in London”, and—the jewel in the crown—“a random section of text from Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu”. But if this is all too much, calmer shores beckon courtesy of Proust himself. I began my listening Odyssey by doing what Proust famously describes in the very first sentence of his novel: I went to bed early.