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Reading Proust

Lydia Davis is an American writer noted for her short stories. Davis is also a novelist, essayist, and translator from French and other languages, and has produced several new translations of French literary classics, including Proust's Swann’s Way and Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

I know approximately, but not exactly, when I first read Proust.  I was living in France at the time.  I was probably 24 or 25.  I bought the little cream-colored two-volume Gallimard edition of the first book of the novel--Du Côté de chez Swann.  I still have this edition, and I know exactly how much of it I read because I did then what I still do, all these years later, when I'm reading a book in another language which I don't know as well as I'd like to:  I wrote neatly, with a well-sharpened pencil, along the top and sometimes the bottom margins of the page, the English translations of the words I didn't know or wasn't sure of. 

I know exactly where I stopped in the book--about two-thirds of the way through, I'm sorry to say.  But that is also consistent with the way I read then, and still read, in the case of many books, even the most interesting and even the most significant to me personally.  When I first encountered Beckett, for instance--the book was Malone Dies--I was startled and fascinated by it, but I did not finish reading it.  What seems to interest me, in these cases, is the form, the technique, the approach to composing a piece of fiction, rather than the impact of the whole work, which I could only receive by reading it to the end. 

I can also see which of Proust's words I didn't know or wasn't sure of, at that time.  Some are by now familiar:  assouvir, effroi, atterré.  But others I still have trouble remembering:  fourbe, charmille, stercoraire (unhelpfully glossed by me then as "stercoraceous, stercoral"). 

It was from this two-volume edition that I chose to work when I began my translation of the book into English.  There was a more definitive French edition available, and later in the project I put my old edition aside and continued the work using that text, but in the beginning I worked from the older books for reasons partly sentimental and partly aesthetic.  I enjoyed returning to the pages that a younger self had labored over, as though working alongside her;  and these small-format, light-weight, handsomely designed volumes with their cream-colored, textured pages--I don't know if the paper is rag or not, but you can see variations of color and material in its weave--and their dark, deep, clearly imprinted type are a pleasure to hold and read.

I did not finish reading the book before I began to translate it, nor did I go back to the beginning and read it all the way through. I almost never read a book before beginning to translate it, for several reasons, the most important being that the excitement of not knowing what comes next keeps the work of translation fresh and stimulating.  So two-thirds of the book was a very distant, surely buried memory, and the last third was entirely new to me.

What is hard to determine is what sort of influence reading Proust for the first time had had on me as a young writer. Clearly I was interested enough to read two-thirds of the book without giving up, and that says something. Also, I tended then, and still tend, to absorb fairly quickly and thoroughly the "writing lesson" offered by whatever I am reading--the lesson in form, structure, phrasing, word choice, sensibility, and so on, what can be learned from another writer. I may have learned from Proust that there is almost no limit to how extensively or deeply one can explore a single perception or emotion, even a fleeting one. (A lesson continued and extended when I begin to translate Maurice Blanchot, not long after.)  I must have learned great patience in writing, particularly in finding the right expression for a subtle thought.  I must have learned that although plot has a role to play in a novel, it does not have to be primary, and in fact the novel is almost always more interesting when plot is not primary. (I was at about the same time reading American detective novels translated into French, again to improve my understanding of the language, so I had the contrasting example before me of novels in which plot was primary.) And another thing I must have picked up was, paradoxically, the importance of economy, of finding the exact expression of a thought, of not groping after  the right words.  I say paradoxically, of course, because one might not associate economy with the stupendous length of the entire seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, and even of Swann's Way alone, as well as of many sentences within it.  But although Proust was so expansive, he was also, always, economical, never saying more than was necessary to the full expression of his thought.


Air France is a proud sponsor of 2013: A Year with Proust, a year long festival organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.