Abomination or Magnum Opus?

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Be it folly or masterpiece, the French comix artist Stéphane Heuet has decided to adapt Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." Proust's masterwork, a seven-volume, 4000-plus page French novel published between 1913 and 1922 will become twelve comicbook volumes published between 1998 and perhaps 2020. The first of these has now been translated into English (NBM Publishing, $19.95, hardcover).

Heuet has squeezed the first of Proust's volumes, "Swann's Way," into 72, full-color, large-size pages. When it first appeared in France in 1998 it caused a literary scandal, as only the French can manage. Since then the French version has reportedly sold over 40,000 copies. (Can you imagine Americans caring enough? It brings a melancholy tear to my eye.)

Be that as it may, having never read the original novel, I came to this adaptation with no expectations beyond good comix. I was well satisfied— even moved.

This first part, which Heuet calls "Combray," begins with the narrator being swept back to boyhood by the scent of a cookie. From there it reads episodically, dreamily recounting summertime events during a now-lost Edwardian age that includes bed-ridden aunts, earthy servants, looking at magic lantern shows, and fussing over the intricacies of propriety and social rank. Most crudely, it's about how the boy learns to appreciate beauty, and the way art can capture it.

Anyone who has ever read Hergé's Tintin will recognize Heuet's classically European "clear-line" style of drawing. Landscapes, architecture, dress, and ephemera are rendered in exacting detail while character's faces are left drastically simplified. It makes for wonderful atmosphere. Particularly with Veronique Dorey's exceptionally rich coloring, you feel totally immersed in this world.

Unfortunately in Heuet's case, except for the most basic of emotions (happy, sad, surprised) his two-dots-and-two-squiggles faces aren't up to the task of expressing the subtleties of emotion present in a book based entirely on subtitles of emotion. Consequently, he relies on large chunks of text to supply the emotion. One page of eleven panels includes seven with all text.

Proustian? The madeleine scene as adapted by Stéphane Heuet

But after all, the text was written by Marcel Proust, who, based strictly on my experience with this book, justly enjoys his reputation as a very fine writer. There are lovely passages that evoke the original's themes of memory, loss, sensation, nature, and the ability of art to make all of this clear. The famous madeleine sequence, for example, has been adapted with great care: keeping the narrative visually-oriented, including wisps of steam that cross over the panels, while using passages of text to evoke the feeling of not only the events but the book itself: "Will it reach the surface of my clear conscience, this memory, the ancient moment"

The arguments for and against a comicbook adaptation of this famously interior novel feel like two sides of the same coin. Heuet has translated all the rote action and, more important, all the visual aspects of the book into pictures. In some cases this comes in handy, as when Giotto's "Virtues and Vices" are invoked, or a bunch of asparagi are referred to with extreme detail. This version of "Remembrance," has been distilled down to its essence, concentrating its themes and aesthetic ambitions. And yet, one of those themes, the ability of art, and particularly literature, to evoke all things lost or forgotten or unimagined has been flouted when the book's images are made literally visible.

But so what? As a crude American, I enjoy comix more for how well they entertain me, than for how much mileage I can get out of deconstructing them. I will leave that to the French. As a comic, regardless of its origins, Stéphane Heuet's "Remembrance of Things Past," makes for a fine read, evoking a lost world, not just of physical superficialities, but of the very thoughts of the time. I am sure even the book's harshest critics would agree that a little Proust is better than none.

"Remembrance of Things Past: Combray" can be found in superior comic stores, and regular bookstores as well.