Marcel Proust’s seven-volume magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu, is often cited as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. Four completed volumes in, I feel this is an assessment I could definitely see myself subscribing to. Long before I braved the first line of its first volume, however, Proust’s novel cycle had already won me over to its unquestionable greatness through the words that the reader encounters even before the first chapter: Those of its title. The greatest novel of the twentieth century may very well have the best title as well. I have always found “À la recherche du temps perdu” to be one of the most evocative, musical, and poetical phrases imaginable. And yet, it is so simple, so seemingly straightforward (even as it subtly plays on the double meaning of “temps perdu” as “wasted time” or as “time gone forever,” as well as, perhaps, on a double meaning for “recherche,” as a spiritual quest and as a kind of methodical investigation). And then there is just some intangible mystery and incantatory magic conjured up by those few words that I would need Proust’s attunement to the subtlest shades of aesthetic and emotional experience to properly put my finger on.
I’m fairly sure that the first time I heard the title as a child, it was in its Italian translation, “Alla ricerca del tempo perduto.” This literal transposition is, to my ears, perhaps even more beautiful than the original (This may have to do with the fact that the translated title constitutes a hendecasyllable, the principle meter of Italian poetry). The standard English translation of the title, on the other hand, is unfortunately far less successful: “In Search of Lost Time” retains none of the poetic rhythm of the original, and also somehow fails to replicate the poignant sense of irretrievableness evoked by “perdu.” This probably explains why Proust’s novel was first translated into English with the less literal and in its own way admirably straightforward title of “Remembrance of Things Past.”
(Interestingly, my encounter in two stages with “la Recherche,” first through its title and then only many years afterwards through actually reading it, resonates with one of the main themes developed throughout the novel. This is that the image we first develop in our minds of a person or a place is determined in large part by whatever qualities or associated ideas and images that their names connote for us. Later, when we actually become personally acquainted with those persons or places, we lose that initial conception of them in our imagination, which in some ways will always have been more captivating to us than the experience of the real thing. To underscore this theme there are two sections early on in the novel titled “Noms de pays : le nom” and “Noms de pays : le pays” (“Place names: the name” and “Place names: the place”). In the case of my own experience of the novel so far, I can hardly say that it has been a letdown when compared to the image that I had built up of it in my head from the title. It is, as I say, as deeply satisfying a masterpiece as one could hope for. On the other hand, there is no actual novel-reading experience that could quite materialize that mysterious power which Proust’s title has held out to me from a very early age.)
Another, wholly unrelated thing that has long struck me about Proust’s title is the way that, in its basic overall structure, it could almost be the title of an action-adventure film (perhaps an unusually slow-moving and introspective installment in the Indiana Jones franchise) or else of an old-fashioned adventure comic, such as a Tintin album. It is this last association that is made explicit in this little divertissement.
Thank you, Julian, for this Tintinesque cover of “Alla ricerca del tempo perduto” (I’ll stick with your favorite expression of the title). I had actually meant to write to you a while ago, with the link to a French radio show in which one of the guests is Stéphane Heuet (whose adaptation of la Recherche into a BD I haven’t read, and not even held in my hands, but everyone seems to agree that it is a remarkable achievement): https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/la-salle-des-machines/emission-speciale-autour-de-l-oeuvre-de-marcel-proust Perhaps you might be interested in continuing Stéphane Heuet’s work?
Also, you will enjoy reading Natalia Ginzburg’s reflection on the intersections between the challenge of translating Proust and her “lessico famigliare”: see, for instance, her disappointment when, upon the republication of “La strada di Swann” in a revised edition, her “mobileschi” from “odori naturali… stagionali, ma mobileschi e domestici” was corrected and transformed into “mobiliari”; or when her diminutive, and so much sweeter, “maddalenina” was considered an untranslatable (and, as a consequence, perhaps drier) madeleine: https://proustonomics.com/texte-inedit-natalia-ginzburg-presente-par-carlo-ginzburg/
How nice to hear from you, cara Adina! What a tragedy it now seems to me that we just missed each other in Rome, only a few days before the start of this awful plague that has severed so many connections. I am indeed aware of the comics adaptation of la Recherche–in fact, I was gifted a few volumes of it a few years ago. I have leafed through the albums quite a lot, but I prefer to read them after I get through the original. The comics are I think a great way of getting a concrete visual feel for the world Proust is describing, and also help me to better understand the dynamics of certain scenes. Interesting, though, and contrary to what might one expect, the adaptation was much better received in the literary world than it was among comics people. Anyhow, I look forward to listening to the radio interview.
Thank you so much for sending me this afterword by Natalia Ginzburg. It’s so amazing to think that, back in the 30s, a major publishing house would commission such a gargantuan translation project to a twenty-year-old girl (Although certainly no ordinary twenty-year-old!). I think la (as she values her articles) Ginzburg was quite right to translate Geneviève as Ginevra rather than Genoveffa. While the latter is more accurate, the former is more faithful to the spirit of the delicate ad romantic French name. And I love maddalenina! It would make a lovely name for a cat.
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