A Periodic Writer


Clive Bell has valuable advice for those having a hard time appreciating Proust’s style, which can be boiled down in a negative way to a lack of narrative and very long sentences.

When I began to read Swann the first fault on which I pounced was that of which anyone, however unpouncingly disposed, is sure to complain at first. I complained that Proust was tedious. Tedious he is, but his tediousness becomes excusable once its cause is perceived. Proust tries our patience so long as we expect his story to move forward: that not being the direction in which it is intended to move. Novelists, as a rule, are concerned, to some extent at any rate, with getting on with their tale; Proust cares hardly more what becomes of his than did Sterne. It is states, not action, he deals. The movement is as that of an expanding flower or insect. He exhibits a fact: we expect another to succeed it, effect following cause. Not at all: the fact remains suspended while we watch it gradually changing its shape, its colour, its consistency. For fifty pages we watch the process; after which Proust proposes another fact, new and seemingly irrelevant. Because very often there is no progressive relation we have a sense of being thwarted. We are annoyed. Proust does not get forward, we complain. Why should he? Is there no other line of development in the universe?

This sense of weariness, born of continual checking and marking time, is aggravated by the fact that, at first reading, Proust’s sentences seem unconscionably and unnecessarily long. For this, too, there is excuse, and good. In short sentences Proust could not have given his meaning. He hesitates, he qualifies, he withdraws a little even; partly because, politest of men, to him a peremptory affirmation seemed sheer bad manners, chiefly because his ruling passion was a passion for truth. Two thousand five hundred years of philosophy notwithstanding, truth is rarely absolute; that is why Proust’s sentences are interminable. They are a string of qualifications. For him short sentences would have been mere literature–words corresponding with no reality. His object was to tell the truth about life as he saw it; wherefore he intended originally to write a book without a single paragraph or chapter, so unlifelike–so unreal– did these arbitrary and convenient divisions appear. For the same reason he had a horror of full stops. He was to render his sense of life–of something which has relations in space, and is also, as he saw it, a mode of time. But time, he may have argued, is what the hymn says it is–an ever-flowing stream, not a ball of string cut into neat lengths. Time overflows punctuation. Also, how is a style to be anything but complicated and prolix when an artist is trying to say four things at once–to give a birds-eye view and “a close up” at once in time and space? (11-13)

And then there is the reward at the end.

The period was invented by Thucydides and perfected by Demosthenes as a means of giving cohesion to the disjointed statements that tumble from the mouth of an unpractised narrator…In what is called a periodic style there is no more than a tendency to keep the reader alert by modifying and qualifying the central idea by means of a series of dependent clauses, the relations of which one to another and to the principal verb will not become apparent till as late as possible. You may, if you please, compare a periodic writer with a musician who as long as he decently can keeps back the resolution of his harmonies. Proust is plaiting very particular strands of emotion and sensation experienced by a very definite individual, and experienced simultaneously. That is why the interminable dependent clauses, instead of following one another duckwise, go side by side, like horses driven abreast, and sometimes higgledy-piggledy like a flock of feeding starlings….Proust composed in the periodic manner in that his meaning is often not revealed till the close, or near the close, of the sentence. Often a careless or sleepy reader will find himself at the end of the sentence with a principal verb on his hands which he hardly knows what to do with. This shows that the period has been well sustained and that the periodic structure has served its purpose. (15-18)

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One Response to “A Periodic Writer”

  1. whdablogs Says:

    Proust’s description of reality is foreshadowed by the majic lantern: we take one view, and another, and another of the accoutrement of a bedroom or the aspects of a character, not in isolation but as a whole fabric that unfolds, through long sentences and a long novel.

    Scott Daniels

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