Dipping into Proust

51W1RQKCT9L._AC_US218_After laughing at Lisa Brown’s graphic cartoon on How to Read Proust in the Original in the New York Times Book Review, and then receiving a box of Sur la Table’s French Petite Madeleine Mix in the mail, I decided to have a “madeleine moment” reading Lydia Davis’ acclaimed translation of Swann’s Way.  

Proust is not easy to read, and Davis, a MacArthur Fellow, suggests a slow methodical pace in her introduction, letting the long sentences and heady phrases offer connections to one’s own experiences.  I remember reading the famous passage in my fourth year of high school French class, explaining the narrator’s fond recollections of his childhood days as he dips the madeleine in his teacup, but reading the entire book seemed too daunting; reading the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past would be unthinkable.  Better to learn the translations of Proust’s more famous phrases.

From Swann’s Way, the first book in the series, Lydia Davis offers easily understandable phrases to note – and remember:

“To get through their days, nervous natures such as mine have various “speeds” as do automobiles. There are uphill and difficult day which take an eternity to climb, and downhill days which can be quickly descended.”

Reading Proust cannot be rushed or taken in one sitting.  It could take years, if ever, but I like Davis’ easy translation, and the methodical rhythm of the prose –  better digested while eating a madeleine soaked in coffee.


The Artist of Disappearance

In three short novellas, under one cover in The Artist of Disappearance, Anita Desai addresses a missed opportunity, a craving for recognition, and finally, the wish to be left alone. Her clear flowing language reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Interpreter of Maladies. Like Lahiri, Desai’s stories are all set in India.

In the first novella – “The Museum of Final Journeys” – a government official describes his year of field service in a rural district when he was shown a museum of forgotten treasures. The caretaker pleas for the government to take over their care and preservation. In the second – “Translator, Translated” – Parma, a middle-aged English literature professor with aspirations to be a writer, meets a successful schoolmate, turned publisher, at a class reunion. Parma uses her new-found connection to get a job translating a book written in her childhood dialect. Unfortunately, she gets carried away, rewriting rather than translating. In the final story – “The Artist of Disappearance” – Desai describes the life of Ravi, from his lonely childhood to his hermit existence, living in the burnt ruins of his formerly posh family home. Ravi only wants solitude, and creates a hidden garden glade that is inadvertently discovered by a group of film students, on a field project to document the destruction of the hillside by miners. Despite the ravaging of the world around him, Ravi escapes notice and preserves his peace.

Although Desai has written novels, I have not yet discovered them, but may now seek them out. I finished these three short novels within hours, but found myself rereading them – each story having a piece that resonated with me. Desai’s genius is in revealing hidden torments, and exposing them to possibilities.

Enough About Love – Not Lost in the Translation

Does a book lose something in translation?  Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, translated from the original Spanish, is one of my favorite reads – none of my excitement was lost in the wording,  but I had a hard time getting involved in Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated by Anderson from Barbery’s  original French.  Usually, I’m not aware of a book having been transformed – sometimes never – until I inadvertently discover the author’s background.  I’ve even wondered about the discrepancies between the original Harry Potter books with colloquialisms changed for the American versions (philosopher vs sorcerer; tinned vs canned soup) – but it never diminished my love of the stories.

But in Herve le Tellier’s  Enough About Love, I was yearning to read and understand the story in the original French. Maybe the subject of love has a different flavor in French, or maybe it was the little French phrases scattered in the story,  or those comments footnoted into English translation that didn’t quite make it –

“Si tu crois xava, xava, xava xa, xava durer toujours la saison des za la saison des zamours…”

became in the footnoted explanation…

“If you think it’ll, it’ll, it’ll, go on forever, this season of, unov, unov, season of love…”

The story’s characters form two love triangles with lives serendipitously crossing paths. Anna, married to Stan, the brilliant doctor, meets Yves, the writer. Louise, the formidable lawyer, married to Romain, the brilliant scientist, meets Thomas, the psychoanalyst.  Both women are yearning for more excitement in their pedantic lives; they are bored, and suddenly meet men who spark youthful passion and the excitement of the forbidden affair.   Thomas, Anna’s psychoanalyst, listens to her talk about her new-found feelings for Yves, thus motivating his own need for some passion in his life – when he conveniently meets Louise.  It may sound like a French farce, but Le Tellier is serious – “wanting someone isn’t the same as loving them.”

They are all middle-aged professionals, but they could be anyone in that window of married life when daily routine can dull emotions and expectations.  Le Tellier flips around from couple to couple – labeling each chapter, so you can keep the action straight.  He cleverly has life and death intersect – the fathers of two of the men die on the same day, and attendance at their funerals becomes a crisis.  In another scene, the men secretly seek out and observe, even confront, their rivals.

Through the affairs, the planned trysts, the accidentally on purpose meetings, the confessions on the analyst couch,  you wonder if they will all get together.  In the end, Le Tellier has them all together at one place, but now how you would expect.  This is not the movie Bob, Ted, Carol, and Alice.  Le Tellier has more to say about love than passion and betrayal.

Enough About Love has that urbane Oscar Wilde quality with a definite French flavor – thought-provoking, wry humor,  even soul-searching.  It is an engaging story not only about the fragility of love but also about what it means to love.  The assumptions and lies protect as well as hurt.

I may be too much of a romantic – but if I were reading this book in French, the beauty of that sensuous language may have softened the

Rodin's The Kiss

harsh realities. But then I probably would not have caught all the translated nuances and I would have missed so much “about love.”