Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 4, 2018

Swann in Love (1913), by Marcel Proust, a new translation by Brian Nelson

I feel I’ve had a privileged insight into the birth of this book.  Back in April, it was my good fortune to attend a Celebration of French Literature hosted by AALITRA (the national association for literary translators) at which notable French translators Julie Rose and Brian Nelson spoke about the translation of their latest works. Julie spoke about translating Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and Brian read from and talked about his new translation of Proust’s Swann in Love for Oxford World’s Classics, 2017.

Now I have read Proust, the 2002 Penguin edition published in six volumes, which I read over many months back in 2004-5.  The Penguin translation was notable for having had different translators for each volume, which serves to highlight the monumental achievement of C.K. Scott Moncrieff in translating the whole thing between 1922 and 1930.  (Du Côte de chez Swann was first published in 1913, with the last volume published in 1927, five years after Proust’s death in 1922).  Brian Nelson said that although there were some mistakes, overall the Moncrieff translation deserves admiration because he has captured the cadences and elegance of Proust’s prose.  (He also read out an example of the Lydia Davis translation and left us to draw our own conclusions.)

This is not the excerpt that Nelson compared; these are the opening lines of the three translations.


Swann in Love

To admit you to the ‘little nucleus,’ the ‘little group,’ the ‘little clan’ at the Verdurins’, one condition sufficed, but that one was indispensable; you must give tacit adherence to a Creed one of whose articles was that the young pianist, whom Mme. Verdurin had taken under her patronage that year, and of whom she said “Really, it oughtn’t to be allowed, to play Wagner as well as that!” left both Planté and Rubinstein ‘sitting’; while Dr. Cottard was a more brilliant diagnostician than Potain. Each ‘new recruit’ whom the Verdurins failed to persuade that the evenings spent by other people, in other houses than theirs, were as dull as ditch-water, saw himself banished forthwith.

Ch 3 Swann in Love


A Love of Swann’s

To belong to the ‘little set’, the ‘little circle’, the ‘little clan’ attached to the Verdurins, one condition was sufficient but necessary: you had to abide tacitly by a Credo one of whose articles was that the young pianist patronized by Mme Verdurin that year, of whom she would say: ‘It ought to be against the law to be able to play Wagner like that!’, ‘was miles above’ both Planté and Rubinstein, and that Doctor Cottard was a better diagnostician than Potain. Any ‘new recruit’ who could not be persuaded by the Verdurins that the soirées given by people who did not come to the Verdurins were as tedious as a rainy day was immediately expelled.

Penguin, 2002, p.191,


Swann in Love

To belong to the ‘little set’, the ‘little circle’, the ‘little clan’ of the Verdurins, one condition was sufficient but necessary: tacit adherence to a Credo one of whose articles was that the young pianist who was Madame Verdurin’s protégé that year and of whom she would say ‘It shouldn’t be allowed to play Wagner as well as that!’, was ‘streets ahead’ of both Planté and Rubinstein and that Dr Cottard was a better diagnostician than  Potain. Any ‘new recruit’ who could not be persuaded by the Verdurins that the evenings people spent in houses other than theirs were as dull as ditchwater was immediately banished.

Oxford World’s Classics, 2017, p.3

BTW Notes in both the Penguin and the Oxford versions explain that Planté, (a composer) Rubinstein (a pianist) and Potain (a notable medical man) were illustrious in their field.  The OUP note also points out that for Mme Verdurin to compare her young pianist and Dr Cottard with these luminaries shows the blinkered over-confidence of the hostess in her coterie. 


One day I’m going to read Moncrieff’s version, which was later revised by Terence Kilmartin and D.J. Enright.  Maybe one day I might even be able to read some of it in French.  But it has been a real pleasure to read, in the interim, Swann in Love.  It’s a complete self-contained novella within the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, titled Swann’s Way in Moncrieff’s translation and (clumsily, IMO) The Way by Swann’s in the Penguin.

Since scholars have already written reams about Proust, rather than ‘review’ Swann in Love, what follows is drawn from notes that I took at the AALITRA event, so the ideas are mostly not mine, but those of Brian Nelson.

Swann in Love is not Proust-Lite.  Indeed, Brian Nelson began his talk with a reference to that hilarious Monty Python sketch featuring the All-England Summarise Proust Competition – which highlights the absurdity of the idea that Proust ever could be summarised…

No, Swann in Love is a multi-facetted novel complete with Proust’s themes of time, art, love, jealousy and imagination, along with the syntactic complexity of his style, his elaborate constructions and his beautiful clarity and precision.  Proust’s famously long sentences show the shape of the thoughts and sensibilities of a mind in the grip of obsession, fantasy and uncertainty.  It is also one of the funniest novels in French literature, satirising French society and its social pretensions.  And the love story, a tale of Swann’s obsession with a stupid, shallow former courtesan called Odette de Crecy, is full of irony and bathos, complete with a jealous Swann spying on the wrong bedroom in the middle of the night because the hapless inhabitants just happened to have the lights on.

