Late Bloomer


Of the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s epic novel, In Search of Lost Time (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu), part four, Sodom and Gomorrah, carries the only reliably marketable title. In a talky French movie from the 1970s, a copy of volume five, The Prisoner (sounds like a downer), cruises the Paris streets, symbolically trapped inside Jean-Pierre Léaud’s coat pocket. Introductory tome Swann’s Way stars that scene-chewing cookie. Comparatively, part two, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, looks like a wallflower.

Book two—which inspired Jean Genet to write Our Lady of the Flowers—wasn’t always the Jan Brady of the Recherche bunch. À L’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur won the Goncourt Prize in 1919, delivering a belated dose of fame to its infirm author, who died three years later, before he could see the entire chronos opus published.

In James Grieve’s In the Shadow—the second installment in Viking’s gimmicky seven-translator edition—sickly mama’s boy Marcel blossoms into an aspiring writer-dandy, lovesick for girls. Out on the salon circuit, he becomes the writer’s—and the city’s—most callow cliché, letting the tea and gossip of high society lure him away from the silence of an empty page in a cork-lined room. Yet, Marcel relies on his (unconvincing) rhetorical powers to rationalize his artistic procrastination:

If I had not been so determined to set seriously to work, I might have made an effort to start at once. But [ . . . ] it was really preferable not to think of beginning things on an evening when I was not quite ready—and of course the following days were to be no better suited to beginning things. However, I was a reasonable person. When one has waited for years, it would be childish not to tolerate a delay of a couple of days.

C.K. Scott Moncrieff died, like Proust himself, before he could finish his masterwork, the first translation of La Recherche, which was actually completed by the aptly named Frederick A. Blossom. Twice revised, the Moncrieff palimpsest has until recently been our only English Proust, except for Grieve’s own hard-to-find Swann’s Way.

With five books to go before the grave, Grieve’s sensible approach makes Proust a little easier—is that the point?—but sacrifices some nuance. When Marcel frequents “maisons de rendez-vous” or “maisons de passe” (a passe or a “go” was a term in use among late-19th-century Paris’s estimated 300,000 prostitutes). Moncrieff blunders with “disorderly house” but Grieve’s “brothel” is bordel in French, a low word, uneuphemistic, that pretentious Marcel wouldn’t use.

Hustlers, grandmothers, other men’s wives: Women parade through book two, and Proust, who was himself closeted, doesn’t let his narrator come out from the Shadows.

Céleste Albaret, Proust’s live-in maid and confidante, was no Max Brod, and she honored the author’s request to burn the 32 black manuscript books of La Recherche in the kitchen stove. In Barbara Bray’s reissued translation of Monsieur Proust, the housekeeper’s indispensable 1973 memoir, Albaret writes that critics confuse the author’s “paperoles” (“odd notes written down” on any available piece of paper) with his paste-ons, “additions glued into the exercise books when there was no more room left on a page for further corrections.” From his bed, pages against his knees, Proust tinkered; “he reworked, developed, expanded, embellished.” If, like his novel’s narrator, Proust dallied as a young boy in bloom, he became a focused workaholic in his last years. To write La Recherche, as to translate it, is to correct, to complete—a search that flowers without end.