Poetry, Prizes and Proust


Last month it was announced that the Australian Prime Minister’s Prizes for literature have been broadened to include a prize for poetry and a prize for Australian history.

Strangely, all the judges for fiction and poetry are from Melbourne or have a history of working and studying in Melbourne. They certainly know how to organise things in Melbourne!

Just to put some context around the relation of politicians to poets, allow me to drag out an old poem – well, more an epigram than a poem, a single quatrain with a half-rhyme:

Nineteen twenty-two was a wonderful year –
«The Waste Land», «Ulysses», Pound floruit.
But who was the British Prime Minister?
And who was the Poet Laureate?

(Floruit: Verb: used in conjunction with a specified period or set of dates to indicate when a particular historical figure lived, worked, or was most active. Noun: such a period : they place Nicander’s floruit in the middle of the 2nd century BC. ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: Latin, literally ‘he or she flourished’.)

And the British Prime Minister was…

A British Prime Minister
A British Prime Minister

No, it wasn’t Arthur Balfour, or Henry Campbell-Bannerman, or Herbert Asquith, or Stanley Baldwin, or James Ramsay MacDonald, or Neville Chamberlain, or Winston Churchill, or Clement Attlee, all of whom held that post at various times in the first half of the twentieth century. Who it was depends on the time of year: David Lloyd George (see photo) was the British Prime Minister from 7 December 1916 to 19 October 1922, and for the rest of 1922 the post was held by Andrew Bonar Law.

As for the Poet Laureate, no, it wasn’t Philip Larkin (who was born that year: he was too young!) or Alfred Austin or John Masefield or Cecil Day-Lewis or Sir John Betjeman. It was Robert Bridges, a modest and decent man who was Laureate from 1913 to 1930.

As for T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Ezra Pound… mere scribblers, really.

And let’s not mention two notable literary deaths in 1922: the popular Australian poet Henry Lawson and the charming and verbose French novelist Marcel Proust. Proust’s novel «Swann’s Way», the first part of what was to become his masterwork «In Search of Lost Time», was rejected by every publisher who looked at it, including the «Nouvelle Revue Française»’s founder and editor André Gide (who was not a young greenhorn, as I once thought: he was over forty at the time), so Proust had to pay for the printing himself. Fortunately for us, he had the money.

Here’s Wikipedia:

«Du côté de chez Swann» (1913) was rejected by a number of publishers, including Fasquelle, Ollendorf, and the «Nouvelle Revue Française» (NRF). André Gide famously was given the manuscript to read to advise NRF on publication, and leafing through the seemingly endless collection of memories and philosophizing or melancholic episodes, came across a few minor syntactic errors, which made him decide to turn the work down in his audit. Proust eventually arranged with the publisher Grasset to pay the cost of publication himself. When published it was advertised as the first of a three-volume novel (Bouillaguet and Rogers, 316-7)…. In early 1914, André Gide, who had been involved in NRF’s rejection of the book, wrote to Proust to apologize and to offer congratulations on the novel. “For several days I have been unable to put your book down…. The rejection of this book will remain the most serious mistake ever made by the NRF and, since I bear the shame of being very much responsible for it, one of the most stinging and remorseful regrets of my life.” (Tadié, 611). Gallimard (the publishing arm of NRF) offered to publish the remaining volumes, but Proust chose to stay with Grasset.

The “minor syntactic errors” Wikipedia talks about may well include Proust’s distinctive use of the perfect tense, most famously in his first sentence: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.” Reams have been written about how it perturbs the very idea of a pure French sentence, but it doesn’t worry me. Check out this blog: http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=912514, which contains the following:

Scott Moncrieff went for: “For a long time I would go to bed early,” Penguin for: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” One might also have: “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” or “Time was when I went to bed early” or “Time and again, I have gone to bed early.” Alternatively, one could settle for the option offered by one member of the public when, a few months ago, Penguin asked visitors to its website to have a go at translating the first sentence of Proust; “For absolutely bloody ages it was lights out early.”

Then there’s a whole novel based on the famous sentence: «For a long time, I used to go to bed early…» Author : Gattegno; Publisher : Actes Sud; 2004; EAN : 9782742746361

Book Cover

Warning: publisher bullshit detected in this material. Read it at your peril. Description: «Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure» follows Sebastian Ponchelet, an ex-convict whose life is profoundly affected by the famous first eight words of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece. Recently released from prison, Sebastian finds a job in a prestigious Parisian publishing house sorting submissions. One day, he comes across a giant manuscript littered with the author’s annotations, and is so entranced by the first sentence that he feels the urge to smuggle it out of the office. He can never bring himself to read past the first line – For a long time I used to go to bed early – but something in the prose deeply affects him, and sets him off on a journey of artistic self-exploration. Soon, the theft is noticed, but by that time the manuscript has mysteriously vanished from his apartment and the transgression could cost him his job. Meanwhile, after a rash of museum thefts, Sebastian’s parole officer is exerting pressure on him to provide information about his former cellmate, a legendary art thief named Sholam. Sebastian’s dilemma intensifies when a famous Courbet painting, L’Origine du monde, disappears from the Musée d’Orsay, and Sholam resurfaces. As these literary and artistic mysteries swirl around him, Sebastian begins to court a woman he spies on the street, instinctually drawn to her in the same way he is drawn to the Proust manuscript and the Courbet painting. Too shy to approach her, he anonymously leaves books in her mailbox and witnesses her reactions from afar. When the two finally meet after their bookish courtship, Sebastian must choose between her and a dangerous life surrounded by stolen, and stunning, masterpieces.

Though it has all the elements of a suspense novel, this wonderfully paced story is at heart a profound meditation on the relationship of the artist to his or her audience, the way people relate to each other through works of art, and, perhaps most importantly, art’s redemptive power. Both Proust’s manuscript and the stolen Courbet painting open Sebastian’s eyes, allowing his previously incarcerated mind to see the world in an entirely new light.

Jean-Jacques Beinex of Cargo Films has already acquired the film rights to Longtemps. Author : Jean-Pierre Gattegno : Jean-Pierre Gattégno has written four other novels, three of which, Neutralité malveillante (Calmann-Levy, 1992), Mortel Transfer (Calmann-Lévy, 2000), and Une place parmi les vivants (Calmann-Lévy, 2001) were adapted into films.

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