I've completed my own "translation," entirely in the form of drawings, of the first chapter of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, pieced together from every English translation of the novel. The project consists of 28 individual drawings of photocopies of sequential pages from the first chapter of the book. This patchwork results in the repetition and omission of text from page to page, resolving into an incomplete and not-fully-readable rendition of the original.
There are parallels, I think, between the often flawed process of translation and the novel's central theme of memory and, also, the holes, static, and misperceptions that incomplete or lost memories can leave behind. For Proust's narrator, memories have an intrinsic and sometimes transformative relationship with objects and places. But the narrator also values the examination of the minutest details of sensory experiences and dependence on habit and ritual, without which, "our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless."
-- Molly Springfield
Each "Translation" drawing is 11 x 17 inches, graphite on paper, 2008. Courtesy the artist.
October 17, 2008
Dear Molly Proust,
A funny idea: I'll tell you what I remember. It happens all the time.
I already told you when we met in Maine that during my first trip to Europe I stayed at the Hotel Alsace-Lorraine owned by your great-great-grand uncle Marcel's former housekeeper and chauffeur, Céleste and Odilon Albaret.
Summer 1958, my college friend Gary Johnson and I arrived in Paris -- the two of us having gone somehow first to Dublin after getting off the S.S. Liberté at which port in either England or France I can't recall -- and checked into the polite hotel on the Boulevard Raspail listed on the itinerary my parents had commissioned, courtesy of American Express, as part of my grand tour. That done, Gary and I set out wandering. By nightfall, still puzzling out the city we had read so much about but had only the barest clues place names that dated back to earlier glory moments, like St. Germain (Existentialism) or Clichy (Henry Miller), which really had next to nothing to do with the present day -- we found ourselves in a small, brightly lit bar on the rue Cujas, the Bar Morissette, with music bouncing up from the room below. The street-level bar itself was sparsely populated, the salient presence being the pretty, blond and powerfully built barmaid wiping glasses behind the counter, but it was the sound of guitars and singing from the cave that drew us in.
Downstairs, in dim candlelight, twenty or so people most of them in their teens or 20s, sat on stools or benches fitted to the walls, listening to Alex Campbell and his sidekick Henry Pofferd. If I had wings like Noah's dove/ I'd fly 'cross the river to the one I love/ All my trials, lord, soon be over. Alex, with curly auburn hair, trim beard and mustache, then aged 32, was a impassioned Scottish folk singer living in Paris; Henry, the somewhat younger, distinctly quieter one, was English and played beautiful back-up guitar. When not holding forth in the Cujas club they played the streets, sometimes with other, younger English musicians, most of whom lived in the cheap student hotels between the Boulevard Saint-Michel and the Odéon. The repertoire was eclectic: Scots ballads, American work songs, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, even an Elvis rockabilly tune or two. On the street, one or another companion would pass the hat, pour l'orchestre. Alex, a neckerchief knotted at his protruding Adam's apple, rocked every which way on his boot heels, head up, voice way up, too. His dress style, come to think of it, with lanky jeans and dark solid-color cowboy shirts, resembled today's slim-fit look, though with Alex this had much to do with a lot of drinking and hashish on top of a poor diet and hereditary tubercular condition. (Make light then as he could of his very bad cough, I read recently that, with a throat cancer already in tow, he died of tuberculosis at age 62 in Denmark.)
This was for me. It was probably Alex who spoke first, where was I from and who was Gary, and so on, and Henry looked on, smiling both sweet and little suspicious, the gay and also class-conscious one surveying Gary's and my plainly Ivy-league good looks. I stayed and stayed; Gary, uncomfortable, couldn't see or hear it, and, suddenly pale and cramped with horror, left. I never saw him again. Alex said, Where are you living? and then Oh, come in with us, man! and either that early morning the bar stayed open until dawn or the next night led me to the rue des Canettes and introduced me to the hotel manager. She was Proust's housekeeper, Alex whispered, as Celeste went off, my passport in hand, to write in a ledger. A grrreat woman, he burred.
