Ruminations in an Emergency


The cover of Finding Time Again

NO ONE KNOWS how long Petronius’s Satyricon was or even if its author really is Petronius, a Roman courtier and arbiter elegantiae, official tastemaker, to Nero. Many parts of the Satyricon are lost. By some estimates, the complete opus may have been as long as Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. And like In Search of Lost Time, the Satyricon is a work in which life and death may hang on the course of a dinner party. The host of the hedonistic gathering at the heart of Petronius’s prosimetrum (a Latin genre that mingles poetry and prose) is Trimalchio, an ostentatious lout with money to burn. Petronius, an ironist, describes him like this: “Trimalchio, a most elegant man, has furnished the dining-room with a clock and a trumpeter so that he might know, every now and then, how much of his life he has lost.” Trimalchio, fastidious in vulgarity, makes a spectacle of his mortality. Hedonism’s spendthrift languor is the only language he has to express how urgently a night—this night, all our nights—can slip through the fingers. Before the party comes to an ignominious conclusion, Trimalchio will stage his own funeral. In the end, there is so little time and so much of it borrowed, wasted, killed, lost: a splendor.

The writer Anatole France called Proust “a depraved Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and an innocent Petronius” (Pétrone ingénu) in his generous preface to some of Proust’s early work, a set of sketches that gives little hint of what was to come in the magisterial, four-thousand-page—give or take—sweep of In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), a fictional reconstruction of a life and a world that moves from the idyll of Belle Époque France to the aftermath of World War I, touching on the Dreyfus affair, anti-Semitism, and French nationalism; winding through the salons and bedrooms of Parisian high society; and exploring arcane permutations of anxiety, jealousy, aggression, attachment, solipsism, possessiveness, loneliness, boredom, coercion, luxury, art, love, class, time, memory, madeleines with lime-blossom tisanes, and queer desire. By comparing Proust to Bernardin (a Rousseauian novelist of the Enlightenment) and Petronius (a decadent writer from an age of decadence), Anatole France meant that Proust inverted Bernardin’s preoccupation with the “civilized” corruption of humanity’s “natural” innocence—in Proust, it is nature that corrupts art—and converted Petronius’s wonderfully gross sensualism into an aesthetic vocation. This ambitious program reaches its highest pitch in Finding Time Again (Le Temps retrouvé), the final volume of the Recherche, which Proust, dead by 1922, would not live to polish with his usual obsessiveness, or to see published in 1927. 

IAN PATTERSON'S TRANSLATION of Finding Time Again is only now making its American debut in the year of the centenary of Proust’s death (a question of rights). Le Temps retrouvé has often been poorly served by its English-language translators: C. K. Scott Moncrieff died of cancer, age forty, before he could complete an English rendering of the volume the Modern Library calls Time Regained. Proust was, in any case, ambivalent, at best, about Moncrieff’s tendency to add flourishes where there were none and to elaborate for clarity’s sake what was meant, in the original French, to remain elliptical (inclinations in some cases corrected and in others made more ingeniously wayward by subsequent layers of revision by Terence Kilmartin and D. J. Enright). To solve the conundrum of Time Regained, the Modern Library editors chose to use the work of Andreas Mayor, which was based on the 1954 Pléiade edition of the novel and often colored by Mayor’s heavy editorial hand, which tended to omit in places and, like Moncrieff’s translation, elaborate on or simplify Proust’s work according to its own standards. Pléiade’s corrected French version (1988) furnishes the source text for Patterson’s Finding Time Again

