LYNN NEARY, HOST:
A friend once told me about his shelf of constant reproach. It's a bookshelf in his mind filled with the books he has always planned to read but never has. Right off the bat, I could name quite a few big important novels on my own personal shelf, starting with "Moby Dick." Another book that a lot of people may have on that shelf is "In Search Of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust. It fits all the criteria. It's complex, difficult and acclaimed. Well, now for all of you literary laggards who have been unable to get through Proust, there could be an easy way into the book in the form of a graphic version of the first volume "Swan's Way." NPR's Glen Weldon reviews graphic books for NPR, and it just so happens he has also read "Swan's Way." He joins us now to tell us whether Proust's famous madeleines have the same effect in graphic form. Thanks for being here.
GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Thank you, great to be here.
NEARY: First off, this seems like a very daunting task and kind of audacious to think that you can take such a complex novel and turn it into a graphic book.
WELDON: Yeah, "In Search Of Lost Time," which is the seven volumes of which "Swan's Way" is the first, is a massive, intricate, incredibly sprawling masterpiece, as you said, about abstractions like time and memory and love and sexuality and class. So yeah, it's a big swing. But if you think about it, if you read Proust in English - if you read any translated work - you're already at a certain distance from the original text. You get the meaning, but you miss some of the music. And I would argue that comics, if done well, can bridge some of that distance because the meaning becomes even more apparent because you see the people, the places. The bones of the story are right there before you. And I think, in a strange way, it can capture some of the music as well.
NEARY: Well, who adapted this?
WELDON: This is a Frenchman by the name of Stephane Heuet back in 1998, I think. So this has come out a couple times here in the states.
NEARY: And does it work for - as a graphic novel for you?
WELDON: It does because, at certain points, Heuet is making sure that the art and the words are working in tandem. They don't just repeat what the other is doing. You want both the art and the text to carry some of the narrative weight. So the most famous scene in all of the seven novels - it happens in the very first section of the first book - it's when the narrator tells us that he has very few memories of his childhood in this small provincial town. But this time comes when he's an adult, and he dips a madeleine cookie into his tea, tastes it and it brings back this flood of memories. In the novel, Proust accomplishes this with flowing prose - like, his very long Proustian sentences get even longer and more flowing - and it becomes very hypnotic and mellifluous, and it's very transporting, as it's meant to be. In the graphic novel, we see that scene - it's very straightforwardly presented. But then, as soon as he dips the madeleine into the tea and tastes it, the panel - this huge comic panel - floods with images of this town - the people, the places, the fields around it, the shops, the - everything comes all at once and is superimposed over each other. So it's another way of capturing that sense of transportation, about being lifted up.
NEARY: It does intrigue you enough to think, maybe I really do need to pick up this book, I have to say.
WELDON: Yeah, I mean, for me, it was a great refresher. But it makes a really interesting introduction, I think. The artist is guiding us through the story in a certain way. There's several scenes in the book where Swan, the main character of the main part of the book, goes to a series of dinner parties that are slightly below his social station, and he meets a doctor who he proceeds to begin to detest because this doctor is constantly making dumb puns and stupid jokes. And the artist draws that character, unlike all the other characters in the book, in a very cartoonish way - got a big old nose and a big fuzzy mustache. And that's the artist saying, I'm going to use the art to show you how the world looks through the main character's eyes. I'm going to actually shift the reality around this thing to kind of underline something that's going on in the text. So yeah, you get the infrastructure.
NEARY: Yeah, that's something the translator said in the introduction, that it's kind of like you get the architecture of the story.
WELDON: Exactly, because Proust set it in and around Paris on real streets with real landmarks and you see them all. And they're incredibly, lovingly depicted, and you can kind of see where everything is in relation to one another, which is very important in a big sprawling work like this with this many characters and this many themes.
NEARY: Glen Weldon is a regular on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Thanks, Glen.
WELDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.