Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust,
translated by James Grieve

Marcel Proust was born in the summer of 1871 in Auteuil, a Paris suburb that eventually became the 16th Arrondissement. Baudelaire had also been born in the 16th. At different ages, Victor Hugo and Molière had made their homes nearby. Bernardo Bertolucci’s infamous Last Tango in Paris was filmed throughout it, as were some of James Bond’s adventures in Thunderball.

Today, it is home to one of the great art museums—the Fondation Louis Vuitton—and the Bois de Boulogne, which figures prominently in Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, the seven-volume novel, often mistaken for autobiography, which cemented Proust’s legacy.

Proust was born at the intersection of history, celebrity, and mortality, each of which would eventually become an obsession for him. Two months earlier, the Franco-Prussian War had ended. The Third Republic was at the helm of France and would remain so until it fell to the Nazis, nearly 70 years later to the day. By the time jackboots crunched through the Tuileries, Proust had been dead for 18 years and was famous beyond anything he could have imagined.

Time and Time Again

Yes, In Search of Lost Time spans hundreds of pages, but if you can binge-watch TV, you can read Proust. If the word “Scandoval,” or the phrase “Anon Pls,” means anything to you, you can read Proust. If you have lived and loved, you must read Proust. It’s the most relatable novel, but its length understandably, if unfairly, scares the life out of people.

The first English translation came under the clunky heading of Remembrance of Things Past, which rankles a lot of people, myself included. It was by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, a Scottish friend of Noël Coward’s (which sounds like a euphemism of some sort, but I assure you it is not), and published between 1922 and 1930, with the final volume being completed after Moncrieff’s untimely death.

Beginning with “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” the Moncrieff translation is the literary equivalent of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess—beholden to tradition but salty and surprisingly modern once you scratch beneath the gilding.

Penguin’s translation of In Search of Lost Time, which began in 2003 and concluded last year due to copyright entanglements, saw each volume being handled by a different translator. As a whole, these veer between the sublime (Swann’s Way) and the suitably epic (The Guermantes Way), with some of the volumes sitting uneasily between the environs of the 19th century, when the book is set; the 20th century, when it was published; and the dumpster-fire-ridden Mad Max hellscape of the 21st century that we are reading it in.

As you might expect from the celebrated short-story writer and translator Lydia Davis, her Swann’s Way translation, beginning with “For a long time, I went to bed early,” is elegant, cool, and easily readable.

Now, the New York Review of Books Classics series has entered the arena and published the late Australian translator James Grieve’s Swann’s Way, which has not been previously published in the U.S. Reader, he chose violence.

“Time was when I always went to bed early.” It’s a baffling quasi-Faulknerian folksiness that is the first of many strange stylistic choices peppered chaotically throughout the book. These include the narrator’s referring to his friends as “chums,” exclaiming “Dash it all!,” and repeatedly referencing masturbation: “The four occupations for which I required strict privacy: reading and daydreaming, tears and orgasm.”

Grieve’s book (he also translated the second volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, for Penguin) is not Brideshead Revisited or Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s the same book that Davis and Moncrieff had a crack at, ostensibly, but the reading experience is not a pleasant one. When the narrator puts crumbs of the madeleine into his mouth and the entire novel gets off the tarmac, you shouldn’t worry about where his hands have been.

Reading this translation was a strange experience. What began as surprise at its differences quickly grew tiresome. As I continued reading, my notes and underlinings became increasingly frustrated and by the end, regretfully, profane. I felt like I was reading a favorite book at a great distance with little inclination to push forward.

Relief, and not that of the distinctly Proustian, wistful variety, was in sight as I turned the last few pages. When I was finally finished, well, I washed my hands.

Josh Zajdman is a writer, reader, and culture obsessive. On most days, he can be found working on his novel or doomscrolling Instagram