Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book 1: In Search Of Lost Time: Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

For many years this six volume masterwork by Marcel Proust was known by a different translated name. 'Remembrance Of Things Past' was the title widely accepted until D.J. Enright's new translation in 1992 appeared. My father set about reading this new translation. He was determined to finish it before he died. And then, I believe, he deliberately refused to do so.

The French title is 'A La Recherche du Temps Perdu' and the key word there is 'Perdu', which is the past tense of the verb 'perdre', or 'to lose'. To translate this title without the words 'Lost Time' is egregious almost to an offensive level. I liken it to Demi Moore and Company deciding that Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece 'The Scarlet Letter' just didn't pack the right kind of punch as is. Like painting a mustache onto the Mona Lisa. Idiots.

I remember feeling a surge of interest in the book once the title had been changed from its bland predecessor. 'Remembrance of Things Past'??? Sounds like a Lawrence Welk special highlighting standards of the '40's. 'In Search Of Lost Time' is a far apter title, capturing the ache inherent in every single syllable, articulating the unspoken continual impossible dream we all share.

All six volumes taken together add up to over 4,000 pages. And these are no Robert Parker (RIP!) three yeses, two no's and a gunshot from Hawk pages. These are dense to an almost pathological level. So far I have only completed the first two volumes and each made 'Ulysses' seem like a graphic novel. Sentences begin, falter, twist, divide, multiply, regain thread, evaporate, shift direction entirely, soar off into rumination on several concurrent topics, and finally resolve, reminding you that every word contained therein did, in fact, refer back to the root. The imagery and expression is breathtaking, the psychological scope enormous, the talent undeniable.

I am not sure exactly when my dad decided to read this series but he kept struggling along with it as his health deteriorated. By the time I expressed interest in it he was on Volume 5. He curled his lip up and waved me off with his good arm, such as it was.

"Just read the first one. Forget the rest of it."

Now, I found this hilarious on several levels. First of all, if anyone ever had any incentive to remove struggle and difficulty from their recreational life, my dad did at this point. Each page was a physical labor bordering on Herculean levels. The concentration it took me in relative health was enormous. For my father I cannot begin to imagine how he did it.

I began to read 'Swann's Way' and I would update him on my progress. We laughed together over the phone about the narrator and what a little momma's boy he was. He describes in excruciating detail the tricks and devices he comes up with to try to get his mother to come up and visit him while he tries to fall asleep. The language and expression are formal to a forbidding degree but once you get into the rhythm of it it is actually quite hilarious.

Then he would just give me a status update of sorts on how much further he was along the way. Finished Volume 5. Started on Volume 6. Speaking about this book was one of the few times he mentioned his death directly.

After my sister's wedding, a tale I cannot really begin to tell, I asked him when he was going to finish Volume 6 because he was quite close.

His response was gruff and funny, like he always was. He knew how many pages were left, how long it would take him to get through it. He was going to wait until the doctor said it was just about time to go.

The day approached. We held our breaths with each one of his. I've never seen suffering even close to this level. And yet he still managed to make jokes, show affection, connect with us. But finally even these qualities seemed to be taken and he was essentially gone from us while tethered ever so slightly to the frail form that rested in the living room sun.

We would take turns and read to him from the final pages of Marcel Proust. By a trick of publishing, it appeared that there were at least one hundred pages remaining. We had not taken into consideration the Appendix. What seemed to be chapter upon chapter to be gone through was merely footnotes. And as my sister sat with him and read, as the final moment gently approached, the hourglass rushed too quickly and all of a sudden he was gone.

When she looked up he had left.

One simple turn of the page remained. Now, anyone who ever met my dad will tell you. This was a smart smart man. He had ample time to finish that Volume even before we all convened to be by his bedside. He knew what he was about.

There is a defiance to that refusal which is very much in keeping with his character. He wanted every second he could get. He didn't want to lose any more time.

For Sheila, Sheila, Brendan, Jean, Siobhan and most of all, Bill...............


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