Archive for April, 2012

A Longer Sentence

April 7, 2012

News item:

One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.) (NYT, 02/18/2008)

Following is Proust’s longest sentence. I have outlined in the form I used elsewhere: a level in indentation should be able to be read straight down, ignoring the indents. The indents, though, are the life of the sentence. I have never read a more lacerating, brutally honest statement. Yes, it could have been broken into sentences, but at the expense of its escalating intensity.

The sentence is separated by eight semicolons, each clause having homosexuals as the implied subject.

  • Their honour precarious,
    • their liberty provisional,
    • lasting only until the discovery of their crime;
  • their position unstable,
    • like that of the poet one day fêted in every drawing-room and applauded in every theatre in London,
    • and the next driven from every lodging,
    • unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head,
    • turning the mill like Samson and saying like him:
      • “The two sexes shall die, each in a place apart!” excluded even,
        • except on the days of general misfortune when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews round Dreyfus,
      • from the sympathy—at times from the society—of their fellows,
        • in whom they inspire only disgust at seeing themselves as they are,
        • portrayed in a mirror which,
          • ceasing to flatter them,
          • accentuates every blemish that they have refused to observe in themselves,
          • and makes them understand that what they have been calling their love
            • (and to which, playing upon the word, they have by association annexed all that poetry, painting, music, chivalry, asceticism have contrived to add to love)
          • springs not from an ideal of beauty which they have chosen but from an incurable disease;
  • like the Jews again
    • (save some who will associate only with those of their race and have always on their lips the ritual words and the accepted pleasantries),
    • shunning one another,
    • seeking out those who are most directly their opposite,
      • who do not want their company,
    • forgiving their rebuffs,
    • enraptured by their condescensions;
  • but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism to which they are subjected,
    • the opprobrium into which they have fallen,
      • having finally been invested,
    • by a persecution similar to that of Israel,
      • with the physical and moral characteristics of a race,
      • sometimes beautiful,
      • often hideous,
      • finding
        • (in spite of all the mockery with which one who,
          • more closely integrated with,
          • better assimilated to the opposing race,
          • is in appearance relatively less inverted,
        • heaps upon one who has remained more so)
        • a relief in frequenting the society of their kind,
          • and even some support in their existence,
        • so much so that,
          • while steadfastly denying that they are a race (the name of which is the vilest of insults),
        • they readily unmask those who succeed in concealing the fact that they belong to it,
          • with a view less to injuring them,
            • though they have no scruple about that,
          • than to excusing themselves,
          • and seeking out
            • (as a doctor seeks out cases of appendicitis)
          • cases of inversion in history,
          • taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves,
            • as the Jews claim that Jesus was one of them,
          • without reflecting that there were no abnormal people when homosexuality was the norm,
          • no anti-Christians before Christ,
          • that the opprobrium alone makes the crime because it has allowed to survive only those who remained obdurate to every warning,
            • to every example,
            • to every punishment,
          • by virtue of an innate disposition so peculiar that it is more repugnant to other men
            • (even though it may be accompanied by high moral qualities)
          • than certain other vices which exclude those qualities,
            • such as theft,
            • cruelty,
            • breach of faith,
          • vices better understood and so more readily excused by the generality of men;
  • forming a freemasonry far more extensive,
  • more effective and less suspected than that of the Lodges,
    • for it rests upon an identity of tastes,
      • needs,
      • habits,
      • dangers,
      • apprenticeship,
      • knowledge,
      • traffic,
      • vocabulary,
    • and one in which even members who do not wish to know one another recognise one another immediately by natural or conventional,
      • involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his kind to the beggar in the person of the nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting,
      • to the father in the person of his daughter’s suitor,
      • to the man who has sought healing,
      • absolution or legal defence in the doctor,
      • the priest or the barrister to whom he has had recourse;
  • all of them obliged to protect their own secret but sharing with the others a secret which the rest of humanity does not suspect and which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true,
    • for in this life of anachronistic fiction the ambassador is a bosom friend of the felon,
    • the prince,
      • with a certain insolent aplomb born of his aristocratic breeding which the timorous bourgeois lacks,
      • on leaving the duchess’s party goes off to confer in private with the ruffian;
    • a reprobate section of the human collectivity,
      • but an important one,
    • suspected where it does not exist,
    • flaunting itself,
      • insolent and immune,
    • where its existence is never guessed;
  • numbering its adherents everywhere,
    • among the people,
    • in the army,
    • in the church,
    • in prison,
    • on the throne;
  • living,
    • in short,
    • at least to a great extent,
  • in an affectionate and perilous intimacy with the men of the other race,
    • provoking them,
    • playing with them by speaking of its vice as of something alien to it—
      • a game that is rendered easy by the blindness or duplicity of the others,
      • a game that may be kept up for years until the day of the scandal when these lion-tamers are devoured;
  • obliged until then to make a secret of their lives,
  • to avert their eyes from the direction in which they would wish to stray,
  • to fasten them on what they would naturally turn away from,
  • to change the gender of many of the adjectives in their vocabulary,
    • a social constraint that is slight in comparison with the inward constraint imposed upon them by their vice,
    • or what is improperly so called,
      • not so much in relation to others as to themselves,
      • and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice.

Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged: 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Kindle Locations 29111-29148). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.



April 1, 2012

Reading Evelyne Bloch-Dano’s Madame Proust, one realizes that Marcel’s childhood in Combray has a lot less to do with Illiers than with Auteuil. Illiers was the home town of Adrien Proust, the father of the author. Proust’s mother belonged to a large Parisian, Jewish family. Her uncle, Louis Weil, owned a large “country” house in what is now the rather staid and dull 16th arrondissement. He built a wing onto the house to provide summer accommodations to his favorite niece and her family.

Read a few of the descriptions of summer life in Auteuil and see how many appear in Combray:

Jeanne had a small, wrought-iron bed placed in his room that he could use when it was too hot to sleep in the big bed. “The flame of the night-light of Bohemian glass, in the shape of an urn, which hung from the ceiling by little chains” looked like a sacred object from the synagogue, transformed into an everyday accessory…

The new cook was busy. Would he last long? Auguste served as coachman, butler, and valet for Uncle Louis: his wife did the laundry, and their daughter helped with the cleaning. Jealous of his territory, this very devoted servant could not stand having any other domestics in the house. Yet they needed a cook. Auguste arranged things so that none of them lasted very long. Uncle Louis was taken in, but not Jeanne: she finally figured out the mystery of the cooks who served lukewarm leg of lamb and curdled or over-salted gravies. Auguste held back the dishes on purpose, or salted them secretly.

The teasing wasn’t cruel, and Adèle put up with it, though with a touch of sadness. Who knows if the needling hurt her feelings or not? It certainly shocked Marcel, who adored his grandmother. As in every family, each member was expected to play his or her role. Adèle was the expert on hygiene and health. She believed only in the benefits of nature, and in any kind of weather she roamed the garden paths, disturbed by the lack of taste shown by Gaillard, the new gardener, who wanted to align everything symmetrically and lacked, according to her, all feeling for nature…

The conversation died down. Only an occasional remark to no one in particular broke the heavy silence that followed summertime meals. The sweet peas close to the doorway looked pale in the midday sun. Around the pond, the pink blossom of the hawthorn was drooping a little…

In 1897 Louis Weil’s heirs put his house on the market…But an echo of those summer days can be heard in the  pages of Jean Santeuil that gave birth to the mos famous passages of In Search of Lost Time. Combray is still called Illiers or sometimes Eteuilles. From Auteuil to Eteuilles, from Jeanne to Jean, from sans-Auteil to Santeuil, there’s but a small step, years of maturation and crystallization, pages of writing. We now know that Marcel took “the little wing opening onto the garden that had been built for my parents behind it,” “the lively sound of the fountain,” the hawthorns, the lilacs, and the pink chestnuts from Auteuil; transported by involuntary memory, they come to life through the madeleines dipped in lime-blossom tea and mingle with images of his visits to Illiers. Other details aren’t as clear: the specialists hesitate. Illiers? Auteuil? Each place has its partisans. The roast goose? Probably from Auteuil, since it’s a traditional Alsatian dish. The roast lamb and peas? I’d vote Illiers. But what about the way the cook slaughtered the chicken? There was something  very kosher about the way she split the chicken’s neck under the ear instead of wringing it. Not to mention the hawthorns, the most sensitive topic of all. By making his memories of Auteuil part of the material for Combray, merging them into his memories of Illiers, Marcel has forever made them vibrant and indivisible. (Madame Proust, A Biography, Block-Dano, pages 63-66)

I would only add that by suppressing the largely Jewish nature of his childhood summer life in favor of jthat of his more remote Catholic relations, I am struck by the similar way he suppressed his own homosexuality in the character of Marcel. Perhaps, he thought, the novel is difficult enough without having a gay Jew as the protagonist.