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The single problem facing any translator of Proust is that there is, really, no equivalent of his style in English. He is at once classical and idiosyncratic; the rhythms and proportions of classical French style are followed faithfully in every sentence, and over the whole book. The end result looks so alarmingly new, however, because the proportions and rhythms are employed on an unprecedented scale. The novel really is one novel, and not, like Anthony Powell, a sequence of novels; his sentences are always immense, balanced epigrams.
The novel has an essential orthodox classicism which emerges, on such a scale, as revolutionary audacity. When the narrator observes, early on, that Gilberte’s handwriting is so affected that her capital G’s and A’s cannot be distinguished, he is lighting a fuse which will not explode for 2,000 pages; between the first observation and the telegram which leads the narrator to believe that Albertine is still alive, no reference to this fact is made. Both the Duc de Guermantes, in Le C
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 5, 2002