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Posts Tagged ‘Proust’

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: Modernists Go Off-Menu

January 2, 2013 | by

The opening scenes of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times demonstrate the indignities mechanized factory production perpetrates upon the bodies of its workers. The first shot, of sheep herded into a pen, dissolves into one of men leaving the subway. They’re bound, the viewer assumes, for the kind of job in which the next cut finds Chaplin’s Little Tramp: working on an assembly line, his motions so repetitive that they become reflexive. He can’t stop twisting his wrists, as if to tighten bolts, even when he leaves the station where he tightens bolts all day. His body is so bound to the line and to the factory that the same boss who controls the conveyor belt’s speed also controls the movements of the Tramp’s body. Finally, the factory extends its control to the Tramp’s last autonomous function: eating his lunch.

A salesman so committed to mechanization that he lets a machine speak for him has brought to the factory boss’s office a prototype of “the Billows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work.” He asks the boss to pick one of his workers for a demonstration, and of course Chaplin’s Tramp is volunteered. Strapped into the machine, hands incapacitated, the helpless Tramp watches the machine rotate plates before him: soup, air-cooled between spoonfuls; corn, spinning on its cob; cubes of meat, pushed by a mechanical arm from the plate into his mouth; and finally cake for dessert. The machine promises to “eliminate the lunch hour.”

Even before the machine goes predictably haywire—speeding up, spilling soup on the Tramp’s shirt and cake in his face (always pausing, hilariously, to wipe his mouth)—it’s clear to the viewer that some kind of line has been crossed. Read More »

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In Search of Lost Time: An Illustrated Panorama

November 2, 2012 | by

The first European in my mother’s family to set foot in North America was a short, olive-skinned Frenchman from one of the outermost communes of greater Paris. He fled France amidst the turmoil following the revolution of 1848 for the gold fields of California and chased an elusive mother lode all the way up the coast into Alaska before giving up. He was an exact contemporary of the early Impressionists, and a full generation older than Marcel Proust. He spent the final years of his life a broken man, having outlived two of his three children, and subsisting on a homesteaded vineyard in the Santa Cruz mountains long before California wine was a profitable industry.

The only relic of him my family still possesses is a stack of letters spanning thirty years from his sister, Geneviève, imploring him to come home. A Parisian relation visiting his cabin in the 1890s noted that he wept at the thought of his homeland. As far as I know, he shares no direct connection with Proust, but the world he came from is Proust’s world, and seemed to me, as a child, enchanted when contrasted with the drab California suburb I grew up in. Sadness is a condition that can ripple across many generations, and if his was earned through the loss of a time and place, mine was inherited from the ruined family that struggled to make sense of his mournful legacy.

But his still-hopeful departure from Le Havre for the new World in 1852 would have been immediately preceded by a train ride from Paris through Normandy – a train ride through the same countryside that left Proust enraptured on his childhood sojourns to Illiers-Combray. What follows is an illustration of that train ride, as recounted in Proust’s sprawling lifework, À la recherche du temps perdu. This passage occurs in Part Three of the First Volume and constitutes but a few rich, supple pages.

Jason Novak works at a grocery store in Berkeley, California, and changes diapers in his spare time.

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In Search of Lost Time

October 15, 2012 | by

It is, all told, a strange summer. Down the street from my apartment, children play inside of plastic bags. Glaciers shed ice the size of Manhattan. Scientists find that sharks smell in stereo. Horoscopes are cited as primary sources at social gatherings. Restlessness flows. For three consecutive nights I dream exclusively of vacuuming a garden snake.

On a Sunday afternoon I detour from fondling impractical kitchenware at Pearl River Mart and go where I go when I need to stop time: to visit my grandfather at his loft on West Broadway. He is eighty-four, a sculptor, a Southerner, tall and round bellied, deaf in one ear from an adult case of mumps. His face bears an impressive mustache and bifocals as large and wide as safety goggles. Alzheimer’s is smoothing the lines of his memory, a stone turning in water.

He has lived in this apartment since 1970, and from what I can tell it has hardly changed; it could easily be a soundstage from an early Woody Allen film, with its leather seats shaped into dripstones by decades of party guests, its ceramics and abstract art, the copy of Joe Brainard’s I Remember that had taken up permanent residence in the bathroom long before it carried any personal symbolism. The front half of the loft is still a studio, with a meticulously labeled array of tools and materials, despite the fact that these days my grandfather is physically, psychically unable to work. For the last few years I’ve kept keys under a conditionality: just in case. In this case it only means that I let myself in.

“What are you up to today?” I ask my grandfather, to which he replies, “Just trying to have a brilliant idea.”

