Issue 111, Summer 1989
Mr. Howard has provided some general observations about his work-in-progress —a new translation of Proust’s epic. Following that is a short interview with Mr Howard in which George Plimpton asks more specific questions.
The great works are ageless, but their translations date; indeed, as Walter Benjamin remarks, the subsequent translations of great works mark their stages of continued life. In most cases, even the case of so extensive a work as War and Peace, translations appear at intervals of about a generation. The Tale of Genji, for all its length, has lately found a second translation, for none is definitive (not even Arthur Waley’s). In the case of Marcel Proust, copyright problems and consequent production costs have delayed what in the case of Mann, of Lorca, of Brecht and Genet has proved an unopposable impulse. In 1972, this undertaking—a second version of Proust’s work—was first entertained, if that is the right word, but only last year did the work slide out of copyright, whereupon three new French editions immediately appeared. I have been working from the Garnier-Flammarion version, published under the general editorship of Jean Milly, and it is hoped that In Search of Lost Time will appear, volume by volume, during the next septenate. What appears here is susceptible still of revision, but I am unlikely to be persuaded to alter the opening phrase; it has become a sort of symbol, for me, of the work’s tenor (and bass). I have tried, throughout, for the sound of the Proustian sentence, its tempo and suspension, recalling that the last word, in French, means as well a source of light, indeed a chandelier.
— Richard Howard
The first line of Remembrance of Things Past is one of the most famous in literature. How does your version differ from
Three versions of Proust’s first sentence — “Longtemps, je me suis couche 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.
Were there other considerations?
Roger Shattuck has an essay about this, and Alfred Corn has explored it in his essays too: in the whole book, the only use of the passe compose occurs, to all intents and purposes, in the first sentence. Oh sometimes characters use this tense in speech, but the narrative is virtually never in the passe compose (je me suis couche). So that one hears a deliberate little jolt there; I wanted to echo that.
A bit of history: if one had to remark on C.K. Scott Moncrieff as a translator, would one give him good marks?
Indeed, Very good. You know, he also translated a lot of Stendhal, as well as the Chanson de Roland. His translation was initially done on speculation —because he admired the book so much. He sent it in to Chatto and Windus —on speculation!
There must have been a number of people who tried . . .
Ford Madox Ford said he would have liked to do it. He felt it was something he could have done. But as for the last volume, the actual translation . . . well, that’s complicated. Scott Moncrieff had died after completing the first six parts, and the seventh, Le Temps Retrouve, was translated by Stephen Hud- son (Sidney Schiff) in England, and by Frederick Blossom in America. Then this last part was translated anew by Andreas Mayor, and that’s the one in print now. It was so good that there were plans to commission Mayor to do all the preceding parts, but then he died too. Even Terence Kilmartin, who revised the Scott Moncrieff version, developed a brain tumor (which he has survived). Of course I took all this into consideration when I began the translation —I started with the last volume first. I thought that might just save me. Though the Mayor version is tough competition. I think it’s the only part of the book where my version may not show up as better. With the other volumes, I have some reason to hope that my work will hold up very well.
When you translate, can you resist taking a peek to see how other translators have done it?
I always look. I believe all translators do, in this situation. There’s not much danger of coming up with the same words, unless it’s a very simple sentence where there really is no choice. In Proust, the rhythm, the phrasing, the movement of the sentence, even the grammar —it’s all so complex that it would be almost impossible to repeat anyone else’s work. Because of that I’m all the more aware of the differences, and of how admirable Scott Moncrieff’s work often is.
What about Professor Grieve?
He began a new translation for the Australian National University in Canberra. I don’t believe he knew that Kilmartin was revising Scott Moncrieff. He had completed the first part, which he too calls Swann’s Way, before he found out. I don’t think he’s going on with it. Oddly enough, his lively translation is not very close to the French. It’s more like an improvisation on Proustian themes —and I don’t feel that’s what readers want. They want to read what Proust wrote. And as a translator, it seems to me, you have an obligation not to change, not to add . . . For instance, in that first sentence. Grieve adds the word “always”. I can’t see doing that. And throughout. Grieve adds, rewrites really. Nonetheless, I take great interest in reading him, and the other translators. They’re very helpful. Almost as helpful as the new French editors. Of course I don’t feel it would be honorable not to look at them. The honorable thing is to make as good a translation as you can. You get your “good” wherever you find it.
