Magazine article The Spectator

Proust on Tape

Magazine article The Spectator

Proust on Tape

Article excerpt

Cover to Cover have now produced the first 32 tapes of Proust, read by John Rowe, who is brilliant-, if a little too fast at times, he keeps you going through any longueurs that the early chapters may contain. He can be faulted on fewer pronunciations than almost anyone, though I was disconcerted by Benozzo Gozzoli pronounced like Gorgonzoli. His French names are faultless, which is what matters. The translation is the old one by Scott Moncrieff, perhaps because he is a great panjandrum, and Proust's first translator, or because Penguin may have demanded too much for Terry Kilmartin's version which I had always heard was far better than the knobbly old Scotsman's, which certainly seems to make some mistakes. I seemed to hear of ultramine pears, which are unlikely.

The first I knew of Proust was when I left school and came across an article which quoted the sentence: 'Le temps des lilacs approchait de sa fin.' That has stuck in my mind ever since but I failed to identify it in this reading. I have always read Proust in the three fat volumes of the Pleiades, mostly on those endless trains from London to Athens which were laughably called expresses. But I gave away the second volume to a Greek friend and I now find almost the whole story unwinding as if it were quite new to me.

Proust is terribly long and 32 tapes by no means exhaust him. Though he never corrected the last part of his novel, it has an enchantment unique in literature. One begins rather unwillingly but, setting aside the experience of readers, what it offers to listeners is a series of great, broad sweeps in which the lies are as thrilling as the true parts.

This brings us to the difficulty that much of Proust has been commented on and analysed with such learning that one believes one can see through every falsehood. And yet I do not know whether his seaside town is really Cabourg, which is not far enough from Paris, and the disguise of boys he was in love with as girls seems to me perfectly convincing. I do not suppose his attempt on Albertine's virtue stands for an attempt to rape Albert.

There are some very queer trailing ends and contradictions, but they do not matter. The character of Swann is crucial. We are admitted to the circle of Madame Verdurin through Swann's eyes and yet Proust seems to know everything that went on there: even Odette has few secrets from him. Here the translation may be at fault, because Proust's laughter is subtle and, as I recollect it, subtler in French than in this version which is like thick porridge. He uses Madame Verdurin's attempt at a salon as a fish-pool for his later characters. She has a musician who begins as a joke but ends as a composer of important talent, and a painter who is equally ridiculous at first who ends up an important figure in Proust's seaside town. None of this matters; it is only the wonderful mix-up that does. The sentence that most thrilled me was about the decline of elegance in the Bois, when suddenly there were no more carriages with fine ladies but only a long stream of motors, every one driven by a chauffeur with a footman in full regalia sitting upright beside him.

A lot has been made of Proust's Jewishness, and he is one of those unfortunates who lived through the Dreyfus case, but it may be important to notice that he is supposed to be a third-generation Christian ('Some people say,' mutters an old lady, 'that they are the worst') and so is his friend Bloc, who is further down the social scale, and a terrifying snob. He calls his seaside town Baalbek, and we get a chapter of some unpleasantness about the behaviour of the sub-world of Jews there. …

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