Patterson, a poet, essayist, and translator, has a good ear for the sonic qualities of the Recherche’s prose. This is particularly notable in the opening of the volume. Finding Time Again begins with one of Proust’s analogies between nature and artifice, couched in a meandering, multiclausal sentence that is, nonetheless, beautifully balanced in its Byzantine way, culminating in one of Proust’s classic, grammatical course corrections in which, after drifting away from the initial subject in a metaphorizing reverie, the sentence begins all over again without ending, usually after the nominal concession of a semicolon: “Toute la journée,” it begins, “all day long” as Patterson renders it, before describing the “slightly too bucolic residence” where the narrator finds himself, 

one of those houses where every sitting-room looks like a conservatory and where, in the bedroom wall-paper, either the garden roses or the birds in the trees are brought vividly before you and keep you company, in a rather isolated way—it being of the old-fashioned sort in which each rose was so clearly delineated that if it were alive one could have picked it, each bird so perfect that it might have been caged and tamed, without any of the exaggerated modern décor in which, against a background of silver, all the apple trees of Normandy are arrayed in profile, Japanese-style, to turn the hours you spend in bed into a hallucinatory experience;

This takes us up to the semicolon, after which things start over: “all day long I stayed in my room.” Patterson manages to preserve the syntactical parallelism of the French before and after the dash—“either the garden roses or the birds in the trees” (les roses du jardin dans l’une, les oiseaux des arbres dans l’autre) on one side and, in counterpart on the other, “each rose was so clearly delineated” (chaque rose était assez séparée) and “each bird so perfect that it might have been caged and tamed” (chaque oiseau le mettre en cage et l’apprivoiser). The mirroring of the clauses underscores the comparison between the flora and fauna of conservatory and garden and the flora and fauna adorning the wallpaper, as if you were looking at clouds reflected in still water and became confused, for a moment, about which way was up. The opening sentence is at once slow and fast, a true foreshadowing of the matter of Finding Time Again, which will center on what it takes to begin a life’s work and how much time speeds by in the living before this is possible. Only now, after dreaming of beginning his novel for thousands of pages, will the narrator come, in the book’s final moments, to the point of starting. 

Proust’s elisions are harder to capture. Most of Patterson’s interpellations are, however, the inevitable ones, the ones that make something legibly idiomatic or get closer to the sense of things when the original diction or grammar proves too incompatible with English. It would be foolish to expect a translation to mimic the prosody of the Recherche exactly—the clever, mournful resonance in the sentence above between the adjectival campagne (which Patterson translates as “bucolic”) and compagnie (“company”) further down, which adds point to the dialectic of social connection and impenetrable isolation that runs through the whole of In Search of Lost Time. If a method of translation could be said to have a sense of humor about these untranslatables, then it would be Patterson’s.

A sense of humor is necessary for readers of Finding Time Again, which features some of Proust’s most poignant errors. In a crucial scene, Gilberte de Saint-Loup, the narrator’s inamorata of early youth, asks the narrator if they should dine together by themselves in a restaurant, even though the narrator won’t meet up with the much older Gilberte for about seventy pages. This was one of many inconsistencies Proust did not have the opportunity to reconcile before his death. (Other editions substitute “a young woman” [une jeune femme] to smooth over the anachronism.) Patterson’s idea of fidelity often allows Proust’s errors to stand where authorial intention—as it often is—is in doubt, so Gilberte de Saint-Loup appears before she appears, the author Bergotte outlives his death, and the actress Rachel receives two introductions in the course of seven pages. A fully revised version of Finding Time Again would probably have corrected most of these errors. But, in their way, they are errors we are lucky to have, since they correspond to the urgency that informed much of the drafting of the novel’s conclusion. 

Marcel Proust. Photo: Otto Wegener.
Marcel Proust. Photo: Otto Wegener.

