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Still in search of lost time

19 March 2016

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1 of 4 (Swann's Way, Within a Budding Grove, Part 1) (Everyman's Library Classics)In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1 of 4 (Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, Part 1) by Marcel Proust

I saw this book in the library and thought I’d seen it on a couple of those lists of books that everyone should read, or the greatest books of the 20th century, or one of the greatest novels of all time, or even the greatest novel of all time. With such overwhelming recommendations, I thought I ought at least to have a look at it, so I took out the first volumen. I was reading it concurrently with Night train to Lisbon, which seemed to deserve the title In search of lost time almost as much as this one did.

I finished Night train to Lisbon, but I’ve still got a long way to go with this one. But I’ve read enough to know that it is a strange book. It seems to break every rule of good writing and style. It has sentences that run over a full page, full of subordinate clauses, and when you get to the end of the sentence you have to go back to the beginning agaain to see what the beginning of the main clause was.

I’ve been told this is a cultural thing.

French and Spanish writers love long convoluted sentences, while English speakers don’t. At least so I’ve been told. From my time as an editor at Unisa I know that Afrikaans bureaucrats and academics love long and convoluted sentences too — though sometimes I think it is for the wrong reasons. They think it sounds more “scientific”. Too often, however, it’s just a cover-up for bullshit. People without academic pretensions seem to be able to write clear and lucid Afrikaans prose, even beautiful prose, without the need to use turgid and turbid circumlocutions. Beyers Naude, for example. It seems strange to me that a language that has such beautiful poetry seems to have so many speakers who feel the need to uglify it with bombastic prose.

I’ve been told that In search of lost time is written in a “stream of consciousness” style, and that might help to explain the long sentences and convoluted syntax. But I’ve read other “stream-of-consciousness” novels and I don’t recall the main clause being divided by half a page of subordinate clauses like an if-then computer program. Yes, one thought leads to another, but the syntax follows the thought, rather than the thought being divided by the syntax — at least that is what I recall in The Waves and Ulysses. And this one has more digressions than Tristram Shandy.

Another confusing thing is that one is never sure of the age of the narrator. One moment he is sent to bed because he’s too young to sit at the dinner table with the adults, and is scheming to get his mother to come upstairs and kiss him goodnight, the next he is holding adult literary discussions with a sophisticated friend who is excluded from the dinner table because he was rude about the narrator’s great aunt. Still, I suppose my stream of consciousness jumps about like that except I’m not asking anyone else to read it, and as the author says, we don’t know people, we only know out memories of them. But I think the author of Night train to Lisbon says it better, and in fewer words.

I’m sure I’ll have to take it back to the library before I’ve finished it, and even if I do finish it there are still three more volumes to go. Maybe I’ll renew it, maybe I won’t.


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