“Swann in Love”, the first section of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (whose death centenary was commemorated in November 2022), not only sets out the varied themes of the magnum opus but can also serve as a stand-alone novel. In it, the author instructs the reader how to read his long, labyrinthine sentences. It is the story of Charles Swann, an intelligent, well-connected connoisseur who, tormented by jealousy, ends up with someone who is not exactly his type. A sonata composed by Vinteuil, a minor character in the novel, marks the various stages of the couple’s tragicomic affair and becomes their anthem, almost.
In Search of Lost Time: Mahler after Proust
In Nicolas Mahler’s graphic adaptation of Proust’s masterpiece, the narrator (“Marcel”, not named here) sits down before the piano and plays that sonata.
“As I could only love what the sonata had brought to me little by little…
… I never possessed it completely:
in this it resembled life.”
Yet, there is a difference:
“But, then, such great masterpieces are less disappointing than life…
… as they do not give us the best they have to offer right off the bat.”
In a mere two pages, with whimsical images and scribbles, Mahler captures both the heart of Proust’s masterpiece and the core of readers’ continued devotion to it. Notably, this scene and these lines are Mahler’s own. This graphic novel based on In Search of Lost Time is not the usual literal adaptation (Stéphane Heuet has already done that in multiple volumes). This is Mahler’s own take, caricaturing the original text, holding a funhouse mirror to it, playing games with it, and yet conveying the essence of it.
Mahler, a Vienna-based cartoonist-illustrator for newspapers and magazines, started his own mode of visual storytelling of literary classics in 2011. His first publication was a version of Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard, a fellow Austrian known for his experimental novels written in dense prose. The second was Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, which has something playful and Proustian about its grand themes and delicate language. Mahler’s next literary-graphic work was Alice in Sussex—not an adaptation but a pairing of Lewis Carroll’s beloved work with H.R. Artmann’s Frankenstein in Sussex. The Proust adaptation was published in German in 2017 and has now been published in English.
Not a simple visual translation
The 174-page book has seven sections, like the original novel, starting with “Combray” and ending with “Time Regained”. It does not open with the well-known line: “For a long time, I used to go to bed early.” (For a novel infamous for sentences of gargantuan length, its first line is quite short and introduces the main themes: time and memory.) Instead, Mahler has Madame Swann sitting down at the piano before getting dressed.
This scene, which opens all sections except the last, also advises readers not to expect a simple visual translation of the novel. This book is not something you can browse during a Metro ride to get a “feel” of the novel so that you can claim to have read it, in some sense, at least.
While at it, also do not expect life-like sketches that appeal to your commonplace aesthetic sensibilities. For one, the characters do not have clearly identifiable faces, and hence no emotions can be conveyed through the easy, or facile, trick of drawing faces accordingly. Mahler’s figures are whimsical and, much like characters in the classics, not easy to get acquainted with at first sight.
The figures also tell readers what to expect in this version of In Search of Lost Time—not the obvious, well-known tropes like the Madeleine moment (which makes an appearance here not in the first section but in the last and there, too, only in the background). The bits and pieces of a loose, rambling narrative presented in these pages resemble Proust’s version only in a way, say, a tale retold by a witty professor under the effect of some consciousness-altering substances might resemble the original. As in the two modes of reality in David Lynch’s cinema, a single motif makes an appearance here and also there but in an unexplainably transformed fashion.
Yet, this is not all riotous madness that takes Proust only as a pretext to have free-association fun. As the quote above shows, the language, in spite of the relative brevity of sentences, gives one a taste of Proust’s witty aphorisms, which Alexander Booth has also rendered well in translation.
Taking advantage of the format, Mahler also plays out variations well, such as six panels on one page to show Marcel’s love interest Albertine going through different stages of life (“As on a plantation where the flowers ripen into fruit at different times… I’d already seen her on the beach at Balbec as an old woman… as that dried-out husk, that woolly tuber she would one day become.”)
“While the graphic iterations of these two masterpieces that top the 20th century charts have the same irreverent attitude, each is irreverent in its own way. ”
What is Mahler’s main achievement here? Well, Proust’s masterpiece is a one-of-a-kind literary delight that also works equally well as an answer to that perennial question, “How to live”. Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life may seem like an original idea for doing literary criticism in the mock self-help mode, but that mode is transparently evident to any reader who spends some time with Proust’s work.
Yet, time is a factor. People have to wait for a fracture or some bed-confining malady to turn to Proust’s therapeutics. In Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a character finally gets around to reading it when she has to hide in a home for several months. Most people are not so fortunate and would like to sample it before investing so much time and energy into one novel. For them, the first section, “Swann in Love”, can serve as a kind of sensitivity test. If you want something even shorter, you have to rely on the entries of “All-England Summarise Proust Competition” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Mahler provides a more intelligent way, funnier yet wiser, for newcomers to approach Proust. For the already initiated, it is an opportunity to discover the layers that the masterpiece did not give “right off the bat”.
A Joycean joy
Mahler’s version—remix might be a more appropriate term—of James Joyce’s Ulysses is instructive in a compare-and-contrast way. The graphic iterations of these two masterpieces that top the 20th century charts have the same irreverent attitude, but each is irreverent in its own way. While the Proust one is full of wit and wistful wisdom in a tender tone, the Joyce one is not so subtle. In paying tribute to the master from Dublin, Mahler does to the visuals, especially typefaces and graphics, what Joyce did with words. For 280 pages, with a Joycean variety of joy, he challenges conventions of both graphic novels and literary adaptations.
To begin with, it is the story of the same day, June 16, 1904 (celebrated by fans as Bloomsday every year), but here the city is Vienna instead of Dublin and the protagonist is an advertising canvasser, yes, but his name is Leopold Wurmb, not Leopold Bloom. The day pans out the same way for Wurmb as for Bloom, in the larger scheme of things if not in specific details.
In Alice in Sussex, Mahler has the White Rabbit quote Herman Melville and E.M. Cioran while guiding Alice through a sort of wonderland. In Ulysses, a series of popular comic characters, such as Popeye the Sailor, make guest appearances. Joyce would have been pleased with this twist on intertextuality. The characters and incidents here may not have exact counterparts in the original masterpiece, and yet Mahler manages to infuse his narrative with the same humorous-yet-sincere, absurd-but-philosophical spirit of Joyce. It also leaves the reader with the same sensation of having had too much fun.
Graphic novels have seen a boom in recent years. Best enjoyed in print, they provide a counter to on-screen reading and also help the reader remember the pleasures of the physical book. The high point of this new wave has been Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina (2018), which even made it to the Booker long-list.
Classics retold in graphics, actually an old tradition, are a nice way of engaging with old favourites in a fresh form. Peter Cooper, for example, has prepared wonderful graphic editions of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and selected stories of Franz Kafka. Mahler’s work shows another, rather innovative, way of retelling the classics.
Ashish Mehta is a New Delhi-based journalist.