How many versions of the first line of Swann’s Way did you jot down before you decided what you wanted.
Oh, dozens. And people keep offering me more. Most of my correspondents are pleasant enough about their suggestions (though sometimes people are quite acerb: they assure me I am not qualified to undertake the task, and offer me the right version). I remember one that began: “Repeatedly I remained in bed . . .” And I had a letter from one woman, a doctor, who admitted that she had never read Proust but who insisted she could tell from the French title that I didn’t understand the book’s subject. She had not read the book, but she knew . . . I think that once you propose a problem or a puzzle, there are always people who want to solve it their way, and who feel you have not examined certain concepts .. . I must say I have given the matter a good deal of thought. I can’t imagine a new solution that would surprise me. But I still get suggestions from the most varied sources. And of course that’s fine. Perhaps everyone should translate Proust for himself— that would be a good way of reading him, no?
Time and again I have gone to bed early. Often enough, my candle just out, my eyes would close even before I had time to realize, “I'm falling asleep.” And half an hour later, the thought that it was bedtime would wake me; I would try to put down the book which I believed was still in my hands and blow out the candle; still asleep, I would reflect on what I had been reading, but such reflections took a peculiar turn, as if I myself had become what the book was about: a church, a string quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V. . . This notion would persist several seconds after I woke, and though nothing about it seemed irrational, it lay like scales upon my eyes and kept them from discerning that the candle was no longer lit; then it would begin to grow unintelligible, like the thoughts of a previous existence after metempsychosis; the book’s subject would withdraw from me —I was free to deal with it or not; now I could see again, and I was amazed to find a darkness around me soothing to my eyes but perhaps even more so to my mind, which found it causeless, unaccountable, dark indeed. I would wonder what time it could be; I kept hearing the whistling of trains which, remote or nearby, like birdsong in the woods, revealing the distances, suggested the extent of the unfrequented landscape where a traveler hurries toward the nearest station; and the path he follows will be etched in his memory by the excitement due to new places, to unaccustomed actions, to recent conversations and to farewells under an unfamiliar lamp which pursue him into the silence of the night, to the impending pleasure of his return.
Tenderly I would press my cheeks against the pillow’s smooth cheeks, as plump and cool as the cheeks of our childhood. I would strike a match to look at my clock. Nearly midnight. This is the hour when a sick man on a journey, obliged to sleep in an unknown hotel and wakened by a bout of fever, rejoices to see a streak of light under the door. How fortunate, it’s morning already! Any moment now the staff will be on call, he can ring and someone will come to look after him.Hope of relief inures him to discomfort. Weren’t those foot- steps he just heard? The footsteps come closer, then fade away. And the streak of light under the door has vanished; it is mid- night; the gaslamps in the corridor have just been extinguished; the last servant has gone, and the whole night must be suffered through with no recourse.
I would fall back to sleep and sometimes wake only for a moment, long enough to hear the organic creaking of the woodwork, to stare into the kaleidoscope of darkness, to enjoy, thanks to a brief glimmer of consciousness, the sleep shrouding the furniture, the room, the world I was only a small part of and whose insensibility I would soon rejoin. Or else in my sleep I had involuntarily returned to a forever-vanished stage of my early life, once more a victim of childhood terrors, for example that my great-uncle would pull my curls, a fear which had been dispelled —the dawn for me of a new era —the day they were cut off. I had forgotten this event during my sleep; its memory would come back to me once I had managed to wake up in order to escape my great-uncle’s hands, but as a precautionary measure I would wrap my pillow around my head before returning to the world of dreams.
