Proust and Punctuation

19 January 2002

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.