In one of the more well-worn anecdotes of literary history, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece Du côté de chez Swann was rejected by Humblot, a reader for a publishing house. In a letter, Humblot wrote the following: “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense but I just don’t understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in his bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”
Trotting out these anecdotes in general introductions to cheep and cheerful Wordsworth editions serve a very particular end, a phenomenon that Julian Barnes describes in an essay written on Vincent Van Gogh’s life and work in the London Review of Books: “this…spurs us towards self-congratulation: look how we who have come later appreciate your work, how superior our eye and taste and sympathy are to those who snubbed and misprised you back in the day.” In other words, we look back at Humblot as perhaps the most tone-deaf reader in literary history, in contrast with us, those who, if the contingencies of fate were only aligned differently, would have been born in late nineteenth century France and would have appreciated Proust’s writing, as so many of his contemporaries did not.
This is to miss, if not the point, a point.
One of the themes that Proust consistently refers to is the relationship that exists between sensibility and habit. The general track of the novel (says I, being currently (almost) half way through) is how the narrator’s sensibility, his openness and receptivity to the world around him in all its strangeness and assorted differengenera comes to be overwhelmed by his habits. Sexual debauchery, love, drunkenness, no matter how novel and abject these feelings are when we first experience them, we, with surprising rapidity become adjusted to them, to the point that we barely can be said to experience them at all.
Habit is not a malign however, though it calcifies our precious and individual sensibility. It is a wholly necessary force, allowing us to grow accustomed to people and places that our sensibility led us to despise instinctively. As Proust writes: “habit…also undertakes to endear us to people whom we disliked to begin with, alters the shapes of their face, improves their tone of voice, makes hearts grow fonder.”
The average sentence length in English writing is around 15-17 words, style guides generally recommend that sentences longer than twenty words be shortened as it is likely that they are unclear or convoluted. From a very rudimentary quantitative analysis, I found Proust’s sentences to be, on average, 35 words long. It is therefore possible to view Humblot as not just the first, but one of the more perceptive of Proust’s critics, immediately getting to the heart of what it is that is unique about Proust’s style.
The point behind Proust’s excessively long sentences is precisely this – their excess. What we judge as a coherent sentence in a novel runs to a certain length. We are accustomed to it and when we read, we are within the realm of habit. Proust’s prose is intended to be shocking, to awaken us to the possibilities of language and thought, to appeal to our sensibilities again by having our texts violently defamiliarised from ourselves.
I would accord more with Humblot’s reading than with the mainstream understanding of Proust as a canonical author, among the other masterpieces that we stock our bookshelves with and rarely read. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, speaks pithily of Proust’s irreconcilable strangeness, based on the highly irregular nature of his prose style: “Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even.” If that wasn’t devastating enough, Grieve delivers a final cruelty: “His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.”
Far from being a word virtuoso, a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; his idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliant and bizarre novel.