Sometimes, the way Eve was made from Adam’s rib, a woman would be created during my sleep from a strained position of my thigh. Formed by the pleasure I was about to enjoy, she seemed in my imagination to be giving it to me: my body, taking its own warmth for hers, tried to unite with her, and I would wake up. All other humans were alien to me compared with this woman I had left only seconds ago; my cheek was still warm from her kiss, my body stiff under the weight of hers. If, as sometimes happened, she had the features of a woman I knew in life, I would dedicate myself to finding her again, like a man setting off on a journey to see a longed-for city with his own eyes and supposing that the charm of a dream can be enjoyed in reality. Gradually my recollection would fade, I had forgotten the girl in my dream.A sleeping man holds in a ring around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and of the universe. He
consults them instinctively upon waking and in them reads.all at once, the point on earth’s surface he occupies, the time which has elapsed until his waking; but their hierarchies can be confused, can be destroyed. If toward morning, after a bout of insomnia, sleep should overcome him while he is reading, in a position too different from the one in which he usually drops off, he need merely raise his arm to halt the sun and reverse its course, and in his first waking moment he will no longer know what time it is —he will suppose he has only just gone to bed. If he should doze off in a still more abnormal and divergent position, for example sitting in an armchair after dinner, then the disruption of the unsettled worlds will be complete, the enchanted armchair will send him hurtling into time and space, and when he does open his eyes, he will imagine himself lying, months earlier, in another country. But it was enough that, in my own bed, my sleep should be deep, my mind entirely at ease; then I would lose all sense of where I had fallen asleep, and when I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not know where I was, I would not even realize at first who I was; all I had, in its primal simplicity, was the sentiment of existence itself as it may throb within an animal; I was more at a loss than any cave man; but then the memory—not yet of the place where I was, but of several of the places I had lived and where I might have been —came like help from on high to save me from the void I could not have escaped on my own; in one second I passed over centuries of civilization, and the vaguely-glimpsed image of oil-lamps, then of wing-collar shirts, gradually reconstituted the original features of my identity.
Perhaps the immobility of things around us is imposed upon them by our certainty that they are themselves and not otherwise —by the immobility of our mind confronting them. Certainly when I would wake in this way, my mind struggling unsuccessfully to discover where I was, everything circled around me in the dark: things, places, years. Too numb to move, my body interrogated the form of its fatigue in order to deduce from its limbs’ position the direction of the wall, the location of the furniture, to reconstruct and name its whereabouts. Its memory—the memory of its ribs, its knees.its shoulders —offered in succession several of the rooms where it had slept, while the invisible walls around it, changing places according to the shape of an imagined room, circled in the shadows. And even before my mind, hesitating on the thresholds of time and shape, had identified the room by comparing circumstances, my body would recall the style of bed in each one, the location of doors, how windows caught the light, the existence of a hallway, along with the thought which was in my mind when I had fallen asleep and which I would recover upon waking. My aching side, trying to discover its orientation, would suppose, for example, that it was facing the wall in a big canopied bed, and immediately I would think, “Why, I managed to fall asleep even though Maman didn’t come to say goodnight”; I would be in the country at my grandfather’s, though he had been dead for many years, and my body, the side I was lying on—faithful guardian of a past my mind should never have forgotten — recovered the glow of the urn-shaped Bohemian-glass nightlight hanging by tiny chains from the ceiling, the Siena-marble mantelpiece in the bedroom of my grandparents’ house at Combray, in a remote past which at this moment I vaguely imagined was the present and which I would soon visualize more clearly once I was wide awake.
Then recurred the memory of a new position; the wall would shift in another direction: I was in my bedroom at Mme. de Saint-Loup’s, in Tansonville; Lord, it’s at least ten, dinner must be over! I would have overslept during the nap I took every evening after my walk with Mme. de Saint-Loup, before dressing for dinner. Indeed many years have passed since Combray, where, however late we returned, it was the sunset’s red gleam I would see in the panes of my bedroom window. It’s a different life we lead in Tansonville, at Mme. de Saint- Loup’s, a different kind of pleasure I take in venturing out only after dark, exploring by moonlight those lanes where I used to play in the sunshine; and from far off I glimpse the room where I will have fallen asleep instead of getting dressed, picked out by the glow of the lamp, sole beacon in the dark- ness.
