“The Past Is a Mist”: Pinter’s Proust
January 23, 2014 | by Christopher Richards
- Yellow screen. Sound of a garden gate bell.
- Open countryside, a line of trees, seen from a railway carriage. The train is still. No sound. Quick fade out.
- Momentary yellow screen.
- The sea, seen from a high window, a towel hanging on a towel rack in foreground. No sound. Quick fade out.
- Momentary yellow screen.
- Venice. A window in a palazzo, seen from a gondola. No sound. Quick fade out.
- Momentary yellow screen.
So begins the wordless sequence of thirty-six shots at the start of The Proust Screenplay, Harold Pinter’s adaptation of À la recherche du temps perdu, written in the seventies and never filmed.
To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Proust’s Swann’s Way a series of public events have been planned in New York. Part of 92Y’s contribution to the centenary was a staged reading of Pinter’s The Proust Screenplay, which was produced at the National Theatre in London in 2001 but had never been performed in the States before its 92Y debut. Helmed by the same director from the National’s production, the 92Y’s reading was directed by Di Trevis, who collaborated with Pinter to stage his screenplay. Performed by a cast of fourteen—led by Peter Clements, a dead ringer for Proust—the crowded event felt like a staged reading in name only; fully blocked out with lighting cues, set pieces, and props, the presence of the actors’ scripts was the only sign that this wasn’t a complete production.
At first glance, a writer known for menacing silences, clipped phrases, and testosterone-fueled brutality—all of it rife with ambiguity—hardly seems the obvious candidate to adapt Proust. When I think of Proust, I think of long and mellifluous sentences, lush, discursive scenes, and linguistic precision—all of which are at odds with a playwright who is perhaps best known for his use of the pause. In a description of his own work to students in the sixties, Pinter said, “I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming.”
But if Pinter and Proust would seem to be at stylistic loggerheads, look at their shared themes and obsessions, particularly their mutual fixation on memory, and suddenly Pinter’s project seems not just sensible but inevitable. In the early seventies, Pinter tackled the “memory play” with No Man’s Land and Old Times, dramas where memories become weaponized. In No Man’s Land—currently in repertory on Broadway, at the Cort Theatre—two older men spar with their recollections, using them as a way to gain the upper hand. It’s never clear what’s true, whether their stories are false memories or outright lies. A character in Old Times remarks, “There are some things one remembers even though they never happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them they take place.” Little wonder, then, that Pinter was fascinated by Proust and the way he transformed recollection into art. In a very Pinteresque statement, Proust himself said that art was born “not of conversation and the light of day but of darkness and silence.”
Adaptation is a form of memoir. Both require the writer to take up fragmentary impressions of a whole to create a sense of order. The inclusions and omissions in Pinter’s screenplay, the construction of his scenes, map his singular experience through the text as a reader; we see what stood out for him in Proust. For the most part he plays the hits—Marcel’s need for a goodnight kiss from his mother; Odette and Swann’s sonata; the patch of yellow wall in Vermeer’s View from Delft; the vision of Gilberte’s daughter—and leaves out the deep cuts. For obvious reasons, a lot of material ends up in the bin; the staged reading lasted about two and a half hours with an intermission, condensing nearly four thousand pages into a standard evening at the theater. There aren’t even any madeleines.
Pinter’s script—like a memory play that passes over some details and exaggerates others—trains its eye on class conflict and memory. He makes chronology dissolve in an enlightening way here: the entirety of Marcel’s life seems to exist in one simultaneous, present moment. And Pinter is particularly good with the slipperiness of memory in Proust. Toward the end, when Marcel interrogates a friend of Albertine’s as to whether or not she is a lesbian, the scene alternates two mutually exclusive versions: one where the friend declares Albertine has dallied with many women and another where she earnestly denies that Albertine is capable of this “vice.”
Like many great, long works, À la recherche du temps perdu is widely discussed but seldom read in its entirety. Lydia Davis, translator of the finest English-language version of Swann’s Way, confesses in her introduction that she had never finished the first book until she translated it; Pinter, too, admits in his introduction to the published edition of The Proust Screenplay that he had only read Swann’s Way before setting out to tackle the whole series. The Proust Screenplay steps in where our efforts to reach the end of Proust’s work have failed—it’s a sort of Cliff’s Notes for the cultured. Without an adaptation, how else could you get an intelligent bird’s eye view of this entire work? Pinter’s script streamlines the themes, further distilling memory into art into the most essential moments.
In the end, Pinter’s screenplay, as sophisticated and loyal as it is, encounters obstacles that have little to do with its quality and more to do with the way Proust’s work affects us. At intermission, a woman sitting behind me leapt up and declared, “Horrible,” huffing out of the theater. But I’m not sure the failure, if there was one, belonged to Pinter, to say nothing of the director and cast. Reading is always personal, but it may be that no other work is scored for the individual the way Proust’s is. The uncanny way Proust mirrors thought gives us a feeling of ownership of the work that we rarely experience with other books. We all have our own way of imagining the three steeples, little Marcel’s boyhood crushes, Swann’s walk, and, of course, just what that madeleine tastes like. Proust’s memories mingle with our own and transform them. His prose is so infectious that I start to feel drowsy when Marcel sleeps; my lungs wheeze when his asthma flares up.
Books have a hypnotic power to make us feel like we are a part of them, something Proust himself observes in the first paragraph of Swann’s Way: “I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was about: a church, a quartet, a rivalry between Francois I and Charles V.” So I can’t exactly blame my imperious fellow audience-member for her outburst. Seeing Marcel enter the stage gave me that startling sick feeling—like reaching for your mother as a four-year-old only for her to turn around and to have some other woman’s face attached her head. Can Pinter’s fragmentary reconstruction of Proust ever match our memories of it? On my way home from 92Y, I couldn’t wait to slip under the covers, with my inhaler on the pillow next to me, and climb into bed with my Proust.
Christopher Richards is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His essays have appeared on The Millions, Guernica, and FSG’s Work in Progress.