What is George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’?

Anne Enright once said that every novel could, with minimal damage, be re-titled as Person Gets it Wrong. It is a gesture that would well serve George Eliot’s Middlemarch, as it is a novel primarily concerned with bringing even the most marginal of its characters’ ideals into collision with discommoding contingency. Although, it leaves us with the problem as to what to do with the subtitle, A Study of Provincial Life. There are a number of ways we could interpret this phrase, it could imply the narrator’s tendency to treat society empirically, as though it were one of Mr. Farebrother’s specimens beneath Mr. Lydgate’s microscope, according to the maxim that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. Before that though, it might be productive to consider the narrator herself.

The narrator is mostly sympathetic (‘I am sorry to add that she was crying’), though sometimes disapproving (‘apt to be a little severe towards her own sex’), often didactic (‘do not imagine’) and self-conscious; she reprimands herself for beginning a chapter from Dorothea’s perspective before taking Casaubon’s as a means of compensating. Who exactly is speaking at any given time can be difficult to pin down exactly, as she will often interleave the characters’ thoughts (‘mouldy futilities’, ‘insects’) with her own, more objective rendering of the situation. From when she speaks is also not without complication, as she seems to speak out of a foreknowledge as to which memories which will stay with characters for the rest of their lives. Although, a lot of these questions may be left by the by; the long, long sentences in which she writes, which tease out situations from almost every conceivable point of view according to breathtakingly elaborate analogies the nuances of which seem honed to the most minute details give Middlemarch its best moments. Feng and Hirst have written that the difference between a naturalist’s free indirect discourse and that of a modernist is that the former preserves grammatical coherence, so that the precise junctures at which one register slips in under the other can always be precisely detected. This is not a perfect definition, but we are less interested in prodding paragraphs until they rupture, and more in how the narrator’s methodology subverts itself in broader terms.

At one point, the narrator describes how her task is somewhat limited in its scope: ‘that light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe’. This universe which forms Middlemarch’s backdrop, is in the year 1829–1831, a period which witnessed a wide range of labour agitation in the form of mass demonstations and loom breaking; demonstrations of over 100,000 took place in Birmingham and London. Though drawing a single disposition across all those involved in these events would be quite impossible, one symptom of its cause, and certainly that aspect of it which had the closest approximation to broad range of support across all classes, was a push to extend the franchise to the more of England’s population. However, according to E.P. Thompson, those most public leaders tended to damp down the demands of the more radical artisans and other skilled or semi-skilled working men. This, in conjunction with the counter-revolutionaries of the time scared into action by events in France, was effective in quashing the most radical aspects of this movement.

Given this capacity to move between time and space, the narrator’s attention is strangely limited to that of individuals, and individuals who own land at that. Although, to be fair, Middlemarch takes place in a fictionalised version of Coventry, far from the industrial centres of the north such as Manchester or Birmingham. In The Making of the English Working Class,E.P. Thompson mentions that in Coventry, skilled labourers would have been ribbon-weavers and were often semi-unemployed. We may add to this, from what we see in the novel, a substantial rural labouring underclass of unskilled workers, and tanners, who we see disrupting Mr. Brooke’s liberal, reform-based speech when he stands for election. Apart from Mr. Brooke’s obvious discomfort amongst the working men, this crisis in labour remains muted in Middlemarch, manifesting itself in brief references to the Vincys being slightly harder up financially than they were expecting.

