All posts by David Harris

Reading Proust: "Proustku"

Haiku is a very old form of Japanese poetry that has traditionally followed fairly stringent guidelines. I was fortunate to be involved in a 3 month-long haiku workshop with the World Haiku Club where I learned a lot about the form from some very accomplished haijin (haiku poets).

Associating the word “haiku” with what I will be writing here will be plain wrong in most cases. for this project I’ll be doing something a little different: the “Proustku”. The form I will be writing will be closer to senryu, which are structurally identical to haiku but much more flexible in content. Occasionally there will be haiku among the senryu but that will occur only when the pages of the text happen to evoke some particularly strong image of an appropriate type that I can capture with the form. Basically, I will try to capture something of the memories that Proust reconstructs in his book, but attempting to capture both the events and/or the feelings Proust’s narrator describes. I’m sure that my idea of this invented form will develop as I go and become more concrete in time.

Any time I have put haiku-like forms on the web, somebody comes along and complains that what I am writing is not haiku because it doesn’t follow the 5-7-5 syllable form. However, most haijin writing in English acknowledge that the 5-7-5 form does not come cloest to representing the Japanese original form. For example, the amount of information contained in 5-7-5 Japanese “syllables” is much less than in that many English syllables. Therefore, many English haijin espouse a smaller number of syllables (3-4-3, for example) to more closely approximate the quantity of information in a Japanese haiku, but they also do not believe in holding too strictly to these counts. In these Proustku, I’ll typically use a loose form consisting of a longer line between two shorter ones, with the syllable count generally not exceeding 5-7-5, but often being less.

Reading Proust: The Choice of Translation

Not having French, a serious decision must be made before embarking on Proust: which translation? There are a number of major translations in English, including the original by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, the revision by Terence Kilmartin, a further revision by D. J. Enright, and a new translation by a group of translators, each to a volume.

Typically, modern translations are better than older ones and revised translations better than the originals, but not always. A few aspects work against the latest translation. Perhaps the most important is the style of the translation, but also significant is that only the first four volumes are available in the United States, where I am currently based, due to the extension of copyright protection of the original text, as dictated by the Sonny Bono Copyright Act. So leaving aside the new translation, I have chosen to use what is generally regarded as the best English translation of Proust, the Enright revision of the Scott Moncrieff and Kilmartin text.

To read more about choosing a translation, you should read a two-part series in the New York Review of Books by André Aciman. The first part is currently freely available on the NYRB website but the second part requires a subscription or one-off article purchase.

The specific edition I am using is The Modern Library Classics paperback edition. Links to the books at Amazon are:
Volume 1: Swann’s Way (606 text pages)
Volume 2: Within a Budding Grove
Volume 3: The Guermantes Way
Volume 4: Sodom and Gomorrah
Volume 5: The Captive & The Fugitive
Volume 6: Time Regained

Reading Proust: A Project

By anybody’s reckoning, reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is an ambitious endeavour. The text itself takes some getting used to, with it’s seemingless endless series of subordinate clauses and cascading phrases. Yet, in a good translation, it’s still quite easy to make sense of it all.

The greatest difficulty I have found in reading Proust is that the text becomes so easy and fluid to read, and the nature of the content, about remembering and recreating events in the narrator’s past, that my mind wanders through its own reminescences, finding comparisons and contrasts, recalling other books and stories, and generally becoming lost in a world of memory.

Keeping track of what is actually happening, though there isn’t much, as such, does require continued concentration, and when my mind wanders, as it does often, I need to reread paragraphs or pages. Conscious that this was happening, I sought a project to keep me actively reading the text, so I don’t find in the future that I just read pages 2700-2800, for example, without any recollection of what just happened.

And so, based on the regularity of progress in the text, about on the scale of a page, and considering the amount of time and effort that I could realistically devote to a project, while looking for something that would help me actively engage with the text, not only in terms of surface meaning, but also in terms of contextualising, understanding, and synthesising my text-provoked daydreams, and considering types of text I have experience with and enjoy, I decided that I should write a short haiku-like piece for each page of text, such that reading the haiku series should evoke both the content and feel of the text, in ways that connect with the impressionistic style of the text, despite the brevity of the form used.

There is of course an obvious contrast between what may be the longest sentences ever published and one of the shortest textual forms, and that dissonance flavours the project tastily.

Beginning with Swann’s Way and working through to Time Regained, I intend to write these short texts, as an exercise for myself and for the edification of any interested reader. If nothing else, 3500-odd haiku could be less taxing to read than the pages of the book. Or perhaps not.

I have a few comments to make about the form of my pieces and the translation I am working from, among other things, but soon the first text will be making its way from the pencilled margins of the books to this blog.