Sunday, 21 January 2007

How Proust Really Did Save My Life

Things were bad. Very, very bad. My father was supportive but, never one to 'emote', instead gave me a book by way of comfort: Volume I of A La Recherche du Temps Perdus. (Yes, in French. My father would have asumed I'd want to go straight to the original. I was just lucky he didn't decide to give me Vergil's Aeneid.) At Easter, finding myself unexpectedly and unaccountably dumped on a caravan site in Wales, for company a four-year-old and two Golden Retrievers, one with a fractured leg, I opened the book. I read the first sentence: Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.' That line haunts me still, after 40 years.

I was so completely engrossed, from that opening sentence, that the pain and turmoil of real life receded; I inhabited another world, where memory and experience were constantly interwoven in a way that echoed my recollections of my own childhood. I acknowledge that this was escapism - but of a high order. And sometimes, one has to escape to survive.

My father had over-estimated my schoolgirl grasp of French, so I had to work hard at translating as I went along. Needless to say, there was no French dictionary to be found on a wet Easter week-end in rural Wales. As soon as I got back to London I explained to my father that I just HAD to read this book - but please would he get me an English version. Scott Moncrieff duly arrived the following week.

Yes, I know that Montcrieff has been accused of deviating from the literal interpretation of the work, and that the quotations used as titles for the different volumes are fanciful and sometimes bear little resemblance to the original (and yet, and yet - as a translation of A L'Ombre des Jeune Filles en Fleure doesn't 'Within a Budding Grove' capture the romantic spirit of the original far better than the literal 'In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower'?) ; and I know that there have since been other more literal translations, but I have a sentimental attachment to my 1960s editions of Montcrieff and I don't believe he has taken me too far astray from the meaning and intention of the original. I have, also, dipped into the French version from time to time, but am ashamed to report that my French isn't much better today than it was then so I still do my re-reading in English.

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