There are two exceptions to the narrator’s myopia, but they are likewise revealing. One, is in the form of an encounter with Dagley, a labourer with a small, neglected holding on Mr. Brooke’s land. Mr. Brooke requests that he keep his son’s dog under control as it is interfering with his coursing but Dagley is drunk, says he will not, and makes a number of warnings about the changes the voting reform bill will bring. The narrator explains Dagley’s behaviour by referring to his having engaged in ‘muddy political talk’ which can render the labouring poor idle and resistant to change. His education, here seems to have rendered him more ignorant. The second, is a group of harassing a number of railway agents. Mr. Garth, a local labourer surveying the area, chases after the men, threatening to report them to the magistrate, then tries to convince them how incorrect they are to oppose the railway. One among them, Timothy Cooper, provides the most articulate defense against the installation of the line, although, in a very thick dialect, descending to almost Elizabeth Gaskell levels of didacticism. The narrator furthermore describes Cooper as ‘having as little of the feudal spirit, and believing as little, as if he had not been totally unacquainted with the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man’. Thomas Paine’s books and other pamphlets were incidentally banned and in many areas, the police enacted violent reprisals on those who sold or disseminated his writings. This weighting the scales is all the more surprising considering how sympathetic or humanist Middlemarch is elsewhere. So sympathetic is the narrator, that we are in effect expressly forbidden from feelinging negatively towards Casaubon; for every paragraph explicating Dorothea’s anguish, we get Casubon’s sense of being peripheral to intellectual (‘unvenerated’) and social (‘unloved’) life. That these references to the labourers are demonstrative of a deeper conservatism, may be attested to by the narrator’s early summing up of the medical profession at the time: ‘disease in general was called by some bad name, and treated accordingly…as if, for example, it were to be called insurrection, which must not be fired on with blank cartridge, but have its blood drawn at once’. The brutality of counter-revolution at the time in which Middlemarch is set, not just at the infamous Battle of Peterloo, but also by police forces at various local levels sounds a rather sadistic and bloodthirsty note in the text, which shows up, I think, the limits of this emphasis on sympathetic narration.

Frederic Jameson writes of the realist novel as existing in a dialectical tension with its antecedent, the romance. While the novel in the mid to late ninteenth century might claim to see and to represent ‘the world as it is’, it remains partially dependent on the mechanics of the romance plot; techniques such as coincidences, letters and wills. John Raffles appears to me as one such throwback, a return of the Gothic repressed, his murder only partially re-constituted within the naturalistic novel’s machine by being plausibly deniable, due to intentional negligence with prescribed opiates, and accompanied by a transfer of capital which will redeem Lydate from bankruptcy. It is not revolution or reform that changes a community, rather the steady circulation of gossip through the rural community.

Without bringing any statistical reading to bear on Middlemarch I noticed on my reading a sequence of words which seemed to attach themselves to particular character. For Dorothea, it was ‘ardent’, for Rosamund, ‘neck’. For the workers, the incorrigible symptoms of inequality, it is ‘ignorance’, one which occurs in each of the instances mentioned above, as well as references to the social life at The Tankard on Slaughter Lane, the metonymic device by which the low life of Middlemarch is gestured towards, and I would so very much like to read a Middlemarch that did not feel the need to lean on these three words quite so often as it does.

A Statistical Analysis of the narrators of ‘Ulysses’ or ‘why ‘Ulysses’ isn’t wisdom literature’

The second time I read Ulysses,in advance of an undergraduate seminar, it was around the ninetieth anniversary of the original text’s publication. The newspapers were printing archive material relating to the novel, extended supplements about its importance from the usual quarters, as well as reviews of recently published monographs from both young and established scholars. Unfortunately, the critical trend of the time was to read Ulysses as wisdom literature. Critics urged prospective readers of the novel to wrest Joyce from the scholars and bring him ‘back to the people’. This school of thought treated Leopold Bloom as a model of the way in which the contemporary urban subject should be living: aloof, polite, well-intentioned but not dogmatic on political issues. Moderately informed, but more often wrong, a reader, but not self-serious, an everyman. Ulysses’ structural indebtedness to cornerstones of The Canon such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Homer’s The Odyssey frequently undergirds this line of argument, demonstrative in itself of how easily high literary art and everyday life may be set next to one another. This generally requires critics to treat the characters of Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as two opposites in need of the other. Each has a little to impart on life, love and literature, whether it be to reflect a little deeper on themselves or their marriage, move past their respective losses or to find in each other their lost son/father.