These vague and whirling evocations would never last more than a few seconds; often my momentary uncertainty about where I was would make no clearer choice among the various suppositions it consisted of than, when we see a galloping horse, we can isolate the successive positions revealed by the Kinetoscope. But I had managed to glimpse one or another of the rooms I had slept in during my life, and ultimately I would recall them all during the long reveries that occurred after waking: bedrooms in winter where as soon as you lie down you burrow your way into a lair woven out of the most disparate materials —a corner of the pillow, the top of the bed clothes, the fringe of a shawl, the side of the bed, and an issue of the pink Journal des Debats, all of which, like a nesting bird, you finally unite by continuous pressure; where in icy weather you relish your seclusion from the outside world (like the sea swallow which tunnels deep in the warm earth to nest), and where, the fire kept burning all night in the grate, you sleep in a great cloak of warm and smoky air, pierced by gleams from the reviving embers, a kind of impalpable alcove, a warm cavern hollowed from the heart of the room itself, a torrid zone whose thermic boundaries keep being altered by face cooling drafts from the corners and from areas around the windows or farthest away from the fireplace and therefore chilly again;—bedrooms in summer where you enjoy being part of the warm night, where moonlight falling on the half-open shutters extends its magic ladder to the foot of the bed where you are sleeping almost in the open air, like a titmouse swayed by the breeze on a moonbeam’s tip;—sometimes the Louis XVI bedroom, so gay that I had not been too wretched there even the first night, where the slender columns airily supporting the ceiling parted so gracefully to show the place reserved for the bed;—sometimes, how different! the tiny bedroom whose mahogany-timbered pyramidal ceiling rose two stories above me, where from the first instant I had been morally intoxicated by the unfamiliar scent of vetiver, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the brazen indifference of a clock chattering as loud as if I were not there; where a strange and pitiless cheval-glass on square legs, barring one of the corners of the room, suddenly carved an unexpected region out of the mild plenitude of my usual field of vision; where my mind, struggling for hours to break free, stretching upward to assume precisely the shape of the room and fill its vast funnel to the very top, had endured many bad nights, ears cocked, nostrils flared, heart pounding: until habit had changed the color of the curtains, had silenced the clock, had taught pity to the cruel and slanting mirror, had disguised if not entirely dispelled the scent of vetiver and noticeably lowered the ceiling’s apparent height. Habit! that cunning but deliberate housekeeper who begins by letting your mind suffer for weeks in temporary lodgings, but whom you are glad enough to employ all the same, for without habit and reduced to merely its own resources, your mind would be powerless to make any room endurable.
By now of course I would be wide awake, my body had shifted position for the last time, and the good angel of certainty had brought everything around me to a standstill, had settled me under my quilt, in my own bedroom, and in the dark had more or less put where they belonged my chest of drawers, my desk, my fireplace, the window overlooking the street, and both doors. But even though I knew I was not in any of the rooms which the momentary bewilderment of waking had revealed if not as a distinct image, at least as a possible presence, my memory had been aroused; usually I would not try to go back to sleep right away; I would spend most of the night remembering our old life —in Combray at my great aunt’s, in Balbec, in Paris, in Doncieres, in Venice, even else where; remembering the places, the people I had known there, what I had seen of them, what I had been told about them.
In Combray, late every afternoon, long before I would have to go to bed and stay there, without sleeping, far from my mother and my grandmother, my bedroom again became the painful focus of my fantasies. To divert me until dinnertime on the evenings when I seemed too miserable, someone had thought of giving me a magic lantern which could be fitted over my lamp; and in the fashion of the first Gothic architects and masters of stained glass, it replaced my opaque walls with impalpable iridescence, supernatural apparitions in all the colors of the rainbow, where legends were depicted as in a trembling and momentary church window. Yet my misery was only intensified, for the change in lighting was enough to destroy the familiar look of my room which, except for the torment of going to bed, had made it bearable to me. Now I no longer recognized it and was as anxious there as in a room in some hotel or “chalet,” arriving for the first time after a train journey.
Riding at a jerky gait, Golo, bent on villainy, emerged from a little triangular woods upholstering the hillside with dark green velvet and lurched toward the castle of poor Genevieve de Brabant. This castle was cut off on one side by a curving line, actually the edge of one of the oval glass slides that fit into the lantern. Only a patch of castle wall could be seen, with a moor in the foreground where Genevieve, wearing an azure zone, stood dreaming. Both castle and moor were yellow, although I did not need to see them to know their color, for long before the lantern slides, the bronze sonority of the name Brabant had revealed it to me quite distinctly. Golo would halt a moment and harken sadly to the commentary which my great-aunt was reading aloud and which he seemed to understand perfectly, accommodating his posture, with a meekness that had a majesty all its own, to the details of the text; then he rode off at the same jerky gait. And nothing could halt his slow progress. If the lantern was moved, I could still make out Golo’s horse riding across the window-curtains, bulging and dwindling with their folds. Golo’s body was of the same supernatural essence as his steed’s, adapting itself to any material obstacle, incorporating every impediment in its path, even the doorknob over which immediately and invincibly flowed his red gown or his pale countenance as noble and as melancholy as ever, but betraying no distress at such transvertebration.
