Saturday, December 28, 2013

On Proustian Rhetoric (Proust and Gibbon)

This is going to be another post about Proust, but bear with me a moment, dear reader, while I say a word about Edward Gibbon, he of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  The comparison stretches across space and time, but the points of contact shouldn't be that hard to see. Each has a name to be uttered  in hushed tones, as if  the patriarch of his particular tribe.  Both wrote long: for each there is a standard edition in three volumes.   Both are famous for the long, convoluted, serpentine sentence.

Both, in the cliché, are more talked about than read.  But hold on here a moment: I suspect that last generalization is true as far as it goes but that it obscures an important distinction.  Which is to say:  I've no doubt that the number of Proustians is small, but I'm betting that it grows over time and that Proust is slowly, incrementally, making his way into the common culture.

And Gibbon?  Well, I wouldn't be surprised to find that quite a few people have tried Gibbon.  But my own bet is that very few have gotten beyond the first hundred pages.  Or maybe the famous "Chapters 15 and 16," where Gibbon takes his most enthusiastic swipe at Christianity.  I suspect that few aside from a handful of academics who do it for money ever complete the long, slow, slog through the Byzantines (full disclosure: I have not).

And here's one very good reason why people slack off after a while: Gibbon after a while gets really boring, in a way that Proust does not.  

You laugh, or, more likely, snort.  You say that both Proust and Gibbon are boring, and in the same way; long sentences and longer paragraphs that put you to sleep before you're half done.  Well, I'll grant you long (mostly--see infra), and I'll grant you difficult in the sense that it may take work to disentangle all the cantilevered commas and semicolons and get to a point.  Difficult in the sense of complex, then, although for my money, neither one is difficult in the sense of being obscure: with each, if you disentangle the threads you will find that the end product is entirely clear.'

So, what is the difference? The difference, dear reader, is that Proust's rhetoric--his orotund periods, if you will--display an amazing flexibility.  He's got easily a dozen, maybe several dozen, different modes of expression, and he is a master of flexibility, a master of fitting the word to the action.  Gibbon, after a while you realize, just keeps repeating the same damn thing.  Hypnotic for 10 pages, soporific for 100, and nobody knows what it is for 1,000 because by that time you are all dead.

Proust's rhetorical fluency does, I admit, require a certain kind of attention.  That's one reason why I so much enjoy Neville Jason's superb audio version.  Jason clearly gets it, and he helps you to get it, to understand just what Proust can do not just with the vocabulary but with the structure of the language.

[Idle aside: it just lately struck me that Proust and Hemingway would have lived "together," as it were, for a short time in Paris, just blocks apart: I read that Hemingway took up residence in December of 1921 and Proust died in November of 1922.   Fun to imagine what they might have said to each other but I can't imagine the conversation lasting very long.  Anyway, back to Jason and Proust.]

Indeed, Jason is so good with the language that I admit I find myself not just subvocalizing but actually reading aloud long with the written text, just to catch the flavor.  Probably freaks out the guy on the next elliptical machine, though I try to keep my voice down.  And it is something I can't begin to imagine myself doing for very long with Gibbon.

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