LATELY — 19 January 2002

Proust and Punctuation

The following punctuation marks appear, in order, in a single sentence: “, , , , , , , , ; , , , , , , : , , , , , — — .”. The sentence is by Proust, and reads:

And then it seemed as though the signs which were to bring me, on this day of all days, out of my disheartened state and restore to me my faith in literature, were thronging eagerly about me, for, a butler who had long been in the service of the Prince of Guermantes having recognised me and brought to me in the library where I was waiting, so that I might not have to go to the buffet, a selection of petits fours and a glass of orangeade, I wiped my mouth with the napkin which he had given me; and instantly, as though I had been the character in the Arabian Nights who unwittingly accomplishes the very rite which can cause to appear, visible to him alone, a docile genie ready to convey him to a great distance, a new vision of azure passed before my eyes, but an azure that this time was pure and saline and swelled into blue and bosomy undulations, and so strong was this impression that the moment to which I was transported seemed to me to be the present moment: more bemused than on the day when I had wondered whether I was really going to be received by the Princesse de Guermantes or whether everything round me would not collapse, I thought that the servant had just opened the window on to the beach and that all things invited me to go down and stroll along the promenade while the tide was high, for the napkin which I had used to wipe my mouth had precisely the same degree of stiffness and starchedness as the towel with which I had found it so awkward to dry my face as I stood in front of the window on the first day of my arrival at Balbec, and this napkin now, in the library of the Prince de Guermantes’s house, unfolded for me—concealed within its smooth surfaces and its folds—the plumage of an ocean green and blue like the tail of a peacock. (pp. 219–20, Time Regained)

This madeleine seems rather implausible: does anyone really take note of napkin stiffness and starchedness?

I’m excited to find that Proust really is uncommonly good, and he isn’t especially hard to negotiate, either. (But: I’ve only read a few hundred pages of Time Regained, which happens to be the last book…)

A nice, happily complimentary essay on A la recherche du temps perdu is Daniel Mark Epstein’s “Proust regained.” Epstein writes that Proust contains, haphazardly, “pages of astonishing perception and then passages of appalling stupidity.” His example of the latter is followed by a thrilling put-down: “[Epstein quotes Proust] ‘Do we not find every day that adultery, when it is based upon genuine love, does not weaken family feelings and the duties of kinship, but rather revivifies them?’ No, Marcel, we don’t. And your bourgeois neighbors didn’t either—not every day or at all.” You can’t say that! “No, Marcel, we don’t.” This is Proust!

Proust is also funny. In the bits below, Baron de Charlus likes to be flogged in brothels by young men; Jupien runs the brothel:

Jupien on the other hand felt that it was not quite sufficient to introduce M. de Charlus to a young milkman. He would murmur to him with a wink: “He’s a milkman but he’s also one of the most dangerous thugs in Belleville” (and it was with a superbly salacious note in his voice that Jupien uttered the word “thug”). And as if this recommendation were not sufficient, he would try to add one or two further “citations.” “He has several convictions for theft and burglary, he was in Fresnes for assulting” (the same salacious note in his voice) “and practically murdering people in the street, and he’s been in a punishment battalion in Africa. He killed his sergeant.” (156)

Later, M. de Charlus complains about the quality of the beating he received:

“I did not want to speak in front of that boy, who is very nice and does his best. But I don’t find him sufficiently brutal. He has a charming face, but when he calls me a filthy brute he might be just repeating a lesson.” “I assure you, nobody has said a word to him,” replied Jupien, without perceiving how improbable this statement was. (156)

(The poor Baron.)

Unfortunately, insufficient brutality was not the only failing of Jupien’s gigolos:

Occasionally Jupien warned the young men that they ought to be more perverse. Then one of them, as if he were confessing to something diabolical, would hazard: “I say, Baron, you won’t believe me, but when I was a kid I used to watch my parents making love through the key-hole. Pretty vicious, isn’t it? You look like you think that’s a cock and bull story, but I swear it’s the truth.” And M. de Charlus was driven at once to despair and to exasperation by the factitious attempt at perversity, the result of which was only to reveal such depths both of stupidity and innocence. (168)

Another book I read sort-of recently is Shanghai Baby, by Wei Hui. It’s also very good.

The story of the translation intrigues me though. The English is off-kilter, abbreviated, sometimes ungrammatical (IM-like?); it could easily have been written by a person not very familiar with English. (“I find smoking in the wind a real pleasure, creating the illusion that all your worries are being blown away.”) Unusual words often pop up: “Madonna smiled sarcastically. ‘You play the devoted couple in public. Isn’t that a bit sick-making?’” “Sick-making”? What’s wrong with “sickening”? Or “nauseating”?

All this makes the book more authentically foreign and exotic—which probably increases its appeal in countries like Australia. But it wasn’t written in English by someone for whom English is a second language; it was written in Chinese, and translated into English by Bruce Humes. Is it really a faithful translation? The text does contain a suspicious number of cliches for which there is unlikely to be a Chinese equivalent: “like a fish to water,” “head buried in the sand,” “cooking up a storm,” etc.