A few years ago Jane and I, on holiday in Italy, based in Sirmione on Lake Garda, went on a day trip to Venice. Among other things, I was keen to visit the Doge’s Palace, both because my parents had talked about it but also because Marcel Proust had written about it. On the day, however, I found that it was possible only buy a composite ticket for four attractions: the price was high and time was short. So we never got to see it.
Proust knew Venice well and he excels at evoking it. His appreciation was stimulated by reading (and translating) John Ruskin’s writings on the city.
The passage below (in the original French and in English translation) comes from Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu, in particular, Du côté de chez Swann – the chapter, Un amour de Swann. Here we see Charles Swann (friend of the first person narrator) arrive at a soirée, held by a friend, for the upper classes, in late 19th century Paris. At this point, he commences his ascent of a magnificent staircase. In his mind Swann compares it unfavourably with a narrow, smelly one in a poor apartment block, because this is where he sometimes meets his mistress (Odette). He cannot bring Odette to this high class soirée. He misses her.
Proust is famous (or infamous) for his long sentences. He packs a lot into them. The parentheses and subordinate clauses adorn and embellish the main line of thought. Below I have used ellipses to indicate my omissions. Complete sentences are complex and rich; but the disadvantage is that the reader can easily lose the main thread.
The references to art and sculpture here are typical of Proust’s writings (and virtually all the arts receive a mention in the course of À la recherché).
Here we go!
À quelque pas, un grand gaillard en livrée rêvait, comme ce guerrier purement décoratif qu’on voit dans les tableaux les plus tumultueux de Mantegna, songer, appuyé sur son bouclier, tandis qu’on se précipite et qu’on s’égorge à côté de lui….Et les mèches de ses cheveux roux crespelés par la nature, mais collés par brillantine, étaient traitées comme elles sont dans la sculpture grecque qu’étudiait sans cesse le peintre de Mantoue [Mantegna]….
D’autres encore, colossaux aussi, se tenaient sur les degrés d’un escalier monumental que leur presence decorative et leur immobilité marmorénne auraient pu nommer celui du Palais ducal: “l’Escalier des Géants” et dans lequel Swann engagea avec la tristesse de penser qu’Odette ne l’avait jamais gravi. Ah! avec joie au contraire il eût grimpé les étages noir, malodorants et casse-cou de la petite couturière retiree, dans le “cinquième” de laquelle il aurait été si heureux de payer plus cher q’une avant-scène hebdomadaire à l’Opéra le droit de passer la soirée quand Odette y venait, et même les autres jours, pour pouvoir parler d’elle, vivre avec les gens qu’elle avait l’habitude n’était pas là et qui à cause de cela lui paraissaient recéler, de la vie de sa maîtresse, quelque chose de plus réel, de plus inaccessible et de plus mystérieux.
[Du Côté de chez Swann, Paris: folio classique (1987) pp 318f]
A few steps away, a sturdy fellow in livery mused motionless, statuesque, useless, like the purely decorative warrior one sees in the most tumultuous paintings by Mantegna, lost in thought, leaning on his shield, while others beside him rush forward and slaughter one another….And the locks of his red hair, crimped by nature but glued by brilliantine, were treated broadly as they are in the Greek sculpture which the painter from Mantua [Mantegna] studied so constantly….
Still others, also colossal, stood on the steps of a monumental staircase to which their decorative presence and marmoreal immobility might have induced one to give the same name as the one in the Ducal Palace – ‘Staircase of the Giants’ – and which Swann began to climb with the sad thought that Odette had never ascended it. Oh, with what joy by contrast would he have gone up the dark, evil-smelling and rickety flights to the little retired dressmaker’s, in whose ‘fifth floor’ he would have been so happy to pay more than the price of a weekly stage-box at the Opéra for the right to spend the evening when Odette came there, and even on the other days, so as to be able to talk about her, live among the people she was in the habit of seeing when he was not there and who because of that seemed to harbour something, of his mistress’s life, that was more real, more inaccessible and more mysterious.
[Lydia Davis (tr) (2003), The Way by Swann’s, London: Penguin, pp 326f]
Here Ms Davis follows the French very closely; but “auraient pu nommer celui de” (literally, “could have named the one of”) is turned into the longer “might have induced one to give the same name as”.
Ms Davis describes the challenges of reading, and of translating, Proust in the introduction to her translation. She is a firm admirer:
The style in which Proust wrote was essentially natural and unaffected, free from preciosity, archaism and self-conscious elegance….Yet at the same time, he used a wealth of metaphorical imagery, layer upon layer of comparisons, and had a tendency to fill a sentence to its utmost capacity…Proust felt that a long sentence contained a whole, complex thought. [page xxx]
The short quotations above give an indication of Proust’s skill with words. The whole scene at the soirée has a satirical flavour: the idiosyncrasies of the upper classes are exposed. (But the tone changes when Swann becomes immersed in the music being performed, as it too brings Odette to mind – not very happily.)