Arthur Goldhammer on Proust’s Masterpiece as a Graphic Novel

Arthur Goldhammer on ProustTo adapt Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, as a graphic novel? As they say in French, c’est pas évident; it’s not obvious at first blush that such a feat can be pulled off. Proust is famous for his long, complicated sentences and his philosophical ruminations on the passage of time,the nature of art, and the elusiveness of memory. He is a painter in words, whose verbal artistry is bound to outshine any attempt at visual representation. Yet when I was approached to translate the text of Stéphane Heuet’s adaptation of Proust, I hesitated for only a moment. To a lover of Proust, the appeal was obvious.

But what about the reader? Who will want to read this book, and how should they approach it? In a review of the French version of Heuet’s adaptation, the critic Michael Wood imagined that the typical reader would be a person who had always dreamed of reading Proust but had been put off, perhaps, by the author’s daunting reputation for difficulty or by the sheer magnitude of the undertaking. I expect—I hope—that new readers will be drawn to my favourite writer by the promise of the gentle introduction this text offers. But gentleness is not the only virtue of Heuet’s adaptation. The ruthless compression required to squeeze Proust’s expansive sentences into the confining frames of a graphic novel yields an unexpected benefit: it sheds a revealing light on the book’s armature, on the columns, pillars, and arches that support the narrator’s resurrected memories as the columns of the church in Combray support the stained glass and tapestries that transport visitors into the past they represent.

Proust’s regained time does not unfold in chronological order. Memory is cunning. It doesn’t disclose what it knows all at once. Even the involuntary memory by which Proust sets such great store refuses to unveil its truth straightaway. It tantalizes, as the view of an enticing landscape tantalizes the traveller discovering it for the first time: the beauty of the whole can be taken in at a glance, but the particular aspects that the whole encompasses must be explored patiently, sequentially, one by one, and then knitted together again into the composite whose alluring unity motivated the search to begin with. Proust likens the memory of the town of Combray, which the narrator often visited as a child but which has “died” for him until he dips the plump cake known as a madeleine into his tea, to one of those Japanese paper novelties that blossom when immersed in water: “And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by taking a porcelain bowl full of water and dipping in it small, seemingly shapeless bits of paper, which, the moment they touch the water, expand, assume new shapes, take on colour and variety, and turn into flowers, houses, or people, substantial and recognizable, so, now, did all the flowers of our garden and of Swann’s estate and the water lilies of the Vivonne and the good people of the village and their little homes and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings take shape and solidity, a whole town and all its gardens emerging suddenly from my cup of tea.” But for us, Proust’s readers, Combray would remain a mere novelty, a Japanese water flower rather than an object of art, if Proust didn’t walk us through the memory of his aunt’s garden and Swann’s estate and the water lilies and the “good people” of the village step by step, taking us by the hand and introducing us one after another to the people and buildings and even the flora and fauna, the water lilies of the Vivonne and Mme Sazerat’s stray dog.

As we discover Combray through Marcel’s eyes, we find that his life there as a child is centred, as most children’s lives are, on his family, but we also find ourselves repeatedly taking surprising detours. In order to explain why he no longer enters a small sitting room formerly used by his uncle Adolphe, the narrator jumps backwards in time and several hundred miles in space, and we are introduced to Uncle Adolphe in the company of a beautiful denizen of the demi-monde, whose presence in his Paris apartment leads to a break between Adolphe and the rest of the family, thus accounting for his banishment from the house in Combray. Adolphe then reappears in the next section of the novel, “Swann in Love”, when he is enlisted as an intermediary between Swann and another disreputable beauty, Odette de Crécy, with whom Swann is obsessed and on whom, we learn, Uncle Adolphe has tried to force himself. We recall having previously met Odette back in Combray, though at that point she is introduced only as a woman whose scandalous past and compromising relationship with the Baron de Charlus make it impossible for the narrator’s family to receive her as the wife of Charles Swann, their neighbour of many years. In Combray we merely glimpse Charlus, who reappears as a younger man in “Swann in Love”, where he is the one friend whom Swann thinks he can trust with his lover. We also catch our first glimpse of Gilberte, who will become the object of the narrator’s obsession in the third and final section of the novel, “Place Names: The Name”. Similarly, we meet the Duchesse de Guermantes in “Combray”, only to find her again, years earlier, in “Swann in Love”. We might easily miss her reappearance, however, since in that section she is still the Princesse des Laumes. The composer Vinteuil, whose sonata will play such an important role in creating the bond, or bondage, that is the subject of “Swann in Love”, is first encountered in “Combray” as a censorious fellow parishioner of the narrator’s family who disapproves of the slovenly manners of the young and fusses over his mannish daughter.