FINDING TIME AGAIN BETRAYS a sense of haste at odds with the Recherche’s frequently deserved reputation for indolence (“inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine,” as Henry James is reported to have described it). The transformative violence of World War I, which brought the world of Proust’s childhood to an end, combined with the author’s failing health, spurred the writer to adopt a new style of composition. The war seeped into the draft, saturating it in real time. Finding Time Again takes its colors from current events, the murk of life in a city under siege and with an uncertain future. Proust, writing in medias res, records air raids and Parisians’ anxieties about the reliability of stale dispatches from the front, the sinking of the Lusitania and the futility of the Schlieffen Plan, who could afford custom croissants on the sly, who came back from the front and who did not. Aerial events are of particular interest, in part because of the devastating raids, in part because of Proust’s preoccupation with his secretary and chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, transposed, in the Recherche, into Albertine, a major object of the narrator’s obsessive love. While Proust pleaded anxiously for Agostinelli to return from one of their separations, Agostinelli registered as “Marcel Swann” at an aviation school, paid for with money given to him by Proust, and died in an accident during his second solo flight. Proust’s pain and guilt over his death was profound, and this death shadows his representations of aircraft over Paris. 

The Baron de Charlus compares the city at war to Pompeii as he and the narrator stroll the phantasmagoric streets. The general atmosphere is 

fragments of Pompeii every evening, with people running to their cellars, not to fetch up some old bottle of Mouton-Rothschild or Saint-Émilion, but to hide along with themselves their most valuable possessions. . . . While I may think that tomorrow we may meet the fate of the cities of Vesuvius, they in their turn felt threatened by the fate that befell the accursed cities of the Bible. On the walls of one house in Pompeii was discovered the revealing inscription: Sodoma, Gomora

Charlus progresses over the course of the novel from mysterious and sexually magnetic aristocrat to pitiable, aging homosexual. Some of Proust’s anxieties about his own “inversion,” modern sexology’s word for those attracted to their own gender, are on display in his rendering of Charlus, who always seems to have something deathly about him, including a disturbingly romantic view of war. But Charlus is sometimes as perspicacious about war as he is deluded—and he is less deluded about it than are many other characters in Proust. Even as it happened, World War I was felt to be a senseless war in which nationalism was almost the only mechanism governments had to gin up the concentration of aggressive fervor it takes to risk or inflict mass death entirely against one’s own interests. This is war treated by its architects as a problem of aesthetic form. 

In Charlus’s ruminations, Proust satirizes this travesty and explores its allure at the same time: a moment of cold irony pierces the baron’s fantasia on the decadence of Pompeii and the decadence of modernity. In the midst of aestheticizing World War I in terms of ancient history, he imagines it as a punishment for Parisian culture’s polymorphous perversity—deviant sexuality was one of the sins for which Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Proust rejected this kind of morality and, indeed, morality in a larger sense, as frames for life or art. It was not, he felt, the author’s role to stand in judgment of the great variousness of human character but to observe it and to record it precisely. And yet, his language of aesthetics sometimes suggests moral propositions—these moments are not entirely the imagination of the reader—while refusing to use the language of morality. Charlus’s real condemnation, whether he knows it or not, is not of a society in which frivolity and perverse sexual desire flourish—this is a nearly utopian end in Proust—but of a society that has developed pleasure to its most opulent capacities without, at the same time, understanding the price of pleasure, its unequal distribution, and the general worth of human life. 

Charles Swann, Proust’s tenderly portrayed Jewish aesthete, tells the story of a set of pearls belonging to Mme de La Fayette during a salon at the Verdurins’, “pearls which had become black after a fire which destroyed part of the house in which the Verdurins lived, in a street whose name I no longer remember, a fire from which the casket containing the pearls was recovered, but with the pearls now entirely black.” Swann goes on to say that the blackened pearls eventually became a treasured family heirloom. Dr. Cottard, another attendee, responds crassly, obliviously, with the observation that “catastrophes of this nature produce alterations in the human brain quite comparable to those observable in inanimate matter” and recounts the history of Mme Verdurin’s former valet, who, after coming close to death in a different fire, became “a changed man, with a handwriting so altered that when his master and mistress, then in Normandy, received his first letter informing them of the occurrence, they imagined it to be the work of a practical joker.” As the coup de grâce, Cottard explains that after his trauma, the formerly temperate valet began to drink heavily and Mme Verdurin was “obliged” to dismiss him. Taken together, the anecdote of the pearls and the anecdote of the valet demonstrate the enigmatic process by which, when put through the fire, artifacts may accrue value, while people only lose whatever value was once assigned them. A burned pearl splits and cracks; a pearl drowned in vinegar dissolves; pearls decay but, unlike people, they have the luxury of centuries. Pearl earrings from Pompeii in the style called “crotalia” (because they clacked together like castanets) still survive, reflective, intact. 

