- Proust’s madeleine is one of modernism’s essential images—a cookie whose unique taste, whose absolute singularity, could conjure for the author a whole lost world. So it’s downright disturbing, then, to learn that the cookie was damn near something else: “A first draft of Proust’s monumental novel dating from 1907 had the author reminiscing not about madeleines as the sensory trigger for a childhood memory about his aunt, but instead about toasted bread mixed with honey … A second draft, the manuscripts showed, had the evocative mouthful as a biscotto, a hard biscuit.” Nostalgia is hereby ruined for everyone. Condolences.
- Rivka Galchen has been spending a lot of time singing lullabies, which has given her ample room to consider their origins, their mysteries, and the plangent sadness they sound: “What, really, is a lullaby? We can define it functionally—a song used to lull a child to sleep … Another function is to let the singer speak. Maybe this is one reason the lyrics of lullabies are often so unsettled and dark. One way a mother might bond with a newborn is by sharing her joy; another way is by sharing her grief or frustration … When even relatively happy, well-supported people become the primary caretaker of a very small person, they tend to find themselves eddied out from the world of adults. They are never alone—there is always that tiny person—and yet they are often lonely. Old songs let us feel the fellowship of these other people, across space and time, also holding babies in dark rooms.”
- Looking for a way forward, young writer? Embrace Ottessa Moshfegh’s scatological philosophy, and find truth in the ouroboros of your gastrointestinal tract: “My aim was to shit out new shit. And so in writing, I think a lot about how to shit. What kind of stink do I want to make in the world? My new shit becomes the shit I eat. I learn by digesting my own delusions. It’s often very disgusting. The process requires as much self-awareness and honesty as I’m capable of having. It requires the courage to be hostile and contradictory. My creativity seems to gain traction out of this relationship with reality: I hate you, I hate myself, I love myself, you love me, I love you, I hate you, ad infinitum. I am interested in my own hypocrisy. It provides the turbulence for me to change.”
- John Clare, cast off in the nineteenth century as a minor poet, is today one of our most essential, especially in his treatment of nature: “He saw tragic ironies all over the place, but he never sought verbal ironies himself: he is about as sincere (if not naive) as poets get. Clare seems to have benefited from few of the changes wreaked on the planet since the invention of the steam engine and cannot be blamed for whatever brought them about: he may be the last significant white Anglophone poet for whom that was true.” Accordingly, poets like Lisa Fishman, Matthew Dickman, David Morley, David Baker, and Donald Revell have opened up a kind of dialogue with him in work that directly addresses his own: “Clare’s apparently unorganized—but minutely observed—poetry looks like a model for poets who want to stay true to a material world while rejecting the hypotactic, well-made structures that earlier generations preferred.”
- You’ve probably spent hours in your toolshed puzzling over the etymology of monkey wrench—who hasn’t? Relief is at hand: you may now learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the history and origin of monkey wrenches, and their mystery runs deep. Charles Moncky, the alleged inventor of said wrench, is often believed to have inspired its name, but “he would have been only twelve years old in 1840 when the earliest known accounts of monkey wrenches appeared in print.” The answer may lie in a popular toy, the monkey stick—you decide.
Richard Howard first appeared in The Paris Review in our thirteenth issue—from the summer of 1956. Since then, several of his poems and translations have found their way to these pages, and in 2004, J. D. McClatchy interviewed him for our Art of Poetry series. In our Summer 1989 issue, George Plimpton spoke with Howard about translating Proust.
The first line of Remembrance of Things Past is one of the most famous in literature. How does your version differ from the others?
Three versions of Proust’s first sentence—“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.”—have been published. The Scott Moncrieff-Kilmartin: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” James Grieve (an Australian professor): “Time was, when I always went to bed early.” And mine: “Time and again, I have gone to bed early.”
And what is the thinking behind your version?
