Monday, December 24, 2007

Proust gift tags and note cards

Would a reader of In Search of Lost Time be likely to use Random House's Marcel Proust gift tags and note cards? I doubt it, and not only because the pretension involved — "I know that you know that I know enough to give the gift of Proust" — is at odds with everything a reader of Proust ought to value. Pretension aside, two of the five Proust quotations displayed on these items are wrenched from context in a way that wildly distorts their meaning, and the distortions are likely to be obvious to anyone who's taken the time to do the reading.

One of the five quotations (all are unattributed) is from Pleasures and Regrets (or Pleasures and Days), in Louise Varese's 1948 translation. The other four are drawn from In Search of Lost Time, in the 1992 D.J. Enright revision of Terence Kilmartin's reworking of C. K. Scott Moncrieff's translation. Here are the three quotations that cause no problems out of context:

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. ("Regrets, Reveries, Changing Skies," Pleasures and Regrets)

A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves. (The Guermantes Way)

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. (The Captive)
And now the first of the two problem sentences:
Love is time and space measured by the heart. (The Captive)
This sentence seems to thrive out of context, even turning up in a volume called A Collection of Sexy Quotes (between Havelock Ellis and Estée Lauder). In context, this sentence is the culmination of one moment in the narrator's tormented imaginings about Albertine Simonet and other women. Here's the passage (in the Penguin translation), in which time and space become an endlessly painful internalized terrain:
This love between women was something too unknown: nothing could allow me to picture with confidence, with precision, its pleasures, its very nature. How many different people, how many places (even places not involving her directly, vague places of entertainment where she might have tasted some pleasure, places where crowds of people go, where they brush against one) Albertine — like someone who, ushering a whole group of people, all her friends, past the ticket-desk in front of her, gets them all into the theatre — had ushered in from the fringes of my imagination and my memory, where I was taking no notice of them, and installed in my heart! Now my knowledge of them was an internal thing, immediate, spasmodic, painful. Love is space and time made apprehensible to the heart.

Marcel Proust, The Prisoner, translated by Carol Clark (London: Penguin, 2003), 356
The second problem sentence seems even more astonishingly wrenched from context:
Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them. (Time Regained)
Out of context, this sentence seems to defy time's power: Take that, time! Our eternal summers shall not fade! In context though, the sentence offers no such consolation. The passage in which it appears begins as the narrator refers to his recollections of the "young girls in flower" of his youth, girls who are now much older or already dead:
It was painful for me to have to retrieve these for myself, for time, which changes individuals, does not modify the image we have of them. Nothing is sadder that this contrast between the way individuals change and the fixity of memory, when we understand that what we have kept so fresh in our memory no longer has any of that freshness in real life, and that we cannot find a way to come close, on the outside, to what which appears so beautiful within us, which arouses in us a desire, seemingly so personal, to see it again, except by looking for it in a person of the same age, that is to say in another being.

Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again, translated by Ian Patterson (London: Penguin, 2003), 296-97
It's not difficult to see the implication, is it? If it is, one need read only two sentences further: "I was trying to find, not the girls whom I had known, but those who now possessed the youth that the others had had then." Yipes.

Let's hope that those buying these tags and cards are sending them to people who also have very little idea of what goes on in Proust's fiction.

Closing irony: The bookstore in which I saw these items did not have a copy of In Search of Lost Time for sale. And there was no large gap on the Fiction shelf either.
All Proust posts (via Pinboard)

comments: 9

Anonymous said...

Maybe they chose those quotations just because they were short... I'd like a notecard with Proust's longest sentence on it, now that would be worth sending.

Anonymous said...

These notes are painful for me. To have to retrieve them -- a sorrow greater than Zion's true fall.

Nothing is sadder that this.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comments, Mari and Anon.

There's said to be a poster with the longest Proust sentence (from Sodom and Gomorrah, I think) — I'd buy that in a second.

Anonymous said...

Yep, Michael, I'd be buying that poster too. Or a mug with that sentence going round and round...but guess what my sister gave me for Christmas? Yes, the notecards.

Michael Leddy said...

Then I guess it's time to remind yourself — it is the thought that counts. : )

Anonymous said...

The first quotation ("Let us be grateful") is taken out of context. Proust writes about why would should be "more grateful to those who make us suffer," because pain's more constructive than happiness.

Michael Leddy said...

True: “But let us be even more grateful to unkind or only indifferent women, to cruel friends who have caused us sorrow.” I’m wondering why I didn’t see it that way in 2007. Thanks, Anon.

caitlin said...

I may be late on this, but...I really like your blog.

Michael Leddy said...

It’s never too late! Thank you, Caitlin.