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À la recherche des mots perdus

December 26th, 2004 · No Comments

As it happened, just before plunging in to the new translation of Swann’s Way I’d picked up a few days previous, I dipped into Richard Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain (a well-chosen gift from my mother, as I’d nearly bought it for myself on one or two occasions) to read an essay taking off from the now-famous Sokal hoax to lampoon pomo puffery and (among other things) the notion that there’s anything particularly virtuous about the opaque and marshy prose favored by all scions of Baudrillard and Lacan haunting comp lit departments around the world.

It was with this in the back of my mind that I moved to tackle Proust, so famous for his long, tortuous, meandering sentences—sentences to make Faulkner blush. And I’ll confess that, even as I stopped to turn over one after another delectable phrase like a butterscotch hard candy (or a tea-soaked madeline?) rolling on the tongue ’till it dissolves, I couldn’t get out of my head Mark Twain’s famous speech, in which he proposes some improvements to the German language:

I shall merely compress the method, the luxurious, extended construction, I would suppress, eliminate, destroy the eternal parenthesis, move the verb so far forward that it could be discovered without a telescope. In short, gentlemen, I would simplify your beloved language, so that when you utilize it for prayer you may be understood above.

Conscious of what a kibbitzing ingrate such thoughts made me, I nevertheless wondered, here and there: Couldn’t that semicolon have been a period? Would it have killed him to execute that meticulous description of a house or a cobbled path somewhere other than the sentence in which it’s serving as part of a compound subject?

As I kept on, though, it struck me that there was, here, a certain virtue (perhaps a necessity) in a style that might, in another context, be merely annoying. Precisely because of those Byzantine sentences, you can’t (well, I can’t) skim Proust. This is an imposition on the reader forgivable, in the instance, only because nobody should want to. The style, in other words, demands of the reader precisely the level of hyperfocus that the narrator devotes to his own reminsicences. This may, of course, betray a presumption on the author’s part that he writes for a lazy audience. But here, too, I suppose he gets a pass, not for the beauty of the style but, at least in my case and at this hour, for the accuracy of the supposition.

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