To begin with, “time and again” seems one of those cell-like phrases which sums up a meaning of the whole book, as long-temps does in French. I admire Professor Grieve’s “time was”, but it doesn’t have the notion of recurrence that I wanted. It seemed to me that what was needed was not only an opening phrase which would reveal the book’s meaning, but one that would begin with the word “time”, which would be the last word in the book as well, as it is in French. Read More
The Hammer Museum, in LA, is currently showing an exhibition titled “Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914.” The juxtaposition of the two substances is deliberate; the show aims to present what the curators call “a multidimensional portrait of the Parisian woman at the turn of the century, spanning from the frilly collars of the upper class to the dirty syringes of the desperately poor.” All of this is represented by some of the great artists of the day in a series of arresting engravings, paintings, and lithographs. (Occasional bits of ephemera—and books like Les morphinées—round out the show.)
By definition, the portrayals run the gamut from civilized—George Bottini’s graceful fin de siècle women shopping or walking down Parisian boulevards—to depraved. But even the most abject addict is glossed with romance. The renderings, whether they be stylized art nouveau commercial work or a Bonnard etching, are so achingly beautiful as to provide a sense of continuity. All these women, whatever they were drinking, were muses.
And the show is at pains, via notes and curation, to make it clear that one substance was not synonymous with only one group of subjects; monied women frequently resorted to morphine in the nineteenth century, to the point where their widespread drug use became a problem. Meanwhile, even when yielding acid, or injecting morphine, the demimondaine is rendered with the same beauty and care, avenging goddesses and righteous furies. (Which is all very well, if you were a Parisian prostitute.) As Proust—no stranger to morphine himself—would have it, “The paradoxes of today are the prejudices of tomorrow, since the most benighted and the most deplorable prejudices have had their moment of novelty when fashion lent them its fragile grace.” That women numbing themselves was so pervasive a theme is both scary and illuminating.
But here is the thing. Shortly after studying the images in this exhibition, I took a walk and saw this: Read More
- 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. Read More
All this week, we are bringing you some of your favorite posts from 2013. Happy holidays!
Of the two people who have written books called My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard is the less notorious. In Scandinavia, where the tradition of memoiristic writing is less prevalent and self-exposing than it is in America, he wrote, for three years, twenty pages a day about himself, his friends, his wife, and his kids. When the first of the six books was published, reporters called everyone he’d ever met. It sold half a million copies.
But unlike most literary controversies, this one’s less interesting than the work that provoked it. Knausgaard has written one of those books so aesthetically forceful as to be revolutionary. Before, there was no My Struggle; now there is, and things are different. The digressiveness of Sebald or Proust is transposed into direct, unmetaphorical language, pushing the novel almost to the edge of unreadability, where it turns out to be addictive and hypnotic. A man has written a book in which a man stays at home with his kids, and his home life isn’t trivialized or diminished but studied and appreciated, resisted and embraced. An almost Christian feeling of spiritual urgency makes even the slowest pages about squeezing lemon on a lobster into a hymn about trying to be good.
Book One ends with that impossible thing: an original metaphor for death. The last sentence of this interview may do the same for writing. Read More
The first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way was published almost exactly a hundred years ago. Its opening lines make one thing inescapably apparent: Proust’s style is inimitable; there is much more to it than long sentences, pauses for reminiscence and brittle cookie breaks, and whatever other tropes readers have associated with Proust. It is a style that tussles with our notion of literary temporality itself. Over the last century, countless translators have struggled with these famous opening lines:
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: « Je m’endors. »
Nobody seems to be able to agree whether to translate the verb of the principal clause as a conditional or a past participle, because while in French it is obviously the latter, it seems to act as the former. We’ve had various degrees of “went to bed early,” “used to go to bed early,” “would go to bed early,” each meaning more or less the same thing, but none hitting the nail directly on the head.
Scholars have found these lines, at once, undeniably charming and a huge pain to work with.
But in this seemingly untranslatable sentence, even among translators—whose very job it is to take troublesome idioms and phrases and grammatical twists and make them legible and appropriate, and to do so by imparting as much of Proust’s style and as little of their own as possible—there is so much variety that it raises another important question: How would this sentence have been handled by other writers? Read More