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In My Father’s Kitchen

November 15, 2011 | by

I used to joke that I have daddy issues with Jacques Pépin, because it was he who really raised me. My parents divorced when I was a year old and, until I was thirteen, they split custody in every conceivable way. It was my father’s habit to write in the mornings and watch his favorite cooking shows in the afternoon, with a drink, while preparing dinner. On the days I was with him, I watched too. Usually it was Julia Child, or the Frugal Gourmet; later it was Jacques, and then Jacques and Julia. Recipes and technique were like my nursery rhymes and I grew up—“spoiled rotten,” my dad would say—only ever eating perfect pie crust. By the time I was eleven, my knife skills were impeccable, my Caesar salad the best ever (in my family, hyperbole is hereditary). When my mother invited my high school girlfriend and her parents for dinner I served a traditional osso buco and risotto Milanese. It was a success—my culinary coming out party—and one in which my father, who felt he deserved the credit, took particular pride.

As a Depression baby, my father was raised by a generation of people who wouldn’t utter a sound if their hair were on fire. He spent most of his childhood in the kitchen, with the family cook, because he was afraid to go anywhere else in the house. The Wallaces do their suffering in silence. My father’s father, David Frederick Wallace Sr.—Fred, he was called—went off on drinking benders, leaving the family for days at a time. He died of liver failure at just fifty-seven. Fred’s father committed suicide and the family never spoke of it. The thought of my own father having a personal conversation with his mother, or with his grandmother, whom everyone called the Dragonlady, seems impossible—with his Aunt Bess or his uncle, President Harry Truman, outrageous. Read More »

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A Culinary Education

November 8, 2011 | by

Lately, I’ve been thinking about wine cake. In the last few years there have been several “lost recipes” cookbooks—one, I believe, from the doubtless clinical and spotless kitchens of Cook’s Illustrated, another by the great Marion Cunningham. Both are good, and both are made up largely of heirloom recipes passed down through the generations.

The way people learn to cook today—or don’t—is a subject worthy of some study, because it’s changing before our eyes. Back in the day, people learned to cook from their mothers, or maybe from a domestic science course. It was a matter of survival, or at least good household management, and was regarded as a necessary part of adult female competence.

There was also the question of continuity: consciously or not, recipes were a living link with the past—not merely of sentimental value, but time-tested before we had four forks to tell us whether to make something.

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Group Think

September 22, 2010 | by

The existence of another, competing translation is a good thing, in general, and only immediately discouraging to one person—the translator who, after one, two, or three years of more or less careful work, sees another, and perhaps superior, version appear as if overnight.

I’ve been translating from the French for decades (I must enjoy it), and yet, until I translated Proust’s Swann’s Way a few years ago, mine was always the first translation into English of whatever book I was working on, with the predictable advantage and disadvantage that came with that fact: I had no other translation to consult if I was stuck; but no reviewer could compare mine unfavorably to another one.

In the case of Swann’s Way, however, there were two previous translations—one by C. K. Scott Moncrieff done during the 1920s and thirties, and one by an Irish-Australian, James Grieve, published in 1982 in Canberra and not available in the U.S. Few people had seen the Grieve version, but the partisans of the Scott Moncrieff were passionate, and it was no use arguing that his translation was written in a style quite alien to Proust’s and that his text was not nearly as close as it should and could have been (“jaws of Hell” for “entrance to the Underworld”?). To them, the translation simply was Proust.

Madame Bovary is the first book I’ve translated that has already been translated many times into English—as many as nineteen times, by my latest count—so it has been a fascinating experience and nothing like, even, working with one major existing translation, the Scott Moncrieff Proust. Since I have looked again and again at about eleven of the other translations, I’ve come to know them well.

It did occur to me from time to time, as I studied them—as I felt, in effect, surrounded by them as a group—that a group effort might be interesting. This translator is better informed than I am about French history (or rather, I later realized, looking more carefully, she found someone good to do her endnotes); that one is especially clever at dialogue; another seems to have a naturally rich vocabulary; and yet another is a good writer and might give a useful critique of the style of my version. Together we would produce a wonderful translation. Of course, the earliest of us lived in the 1880s, and most of the others, too, have died by now.

I should add, apropos of “one, two, or three years of careful work,” that despite whatever I may say about the shortcomings of the other translations, I believe that each version I looked at was done with a certain amount of diligence—except perhaps for the Paul de Man revision of the Eleanor Marx Aveling. Translating is arduous, frustrating, time-consuming. Even a bad one can’t be dashed off.

Lydia Davis's translation of Madame Bovary comes out on September 23. For the next week she will be writing for TPR Daily about the tasks and sins of the translator. On October 4, she will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y.

See Also: “Survival of the Fittest

See Also: Lydia Davis in Feed Magazine, from 2000

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