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Proust Goes Graphic


By Stuart Mitchner 

Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way: A Graphic Novel (Liveright/Norton $26.95) may be the most luxurious book of its kind. Picture a 224-page landmark amid a perfect storm of classic graphics that includes R. Crumb’s  Kafka, Jacques Fernandez’s illustrated edition of Camus’s The Stranger, a graphic Odyssey, a graphic Macbeth, but nothing comparable to Stéphane Huet’s daring adaptation of a complex work that could have been pitched with the old slogan, “They said it couldn’t be done!” When critics and Proustians grumbled, Huet countered with statements of support from the Society of Friends of Marcel Proust and from the holder of Proust’s literary rights, the author’s great-grandniece Nathalie Mauriac. He also has a respected translator in Arthur Goldhammer, whose more than 125 translations include numerous scholarly works, most notably Thomas Piketty’s best-seller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. 

A Dramatic Departure

Probably the most explicit preview of the graphic phenomenon came in 1978 with Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, which was presented as “a graphic novel.” In 1986 the first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale appeared, an even more dramatic departure from the standard comicbook subject matter. While both volumes of Maus eventually attracted a wide, appreciative audience, booksellers found it a challenge to categorize and Spiegelman himself was slow to accept the term “graphic novel,” perhaps because he was an admirer of Lynd Ward, a pioneer of the novel of images, with six books released between 1929 and 1937. Thus Spiegelman was an obvious choice to edit the Library of America’s 2-volume set Lynd Ward:Six Novels in Woodcuts. 

Classic Beginnings

For this writer, however, it all began with a humble 10-cent comic printed on the same cheap funky newsprint-fragrant paper as Donald Duck, Little Lulu, and Superman. My father brought back the first issues of Classic Comics from New York along with other special treats from the magic city of automats and skyscrapers. He liked to produce each issue as if by magic, waving his wand, crying, “Abracadabra!” whereupon I’d look under a chair cushion or the living room rug and find a Classic Comic of Moby Dick or The Three Musketeers. No doubt this was “messing with the classics” and then some, but the publisher’s heart was in the right place even if the sales pitch was a bit crass (“the greatest stories ever written” by “the world’s immortal authors”). For an impressionable six-year-old already very much at home with comics, it was both educational (with the inclusion of “interesting highlights” in the life of each author) and inspirational. Between Classic Comics and the game of Authors, I was on my way to becoming a future serious reader and a novelist.

Looking back over the first issues, it’s interesting to see how the illustrators chose to present each work, the recurring design features, the large print capital letters for dialogue and narrative. The actual drawings seem crude next to the best graphic novel standards, though each illustrator seems to excel in the larger, more dramatic images, most strikingly in the cover art, for instance Lillian Chestney’s elaborate image for No. 8, The Arabian Nights. 

Even when I left Classic Comics behind for “real books,” I still enjoyed the Disneys and the Lulus, though they eventually gave way to lurid soon-to-be-banned stuff like EC Comics Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror, which morphed into EC’s early Mad, with artists like Jack Davis and Will Elder making the transition into a style of comicbook art that presaged the rise of the counter culture and comics like Zap, a showcase for R. Crumb, whose work both incorporates and celebrates graphic influences dating all the way back to the early days of newspaper comicstrips.


The Proustian Challenge

R. Crumb is one of the only graphic artists around I enjoy “reading” in book form. Clearly, he was born to illustrate the works of authors like Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Poe. His depiction of Kafka writing is amusingly similar to his images of Crumb drawing. Even though I grew up reading comics, I found it hard to adjust to the graphic genre. So the idea of a tome like Huet’s In Search of Lost Time/Swann’s Way presented a daunting challenge, a mountain of imagery to climb. But climb it I did and it was worth the effort. If nothing else, it gave me an excuse to skimmingly reread Swann’s Way. It would be hard to imagine an experience more alien to a narrative of images and word balloons than the elaborations of Proust. The core pleasure of those long lush richly figured paragraphs is to sink into them as into a feather-bed of elegant prose. With Proust, you get it all: intimate exposure to the memory and imagination of a literary genius whose sense of color and visual detail is such that an artist/illustrator could find material on almost every page. The cliche “painting with words” was made for Proust.

If you take a quick tour of Huet’s book, the impression is of bright open visuals at the beginning and end—a refreshing sense of sweeping colorful space—while the dominant middle section about Swann in love is relatively crowded and dark. One of the most beautiful pages accords with Proust’s description of two steeples in the setting sun. The drawings have a charming simplicity that nicely complements the prose and offers something pleasing beyond it.

Where the graphic Proust suffers is primarily in the drawing of characters. The boy Marcel and the imagery that surrounds him reminded me of the style of the TinTin series (1929-1976), which suggests that Huet is evoking a tradition in graphic art most famously associated with the Belgian cartoonist Herge. While the landscapes and settings have a charming clarity that speaks to the inner child, the faces of characters are invariably limited and inexpressive, particularly when the original image is as romantically compelling as that of Swann’s daughter Gilberte, whom Marcel loves at first sight, or Swann’s lover and eventual wife, Odette. Or Swann himself, for that matter. One problem is how the button eyes compare to the wonders Proust can divine in the human gaze or the movement of a glance or of a body. It would be a challenge for even the most gifted graphic artist to find an equivalent for something so subtle and suggestive.

Graphic Non-Fiction

Some of the most readable graphic works I found were not novels, such as the biographical series by Ted Rall on, among others, Edward Snowden and Donald Trump; Robert Moses: the Master Builder of New York City by Pierre Christin and Oliver Baiez; and the cinematically imaged  Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars, a large, exhaustively researched volume with illustrations by Greg Ruth and text by Hun School graduate and man of many talents, Ethan Hawke.

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