Quick Thought: Proust on the BBC

BBC Radio 4 is currently presenting an adaptation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as a 10 Episode audio drama. Any dramatization of Proust has a lot of challenges, the shear length of the work being only the first. Just the first volume, Swann’s Way, is over 20 hours long as an unabridged audio book. Monty Python’s “Summarizing Proust” routine is as relevant as ever.

I’ve listened to the first two episodes so far and my reaction is… mixed.

Episode One covers the first half of Swann’s Way, describing narrator’s childhood in the French countryside. Like many BBC radio adaptations of books, the presentation is very narration heavy, which works well for the recollections and internal musings that make up this part of the book. The Narrator is performed by Derek Jacobi, and you kind of wish the whole thing could be just his reading of the book. There are a few performed scenes of the Narrator as a child with his family. And here are the first few problems. In the book the exact age of the Narrator is problematic; in this section he must be a young child, probably under 10 years old. The child actor does a decent, articulate job — but he is no Derek Jacobi, and the comparison is hard to ignore. The young actor is clearly reading from a script, but an even bigger issue is that the words Proust gives his younger self to say, the subject matter, and the emotional tone are not those of a child that age. You can let it slip by when it is on a page, especially when understanding that what you are reading is an older man reminiscing about his youth. Actually hearing it from a child makes it harder to accept.

Episode Two transitions into the story of Swann and his unfortunate marriage. This episode has much less narration and presents a series of scenes of society life in Paris. It is an assortment of characters and incidents from the second half of the first volume. I think this episode could have used more narration, since events move quickly and a lot of names are introduced. It was entertaining to hear the members of the Verdurin’s “Little Clan” speak for themselves, yet the Narrator’s perspectives, opinions, and judgements of all these goings on are an important element of the text, so I missed that voice. You don’t want to go too far with narration, or you do end up with little more than an audiobook. At least in these two episodes the balance between narration and “action” does not quite work for me.

One choice the production makes that I thoroughly agree with is that none of these British actors affect a French accent. It is a very French story, but if all your characters are assumed to be French people speaking French, nothing is gained by having English performers speak English words in a French accent.

These two episodes do not entirely cover the first volume, which leaves me concerned that the fast pace will only get worse as the series attempts to get through all seven books. Then I recall that in some of the latter volumes such The Prisoner and The Fugitive not a lot happens, at least in terms of the plot advancing or characters actually doing things, so a dramatic adaptations could get through them fairly efficiently…

This BBC production is available for streaming at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007xsq Most BBC radio programs are only up on their site for a limited period, so have a listen in the next few weeks. If I have more thoughts on the rest of the series I may have a follow up post later.

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