Is it possible to give Proust the graphic novel treatment?

In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust – A Graphic Novel

Adaptation and Drawings by Stéphane Heuet
Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

proust 1I’ve not got the patience or time to read Proust’s masterpiece, but I’ve always wondered what it was like. When I spotted that French into English publishers Gallic books were bringing out a new English translation of Stéphane Heuet’s graphic novel treatment of the first volume, Swann’s Way, I thought I’d be the ideal reader being new to Proust and enjoying occasional graphic novels.

One big question is whether it is possible to distill the essence of Swann’s Way, which runs to 462 pages of dense text in the Penguin edition that has sat on my TBR shelves for years, into a successful graphic novel?  This version has 200 pages of graphics (plus appendices and translator’s introduction), and a typical page has seven frames, with accompanying text boxes, sometimes less, rarely a few more.

The other big question is whether the graphic novel treatment can bring to life Proust’s rambling, multi-claused, long-sentenced style, in which speech is often reported rather than said directly? Heuet has naturally transposed Proust’s reported speech into direct speech in speech bubbles as you’d expect in a comic.

Swann’s Way has three sections within, and a shorter prologue:

  • Overture – which sets the scene and contains the ‘Madeleine’ scene.
  • Combray – in which the author-narrator recalls his childhood in the (fictional) village near Chartres and the Loire – and in which we meet Proust’s neighbour Charles Swann, and Proust gets a first glimpse of Swann’s daughter Gilberte with whom he falls instantly in love.
  • Swann in Love – set some years before, in which we follow Mr Swann as he moves around the salons of Paris and falls for Odette de Crécy who, it seems is a bit of a party girl.
  • Place Names: The Name – in which Proust, still a child, but not obviously yet a teenager, relocates to Paris and eventually bumps into Gilberte again…

So, does it work?  Well – yes – and no…

I’ll start off with the Madeleine scene from Overture, which actually works rather well. Here’s a quote from my Penguin text (trans Moncrieff & Kilmartin) beside the page from the book:

proust 2And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. Am exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence… Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? …

… [a page later] Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into my conscious mind. …

You can feel the cogs whirring in Proust’s brain without needing to read all the ramblings.

proust 3 eyesI also liked the way that Heuet repeatedly used the adult Proust’s eyes at the start of a new recollection. They’re instantly recognisable from any portrait of him with those heavy lids and white under the pupils. The same occurs with the little phrase of music from a sonata which wafts in and out of the narrative.

Researching this graphic novel, I discovered from the Reading Proust website that the sections had previously been separately published over several years, using the Moncrieff translation. This ‘omnibus’ edition has the new translation by Arthur Goldhammer and his Translator’s Introduction is interesting – more about how Heuet adapted the text than the translation per se, and my main problems with reading the text come from the adaptation, not the translation.

Sometimes, one of Proust’s long sentences will be split over several frames in text boxes with ellipses … fore and aft …  and, sometimes more ellipses to indicate words jumped occur within the text. These constant ellipses do interrupt the flow visually, but the text usually reads better at length than when the adapter truncates Proust’s sentences. Removing the multiplicity of descriptive or philosophical clauses, and transposing reported speech into bubbles, often only ordinariness remains.

Proust 5 tintinlikeWhat about the drawings and presentation of the text?  Some of the characters, like the young Proust (left) are always drawn in ‘Tintin’ style, which is fine in itself – but other characters are drawn with more facial detail – particularly in the eyes and the two are sometimes mixed in one frame or page, which can look a little odd. The illustrator’s way of drawing the women, in the middle section in particular, meant that they were either entirely comical characters or frankly unattractive, especially in profile or with lipsticked mouths.

What irked me more was the text style.  Firstly, the font chosen was not unlike italic Comic Sans which is not the nicest font to read or look at, but secondly the font size and line spacing varied a lot – on one single page you could have three or more font sizes and several different spacings. Given that the text boxes were all designed to fit the original French this is forgiveable, but does lead to the text looking unbalanced on the page, and with the sandy background to the text boxes some pages were almost beiged out where the English translation left empty space. These are considerations that may be impossible to accommodate in translation.

This is managed better in the Tintin and Asterix books – but then nearly all the words are in speech bubbles and short phrases. *Lightbulb moment!* I’ve just realised that this book uses the same font as the Tintin books, and that the whole could be a homage to Hergé… (actually, this font seems to be used widely in Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées – Ed)

I have to admit that I was disappointed by this version of Proust’s classic. Given that a graphic novel lives or dies by its visual impact, I wasn’t totally won over. It’s a good try, though, and those less critical than I may enjoy this book. One thing I do know, I think reading the full Proust would bore me with all those long sentences (longer than Anthony Powell’s even), so I won’t lose any sleep over it!   (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!

In Search of Lost Time – Swann’s Way – A Graphic Novel by Marcel Proust, adapted and illustrated by Stéphane Heuet, translated Arthur Goldhammer. Gallic Books, 1st Feb 2016, Hardback, 240 pages.

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