IN THE END, there is so little time. The great set piece of Finding Time Again is called the bal de têtes, a phrase that designates a masquerade ball in which costume is only required from the neck up. The matinée reception at the novel’s end is only notionally a masquerade ball. The narrator doesn’t comprehend “why I was so slow to recognize the master of the house and the guests nor why everybody seemed to have put on makeup, in most cases with powdered hair which changed them completely.” But it is only that everyone has aged, though the narrator has no gray hair and his mustache is still black. At the bal de têtes, old age and mortality are no longer abstractions. The old world is gone and the guests at the party resemble sleepers who have outlived their time more than inhabitants of the present. The narrator is often cruel in his assessment of his old acquaintances, dwelling on their vanity, their pretensions, their physical, mental, and moral decay (“decadence,” from the Latin decadere, “to decay” or “fall down”). His acidity is the bitterness of someone caught between his nostalgia and his knowledge of the past’s unjustifiable failures, the weariness of someone who has seen the ends of things and is tired of people dying on him, the resentment of someone who will be dead before he can observe the contours of his own aged face in a mirror. He is writing, we learn in Finding Time Again, from a sanitorium where he has been sent on account of his ill health. 

Although the first version of the bal de têtes had been drafted as early as 1909—long before In Search of Lost Time had expanded, with fractal enthusiasm, from a mere three volumes to seven in total—this massy sequence, worked and reworked, bears the marks of Proust’s revisions in the final months of his life, when he, like his narrator, could no longer ignore the evidence of decline. And, like his narrator, he lamented how much time he had wasted before embarking on the work of his life, fearing that he would die before completing it, a frustrated Scheherazade. In one of the most evocative portraits of the feverish nocturnal composition that consumed Proust’s final years, the critic and theorist Walter Benjamin envisioned him as the inverse of the mythological Penelope, weaving by night and unweaving by day, turning “his days into nights, devoting all his hours to undisturbed work in his darkened room with artificial illumination, so that none of those intricate arabesques might escape him.” And there is something feverish and exultant in the novel’s final leap into abstraction, when the narrator finally understands what he must make and how: a book like an optician’s magnifying glass that offers its readers “the means of reading within themselves,” the expression, in fiction, of a new kind of psychology that chronicles individual peculiarities and generates, from all the smoke and the noise, universal laws of human character. 

If enough time was left to me to complete my work, my first concern would be to describe the people in [my past], even at the risk of making them seem colossal and unnatural creatures . . . like giants immersed in the years, with such distant periods of their lives, between which so many days have taken up their place—in Time. 

The final image of frail, fallible people as giants immersed in the years is as sublime and ridiculous as the ambition of In Search of Lost Time, spurred to execution by something very like the hard motives of Trimalchio’s clock and trumpet. Submerged in the years and enameled in modern irony, the colossi must be an allusion to Genesis, to God’s rationale for sending the flood to destroy all creation, cleaving the ages into antediluvian and postdiluvian. “There were giants in the earth in those days. . . .” Proust’s flood is merely what history did to the world he knew, merely what history does. Its waters never recede. The end of the world creeps up slowly, like the sea eroding a cliff, like the realization that you are hungry, tired, old, mortal, that you have missed the next beginning. The subtlety of endings is great but the subtlety of beginnings outmatches it by magnitudes. Always, there are giants in the earth. At night, they go to bed early. They are as corruptible as pearls and briefer still—in Time and out of it. 

Rebecca Ariel Porte is a core faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is currently at work on a book about paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.