Friday, June 23, 2006

Proust: "one phrase rising"

Swann's Way is shaping each day this week: fifty pages of reading (two to two-and-a-half hours, slow going) and a passage to post. My wife Elaine has been waiting for me to get to Swann's response to Vinteuil's violin and piano sonata, so that she can share with me the real-world sonatas that have been associated with the piece that Swann hears. Here's the paragraph that introduces Vinteuil's composition into the novel:

The year before, at a soiree, he had heard a piece of music performed on the piano and violin. At first, he had experienced only the physical quality of the sounds secreted by the instruments. And it had been a keen pleasure when, below the little line of the violin, slender, unyielding, compact, and commanding, he had seen the mass of the piano part all at once struggling to rise in a liquid swell, multiform, undivided, smooth, and colliding like the purple tumult of the waves when the moonlight charms them and lowers their pitch by half a tone. But at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish an outline clearly, or give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly charmed, he had tried to gather up and hold on to the phrase or harmony — he himself did not know which — that was passing by him and that had opened his soul so much wider, the way the smells of certain roses circulating in the damp evening air have the property of dilating our nostrils. Maybe it was because of his ignorance of music that he had been capable of receiving so confused an impression, the kind of impression that is, however, perhaps the only one which is purely musical, immaterial, entirely original, irreducible to any other order of impression. An impression of this kind is, for an instant, so to speak, sine materia. No doubt the notes we hear then tend already, depending on their loudness and their quantity, to spread out before our eyes over surfaces of varying dimensions, to trace arabesques, to give us sensations of breadth, tenuousness, stability, whimsy. But the notes vanish before these sensations are sufficiently formed in us not to be submerged by those already excited by the succeeding or even simultaneous notes. And this impression would continue to envelop with its liquidity and its "mellowness" the motifs that at times emerge from it, barely discernible, immediately to dive under and disappear, known only by the particular pleasure they give, impossible to describe, to recall, to name, ineffable — if memory, like a laborer working to put down lasting foundations in the midst of the waves, by fabricating for us facsimiles of these fleeting phrases, did not allow us to compare them to those that follow them and to differentiate them. And so, scarcely had the delicious sensation which Swann had felt died away than his memory at once furnished him with a transcription that was summary and temporary but at which he could glance while the piece continued, so that already, when the same impression suddenly returned, it was no longer impossible to grasp. He could picture to himself its extent, its symmetrical groupings, its notation, its expressive value; he had before him this thing which is no longer pure music, which is drawing, architecture, thought, and which allows us to recall the music. This time he had clearly distinguished one phrase rising for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had immediately proposed to him particular sensual pleasures which he had never imagined before hearing it, which he felt could be introduced to him by nothing else, and he had experienced for it something like an unfamiliar love.
From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 216-17

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comments: 2

thalkowski said...

Michael -- have you read the other translations? Do you have a favorite?

I'm on vol. 3, but you're seeming likely to pass me up.

all best,


Michael Leddy said...

I've glanced at the Scott Montcrieff translation, which seems a bit labored. (And something in me strongly objects to the borrowing from Shakespeare to invent a title.) There's also the revision of the revision of the Scott Montcrieff translation, which I've seen only in a sealed "six-pack" in a bookstore. So the Lydia Davis translation is all I've read -- I just had a better feeling about the new Proust. Once I really make some headway, I'm sure I'll be dipping into the others.

I learned today that a friend is reading Proust in French and is on Volume Five. At least I'm in third place. : )