Clearly, then, the reader new to Proust must attend closely, even in this compressed rendering, to the novel’s circling rhythms and abrupt cross-cuts between different places and times. But this necessary attentiveness is abetted and facilitated by the compactness of the graphic format. The patterned bass repeats at more frequent intervals here than in the original novel, so it is easier to keep the overarching structure of the great symphony in mind. Even the reader already familiar with the novel may make new discoveries thanks to the clarity of what might be likened to a piano reduction of an orchestral score. For what is sacrificed in variety of colour and dynamic range, there is compensation in the prominence given to the major themes. And Heuet’s careful selection of certain extended passages of Proust’s rich prose ensures that enough of the colour and range and contrasting timbres of the principal instruments is retained to suggest the depth and breadth of the composer’s conception.

In using musical metaphors I am following Proust’s lead. The “little phrase” of Vinteuil’s sonata for violin and piano that is at the heart of Swann’s Way poses a challenge to the visual artist. What pictorial representation of the music can convey the power it has over Swann’s emotions? Music for Proust is art in its purest form. It works directly on the emotions. The narrator’s feelings about works of literature are shaped by what he has heard about them from people he admires: from his friend Bloch, from the engineer-aesthete Legrandin, from his elegant neighbour Charles Swann, from his teachers. Even his feelings for Gilberte and the Duchesse de Guermantes arise from names he has invested with significance before actually perceiving the people those names designate. But the little phrase from Vinteuil goes straight to Swann’s heart, unheralded by prior reputation or authoritative advocates. Its origin, Proust tells us, is “supernatural”, so in order to represent its effects on a natural being like Swann, the writer is forced to associate the playing of the music with certain coincidental events, whether Swann’s search for Odette on dark Paris boulevards late at night after the gaslights have been turned out—a search that Proust compares to Orpheus’s search for Eurydice among the shades of the underworld—or, evoking pathos (or bathos) of another order, the Comtesse de Monteriender’s comparison of the music’s power to the mysteries of table-turning. The latter incident exemplifies another characteristic of Proust’s prose: its corrosive humour, its scathing satirical portrayals of a vast range of ludicrous and pitiable human types, from the witless would-be wit Dr. Cottard to that anti-Semitic snob, the Marquise de Gallardon, inconsolable because her younger cousin the Duchesse de Guermantes will not have her as a guest in her home despite the family tie that is at once the marquise’s greatest pride and greatest shame.

Translating this adaptation of Swann’s Way presents challenges similar to the challenge of adapting it in the first place. Speech that is reported in the text as free indirect discourse is here put in the mouths of the characters themselves and represented as speech by being enclosed, as in a comic strip, in “balloons”. Of course Proust also reports some of his characters’ speeches directly in the text, so not all the lines in the balloons are transformations of the author’s original words. Another change from the original is the truncation of some very long sentences, which, if they had been presented in their entirety, might call for a different translation, since rhythm is an important aspect of any prose style, and the rhythm of a sentence is necessarily affected by abbreviation. In other places sentences are telescoped to adapt to the visual representation of the text, or, conversely, lengthy passages are broken down into shorter phrases and distributed over many frames. Such passages might well be translated somewhat differently if set in their original context.

Nevertheless, the fidelity of the adaptation to Proust’s own language is remarkable. To be sure, there is a good deal less of that language than some Proustians might like. Readers who know Proust may find that some of their favourite passages have disappeared, that some of the finest images have had to be sacrificed, or that the pacing of the narrative is not as they remember it. Those discovering Proust for the first time should therefore bear in mind that this book is not Swann’s Way as Proust wrote. But both Stéphane Heuet and I have tried to preserve the “flavour” of Proust—or, as they say in Combray, his “fragrance”—as un ménu de dégustation, or tasting menu, tries to give a full sampling of the dishes in the repertoire of a great chef. Those who find the taste to their liking will want to return often to savour fuller portions.

Finally, a word about existing English translations of Proust. I have looked at all of them but haven’t “followed” any of them, except insofar as any two translations of the same text will inevitably overlap here and there. Still, there is remarkable “entropy” in language, in the sense that the various elements of style—meaning, rhythm, register, diction, connotation, imagery, and so on—can be ordered in more than one way. Each possible arrangement of words on the page has its good qualities and its flaws. As the writer Marguerite Yourcenar once said, translation is like packing a bag: you can’t always get in everything you want or need to get in. Different translators will have different ideas about what is essential to bring along and what can safely (or silently) be left out.

I hope I’ve packed enough to make your journey comfortable and haven’t left out anything necessary to your enjoyment. In my own case, my love of Proust, which first blossomed some forty-five years ago, was a major reason for wanting to perfect my French, and I have returned again and again to the places where my love first revealed itself, much as the narrator Marcel is obsessed with the places associated with the most powerful emotions he has experienced. Inevitably, “working on” Proust has proved to be a very different experience from simply enjoying him or even studying him or writing about him. I’ve had to contemplate not just the effect of his words but how they produce their effect and how the devices he uses might best be carried over into English. But following my path back and forth among the sentences of Swann’s Way is surely less interesting to the reader than following the narrator’s path back and forth among the hawthorns of Combray or between his home in Paris and the park in the Champs-Elysées where Gilberte gives him as a souvenir an agate marble the colour of her eyes. It is therefore time to end this introduction and invite you to proceed directly to the text and the art that Stéphane Heuet has created to accompany it.

—Arthur Goldhammer

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