In Pursuit of Proust

The curious fate of the last three volumes of the new edition.

In 1995, Penguin UK announced a new translation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, with a different translator in charge of each of the seven volumes. This marked the first entirely fresh English-language version of the Search in decades; all previous renderings had been merely revisions of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation, which had appeared in the course of the 1920s. So many hands made for relatively quick work. In the United Kingdom, all volumes of the new project were published together in 2002. But readers in the United States have been left stranded midway through the novel, forced to endure two of the most Proustian of experiences: jealousy and loss.

Only the first four volumes of the new translation—from Swann’s Way through Sodom and Gomorrah—are available here. For this we have Sonny Bono to blame. Just before he died in 1998, the congressman sponsored a bill to extend the term of copyright by 20 years: According to the Sonny Bono Copyright Act, passed later that year, rights would expire 95, rather than 75, years after an artist’s death. Since Proust died in 1922, only those four volumes first published during his lifetime had passed into the American public domain by the time the Bono Act became law. It will therefore be at least 2018 before readers in the United States can find the final three installments of the new translation (The Prisoner and The Fugitive, and Time Regained) in their local bookstores.

An Anglophone reader could easily order the final volumes from the United Kingdom, of course, or revert to the Scott Moncrieff translation. But it would be a shame if the vagaries of copyright law discouraged anyone from pursuing the novel into its final three parts. For these volumes, specifically The Prisoner and The Fugitive, mark the very summit of Proust’s art. In fact, the current, arbitrary bifurcation of the novel reveals how firmly this later phase of In Search of Lost Time, often called “the Albertine cycle,” stands on its own. Despite all their connections to the earlier volumes of the novel, The Prisoner and The Fugitive (along with the second half of Sodom and Gomorrah) constitute a novel unto themselves, a total fiction. They describe possession, jealousy, renunciation—obsessions native to every section of Proust’s novel, but nowhere else articulated in such exhaustive detail and with such relentless energy.

It’s no accident if the Albertine cycle gives the impression of a hermetic whole. These volumes—which focus on Albertine Simonet, the most significant object of Marcel’s desire—were not in Proust’s original design for the larger novel. Proust only decided to magnify the Albertine story once he was deep in the composition of Volume Two (capably translated in the new version as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower), where she appears as one of the “little gang” of girls Marcel meets at the beach at Balbec. But her significance here is only potential: The hero’s ardor for her “lay latent within me, a toothing stone for a future extension.” Indeed, in the subsequent volume, The Guermantes Way, she’s effectively absent. Albertine only really emerges in the second half of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Marcel comes to know the agonizing pattern of combined longing and repudiation that will define his relationship with her throughout the cycle.

By the opening of The Prisoner, Albertine has advanced to the foreground of the story. To reach this phase of In Search of Lost Time is to sense that the novel’s essence has been distilled from its vastness: It feels like a wide road narrowing into a tunnel. The jealousy of Swann, in Volume One, has been recast and concentrated into the hero’s even more elaborate obsession; the dominant homosexuality of Sodom and Gomorrah, embodied in the figure of Charlus, has yielded, for now, to Marcel’s desire for the elusive Albertine. We can perceive Proust’s discovery as it unfurls on the page: Only though the sustained presence of Albertine could he truly confront his elemental subjects of jealousy and loss, and the supreme knowledge gained from both.

The Prisoner mostly narrates Albertine’s long stay in Marcel’s home in Paris, where he keeps close watch over her. The Fugitive traces Albertine’s flight from the home, the news of her death, and Marcel’s struggle to endure and vanquish this loss. As their titles suggest, these two volumes appear to be mirror images of one another. They describe captivity, then escape; uneasy dominion, then conflicted bereavement; the flow and ebb of sexual possession. The Prisoner is a narrative of clenching, The Fugitive an account of letting go.

But if the great animating force of The Prisoner is jealousy—specifically Marcel’s quest to know whether Albertine has been the lover of a girl named Andrée—Proust forces us to ask whether jealousy is only another name for inquiry, and whether his hero’s obsessive pursuit of the facts is some kind of analogue for the questing spirit of fiction. Proustian jealousy is novelistic because it is ultimately pictorial. It represents the imagination’s hunt for detail, the incriminating image, which, if captured, might help to explain and clarify the imaginative quest in the first place. This is why the Albertine phase of the novel—more even than the final volume, Time Regained, with its valedictory pronouncements on art and truth—represents Proustian consciousness and curiosity in their most vital states. Nowhere else in the novel is knowledge so crucial, so perilous, and so tragic.

At times Proust frankly encourages this equation of the jealous mind and the novelistic intellect. The two most basic stories of the Search, after all, are the hero’s experiences with Albertine and his transformation, in the final pages, into a writer. But Proust just as often reminds us of the perils inherent in each endeavor, the dangers of vivid discovery. In The Prisoner, for example, the narrator writes: “My jealousy sprang from images, its purpose was suffering … reality is always a mere starting-point towards the unknown, on a path down which we can never travel very far. It is better not to know, to think as little as possible, not to feed jealousy on the smallest concrete detail.”

If sexual jealousy is like the intelligence within fiction, then this sounds like a major statement of renunciation. The wish not to know seems antithetical to the entire Proustian enterprise, at odds with a novel in which knowledge is both a means and an end, and in which the means (the search itself) is slowly revealed to be the end (the birth of the writer). Yet this recognition—that knowing is at once a gain and a defeat—is a paradox that defines the novel.Knowledge in Proust is never something haphazard or casual, despite his famous insistence on our “involuntary” recovery of specific memories. This is why Scott Moncrieff’s 1920s title for the overall novel, the Shakespearean “Remembrance of Things Past,” has always sounded not only misleading but offensively wrong. (The Penguin version has restored the better, more literal In Search of Lost Time.) The old title evokes a story of minimal labor and even passivity, rather than the long and grueling struggle that Proust is actually narrating. The Fugitive, that latter part of the Albertine cycle, chronicles in astonishing detail the rigorous process of l’oubli, forgetting, after Albertine’s death. Forgetting is not the absence of remembering; in the Proustian equation it’s an articulated plan of negotiation with suffering. If jealousy is the upward slope, dramatically, that The Prisoner traces, then the oubli of The Fugitive provides the downward curve; together, they complete the greatest dramatic sweep in all of In Search of Lost Time. Interested Proustians shouldn’t wait until 2018 to read it.