Of course I was delighted by these brilliant projections that seemed to emanate from a Merovingian past and surrounded me with such ancient gleams of history. Yet what anxiety I suffered from the intrusion of beauty and mystery into a room I had finally managed to imbue with enough of my own identity to take no more notice of it than of myself. Once the anesthesia of habit had worn off, how melancholy were my thoughts, my feelings! My bedroom doorknob, which differed in my eyes from all other doorknobs in that it seemed to function of its own accord, so unconscious had I become of turning it, was now serving as Golo’s astral body. And as soon as the dinner-bell rang, I would race down to the dining-room where the big chandelier, ignorant of Golo and Bluebeard but quite familiar with my family and beef casserole, offered its usual light; and would plunge into Maman’s arms which the ordeals of Genevieve de Brabant made all the dearer, while Golo’s crimes spurred me to a deeper scrutiny of my own conscience.
After dinner, unfortunately, I would soon have to leave Maman who stayed talking to the others, in the garden if the weather was fine, or in the little sitting-room where everyone gathered on rainy evenings. Everyone except my grandmother, who insisted it was “a pity to stay indoors in the country” and who constantly argued with my father for sending me up to my room to read on the wettest days instead of letting me stay outdoors. “That’s no way to make him strong and active,” she would say sadly, “and the child needs to develop all the energy and will-power he can,” My father would shrug and consult the barometer, for meteorology interested him, while my mother, careful to make no distracting noise, watched with affectionate respect, although not so intently as to risk penetrating such high mysteries. But my grandmother, whatever the weather, even in pouring rain when Frangoise would hurriedly drag in the precious wicker chairs lest they get soaked, could be seen out in the empty, rain-lashed garden, smoothing her dishevelled gray hair so that her forehead might more freely imbibe the health-giving wind and rain. She would say: “At last, one can breathe!” and pace the sopping paths—too symmetrically laid out, for her taste, by the new gardener who lacked all feel- ing for nature and whom my father had been asking since morning if the weather would clear—her jerky, eager little steps matching the various responses her soul was moved to by the intoxication of the storm, the power of hygiene, the stupidity of my education, and the symmetry of gardens, rather than by the (to her quite alien) desire to spare her plum colored skirt the mudstains soon covering it to a height inveterately the bane of her maid’s existence.
When these constitutionals of hers were taken after dinner, one thing could always make my grandmother come indoors: this was —at the perigee of those orbits which periodically brought her back, like some insect, to the lights of the little sitting-room where liqueurs were served on the card-table —if my great-aunt called out to her, “Bathilde! Come and stop your husband from drinking cognac!” And just to tease her (so different was the mentality she had brought into my father’s family that everyone teased and tormented her), my great- aunt would make him drink a few drops, for my grandfather had been forbidden alcohol. My poor grandmother would come indoors, imploring her husband not to drink any cognac; this would infuriate him, and he would deliberately take a sip, whereupon my grandmother would return to the garden, downcast and discouraged though still smiling, for she was so meek and unassuming that affection for others and indifference to her own troubles mingled in a smile which expressed, contrary to what so many faces show, irony only for herself, and for all of us a sort of caress given by eyes which could not regard those she loved without passionately embracing them with their gaze. This teasing inflicted by my great- aunt, the spectacle of my grandmother’s vain entreaties and of her efforts, doomed in advance, to take the liqueur-glass away from my grandfather, were the kind of things you grow used to later in life, to the point of smiling at them and blithely siding with the persecutor deliberately enough to convince yourself that no persecution is involved; but at the time they so horrified me that I wanted to hit my great-aunt. Yet as soon as I would hear “Bathilde, come and stop your husband from drinking cognac!” already a man in my cowardice, I did what we all do, once we have grown up, when we confront sufFering and injustice: I chose not to see them; I would climb upstairs to sob my heart out under the eaves next to the school- room, in a little room that smelled of orris-root and also of the wild-currant bush that had sprouted between the stones of the wall outside and thrust a flowering branch through the open window. Intended for a ruder and more particular function, this room, from which by day you could see as far as the castle keep of Roussainville-le-Pin, long served as a refuge — doubtless because it was the only one where I was allowed to lock myself in—for those of my occupations which required inviolable solitude: reading, revery, masturbation, tears. Alas! I was not to know that it was my weak will and delicate health, and the uncertainty these cast over my future, which distressed my grandmother far more than her husband’s minor deviations from his regimen, during those incessant walks of hers, afternoon and evening, when we would see her passing back and forth, tilting her fine face toward the sky, her furrowed brown cheeks which age had turned almost mauve like tilled fields in autumn, latticed, if she was going out somewhere, by a half-raised veil and glistening, whether brought there by the cold or some sad thought, with a forever-drying involuntary tear.