Swann’s problem is that he projects onto Odette, his own self.  He is struck by her resemblance to the Biblical figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s Daughter, as painted by Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel.  (The best place to see this is at Art in Fiction, which not only has a close-up of the rather vapid-looking figure but also quotations from Swann’s Way.)  There are many references to well-known masterpieces which not only show Swann’s familiarity with the great artists, but also that he is a widely travelled and cultured man.  He loves music too, and he associates the moment at which he fell for Odette with a phrase from a sonata by the (fictional) Vinteuil, and Madame Verdurin who is initially pleased to have added Swann to her set, makes sure he hears it often.  Odette on the other hand, only likes popular music, and is more interested in clothes and jewellery than in art.

So. Swann is a highly intelligent and sophisticated man, writing a study of Vermeer and moving in elite circles of society.  Odette is a lightweight with a dubious past.  But Swann does not let these social differences hinder his love of her.  So it is ironic that it’s class distinction that causes the rift with Odette:  their meetings have been facilitated by the company of the Verdurins, a bourgeois couple who compensate for their lack of status with inverted snobbery.  They proclaim (loudly) that they reject the society of the elites, because they are bores and not worthy of their company.  To be welcome in Madame Verdurin’s coterie where he can see Odette, Swann has to be careful not mention aristocrats that Madame Verdurin doesn’t know.  And although for a while he manages successfully to conceal or disparage his activities elsewhere, eventually he lets slip that he is on good terms with a prince – which causes outrage to Madame Verdurin.  She not only breaks off Odette’s contact with Swann but also sets up matchmaking with a rival called de Forcheville.  The story becomes a comedy of uncertainty and miscommunication, Swann making a fool of himself over a woman who is not worthy of him, either intellectually or morally.

As well as extensive notes at the back of the book, there is also a highly readable introduction by Adam Watt, Professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Exeter.  He has published widely on the life and works of Marcel Proust.  Brian Nelson is Emeritus Professor (French Studies and Translation Studies) at Monash University in Melbourne, and is a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.  (He is also my favourite translator of Zola titles. See here).

If you’ve never read Proust, I’d suggest trying this one first, it’s only 180-odd pages long:)

Author: Marcel Proust
Title: Swann in Love
Translated by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 2017, first published 1913
ISBN: 9780198744894
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press


  1. My goodness, this was interesting. It’s decades since I read Proust, and don’t recall getting beyond about vol 3. One of those lurking in the background, insisting on being taken up again…


    • I must admit I find it surprising that Knausgard is compared to Proust. I find Proust charming and amusing and even when his satire is quite savage, it’s not cruel. But I find Knausgard’s work thoroughly distasteful.


  2. I’ve noticed this book recently; I’m intrigued as it’s BN’s translation but as I plan to read ISOLT again at some point I’ll probably won’t read it. Do you know if BN is translating any more of ISOLT?

    I’m currently reading Sentimental Education by Flaubert which, at times, reminds me of Swann in Love, i.e. the whole ‘obsessive love’ thing. It’s one of the things I find wearisome about 19thC novels and it was what made me think of Proust, initially, as a 19thC novelist. I was glad that ISOLT went beyond the whole ‘Swann in love’ thing. The Verdurins soirees were a hoot though.


    • I haven’t heard if he is doing any more of it, it would be a huge undertaking if he were…
      I wasn’t so keen on Flaubert. It didn’t make me want to read more of him.


  3. The difference in translations is quite striking when compared side by side like that, isn’t it? I’d like s closer look at this translation, but as I’m only two volumes into ISOLT it might be a while before I embark on a reread!


  4. What an interesting post Lisa, particularly those translation comparisons. I am also two volumes in to the Moncreiff revised version which I am very happy with apart from the physical unmanageability of the books. I had been tempted by the concept of individual Penguin volumes but personally found the Davis quote above a bit clumsy for me. So I shall stick with what I have and plod on when I get the chance! :)


  5. I’ve never read Proust, but after reading your article, perhaps I might give Swann in Love a try. His work has always daunted me.


    • I was put off for years too. Having a good translation is a must with any of these major works, but it’s also so helpful to have a good introduction (and background notes) so that you know what you are reading and what to look out for. The length of this one makes it an ideal place to begin with, and even if you never read anything else *grin* you can then smile loftily in conversation and say that you have read Proust!


      • Yes the length has always put me off. From your short excerpt this translation looks more appealing. Dare I say modern?


  6. Thanks for this review Lisa, after Murnane’s references to Proust I’ve been reading Emma’s Proust page and I think I might take your advice and use this book as a way in – I can’t see me attempting the whole thing any time soon.


    • Well you know that Murnane is *very* choosy about what he reads!


  7. […] Swann in Love, by Marcel Proust, in a new translation by Brian Nelson.  If you’ve never read Proust, this is the edition to start with. […]


  8. […] to aficionados of In Search of Lost Time.  I wish I’d had this to hand when I was reading Brian Nelson’s new translation of Swann in Love.  I think I might photocopy these few pages and tuck them into my copy for future […]


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