This interpretation of the novel reads it along a linear trajectory, as Stephen and Bloom come together to form Blephen and Stoom. Through computation it may be possible to examine the writing style of later chapters, and determine whether or not they bear formal witness to this change in character. We must first however, consider the difficulty of locating where Joyce’s narrators actually are. Part of what makes Joyce’s writing style so unique is his use of free indirect discourse, a mode of writing in which the reality of the text is inflected by the consciousness(es) of the beholder(s). As such, putting a category on each episode of Ulysses as though it were narrated by one person or a combination of persons might seem reductive; it very much is. But in fusing computation and literature, certain assumptions have to be made.

In carrying out this analysis, I made use of R’s ‘Stylo’ package, which contains tools for breaking a number of texts into equal sizes, removing words which are not common to most samples, calculating the relative frequencies of these words, transforming these observations into new combinations of variables called ‘components’ with greater explanatory potential, and clustering them together. These words appear below:

These might seem like boring terms, as literary critics we tend to look past them to more evocative ones like ‘serpentine’ or ‘columbanus’ but unfortunately, in computational terms it is the relative frequencies of these ‘particles’ or ‘function words’ that provide the most secure means of modelling a writer’s particular idiom. These samples were then plotted on a correlation matrix, which can be taken as an index of similarity, based on where they cluster:

The six different narrators of Ulysses appearing in the index above are:

‘Anon’, who narrates the episode ‘Cyclops’

‘Blephen’, a composite delineation for episodes in which both characters feature, such as ‘Circe’, ‘Eumaeus’, ‘Ithaca’ and ‘Oxen of the Sun’

Bloom, who narrates ‘Hades’, ‘Calypso’, ‘Lestrygonians’ and ‘The Lotus Eaters’, Gerty, who narrates at least half of ‘Nausicaa’ (this is a controversial point within the literature, it might by Bloom who is narrating for her)

Molly, who narrates the book’s final chapter ‘Penelope’,

and finally Stephen, who narrates the first three episodes ‘Telemachus’, ‘Nestor’ and ‘Proteus’, as well as the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which has been thrown in here for comparison.

Here’s the same plot as above with the labels more clearly indicated

The first thing we could note is the gender divide. Molly and Gerty both spread over to the right, with Molly as an outlier. Both are more proximate to the A Portrait samples than any other, which are all taken from the earlier parts of the novel, suggesting that Joyce writes women and young children using the same number of words at the same rate. As the Gerty samples move through the episode, they move closer and closer to the Bloom cluster, visually conforming that the episode starts in Gerty’s voice before he takes over, and that Bloom doesn’t think much of women’s intelligence in the main either.

Overall we can say that there doesn’t look to be a fusing of perspectives here as such. Rather than the Blephen episodes meeting halfway between the Stephen and Bloom, Stephen and Bloom already seem quite comfortably clustered at the novel’s outset. Based on the divide between Stephen’s episodes of Ulysses and A Portrait, we might say that the way in which Stephen narrates A Portrait is very different from the way in which he narrates Ulysses.This is justified I think by how sensitive the analysis is to changes in narrator, demonstrated by the Gerty/Bloom example already discussed, as well as the fact that the earlier part of Aeolous, in which Bloom is present, clusters with his samples, whereas the second part, after Stephen’s entered, clusters with the Stephen samples.

Below is the plot with the Portrait samples removed:

Words Stephen’s narration is most likely to use in comparison to Bloom
Words Bloom’s narration is more likely to use in comparison to Stephen


There are a number of ways one could use these results to interrogate the notion of Ulysses as wisdom literature. We could begin by asking after the gendered aspects of the adjective ‘wise’, and ask why so many of these books which teach us how one might best live are written by men (and how tone-deaf this argument can sound because to read Ulysses one might almost think married women weren’t let out of the house) or we could ask what interests an Irish model of bourgeois respectability might serve, along the lines of an Irish ‘keep calm and carry on’ poster.