My one consolation, when I had to go up to my room, was that Maman would come and kiss me goodnight once I was in bed. But this goodnight was so brief, she went back down so soon, that I began to suffer the moment I heard her foot- steps on the stairs and through the double doors, then along the hallway the rustle of her blue muslin garden dress with its little tassels of braided straw. For this moment heralded the one which would inevitably follow, when she had left me, when she would be downstairs again. So that I actually wanted to postpone this coveted goodnight as long as possible, to extend the period of respite when Maman had not yet come. Sometimes when, after kissing me, she would open the door to leave, I yearned to call her back, to say “one more time,” but I knew that then she would frown, for the concession she was making to my anxiety and agitation by coming upstairs to soothe me with a kiss would exasperate my father who considered these rituals absurd, and she would have preferred to help me outgrow this need rather than letting me get into the habit of begging her, when she was already at the door, for one more kiss. And to see her frown destroyed whatever peace she had just granted when she leaned over my bed and offered her loving face like a communion-wafer from which my lips might receive her real presence and the power to go to sleep. But those evenings, when Maman in fact stayed so short a time in my room, were still sweet by comparison to the ones when there was company for dinner and she would not come upstairs to say goodnight at all. “Company” usually meant Monsieur Swann who, aside from occasional acquaintances passing through Combray, was almost our only visitor, sometimes for a neighborly dinner (less often since that unfortunate marriage of his, for my parents were unwilling to receive his wife), sometimes dropping in afterwards. The evenings when, sitting round the castiron table under the big chestnut tree, we would hear from the far end of the garden not the shrill and exuberant gatebell which deluged and deafened by its cold, steely, tireless clangor any member of the household who set it off by coming in “without ringing,” but the timid, oval, golden cadence of the little visitors’ bell, everyone would immediately wonder: “A visitor—who can it be?” though we knew very well it could only be Monsieur Swann; my great- aunt, setting an example by talking very loud and in a deliberately natural tone of voice, would tell us not to whisper so, for nothing wa5 more disagreeable for a new arrival who would assume we were saying things he was not meant to hear; and my grandmother would be sent to reconnoiter, always glad of an excuse to take one more turn around the garden and putting it to use by surreptitiously pulling up some rosebush stakes as she passed in order to make the roses look more natural, like a mother who runs a hand though her son’s hair to loosen it after the barber has plastered it down.
We would all sit waiting for my grandmother to bring news of the enemy, as if there could be much choice among possible besiegers, and soon afterwards my grandfather would say: “I recognize Swann’s voice.” Indeed only his voice was recognizable—it was hard to make out Swann’s face with its hooked nose, its green eyes under a high forehead fringed by fair, reddish hair cut short like the actor Bressant’s, for we used as few lights as possible in the garden so as not to attract mosquitoes. Unobtrusively I would slip indoors to have the liqueurs brought out: my grandmother set great store —regarding it as a friendly gesture —by their not seeming to be served only for company. Monsieur Swann, though much younger, was very attached to my grandfather who had been a close friend of his father, an excellent man though an odd one, for apparently the merest trifle was sometimes enough to check his strongest feelings or divert his train of thought. Several times a year I would hear my grandfather tell the same story at dinner about old Monsieur Swann’s reaction to his wife’s death after keeping vigil at her bedside day and night. My grandfather, who had not seen him for a long time, had immediately gone to the Swanns’ family place near Combray, and to spare him the sight of the body being laid in the coffin, had managed to get his weeping friend out of the death chamber for a while. They were strolling in the grounds where there happened to be a little sunshine, when all at once Monsieur Swann seized my grandfather’s arm and exclaimed: “My old friend, how nice it is to be walking here together on such a fine day! Pretty, all these trees, these hawthorns of mine, don’t you think? And you’ve never even mentioned my new pond . . . Don’t be such a wet blanket! Feel that little breeze? Ah, let them say what they like, my dear Amedee, life’s worth living after all!” Suddenly he remembered his dead wife, and doubtless feeling it would be too hard to explain how he could yield to an impulse of happiness at such a moment, confined himself, in a gesture habitual to him whenever a difficult question arose, to passing his hand over his forehead, rubbing his eyes, and wiping his pincenez. Yet he was heartbroken by his wife’s death, though during the two years by which he survived her, he used to tell my grandfather: “Funny thing, I think of my poor wife often, but never for long at a time.” “Often, but never for long, like poor old Swann” had become one of my grandfather’s pet phrases, applied to the most various occasions. “Poor old Swann” would certainly have appalled me, had not my grand-father—whom I regarded as a better judge than myself and whose word was my law, often leading me in later life to overlook faults I might otherwise have condemned — expostulated with me: “Not at all! The man had a heart of gold!”
