Reading Proust: Lost in Translation

By Caroline Weber
May 8, 2013

To resume my discussion [which Sineokov didn’t post] of the French literary references upon which so much of the humor in the Recherche depends, I wanted to provide an example from “The Guermantes Way” (1920), the volume in which the upper-middle-class narrator makes his first foray into Parisian high society. As Anka Muhlstein pointed out in her splendid post yesterday, the members of the aristocratic Guermantes clan “are convinced that they are still at the apex of [that] society,” and Proust has great fun showcasing their petty vanities and elitist pretensions.

In one such instance, he describes the long-standing antipathy between the family’s two branches — the Guermantes proper, for the most part based in Paris, and their largely provincial Courvoisier cousins — and again uses a well-known (to French readers) literary allusion for laughs. The Courvoisiers, he observes, are at once appalled and intimidated by their Guermantes relations’ self-proclaimed intellectualism and unrivaled chic; they cannot forgive their cousins for preferring to hobnob with members of Paris’s flashy, socially questionable “smart” (in both senses of the term) set, whereas the stodgy Courvoisiers feel infinitely more at home socializing with fellow countrified nobles whose background (“who their ‘father and mother’ were”) is no mystery, even if their company is no fun. And so, while the Courvoisiers can’t resist attending their glamorous kinsmen’s social gatherings, in so doing they manifest a mixture of righteous indignation and poorly disguised envy that the narrator, spotting the charmless Courvoisier matron Mme de Villebon in the drawing-room of the supremely (and, to said matron, infuriatingly) elegant Duchesse de Guermantes, clinches by way of an unexpected Victor Hugo quotation:

To encounter in their cousin’s drawing-room, between five and six o’clock, people with whose relatives their own relatives did not like to associate back home in the Perche became for [the Courvoisiers] a source of mounting rage and inexhaustible denunciations. For example, the moment that the charming Comtesse G*** entered the salon, Mme de Villebon’s face assumed exactly the expression it ought to have had if she had been called upon to recite the line

And if only one of us remains, that one will be I [Et s’il n’en reste qu’un, je serai celui-là],

a line that happened to be unknown to her, anyway.

For my money, this is one of the funniest passages in the Recherche, but in translation it falls flat for a few reasons, all related to the line of poetry at the end. First, because non-French readers are almost sure not to know that line themselves — from Hugo’s “Les Châtiments” [“Castigations”] (1853), an extended indictment in verse of Emperor Napoleon III’s overthrow of the French republican government in 1851 — they are unlikely to snicker at Mme de Villebon for sharing in their ignorance. They are also unlikely to grasp the sheer over-the-top weirdness of the parallel the narrator draws (a) between a supercilious killjoy from the Perche (a tiny agricultural region best known for its purebred draft-horses) and the man revered in Proust’s day as France’s greatest poet; not to mention (b) between Mme de Villebon’s petty social hostility toward “the charming Comtesse G***” and Hugo’s lofty, principled outrage at Napoleon III’s coup d’état. (In the poem Proust cites, Hugo is directly addressing the emperor, whose coup sent the staunchly republican poet into exile, and declaring that he will defy Bonapartist authority to the end, even if he proves “the last man standing.”)

Finally, no English translation can capture the intensely stylized, emphatically sonorous grandeur of Hugo’s alexandrine: the twelve-syllable metric form that is to French classical poetry and drama what iambic pentameter is to English verse. To the French ear, nothing says “hero” quite like an alexandrine, and the line Proust quotes here, comprised of four perfect anapests (poetic “feet” in which two unstressed syllables are followed by a stressed one, as in Lord Byron’s similarly rousing “Destruction of Sennacherib” [1815]: “and the sheen of theirspears was like stars on the sea”), is a particularly resonant case in point. And yet there is obviously nothing in the least bit heroic about Mme de Villebon’s prickly pique when confronted with a “charming” Parisian socialite, nor about her self-important resolve to remain “the last man standing” in her fashionable cousin’s salon. By pairing her with Hugo, Proust thus achieves much the same effect he creates with the Françoise/Saint-Simon juxtaposition I discussed yesterday. He gives us a complex, superbly comical portrait of an individual whose all-too-human quirks are best sought and found [recherché and retrouvé] where all Proustian treasures ultimately turn out to reside: in literature.

Ms. Weber is currently at work on a book titled “Proust’s Duchess: In Search of the Exquisite in Belle Époque Paris,” to be published by Knopf in 2014.

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