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Le Proust electronique

By Will Owen - posted Monday, 13 January 2014

A spate of notices appeared in 2013 to coincide with the centenary of the publication of Swann's Way, the first volume of the seven that comprise Marcel Proust's masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time.

I first encountered Proust as an undergraduate majoring in comparative literature, and I was immediately under the spell of the long, truly hypnotic sentences that wove a dreamlike vision of French society at the close of the nineteenth century. Not yet twenty, and knowing nothing of the period, I was much like the novel's nameless narrator. I was thrilled by the prospect of a vast landscape of the inner mind. I was determined to undertake the journey through Proust's novel of consciousness and illusion. I saved my pocket change and beer money and bought the remaining six volumes of the C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation in their coordinated pastel softcovers.

In Search of Lost Time, or as it was known in those days thanks to Moncrieff's exquisite poetic sensibility, Remembrance of Things Past, is probably among the great unread novels of Modernism, along with Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Musil's The Man Without Qualities. I had the best intentions. And indeed, I worked at it. A year later I had penetrated into The Guermantes Way, the third volume, and was even following along parts of it in the original French. But during that second immersive summer, I stalled out.


Fifteen years later I was working fulltime and enrolled in a graduate degree program at night. My hours were regimented and somewhat lacking in immediate rewards. I can't remember what prompted me to offer myself another chance at reading Proust as a way of making it through the dreary winter months when I needed diversion from my assignments. Perhaps I was aware that a revision of the English translation had been published in 1981 and was available in three relatively inexpensive volumes. Whatever the exact reasons were, I determined that this time I would stay the course and follow the adventure through to its end.

Amazingly, I did it. It occupied me throughout an entire semester, four months of which I retain few memories other than endless descriptions of dinner parties and even more endless descriptions of mental anguish. I also remember eye-crossing fatigue as I tracked my way across three weighty tomes of over 1,000 pages each.

There were many moments when I lost my way. I'd find myself turning a page without the slightest idea what M. Proust had been saying to me. The print on another page would blur; I'd refocus my eyes and be unable to locate the sentence in which I'd gone astray. Whole pages of small print, labyrinthine sentences, paragraphs whose endpoints had not yet emerged on the horizon. But I persevered and, in my way, succeeded.

I don't think the phrase "bucket list" had been bruited in the late 1980s, but I certainly had the concept in mind that long winter. In some ways, I wanted to be able to claim the bragging rights, to have climbed the K2, to boast of the accomplishment that only one of all my friends and acquaintances-a man whose intellect and accomplishments I deeply admired-had achieved. I had succeeded, but I also wished that the experience of the novel as clearly etched in my memory as the experience of reading it: at least the irony that this was a deeply Proustian dilemma occurred to me at the time.

And now, another twenty-five years on, new translations, new editions, and the peculiar lure of anniversaries were tempting me once again. Perhaps most significantly, the marketplace had changed. I had not only been reading centenary re-assessments of the novel online, I could now sample the new translations, discover the differences among them through Amazon's "look inside" feature, and decide how, as well as whether, to once more attempt to scale the alpine challenge.

I still had the three gigantic volumes on my bookshelf, but the pull of an electronic version proved irresistible. In the end, I opted for the 1991 Modern Library revision by D. J. Enright of Moncrieff's original translation. The new seven-volume, seven-translator Penguin edition is still incomplete, and while Lydia Davis's translation of Swann's Way has been universally praised, I didn't want to wait until 2018 when the final volumes are due to be published.


I know that many people remain skeptical of electronic books, but I have long been converted to the new format. And almost immediately upon slipping into the opening pages of Swann's Way, I knew I had chosen well. My iPad does not induce wrist-strain. I am no longer tormented by the bulk of pages remaining in my right hand nor urged forward by the accumulation of already-read pages in my left. Even the Kindle software's "2% completed" benchmark that briefly appears when I begin to read is meaningless in this context. The text is clear, the leading, at almost 100%, makes it easy to follow one line to the next without losing my place or my concentration. Instead of paddling furiously through a roman fleuve, I am gliding effortlessly across time.

I'm not distracted by the possibility of stopping for a moment to check my mail while I am reading. Rather, I'm rejoicing in the ability to look up the many unfamiliar words in the text with a simple tap of my finger. I keep Geoff Wilkin's "Who's Who in Proust" bookmarked in my browser for those few moments when memory blurs. I can divert to Wikipedia to refresh my memory of the chronology of the Dreyfus Affair, and just as easily call up Google Maps to determine the exact location of the Bois de Boulogne relative to the Faubourg Saint-Germain. But mostly, I find I am engrossed in the text, alive to the prattle of Parisian society, swept onto the beach at Balbec and back into the barracks at Doncières with an ease I had not imagined.

As the new year begins, I have now ventured as far the fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, without fatigue. I am older, more experienced, more patient, but I am also grateful for a technology that will enable me to fully appreciate this time around the miracle that Proust wrought at the inception of the modern age, one hundred years ago. I am finding that it has been worth the wait.

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About the Author

Will Owen works as a librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, where he is in charge of the University Library’s computing and internet services. He had an abiding interest in contemporary American art before seeing the Dreamings exhibition at the Asia Society in New York City in 1988. He has since travelled regularly to Australia, building a collection of art from communities and cities across the continent and studying Aboriginal culture. Since 2005 he has published Aboriginal Art and Culture: An American eye – a weblog that attracts international readership. He was among the contributors to Beyond Sacred: recent paintings from Australia's remote Aboriginal communities, edited by Colin and Elizabeth Laverty (Hardie Grant Books, 2008).

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