Listening to Proust: Comparing the two BBC Dramatizations of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

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Proust Novel and HeadphonesThere are many barriers to entry when it comes to reading Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. Most obviously, it’s very long – 7 volumes in the original French (usually reduced to 6 in translation) and runs to over 3,000 pages. It’s also notoriously complex. Proust’s text is written in an allusive, meandering style that requires a high level of concentration from the reader. It is, therefore, easy to be put off. Many give up after the first volume, The Way by Swann’s. In fact, you could argue that you shouldn’t start reading Proust at all, given the commitment that it requires.

If the thought of reading this novel is a little overwhelming, don’t panic! Instead of reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time you can listen to it.  

The most accessible way of doing so is through one of the two BBC dramatizations of it. The first of these was adapted by Michael Butt and broadcast in six weekly, hour-long instalments on BBC Radio 4 from February to March, 2005. The second, which was translated and adapted from the French by Timberlake Wertenbaker, was broadcast over the August bank holiday weekend in 2019.

These radio adaptations are both fantastic in their own ways and are a great alternative way to experience Proust’s novel. But which should you listen to? In this blog post I will compare them based on a number of features so that you can make the best decision for you.

Structure and Pacing

The 2005 dramatization was simply structured. The series was broadcast one hour a week for 6 weeks as part of the Classic Serial feature, with each week in turn being devoted to the next book in the sequence. (The slightly prudish English titles familiar from the famous Scott-Moncrieff translation were maintained.)

This straightforward arrangement is effective. It makes for an accessible listen to anyone new to the novel. It ensures that each volume is given equal weight, meaning the dramatization never gets bogged down but does, conversely, mean that some sections are rushed and a number of others skipped entirely.

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 2019 adaptation takes a different route. Spread over a more generous 10 hours, its individual episodes do not correspond directly to specific volumes in the sequence and are consequently given new titles: ‘Gilberte’, ‘Albertine’, ‘Time’ and so on. These work to indicate their content but do little to orientate the new listener to their position in the greater narrative. The dramatization is essentially shorn of some of its original signposts.

Additionally, and more significantly, different volumes of the original novel are given different amounts of time in the dramatization. Unsurprisingly, Du côté du chez Swann (The Way by Swann’s) is allowed more time than other volumes as this is the volume with which most listeners will be familiar. We do not reach the end of ‘Un amour de Swann’ until nearly halfway through the third hour. If this extension feels appropriate to the material, then by contrast the condensing of the first Balbec sequence and the early friendship with Robert de Saint-Loup feels like a violence to the text.

Of course, even at its extended run time 10 hours is not long enough to depict 3,000 pages of a novel, so other sections are lost.

Narration vs Action

In his 2005 version, Michael Butt tends to dramatize the events of the novel and have the Narrator frame and commentate on those events as if they were being seen in the mind’s eye. With more time to play with, Timberlake Wertenbaker allows Proust’s narration to come to the fore, preferring instead, like Proust himself, to tell rather than show. This allows more of Proust’s text to come through and gives the listener more access to his flowing sentences, although some of the social scenes lose some of the vivacity and crowdedness. It also makes for a less richly textured sound world.

One slight problem with this is the star casting of Derek Jacobi as the narrator. Unfortunately, to my ears Jacobi presents the text with an unnecessary staginess, especially in the beginning stages of the novel. By contrast, in the previous adaptation James Whilby’s narrator is more reactive to the scenes and therefore more naturalistic in his reading.

Music and Sound Design

Music is central to the plot of In Search of Lost Time. It’s something I have written about at length elsewhere. Both dramatizations recognise this centrality.

Michael Butt’s classic serialisation has excellent sound design. Driven more by action than narration, it fills the world with sounds and life. These are often repeated through the episodes to act as aural reminders and plot prompts for the listener who had to wait a week between episodes. The effect of this is curiously Proustian itself, as a sound like the bell on the garden gate at Combray recurs time and time again much as the narrator himself talks of hearing the bell throughout his life. Additionally, the music composed by Jacob Shirley and performed by him with Perdie Gibson and Ellie Loaring is fitting. The brief extracts of Vinteuil’s Sonata that are heard have an appealing melodiousness that is loosely reminiscent of Reynaldo Hayn’s work.

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation has a less complex sound world as more of the time is given over to direct narration. However, the use of music is still important, with the most frequently used pieces being Faure’s song ‘Après une rêve’ and Saint-Saëns’ ‘Le Cygne’ or Swan from his suite The Carnival of the Animals. This last is a subtle reference to the character of Charles Swann, whilst both pieces are relevant to the world Proust depicted in his novel. Less is heard of Vinteuil’s work in this dramatization, which doesn’t get used as a recurring and involuntary sound memory in the way it does in Butt’s version.

Beyond the dramatizations…

For those after the full Proust experience, Naxos have published a complete audiobook version, presented under the alternative title Remembrance of Things Past, read by Neville Jason. However, ultimately there is no substitute for a slow and careful reading of the text itself – whether in the excellent English translation under the general editorship of Christopher Prendergast, published by Penguin, or in the original French, published in affordable editions by Éditions Gallimard in their folio classique range.

Proust himself waxed lyrical about the joy of losing time to reading. However, until you can free up the time the BBC dramatizations are an excellent option.

Let me know your thoughts on the dramatizations in the comments below.

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  1. David Murphy

    The BBC Sounds currently has no episodes of either adaptation available. Is either available on CD or Cassette? I very much agree with your comparison and I come down fully for Michael Butt. I listened to the first episode of the Wertenberger and couldn't stand it really. But worth another chance in the absence of the earlier which is probably buried by the BBC. Luckily I have four CD-Rs of some of it. But not having all six episodes is killing me. In Search of Lost Proust! Cheers David

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