Saturday’s New York Times reported that Roger Shattuck, scholar and translator of French literature, died last Thursday. The Globe ran a good piece on Shattuck too.
I still remember, back in the mid-80s, walking into the late lamented Calliope Books in Washington and buying my copy of The Banquet Years. I can’t remember why I picked it up; the book was hardly new (1958; rev. 1968). But I had been reading Shattuck’s articles in the New York Review of Books for years, and I suppose I had been intending to read the book for some time before I actually went out and bought it.
The book includes essays on four figures: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, and Guillaume Apollinaire. Each figure gets two chapters: one on the life, one on the art. These chapters are bracketed by introductory and conclusory chapters in which Shattuck explains the era and argues its significance to 20th century art and culture.
I guess the remarkable thing about this book is the fact that Shattuck takes on drama, painting, poetry, and music with equal confidence. But I think it’s Shattuck’s skill as a storyteller that holds the book together. I love this description of an event that changed the course of Apollinaire’s life:
At four o’clock on the afternoon of March 17th, a fairly quiet day in the sector, he was sitting in a trench reading the latest Mercure de France, to which he had again begun sending his regular chronique, “La Vie anecdotique.” A shell came fairly close, and after ducking for the burst, he turned back to his reading. He did not realize what had happened until blood started dripping onto the page; shrapnel had pierced his helmet over the right temple. Two days later he could write to [his fiancee] Madeleine, “I’m admirably well cared for and it appears to be not too serious.” The blood-encrusted Mercure and the ripped helmet became his most precious souvenirs.
But it was serious. The shell fragments were removed at two in the morning along the evacuation route to Chãteau-Thierry, and a week later he was moved to Paris. His brief letters to Madeleine speak only of a persistent fatigue, a little paralysis and vertigo, and general depression. But something very mysterious and almost sinister had happened to him. Because of his uncertain condition, he was trepanned on May 11. Medically the operation was counted a success. However, it is as if the surgeon removed without leaving a trace that part of Apollinaire’s brain which had been the seat of his feelings for Madeleine. His daily outpourings to her by mail ceased abruptly. He wrote only twice more to her after the operation, brief letters separated by months instead of hours, and both of them simply to ask for the return of manuscripts and books he sent her for safekeeeping … Something had altered his emotional nature, which had been capable of unfaithfulness but not of indifference. Yet in other ways he seemed to be recovering.
In recent years I saw Shattuck speak a couple of times, most recently last November when he delivered a lecture entitled “Proust, Einstein, and the Fourth Dimension” at the Harold Washington Library Center. He read from the beginning of In Search of Lost Time in French (”Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure”) and then in English. He talked about three kinds of time in the novel — the author’s, the narrator’s, and the reader’s — and quoted Anatole France’s remark that “Life is too short, and Proust is too long.” He cited critics who had previously written about Proust and Einstein (Camille Vitale, Edmund Wilson), and he speculated on the possibility that Proust had read Einstein’s 1905 paper on relativity (answer: no).
Then he read in English from the last chapter of the last volume of Search, in which the narrator catches sight of a beautiful woman he last saw when she was merely a child:
Colourless, incomprehensible time materialised itself in her, as it were, so that I could see and touch it, had moulded her into a graven masterpiece while upon me alas, it had but been doing its work … She was so beautiful, so promising. Gaily smiling, she was made out of all the years I had lost; she symbolised my youth.
“Formée des années mêmes que j’avais perdues” — fashioned from the very years I’d lost — what a great line. There’s a long discussion of time in the abstract at the end of Proust’s book, but I thought it was interesting and typical of Shattuck to focus on this image.
Last fall, the new translations of Search were beginning to appear, and predictably that topic arose in the Q&A session. Someone asked, do you have a favorite translation? Shattuck said he felt Kilmartin and Enright was an improvement over Moncrieff. He added with a smile that “there’s a new translation that’s coming out which I’ve declined to review because I didn’t want to get involved” in the debate over translations. For the average reader, any of the existing translations will do, he said. In all of them, Proust comes through.