Caught in the treadmill of their own maladies and eccentricities, their futile endeavours to escape serve only to actuate its mechanism

From Du côté de chez Swann (pg 166-167 of the new Pleiade).  The translation is Moncrieff’s, though I also give the same sentence in Lydia Davis’ immediately below since I think she does a better job of sticking to the precise imagery of engrenage and déclic (while still – as ever for me – missing Proust’s cadence).

Presently the course of the Vivonne became choked with water-plants. At first they appeared singly, a lily, for instance, which the current, across whose path it had unfortunately grown, would never leave at rest for a moment, so that, like a ferry-boat mechanically propelled, it would drift over to one bank only to return to the other, eternally repeating its double journey. Thrust towards the bank, its stalk would be straightened out, lengthened, strained almost to breaking-point until the current again caught it, its green moorings swung back over their anchorage and brought the unhappy plant to what might fitly be called its starting-point, since it was fated not to rest there a moment before moving off once again. I would still find it there, on one walk after another, always in the same helpless state, suggesting certain victims of neurasthenia, among whom my grandfather would have included my aunt Léonie, who present without modification, year after year, the spectacle of their odd and unaccountable habits, which they always imagine themselves to be on the point of shaking off, but which they always retain to the end; caught in the treadmill of their own maladies and eccentricities, their futile endeavours to escape serve only to actuate its mechanism, to keep in motion the clockwork of their strange, ineluctable, fatal daily round. Such as these was the water-lily, and also like one of those wretches whose peculiar torments, repeated indefinitely throughout eternity, aroused the curiosity of Dante, who would have inquired of them at greater length and in fuller detail from the victims themselves, had not Virgil, striding on ahead, obliged him to hasten after him at full speed, as I must hasten after my parents.

Davis (pg. 173) has:

I would find it again, walk after walk, always in the same situation, reminding me of certain neurasthenics among whose number my grandfather would count my aunt Leonie, who present year after year the unchanging spectacle of the bizarre habits they believe, each time, they are about to shake off and which they retain forever; caught in the machinery of their maladies and their manias, the efforts with which they struggle uselessly to abandon them only guarantee the functioning and activate the triggers of their strange, unavoidable, and morose regimes.

Bientôt le cours de la Vivonne s’obstrue de plantes d’eau. Il y en a d’abord d’isolées comme tel nénufar à qui le courant au travers duquel il était placé d’une façon malheureuse laissait si peu de repos que comme un bac actionné mécaniquement il n’abordait une rive que pour retourner à celle d’où il était venu, refaisant éternellement la double traversée. Poussé vers la rive, son pédoncule se dépliait, s’allongeait, filait, atteignait l’extrême limite de sa tension jusqu’au bord où le courant le reprenait, le vert cordage se repliait sur lui-même et ramenait la pauvre plante à ce qu’on peut d’autant mieux appeler son point de départ qu’elle n’y restait pas une seconde sans en repartir par une répétition de la même manœuvre. Je la retrouvais de promenade en promenade, toujours dans la même situation, faisant penser à certains neurasthéniques au nombre desquels mon grand-père comptait ma tante Léonie, qui nous offrent sans changement au cours des années le spectacle des habitudes bizarres qu’ils se croient chaque fois à la veille de secouer et qu’ils gardent toujours; pris dans l’engrenage de leurs malaises et de leurs manies, les efforts dans lesquels ils se débattent inutilement pour en sortir ne font qu’assurer le fonctionnement et faire jouer le déclic de leur diététique étrange, inéluctable et funeste. Tel était ce nénufar, pareil aussi à quelqu’un de ces malheureux dont le tourment singulier, qui se répète indéfiniment durant l’éternité, excitait la curiosité de Dante et dont il se serait fait raconter plus longuement les particularités et la cause par le supplicié lui-même, si Virgile, s’éloignant à grands pas, ne l’avait forcé à le rattraper au plus vite, comme moi mes parents.

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