Thursday, December 08, 2022

987 Words About Proust's Novel and How It Grew

After Proust died on November 18th, 1922, his friends came to the apartment at 44 rue Hamelin to pay their respects. There, Jean Cocteau noticed these unfinished manuscripts scattered around the room beside Proust's bed, how "that pile of paper on his left was still alive, like watches ticking on the wrists of dead soldiers."

Proust's cork-lined bedroom at 44 rue Hamelin

Given the way Proust worked and given the recent state of his health, it wasn't going to be easy sorting through this "pile of paper" to see what remained of his supposedly finished novel.

Most readers probably think a writer sits down, starts at the beginning, and, sooner or later, inspiration willing, reaches the end. Then it's only a matter of sending it off to the waiting publisher. Weren't we lucky Proust could write "The End" to his life's work, In Search of Lost Time, months before he died?

The author's original manuscript, presumably, had been cleanly typed, thoroughly proof-read, and, complete and ready to print, sent to the publisher. Usually, a publisher's "proofs" were meant to check spellings and make necessary corrections. Instead, Proust treated them like one more step toward a final draft, writing copious marginal notes and pasting in additional paragraphs.

Proofs & Paperolles: The Prisoner, c.1921

Eventually this turned into not just new pages, but new plot threads which led to entirely new volumes to handle them; the first of these involved meeting the love of his Narrator's life, Albertine.

Proust had only met Alfred Agostinelli shortly before completing Swann's Way and their tumultuous relationship lasted barely half a year before his new secretary left and was subsequently killed in an accident in 1914. He became, with Proust's typical alchemy, the model for Albertine and the object of the Narrator's jealous obsessions for future volumes. Originally, it was Time Lost (later Swann's Way), the Guermantes Way, and Time Regained. But the "Albertine Story" became the newly inserted second volume and grew into the new fourth volume, Sodom & Gomorrah.

On Oct 13th, 1917, Proust received 5,000 pages of proofs. Correcting them would've been laborious even if his eyes had been normal, but without glasses and "without much eyesight," it became a frightful job. Still, he refused to get spectacles. Four days later, his publisher announced Proust's novel, formerly three books, will now become five.

But as Proust's ever-expanding imagination proceeded to "edit" his newest volume, within fourteen months Sodom & Gomorrah (published as Cities of the Plain by squeamish English translators), filling in details between The Guermantes Way and the now revised war-time setting for the final volume, Time Regained, was first split into two, then eventually three books.

Meanwhile, once the War finally ended, Proust saw these post-Swann volumes into print before spending months rewriting parts of Time Regained, initially written simultaneously with Swann's Way (originally entitled Time Lost) back in 1913.

However, his health, never good and often precarious, became increasingly worrisome. In early 1922, he wrote to friends about thoughts of suicide, wishing he'd had some cyanide, months before he published Sodom & Gomorrah. The expanded "spin-off" of these latest proofs became another volume, The Prisoner, announced days before his famous dinner with James Joyce.

In late-June, 1922, Proust managed to write to his editor, "the reworkings of this typescript where I am making additions everywhere and changing everything, has hardly begun," One can only imagine his editor's expression. Remember, earlier that spring he'd told his faithful housekeeper, Céleste Albaret, "Last night, I wrote 'The End.' Now I can die."

In October, catching a cold which turned into bronchitis, he completed The Prisoner but started revising the next new volume, The Fugitive, apparently not fully satisfied he'd written "The End" on his life's work.

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Consider the chronology of these facts: Proust had written "The End" in the Spring of 1922; in late-June, he informed his editor "the reworking of this typescript... has hardly begun"; and now he indicated he had made an enormous cut of, according to Hayman, some 250 pages which amounted to almost two-thirds of The Fugitive! It should be noted the frequently quoted Wikipedia entry called The Fugitive "the most editorially vexed volume", and stated without verification the cut consisted of 150 pages: both were subsequently ignored by posthumous editions.

Proust had a new manuscript typed up, retitled Albertine disparue, having already promised his publisher he would have "more books to offer you," apparently whole new volumes [plural!] between The Fugitive and Time Regained. He also mentioned he considered the Death of Albertine and the whole process of forgetting her some of his finest writing.

While Proust didn't break his volumes down into internal chapters per se, Hayman indicated this cut began on p.648 of the proofs after "the first chapter" and ended at p.898 with "the Venice Episode." This includes memories of "a sweetly innocent Albertine" and conversations with her friend Andrée about his suspicions of Albertine's lesbian affairs; how the Duchesse de Guermantes' attitude towards Swann had changed since his death; how Gilberte, Swann's daughter, helped the Narrator "get over" Albertine; and the discovery of his old friend Robert de Saint-Loup's homosexuality.

Now, if it's true Proust regarded this part of Albertine's Story as some of his best writing, would he logically have merely discarded it to present his publisher with a shorter, more salable book? How much of it would have become fuel for one of these new volumes, not merely fragments inserted into Time Regained? Yes, in August he'd joked how “short books sell better,” but that would've been the first time in eight years he apparently cared about sparing his publisher from longer and continuously longer books!

Each time I read through Time Regained and think of this massive cut, I wonder what part of the Narrator's story was left to tell? There are large gaps of time during the War when the Narrator is absent from Paris, times he spent in a sanatorium: perhaps this volume would've been called The Invalid?

- Dick Strawser

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