The room I had was on the first landing diagonally opposite the office and apartment of Celeste and her ailing husband. Windowless and no amenities, a knee-high, blue-painted metal can in one corner served as the toilet. The ample bed was lumpy and squeaked. Lengthy groans issuing from Odilon's kidney condition (albumin trouble, Celeste calls it in her memoir), or some other illness accumulated over time, punctuated every hour of the night, like out of a Beckett play. (Ten years older than Celeste, Odilon would then have been in his late 70s.) The down-and-out fantasy setting a good likeness of the possibility then of being, or seeming, gloriously poor -- was perfect, an eighteen-year-old beginner-poet's idea of Heaven, including Heaven's Queen, never unaccompanied by the aura of her late employer: Monsieur Proust, she would say, whenever prompted, such a gentleman.
A few nights later, I had a part-time roommate, Connie Cassidy from New York, a girl my age with big blue eyes and long stringy blond hair who, like Alex and Henry and many others who came to the rue Cujas, played and sang folk songs. We stayed together at the Alsace-Lorraine off and on before she, a New Yorker like myself, left for home and I hitchhiked south with Peter Yarrow, then a Columbia student with prodigious guitar skills and an unheard-of falsetto to match.
Everybodys invited to my room, Alex beamed, and so that dawn a crowd from the cave and some other hotel residents among them the Australian artist Vali Meyers, aflame with painted eyes and her birds -- piled onto Alex's bed. Hash rolled in a tobacco mix was passed around, and everyone sang and talked loudly and laughed until suddenly an operatic rapping at the door and Celeste appeared, flinging it wide and stepping forward, furious. Je n'aime pas cette vie Bohème! she barked, whereupon the beautiful scene dissolved, along with my naïve assumption that Monsieur Proust and this sort of shaggy existence I had just encountered were somehow aligned.
What did I know of Proust, anyway? By those first weeks in Paris, I probably had read only smatterings sentence here, a whole page there of Proust's own writings: Jean Santeuil initially sniffed two years earlier in a teacher's room at Lawrenceville (the posthumously edited work having just recently appeared, in 1954); then, soon after, my own set of the Scott Moncrieff Remembrance, which I still have in its soiled gray buckram bindings that I occasionally pry open out of curiosity (and which I once raided to flesh out the word balloons in a comic-strip collaboration with Joe Brainard).
In the 20th century, in a sense, no one read Proust, the culture just inhaled him. Inner life was Proustian, the world out there Kafkaesque, and the trump card, I'm reading Proust in French on a par with Dante in the original. At the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1965, walking through the exhibition of Proust-related artifacts, I got a different whiff of the overall effect well beyond modernist clichés. Around the canopied bed of the Countess Greffulhe, her portrait (Half-length in profile to the left, three-quarter face looking to the viewer, wearing a black gown, a black choker with a pearl pendant, drop pearl earrings, her left hand to her breast) and the vitrines of letters, the maestro's corrected proofs (with the paste-ons -- like today's Post-Its -- invented and affixed by Celeste herself, to allow greater space for heavy revisions), people of every conceivable gender exchanged furtive glances. All eyes and subtle elbow brushes, the room was a heavy-breathing mass of flirts.
Je n'aime pas cette vie Bohème! Everyone starts with a peculiar fantasy of how the life of a writer aligns with actually doing it. My sense at first was that it had to be wilder and faraway from what was handed me. For a time I used to sport smooth yellow gloves in imitation of Robert de Montesquiou's aggressive dandyism. That was only a little later, on the next year's trip, after seeing at Cap Ferrat the anchored hull of Jean Cocteau's bright blue yacht. As dear Marcel seems to have learned for himself, after much confusion and folderol, the work has its own arguable ideas of identity, for all it's worth, regardless.
Cheers, as ever,