A Proustian rebirth, 100 years after 'Remembrance'
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A century ago, French novelist Marcel Proust began publishing his monumental novel "In Search of Lost Time", previously translated as "Remembrance of Things Past". FRANCE 24 asked scholar Antoine Compagnon about Proust’s continuing influence.
On the 100th anniversary of the publication of "Swann’s Way" – the first of seven volumes that comprise Marcel Proust’s monumental novel 'Remembrance of Things Past' – French editors this month are publishing a barrage of re-prints and new scholarly works on the renowned French author.
Initially rejected by a handful of leading publishers, "Swann’s Way" finally found a home at Grasset and first appeared in 1913. The expansive reflection on literature and memory is credited with transforming the landscape of fiction-writing in France and went on to conquer readers across the globe.
On the eve of the literary anniversary, and as Proustologists lick their chops in anticipation of the new books and related events, FRANCE 24 asked French literature scholar Antoine Compagnon about Proust’s place in the world today.
Compagnon, who spoke to FRANCE 24 via telephone from New York, holds the double distinction of being the Blanche W. Knopf Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the Chair of Modern and Contemporary Literature at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris.
FRANCE 24: French publishers are capitalising on the centennial of Proust's "Swann's Way" with new editions and scholarly works. Is there similar enthusiasm for the anniversary outside France?
Antoine Compagnon: Even if there are not many recent publications of Proust’s work in English or planned for this anniversary, his influence has obviously reached far beyond France’s borders. Earlier this year there was an exhibition dedicated to him at New York's Morgan Library and Museum. I am not sure about the rest of the United States, but New York is hosting several readings of Proust, and there has been at least one article in the "New York Times" about celebrations around the centennial in recent days.
Proust is also loved in many parts of the world. Italy has produced many translations. Japan is a strong Proustian society, and Japanese scholarship is of the highest quality. There has been significant interest in Korea and Germany, to name just a few countries.
F24: What’s the difference between Proust’s legacy in his native France and in the English-speaking world, particularly in America?
Compagnon: Proust continues to be a very important figure in both Paris and New York, but for different reasons. Proust can be seen as a Jewish, gay icon of New York City life. He fits in perfectly well. However, there is a long tradition of reading Proust in English literary circles. The first English translations appeared relatively soon after publication in French, and Proust was being studied in American universities even before his death, so he is by no means a recent international phenomenon.
In France the idea that he was the most important writer of the twentieth century is well established. His work is considered a summary of French culture, which includes the major writers that preceded him, but also painters and other great artists. He’s like an encyclopaedia of French culture; his was really a globalising enterprise.
F24: Does Proust continue to interest university students today, or are they easily turned off by the sheer bulk of his masterpiece?
Compagnon: Students always have some difficulty reading Proust because of the size. Readers also often take him too seriously, overlooking the comic aspects in his work. Because of the aesthetic or cosmological considerations, readers take him too seriously and this can become an obstacle. The books should also make one laugh.
But many of the themes present in "Remembrance of Things Past" remain attractive to my students. The major issues have to do with the philosophy of art, aesthetic creation and social satire, questions that remain important and compelling today. Proust’s focus on sexuality was ignored for a long time because of prudishness but is very interesting to students now. This year, because the "Swann’s Way" anniversary is coinciding with commemorations of the World War One centenary, there is a big interest in Proust’s depiction of World War I. He did not participate in the fighting but offers a unique vision of the scene back in Paris. It can be described as both patriotic and very critical of the chauvinistic propaganda at the time.