For many years, especially before his marriage, when Monsieur Swann fils often visited them at Combray, my great-aunt and my grandparents had no suspicion that he had completely abandoned his family’s milieu, and that under the sort of incognito this name Swann constituted for us, we were entertaining—with the perfect innocence of law-abiding inn- keepers unwittingly lodging a notorious highwayman —one of the most elegant members of the Jockey Club, a favorite friend of the Comte de Paris and the Prince of Wales, one of the men most sought after by the high society of the Faubourg Saint- Germain.
Our ignorance of his brilliant social life was of course due in part to the reserve and discretion of Swann’s character, but also to the fact that middle-class people in those days had devised a rather Hindu notion of society, regarding it as made up of closed castes in which you assumed at birth the status your parents had occupied, and from which nothing but the accidents of an exceptional career or advantageous marriage could raise you to a higher level. Swann’s father had been a stockbroker; his son would all his life belong to a caste where fortunes varied, as in a tax bracket, between certain fixed incomes. Knowing his father’s associations meant knowing his as well — individuals with whom it was “suitable” to mix. If he had others, they would be bachelor cronies whom old family friends like my parents would disregard all the more indulgently in that Swann, since his parents’ death, continued visiting us quite faithfully; but it was more than likely that these people Swann knew outside our acquaintance were the sort he would not dare acknowledge if met in our company. If you had to assign Swann a social coefficient of his own, among the other sons of stockbrokers in similar circumstances, it would have been a little lower than theirs because Swann, quite unpretentious in his habits and a lifelong fanatic about antiques and painting, was now living and storing his collections in an old house which my grandmother longed to visit but which was located on the Quai d’Orleans, an address my great-aunt considered ignominious. “Are you really a connoisseur?” she would say to him, “it’s for your own good I’m asking—you must be letting the dealers stick you with some awful daubs.” She credited him with no discernment whatever, and even from an intellectual point of view had her doubts about a man who avoided all serious subjects in conversation and displayed a tedious pedantry not only when entering into the minute details of a recipe, but even when my grandmother’s sisters were discussing artistic subjects. If they urged him to give his opinion, to express his admiration for a picture, he maintained an almost insolent silence for which he then made amends if he could supply factual particulars about the museum where it hung or the date when it had been painted. But as a rule he merely tried to entertain us by describing his latest encounter with people of our acquaintance —the Combray pharmacist, or our coachman, or our cook. Of course these stories made my great-aunt laugh, but she could never decide if this was because of the absurd role he always assigned himself or his comical way of telling them. “You certainly are a character. Monsieur Swann!” And since she was the one rather vulgar member of our family, she was sure to point out to strangers, when Swann was mentioned, that if he chose he could certainly be living on the Boulevard Haussmann or the Avenue de l’Opera, that his father must have left him four or five million, but that he was . , . eccentric. An eccentricity, moreover, she assumed others must find so amusing that when Swann called in Paris on New Year’s Day, bringing a box of marrons glacis, she never failed, if there was company, to inquire, “Well, Monsieur Swann, are you still living next door to the wine warehouse so you won’t miss your train to Lyon?” And she would glance meaningfully at the other visitors over her pince-nez.