In discussing the nature of epic, one of my classics teachers in high school used to voice a profound reluctance about reading Dante’s Divine Comedy in an English translation. A cleric in his mid-twenties, he insisted that he would wait for the day when he had learned enough Italian and could read for himself the fourteenth-century Christian masterpiece in its original language and cadences.
Something in that stance impressed me. It made sense to me although I found it hard to imagine how many years it might take him to reach the necessary level of expertise in the language of Dante. Suppose he started his study of Italian when he was thirty-five? Or forty-five? Maybe fifty-five?
On the other hand, even without embarking on a systematic study of Italian myself, I soon understood something of the profound beauty of the final line of Dante’s epic in its homage to l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle (Paradiso, Canto III, 145).
It was hard for me later as a French major in college to imagine reading Marcel Proust in anything but the endlessly flowing, rhythmic, mesmerizing French sentences in which he had composed his twentieth-century epic. That I did not then have the necessary months and even years to devote to such a reading marathon gave to the seven volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu a Grail status with me its newborn Parsifal.
During my first sojourn in France in my mid-twenties, I bought a copy of Du côté de chez Swann in the Livre de Poche edition. Inside that paperback I can still find a piece of stationery from the residence in Annecy where I had lodged a month in the summer of 1974. On that half-page I had penned the beginning of my outline of the section of Proust’s first volume that is entitled “Combray.”
Here is the voice of celebrated French actor André Dussollier reading the opening sentences of “Combray” :
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: " Je m’endors… "
A few years ago I made a purchase that would make it possible for me in my fifties to begin my reading of A la recherche du temps perdu with Dussollier’s voice in my ears as I read the (now yellowed) pages of that Livre de Poche edition acquired in France thirty-five years ago.
Dussollier is one of a number of French actors who have collaborated on a recording – engineered by Editions Thélème – of the entirety of the seven volumes of Proust’s masterpiece. As I hear Proust’s narrator in “Combray” recall a summer visit to the provincial home of his aunt and uncle, I taste again the extended family from rural Louisiana whose homes were the site of my weekend evenings as a child listening to my parents’ brothers and sisters talk on darkening porches, their voices occasionally wandering into a French patois as they commented on scandals in the town where they had grown up.
Not a reading project I would try on my own with just a dictionary on hand, “Combray” read by Dussollier has eased me into rhythms and vocabulary that just might catch me up into a marvelous constellation of mémoires involontaires.
When I sit in the lingering sunlight on a spring evening in New England and listen to Proust's French being read so deftly, I can find myself relaxing into hopes for a fine summer.
Photo of Andre Dussollier from Textes et Voix