Monday, September 11, 2006


Cross-posted at Involuntary Memory

Yesterday I wrote about the odd introduction to my edition of Dracula; today I read another introduction, this time to Proust's In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, written by James Grieve, the volume's translator and editor. This introduction was a little more traditional and less amusing than the Dracula introduction, but it had some odd moments too. Grieve tells us in the first paragraph that "Inclined to see this volume as a 'listless interlude,' Proust was surprised that 'everyone's reading it.'" Well, that's going to get readers excited about the book, isn't it? I'm guessing that the book won't feel like a "listless interlude" -- the first ten pages certainly don't feel that way, which is what I've read so far -- but I do wonder what made Proust see it that way.

But much odder is Grieve's rather-too-intense focus on Proust's shortcomings as a storyteller. In a short introduction, about 8 pages, he spends 3 or 4 describing Proust's inconsistencies and carelessness with detail. Part of the point, I think, is to discuss the troubles a translator faces when trying to figure out whether to correct an obvious and glaring error or to leave it there. Here is a passage on Proust's weaknesses:

Among the great novelists, as a bungler of basics Proust has no equal, save perhaps Henry James ... [James] seems unskilled in introducing his characters to his reader, and in enabling characters to converse. In similar things, Proust too seems incompetent, or perhaps an improviser ... His composition was not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even. He can make heavy weather of simple movements: characters get stood roughly into position so that the next demonstration may take place; action must be performed perfunctorily, so that protracted analysis of it may ensue; the narrator seems to say farewell to Elstir at his front door, yet two pages later is walking him home. Proust shows, it has been said, "utter nonchalance" about "loss of fictional verisimilitude."
Now it makes perfect sense to me than an introduction-writer might point out some of the author's flaws, but Grieve emphasizes them too much I think. After the above passage, he proceeds to offer pages of Proust's errors and lapses and inconsistencies, things that could have been left to the footnotes. So maybe Grieve doesn't need to work to convince us that Proust is great -- we already know he is -- but on the other hand he doesn't need to work so hard to convince us that Proust is sloppy!

But when Grieve writes about Proust's strengths, he does so very well. I like this explanatory passage:

Proust was intermittently unsure whether he was writing an essay or a novel. Here is a novel written by a critic and literary theorist, both a novel in the form of an essay and an essay on the novel. Proust must not only show but tell, tell rather than show, tell at the expense of showing; he must make the reader, who may wish only to revel in the fiction, admit the truthfulness of its fictionality.

This sounds exactly like the kind of book I like (although I like more traditional sorts of novels too -- very much so), with its mix of essayistic and storytelling modes, and it helps me understand what Proust is up to -- telling a story and meditating on stories both. And this passage might make you want to read the novel, although then again it might just depress you. I liked it anyway:

Proust's real strengths lie in his analysis of the ordinary, his close acquaintance with feelings, the pessimism of his examination of consciousness, his diagnosis of the unreliability of relationships and the incoherence of personality, his attentiveness to the bleak truths he has to tell of time, of its unrelenting wear and tear, its indifferent outlasting of all human endeavor, its gradual annulment of our dearest joys and even our cruelest sorrows, voiding them of all that once made them ours. Life, as Proust tells it, is disappointment and loss -- loss of time, as his title says, and loss of youth of course; loss of freshness of vision, of belief, of the semblance it once gave to the world; and loss of self, a loss against which we have only one safeguard, and that unsure: memory.