Book Review

The Proust Screenplay by Harold Pinter

to adapt is not to survive

Written on the 16th of June

Like many books I’ve read in the year and a half I’ve been in the Americas, I found Harold Pinter’s The Proust Screenplay in the street while walking my dog. Of course, this was something I was going to pick up and take home. Proust! Pinter! A small book! So much time to read due to the international economic shutdown in response to a pandemic! Yes! Yes! Yes!

Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I think it was good..? Maybe maybe maybe no.

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In the early 1970s, the English playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter began working on an adaptation for the screen of the massive, multi-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu. In collaboration with a director called Joseph Losey (all but one of whose films I have never heard of before) and a translator/literary critic/occasional screenwriter called Barbara Bray, Pinter – in the introduction to the screenplay – claims he worked, solidly, on this for a year of his life.

Nothing came of it, though: no film was ever made from this script and it seems unlikely one ever will. This book, though, was published in 1977, and a couple of decades later, Pinter and Diana “Di” Trevis adapted the adaptation into a stage play, which was performed at the National Theatre for about six months over the Winter of 2000/2001, and it was then performed as a public reading in New York in 2014, a few years after Pinter’s death.

So, for an “unproduced screenplay”, The Proust Screenplay is far from unread and definitely not underground. But – but but but – a lot of work must have gone into that later stage adaptation for it to have made sense to the average English theatre audience, because although reading a translation of the second half of Du côté de chez Swann seems to be a standard “chore” for the literate English middle class, very few readers make it through another volume of Proust’s masterwork, and it is in the fourth volume (Sodome et Gomorrhe) when the novel really fucking kicks off and – it seemed to me – where the majority of the action and dialogue in Pinter’s meandering screenplay originates.

Marcel Proust’s work has the reputation it does for deserved reasons. Yes, there is classism in there and there is sexism too (though the sexism, which most often occurs in characters who (the notes in the Penguin Classics translations I read told me) were female characters/love interests who had been adapted from the poorer/lower class male love interests with whom the non-fictional Marcel had been involved), but it is a beautiful, funny, engaging, intelligent, thoughtful, complex and essential read for anyone interested in the evolution of the novel (and thus the mainstream narrative media forms of scripted television and cinema), for anyone interested in reading good novels and, of course, for anyone with specific interest in the historical and sociological settings and themes of the text.

À la recherche du temps perdu is, essentially, one of the greatest novels of all time. It has often been called “unfilmable” (13,400 times according to Google on June 16th 2020), but surely any narrative is filmable if adapted correctly.

Film and literature are distinct genres, and though they are both forms which can be used to “tell stories”, I don’t think story-telling as the sole aim of a work in either form has ever produced excellence.

People tell stories every day: a story doesn’t have to be interesting to be told well, just as the most interesting narrative in the world can be delivered in a shit way. Play a game: describe the plot of any novel or film in as boring a way as possible; reverse it: make the dullest piece of trite, emotionally-stunted crap sound engaging. It’s not hard to do, because you – all of us – are storytellers.

I haven’t read anything by Pinter since high school, but I have seen several films whose screenplay was written by him in the many many many years since, and – tbf – all of those films are exceptionally good.

I’m sure a film based on The Proust Screenplay would also be exceptionally entertaining for me, too, but I just don’t think it would remotely work for anyone who hadn’t read all of Proust themselves, and perhaps not for anyone who hadn’t read it recently.

The Proust Screenplay is the Nobel laureate equivalent of “fan fiction” – Pinter takes some of the simpler plot elements of Proust’s seven volume novel and suggests how they could be filmed; all the wit, all the pathos, all the pain and horror and beauty here, all of it is Proust’s; this is like a “best of” À la recherche du temps perdu, without the spark of originality.

It’s GREAT if you’re a fan, it’s FUN to see your favourite scenes recreated or reenacted and remember how you laughed and how you cried and laugh and cry again. Yes, I had a lovely time. But I ADORE À la recherche du temps perdu and I am terrified by the idea that I likely won’t live long enough and leisurely enough to ever have the time to reread it (without sacrificing the chance to read more more more), so this little paperback, which takes about two hours to read, is actually a joyful prospect. With this book, the Proust fan can get a Proust fix without the commitment of perhaps several months of ones leisure time in a “normal” period or several weeks if reading Proust full time as a replacement for meaningful (or meaningless) employment.

Out of everything I’ve ever read, though, this reminded me the most of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and though J.K. Rowling has recently outed herself (in the middle of a global moment of mass progressive protest) as a hateful peddler of discriminatory conspiracy theories, to pretend that her books were not something I used to enjoy would be disingenuous, and that the poorly written cash-cow theatrical sequel written by a like ITV drama screenwriter or something was entertaining for its references rather than its content; I don’t think that Harold Pinter is as shit as Jack Thorne, but I think that he’s worked a similar project: something that, yes, maybe wasn’t easy to do, but something that is only enjoyed as a pale imitation of something which it is not.

This is insulting to Proust and Pinter – and to any of the marginalised groups who Rowling has recently spewed bile at – so I’ll end this with, rather than my usual links to buy the book I’ve read or to buy something I’ve written, a link to a charity who deserve your money more than I or any publisher do right now.

Thanks for reading!

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