Ulysses as a guide to life risks rendering it a novel of parts coming together, the middle-class intellectual and the middle-class working stiff holding hands across whatever barricade is supposed to be dividing them. Not that I would go to the other extreme and frame it as one of dissolution. Ulysses’ shape is one I would be loathe to put a vector to in fact; to say that Stephen and Bloom’s relationship moves from a) state to b) state would be too easy by half.

What makes Ulyssesan interesting novel to me is its self-referentiality, the dialogue it establishes between the novel and its supposed referent of ‘real Dublin’, which is made most clear in ‘Circe’, but also in the book’s other failed attempts to understand itself, as in the cases of the characters referenced as being in particular places at particular times who may or may not be Bloom, the McIntosh mystery or the puzzle of crossing Dublin without passing a pub. In this context, I think ‘Eumaeus’ appearing as a stylistic outlier is significant.

It is in this episode that we get information about a sequence of coincidences, and resonant differences between Bloom and Stephen’s lives. The depth of these coincidences (which I won’t provide a summary of here, because I think they’re among the most poignant parts of the novel) gesture towards something a bit more cosmically ordered than the rest of the novel even as they take place within the circumscribed rituals of Irish urban middle-class life in the early twentieth century. ‘Eumaeus’ is written in a chill tone which most closely resembles that of a scientific paper, eliding the indirect discourse which ostensibly defines the rest of the text, and it is the fact that these connections are raised here rather than anywhere else that the true interest in their relationship, such as it is, is to be found.

These connections which remain unrealised by the two, rather than bring us to some Forsterian notion of connection should raise instead questions of alienation and of their unity in separation. It presents problems both epistemological and political, about how our reality is structured, the means through which it is circumscribed and how it is more defined by how little of it we are aware of rather than how much. Rather than teaching us ‘how to live’ Ulysses shows us how we do not live, how we probably won’t live and how it could so easily have been otherwise. It is no more an explanation for life as it is an explanation of itself, or Homer, or Ireland.

Literary Style and the dialectic

The notion of literary style is a fraught matter for critics. This is not just since the cultural and textualist ‘turn’ of the sixties and seventies, when post-structuralist methodologies became commonplace in university departments. Rather, the origin of style brings us to the origin of the individual and it is for this reason that Frederic Jameson believes ‘style’ to be a bourgeois concept. In an account which accords with Hans Georg-Gadamer’s, which locates the word’s origin in the context of jurisprudence, Jameson argues that style owes its existence to the classical notion of rhetoric, as interpreted in nineteenth-century pedagogy, the means by which an orator might speak in a form which is appropriately ‘high’. In both of these accounts, style’s interconnectedness with the rise of bourgeoisie or liberal state-capitalist formations of the age of Enlightenment is emphasised.

Here, we see a socio-historical account of style, one which might have taken Barthes’ theory as its foundation; that it is impossible to have a theory of pure style, as it is fundamentally an historical phenomenon. Jameson is similarly sceptical, but writes also that any literary criticism worthy of the name is obligated to consider ‘sentences themselves’. How these two methods could be productively fused is as something of a fissure in literary studies, between those who would treat literary texts in formal terms, the stylistic reductionists, and others, who would read it according to a sociological or Marxist schema. We might refer to this latter category as culturalists for the sake of ease. Of course, dialectical methods of reading are so ingrained into how we are trained to think about texts as scholars, whether we happen to be constructing a dialogue between a text and its context, or interrogating our own biases, it can be difficult to conceive of what a purely formalist literary criticism might look like. Despite conventional wisdom holding there were plenty around Cambridge in the thirties who were invested solely in words on the page, one cannot help but find indications of their broader and more wide-ranging interests in their actual writings. Likewise, culturalist critics might well concede that stylistic components, such as particular words, lengths of sentences, play a role in forming the style of a literary text, but there is a difficulty in deciding at which point a sufficient number of these discrete linguistic signals aggregate to achieve a structural significance or scale. It is for its treatment of style as an abstract system which cannot be rationalised down to its concrete manifestations that Jameson charges Anglo-American literary criticism as being undialectical.

