Proust on Naxos AudioBooks
In 2012, Naxos AudioBooks issued each of the seven volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past series unabridged, novel by novel, as was the case in Proust’s own time.
Neville Jason, who read the abridged versions on Naxos AudioBooks, read the complete series unabridged.
Remembrance of Things Past
The critic André Maurois described Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as ‘one of the greatest works of the imagination of all time’.
The literal translation of the work’s French title, ‘In Search of Lost Time’, contains within it a clue to the creation of this monumental work of biographical fiction. Having wasted time living a dilettante existence in the fashionable world, Proust, in middle age, decided to re-dedicate his life to art, and to attempt at last to achieve the great work of which he knew himself capable.
Remembrance of Things Past was his chance to justify his life, and to cheat death through an act of artistic creation. It was the means he would use to conquer time through recreating his lost years. Memory was the material with which he would weave the magic cord to be launched into infinity; that cord which now binds us to him, and stretches forward into the future, linking his genius to unborn generations.
Marcel Proust was born on 10 July, 1871. His father, a distinguished professor of medicine, was from a Catholic family, while his mother was Jewish. Although convinced from an early age of his calling as a writer, Proust was riddled with self-doubt and wrote relatively little at the beginning of his career.
During his twenties, he co-founded a short-lived review, Le Banquet; contributed to another literary publication, La Revue Blanche; and in 1896 had his first book published, a collection of essays entitled Les Plaisirs et Les Jours.
He became an enthusiastic admirer of Ruskin and translated his Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies into French. A novel, Jean Santeuil, which was the precursor of Remembrance of Things Past, was abandoned, and eventually published long after Proust’s death, in 1954. For much of his youth Proust led the life of a man-about-town, frequenting fashionable Paris drawing rooms and literary salons, which were to form the background of a number of his early stories and sketches, and subsequently of Remembrance of Things Past.
The death of his adored mother in 1905 resulted in a nervous collapse and aggravated his chronic asthma and insomnia. But, despite his grief and the sense of loss, from which he never recovered, his mother’s death freed him with regard to his homosexual way of life, and allowed him to address same-sex love in his writing, albeit in a form which treated such experiences as happening to others rather than to himself.
In 1907 he moved into an apartment in the Boulevard Haussmann where, in the bedroom which he had had lined with cork to keep out noise, he embarked upon his great work À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). In it the minuteness of his observation, the depth of his psychological understanding and the vividness of his descriptive powers combined to create one of the most poetic and magical works in all literature.
Publication of Remembrance of Things Past
This long autobiographical cycle was originally published in eight sections: Du Côté de Chez Swann (Swann’s Way) in 1913; A L’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs (Within a Budding Grove) in 1918; Le Côté de Guermantes I (The Guermantes Way I) in 1920; Le Côté de Guermantes II and Sodom et Gomorrhe I (Cities of the Plain I) in 1921; Sodom et Gomorrhe II in 1922; La Prisonnière (The Captive) in 1923; Albertine Disparue (The Sweet Cheat Gone/The Fugitive) in 1925 and Le Temps Retrouvé (Time Regained) in 1927.
Proust was obliged to publish Swann’s Way at his own expense, and even after it had appeared, had trouble finding a publisher for the next part, A L’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs. However, when it appeared in 1918 it received considerable acclaim, and was awarded the Prix Goncourt the following year.
By the time Proust died, on 18 November, 1922, the first four parts of the cycle had been published, leaving the others to appear posthumously.
The Life and Work of Marcel Proust
To avoid any confusion, it may be helpful to point out that Proust’s great work, À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, was originally translated into English by Charles K. Scott-Moncrieff and published in 1922 under the title, Remembrance of Things Past. It was subsequently re-translated by Terence Kilmartin and appeared in 1981 as In Search of Lost Time. In 2002 a new edition appeared under the same title, with each volume assigned to a different translator. The Naxos AudioBooks recordings use the Scott-Moncrieff text and, in references to the work, I use Scott-Moncrieff’s title.
My own contact with Proust began when, as a 17-year-old schoolboy, I first read Swann’s Way. I could not have guessed then that, many years into the future, Proust would take over my life to such an extent. Over a six year period during the 1990s, I abridged and recorded Remembrance of Things Past for Naxos Audiobooks, for whom I have now recorded this entire, uncut text.
When I was asked to write The Life and Work of Marcel Proust (see www.naxosaudiobooks.com), it occurred to me that, although the people on whom Proust based his characters were no longer living, the places he wrote about were still there, and so I travelled to France to see them.
I was delighted to discover that Illiers, where Marcel Proust spent his holidays as a child, and which figures in the book as Combray, is now marked on maps and road signs as Illiers-Combray, in official recognition of the reason for this sleepy village’s wider fame.
