Friday, October 22, 2010

Reading Proust is like that sudden explosion on the toilet

Any single line of Proust's is capable of exploding into a cloud of references and almost Talmudic discussions that branch out endlessly into tiny capillaries of meaning and images and feelings.

I was innocently reading about the shop where "M. Swann faisait acheter son pain d’épices, et par hygiène, il en consommait beaucoup, souffrant d’un eczéma ethnique et de la constipation des Prophètes", I looked into Lydia Davis' marvelous translation and discovered a note saying that the 'pain d’épices', translated as 'spice cake', contains anise and has medicinal qualities.

But there was no note about the "constipation des Prophètes".

That doesn't mean that you can't find commentaries about this phrase on the internet! According to Mongi Madini's book, "Deux mille ans de rire" [Two thousand years of laughter], the "constipation des Prophètes" is a reference to the fact that Swann is an assimilated Jew, and, you see, Jews have a long literary history of constipation, from the time they were escaping from Egypt up to Portnoy's father.

It's this endless spiral of references and commentaries that makes reading Proust so much fun!

Note: this passage is found on page 418 of Ms Davis' translation.

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