The Challenges of Editing Proust.

There are great authors I would have loved to help edit, but based on Carol Clark’s description in LitHub (excerpted from the Penguin edition of her translation of La Prisonnière [The Prisoner)], Proust is not one of them:

In the case of Proust, such editorial decisions are much more difficult to make than one might suppose. His composition is very rarely linear or chronological: most of the events described take place in a timeless or repetitive past indicated by the use of the imperfect tense. Only from time to time is an episode narrated in the past historic, indicating that it happened only once. (These alternative past tenses present a real problem to the translator.) In one paragraph the narrator can be years older than in the preceding one or, for that matter, younger. (Evelyn Waugh noticed this and facetiously complained to John Betjeman: “Well, the chap was plain barmy. He never tells you the age of the hero and on one page he is being taken to the W.C. in the Champs-Elysées by his nurse & the next page he is going to a brothel. Such a lot of nonsense” (letter, February 1948).) […]

For most of the time this is deliberate. Proust may be showing the passage of time […], or the complexity of human character […]. At other times the same characters can be seen differently by different people, either because some are more observant than others, or because they have had some particular revelatory experience. […] To eliminate inconsistencies like these would be completely to denature Proust’s work.

On the other hand, when Brichot arrives, on p. 180, in a tram which by p. 183 is a bus, when Mme. Verdurin’s husband is called first Auguste and then, a few pages later, Gustave, or when the vehicle in which the narrator and Albertine are riding through the Bois (pp. 149–158) is alternately a carriage and a motor-car, one wonders if Proust, had he lived, would not have eliminated such variations. Certainly, they are not found in the part of the manuscript that he did correct.

The most unnerving concerns Dr. Cottard. Mme. Verdurin is “deep in discussion” with him and Ski on p. 209, but at the same party she receives, without apparent surprise, condolences on his death (p. 221). By p. 257 he is alive again, and General Deltour is consulting him about his health. In the same way, two completely different accounts are given of the death of Saniette, its causes, the duration of his last illness and Cottard’s involvement in it, though pp. 221 and 244 would suggest that the doctor had died before the patient. These inconsistencies no doubt result from Proust’s practice of writing and rewriting sequences individually (again, rather in the way a film is shot), sometimes at considerable intervals of time and not in the order in which they would appear in the finished novel. It is difficult to see that such continuity errors serve any literary purpose, and his first editors eliminated them. Later, more reverential editors, however, have restored them all, including the death and resurrection of Cottard.

One might make the same observation about verbal repetitions, which are frequent in La Prisonnière, particularly in the part which Proust did not live to correct. Some of these are plainly deliberate, and represent tics of speech, like the Duc de Guermantes’s “bel et bien” (here translated “thoroughgoing”) or M. de Charlus’s “enchaînement de circonstances.” But others, including some whole sentences repeated with minimal changes, or sequences of two or more sentences all beginning with the same word or words (e.g. “D’autre part,” “on the other hand”), are probably accidental. Such repetitions were regarded as very bad style at the time of the first edition, were often corrected by the first editors and have been reinstated by their modern successors. This translation has attenuated them to some degree.

I love the modernists, but they certainly left some messes for others to clean up.


  1. Proust’s interpretation of The Fox and the Crow (sorry, in Russian).

  2. AJP Crown says:

    I tried editing Prowst but after thirty years I just gave up. I remember when I started [p.94]

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