In a narrow street just off the market square in Illiers-Combray is the house in which Proust’s father, Adrien Proust, was born, and further along is the house of his aunt Élisabeth, now a Proust museum, where Élisabeth’s fictional counterpart, the bedridden Aunt Léonie, watched the world go by from her bedroom window. Around the corner from the house is a little boulangerie with a sign in the window announcing proudly: ‘This is where Aunt Léonie bought her madeleines’. It only occurs to me as I buy a packet of the scallop-shaped cakes, that Aunt Léonie is a creature of fiction. Never mind, Aunt Élisabeth might well have patronised the establishment, or one very like it. Up the hill there a real house called Tansonville, the name of the house occupied by Charles Swann, and later by his daughter Gilberte and her husband Robert de Saint-Loup, and further on there is a real village called Méréglise, a name almost identical to the fictional Méséglise.
Water lilies are still reflected in the glassy surface of the river Loir, which in the book bears the more poetic name the Vivonne, and beyond the stream lies the Pré Catalan, the enchanting park created by Proust’s horticulturally minded Uncle Jules. From Illiers I travelled on to Cabourg, a seaside resort on the Normandy coast, the original of the fictional Balbec. Here I found the Grand Hotel in all its Edwardian splendour. It was rebuilt after Proust spent holidays there as a child, but he returned as an adult, and sections of Remembrance of Things Past were written beneath its roof. As in Within a Budding Grove, the great glass windows of the restaurant look out over the promenade to the beach below, and with a little imagination, that group of budding young girls in bikinis is transformed into the little band of ‘jeunes filles en fleurs’ outlined against the sea.
I travelled on to Paris, visiting 102 Boulevard Haussmann, Proust’s home for many years, where he wrote so much of Remembrance of Things Past. The building is still owned by the same bank that purchased it from Proust’s aunt, when her inconsiderate decision to sell it forced him to move. His bedroom is still there, but unfurnished, and to see the room as it was, one is obliged to visit the Musée Carnavalet, where his bed, chaise-longue and other effects are displayed in a reconstruction of the famous cork-lined room.
A walk to the gardens of the Champs Élysées brought me to an area with a sign announcing that I am in the Allée Marcel Proust. Children chase each other – perhaps playing the modern equivalent of ‘prisoners base’, the game played by Gilberte and her friends. This is where the real Marcel played as a child with the real Marie de Benardaky, with whom he fell in love, just as the fictional Marcel falls in love with the fictional Gilberte Swann.
In the real world the same spaces are occupied now by different people. Time has moved on, but places remain, and we have the privilege of being present in not only the imaginary world Proust created, but that portion of the real world which had a part in its creation. His presence has left behind a trace of magic, and we see places differently, because we see them through his eyes. One day those places will have crumbled into dust, as will we ourselves, and the space we now consider ours will be occupied by others. But as long as civilisation remains, those who come after us will be able to share Proust’s vision and enter his world. Proust was aware that art is the only true reality, and that through his creations the artist continues to live after his death, beyond space and beyond time.
Notes by Neville Jason
Listen to our Proust podcasts! Each contains an introduction along with excerpts from the books:
Remembrance of Things Past Podcast
Within a Budding Grove Podcast
The Guermantes Way Podcast
Download link: Sodom and Gomorrah Podcast
Born in 1934, Neville Jason trained at RADA where he was awarded the diction prize by Sir John Gielgud. His first appearance in the theatre was in Peter Brook’s production of Titus Andronicusstarring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. He was a member of the Old Vic Company, the English Stage Company, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Birmingham Repertory Company. In addition, Neville appeared in numerous musicals, including Kiss Me Kate and Irma La Douce.
Television appearances included Maigret, Dr Who, Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, Dixon of Dock Green, When the Boat Comes In, Minder, Dempsey and Makepeace, and Windmill Near a Frontier. Amongst his film work was the Bond movie From Russia With Love. He was a member of the BBC Radio Drama Company three times, and was often heard in radio plays, documentaries and arts programmes.
Neville began his association with Naxos AudioBooks in the very early days of the label and was a prolific contributor to its output. Perhaps most notable was his Remembrance of Things Past by his beloved Proust, but his readings extended to the literary classics of Russia (War and Peace; Evgenii Onegin) and England (The Once and Future King and Far from the Madding Crowd). His work for Naxos was recognised on several occasions: as a director, he won Talkie Awards for Great Expectations and Poets of the Great War; and as a reader, he won AudioFile Earphone Awards for The Captive, Time Regained, The Once and Future King and War and Peace (Best Audiobooks of the Year 2007 and 2009).
Nicolas Soames, former Publisher of Naxos AudioBooks, has fond memories of his time working with Neville. ‘Over two decades of close association I had nothing but complete admiration for Neville and his craft as a reader. The sheer range of subjects among the 60 recordings he read for Naxos AudioBooks showed his versatility and his impeccable preparation. However, there is no doubt that he will be remembered particularly for his recordings of Proust, where his urbane, measured, insightful performances, sustained over 120 hours in the unabridged version, have resulted in one of the greatest audiobook landmarks of all time. It truly was a privilege to be involved in this momentous, unmatched achievement.’
Shortly before his death, Neville recorded The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, an idea for audiobook that he himself had suggested. Happily, he was able to hear the edited recording during his final days.
Our sympathy goes to his wife, Gillian, and his family.