The final volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, released at the end of last month, is a landmark in audio publishing. The seven volumes — over twice the length of War and Peace — are narrated unabridged by the actor Neville Jason: at a staggering 150 hours, it is the longest audiobook in existence.
Between 1991 and 2000 Jason, who was awarded the Diction Prize at RADA by Sir John Gielgud, and appeared on stage with Olivier and Leigh, not only already narrated an abridged Proust for Naxos but actually abridged it himself. He worked with the translations by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, most of which appeared before Proust died in 1922, but Moncrieff never translated the final volume, Time Regained. Undaunted, Jason translated that himself too — which he then abridged. After 10 years, he has now completed the final step, of recording the whole work uncut.
Clearly, Jason is special: how could any ordinary mortal consider tackling those 3,000 pages of labyrinthine sentences weaving their sinuous way along 30 or 40 lines? His special skill — and here his training as a singer shows — is to recognise the music of each sentence, and phrase it through to the end. The result is a magical capturing of Proust’s melodious cadences, the syntactical wavelets linking his many clauses, which is so mesmerising and seductive for the listener.
Proust’s title A la Recherche de Temps Perdu became Moncrieff’s Remembrance of Things Past, taking the phrase from the memories recalled in ‘sweet silent thought’ by Shakespeare in Sonnet 30, in which he bewails ‘my dear time’s waste’. It was the death of Proust’s adored mother in 1905 which finally allowed him to make up for temps perdu and begin his monumental work.
Through his semi-autobiographical narrator Marcel, ‘the careful analyst’, Proust reflects on the changes wrought by the passing of time, and suffers the exquisite anguish of filial and homosexual love. A further achievement of Jason’s is his portrayal of a multitude of male and female characters and their voices as they are shaped by their experiences through the decades up to the first world war.
If people know only one thing about Proust, it is the ‘Proustian moment’ when the taste of the little scallop-shaped cakes, ‘les petites madeleines’, recalls to Marcel his Aunt Léonie giving them to him as a child, dipped in her lime-flavoured tea. It has been a memory ‘embedded like an anchor at a great depth’. For Marcel, taste and scent frequently bring to mind moments that have been ‘shut away as if in a thousand sealed vases’, experiences expressed in a web of languid, musical prose which Jason inexorably draws one into.
My special pleasure is in the myriad extended analogies and similes — aesthetic and beautifully coloured. The faithful housekeeper Françoise studies the most select and impressive cuts of rump steak, just as Michelangelo spent eight months ‘choosing the most perfect blocks of marble’. And ladies — ‘a glittering catch of fish with their ever-changing iridescence’— drink tea in the gallery. Here is a Christmas present waiting to be relished.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012