Commentary - In search of a title

Scott Reyburn on the glorious indecision of Marcel Proust

In the winter of 1912, the leading publishing houses in Paris were offered a 900-page first novel, Les Intermittences du Coeur. The manuscript, too heavy for one man to lift, was rejected by all of them, the bluntest of whom complained: "My dear fellow, I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep." The novel was eventually printed at the author's own expense. He was Marcel Proust.

The long-lost, revised galley proofs of this work, which we know so well as the first two volumes of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, recently went up for sale at Christie's and were estimated to fetch as much as £900,000.

They make fascinating reading. The heavily revised first galleys reveal, in a blizzard of Proust's own handwriting, how he changed the title of the first book and the composition of its famous opening line. The evidence of these crucial changes of mind has been hitherto unknown to scholars. When Proust died, in 1922, he bequeathed his entire literary archive to his brother, Dr Robert Proust, whose daughter sold it en bloc to France's Bibliotheque Nationale in 1962. At some time in the interim, however, Dr Proust's widow, Marthe Dubois-Amyot, separated these first galley proofs and other important material from the archive, since when they have been lost in the obscurity of an unknown private collection.

The 52 oblong broadsheets date from the spring of 1913, when Proust paid Bernard Grasset 1,750 francs to publish the first half of what was then envisaged, before the hiatus of the First World War, as a two-volume novel, subtitled Le Temps Perdu: premiere partie and Le Temps Perdu: deuxieme partie. Proust was provided with three sets of identical galley proofs, which he obsessively reworked into a single master text to serve as a printer's copy for the final page proofs. The revisions were so extensive that Proust paid Grasset an extra 595 francs to cover the mountain of additional work he gave the compositors.

Sheet 1 contains the most momentous of these corrections. Les Intermittences du Coeur is summarily crossed out and replaced with A Le Recherche du Temps Perdu. The title of volume one, Le Temps Perdu, was replaced, first by Charles Swann and then by Du Cote de Chez Swann. The first sentence, "Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure" - not quite in the class of "Call me Ishmael", but still one of the most famous openings in literature - was another casualty. But then Proust had second thoughts about "Pendant bien des annees, chaque soir" ("For a good many years, each evening . . ."), and reverted to the original.

Were these changes for the better? William C Carter, whose recently published Marcel Proust: a life is the first major English-language biography of the author to appear since the 1960s, certainly thinks so. He considers the subdivision of the novel into Swann's Way and The Guermantes Way as the perfect structure for Proust to explore the contrasting values of bourgeois and aristocratic society.

"I really do think it's a better title," he says. "It tells us the two most important things about the novel: that it's a quest, and that the dominant theme is time."

The irony is that the wonderfully evocative title may owe more to necessity than inspiration. No one knows exactly when Proust crossed out Les Intermittences du Coeur on his proof, but it might have been in May 1913, when he wrote to Grasset nervously noting that a fellow Parisian writer, Gustave Binet-Valmer, had recently published a novel called Le Coeur en Desordre.

It is tantalising to think that, but for the publication of a now forgotten novel by a third-rate contemporary, Proust's masterpiece would have joined The Journal of Malte Laurids Brigge, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Little Dorrit among the ranks of books by seriously good writers with seriously flaky titles.

But at least it would have been easy to translate. One of the problems that English-speakers have with A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, apart from its length and seriousness of intent, is the untranslatability of its title. Temps Perdu means both "time lost" and "time wasted", a nuance impossible to convey in English, as is the mysterious quality of A la Recherche, meaning both "search" and "research". If Scott Moncrieff's Remembrance of Things Past was a piece of Shakespearean cod, D J Enright's In Search of Lost Time has all the resonance of a Tannoy announcement.

We Anglophones should spare a thought for Paul Ollendorff and all the other Paris publishers who rejected Proust's great novel. Posterity might have made fools of them, but how many publishers today would take a punt on a 900-page first novel that began "Sometimes I used to go to bed early" and had a title like "The Intermittencies of the Heart"? On second thoughts, didn't A N Wilson publish a novel called Incline Our Hearts? But then, who's read that?

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.