The best book I read this year was Swann’s Way in the Lydia Davis translation. It knocked my socks off. I ought to have read it sooner, and I shouldn’t have been surprised: I am a big fan of Lydia Davis’s own fiction. But I am also a big Marcel Proust fan. And like most English-speaking Proust fans, I first came to him through the translations of C.K. Scott Moncrieff. I loved those translations. I loved their suavity. I loved Scott Moncrieff’s cleverness with dialogue. I loved his inventive titles for the individual books–and I loved it that he stuck to them over Proust’s objections. I even loved it when Scott Moncrieff refused to translate the expression “me casser le pot” (meaning to have anal sex). I loved his freedom and his decorum. I loved his Edwardian vision of the novel. I still do.
But I also love comparing the old translation to the new one. Davis is invariably stronger than Scott Moncrieff and his revisers: more flexible in tone and register, more complex in rhythm, closer to the French. Some people complain that you hear the French too much in the Davis version. But her literalism teaches you to feel what’s there in the original. She can make you believe, for pages at a time, that the two languages–two ways of thinking and feeling–are a hair’s breadth apart. It really is magic.
Magic aside, it made me happy to be reunited with the heroes of Swann’s Way: the middle-aged Vermeer expert Charles Swann and the little boy, Marcel, who falls in love with Swann’s daughter. These are two of my favorite characters in all of fiction–but the last time I met them, sixteen years ago, I hardly noticed that they were characters at all. I had never seen childhood misery described so exactly. I had never seen sexual jealousy dealt with so honestly. There was, as they say in peace talks, no daylight between me and either of these two poor obsessives. Proust had written down pretty much everything I knew about life at the age of twenty one. Now, thanks partly to age and partly to Davis, I saw them as individual, funny, and pathetic in ways I’d never noticed, and the same was true of Odette, Francoise, Gilberte, and the Verdurins–all of them dazzlingly distinct, as if their portraits had just been cleaned.
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