Sentenced by Proust


Why does Proust write in such long sentences? Aren’t they too long to keep their structure in our awareness? I don’t have answers to these questions. All I can do is take examples of long sentences, look at them more closely than we might when reading the novel and then seek to draw conclusions.

M. Verdurin has just died. Nowhere to this point in the novel have we seen him portrayed very sympathetically. In this passage we see him in a new way, through the eyes of the mature Elstir, the painter.

More and more he was inclined to believe materialistically that a not inconsiderable part of beauty is inherent in objects, and just as, at the beginning, he had adored in Mme Elstir the archetype of that rather heavy beauty which he had pursued and caressed in his paintings and in his tapestries, so now in the death of M. Verdurin he saw the disappearance of one of the last relics of the social framework, the perishable framework—as swift to crumble away as the very fashions in clothes which form part of it – which supports an art and certifies its authenticity, and he was as saddened and distressed by this event as a painter of fétes galantes might have been by the Revolution which destroyed the elegances of the eighteenth century, or Renoir by the disappearance of Montmartre and the Moulin de la Galette; but more than this, with M. Verdurin he saw disappear the eyes, the brain, which had had the truest vision of his painting, in which, in the form of a cherished memory, his painting was to some extent inherent. (VI, 116)

The first thing I do when I want to look more closely at a Proustian sentence is to do a simple diagram. I simply indent each sentence fragment so that those on the same indent and block can be read as a continuous thought.

More and more he was inclined to believe materialistically that a not inconsiderable part of beauty is inherent in objects, and

just as

at the beginning,             

he had adored in Mme Elstir the archetype of that rather heavy beauty which he had pursued and caressed in his paintings and in his tapestries,

so now in the death of M. Verdurin he saw the disappearance of one of the last relics of the social framework,

 the perishable framework—as swift to crumble away as the very fashions in clothes which form part of it –

 which supports an art and certifies its authenticity

and he was as saddened and distressed by this event as a painter of fétes galantes might have been by the Revolution which destroyed the elegances of the eighteenth century, or Renoir by the disappearance of Montmartre and the Moulin de la Galette;

but more than this, with M. Verdurin he saw disappear the eyes, the brain, which had had the truest vision of his painting,

 in which,

in the form of a cherished memory,

his painting was to some extent inherent.

So the sentence without any qualifiers or parenthetical remarks, reads:

More and more he was inclined to believe materialistically that a not inconsiderable part of beauty is inherent in objects, and so now in the death of M. Verdurin he saw the disappearance of one of the last relics of the social framework which supports an art and certifies its authenticity, and he was as saddened and distressed by this event as a painter of fétes galantes might have been by the Revolution which destroyed the elegances of the eighteenth century, or Renoir by the disappearance of Montmartre and the Moulin de la Galette; but more than this, with M. Verdurin he saw disappear the eyes, the brain, which had had the truest vision of his painting.

This shortend version of the sentence retains the essence of this meditation on the (non-Platonic) groundedness of beauty, that it depends not only in how it is substantiated but even in the confirmation of its beauty by the eyes of concrete individuals. But now consider the sentence with the parenthetical content and see how Proust transforms it into a moving and melancholic statement on the relation of time to beauty. Elstir recalls the beauty of his wife, “in the beginning,” a lost beauty that once inspired him to paint. His art is supported and authenticated by the social framework that discovered him and elevated him. But that framework perishes with time, “as swift to crumble away as the very fashions in clothes which form part of it.” And “to some extent” the beauty he had created existed “in the form of a cherished memory.” This slowing of the narrative mimics in form what he says time does to beauty.

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