In parsing this particular issue, we might turn to Adorno’s writings in Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which he theorises the distance between the individual stylistic marker and the entire work, in the context of a socio-economic and cultural totality. Adorno’s analysis is mostly concerned with the cultural changes which have been wrought by the existence of the cultural industry within late-stage capitalism, the ‘iron system’ in which

the maintenance of forms and the preservation of individuals coincide only by chance.

By Adorno’s account, the technologies of commercialised society have so irreparably transformed all social and cultural institutions to the extent that art now serves a solely industrial function. There can be no such thing as amusement under late-stage capitalism; we have leisure only so that we can be more productive. These changes have come about, of course, due to the higher-order industries on which the culture industry depends, as well as the actions of individual managers within these industries, ‘the people at the top’ whose behaviours reproduce these higher-order systemic changes. The subject no longer has thoughts but rather is thought herselfby the system, she registers signals in the form of physical, psychic automatisms, but continues to assume as though her own autonomy exists; that this is beyond the reach of the external network of circumstances, economic, historical, social, which in fact radically proscribe the remit of her behaviours.

This loss of freedom in society finds its corollary in the degree to which the culture of industrial society has been homogenised: ‘Under monopoly all mass culture is identical…Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet with approval at first sight’. This determinism is one of the defining features of Adorno’s thought; even that which violates the tenets of cultural industry will merely replicate this same homogeneity overall. If for example, Orson Welles was to violate the terms of the industry,

he is forgiven because his departures from the norm are regarded as a calculated mutation which serve all the more strongly to confirm the validity of the system.

These innovators are co-opted once again by the same system, and Adorno witheringly compares them to state-capitalist land-reformers. So repetitive are most films produced by the Hollywood studio system of Adorno’s time, he claims the attentive film-goer will know the ending of the film within the first few minutes, but, as before, if the attentive film-goer is wrong-footed by a surprise twist, this just confirms the banality of the enterprise.

Many have argued that Adorno’s undialectical anglophone readers have, in their eagerness to claim popular culture as an object worthy of scholarly attention, over-emphasised and caricatured his curmudgeonly tendencies. A charitable reading might present Adorno as being concerned predominantly with the superstructure, but there is, I think, a little too much of the grumpy old man to his claim that a perfection of formal technique be it in the context of Hollywood film or jazz, may be claimed as just another symptom of the cultural industry’s failure to create truly great art, because these perfections of technique are buttressed by deliberate ‘blunders’. I think Adorno is sufficiently correct for his work to be analytically useful, but it rather ironically lacks the ability to tolerate contradiction, and such a view runs the risk of lapsing into non-dialectical territory. Adorno is, after all, presumably referring to actual films he’s seen, actual jazz renditions of classical compositions, and treating these within his analyses as socially/historically embedded would do greater justice to his schema. Examples of how apparently individual agents incline towards producing the interests of capital without abandoning Adorno’s analytical pessimism are plentiful, but I’ll single out Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream, or this podcast here.

Treating the history of literature in dialectical terms would be less invested in the individual stylistic innovations perpetuated by writers, and heed ‘the sheer quantity of words with which a given historical period is saturated’ to a greater extent. In a commercial society, for instance, in which the subject is bombarded constantly with advertisements, newspapers, articles, tweets, the author of literature is obliged to administer to the reader a sequence of shocks in order to gain their attention, and it is this which serves to colour our literary culture and why modern poetry maintains an interest with density in language rather than transparency. This might go some distance to accounting for the disappearance of organised novelistic form, but such claims would benefit from an awareness of popular trends of consumption, those which undermine theories constructed by scholars operating in a relative vacuum, in order to avoid falling into Adorno’s conservatism, and in maintaining one’s pursuit of the dialectic (however defined).

A Deleuzian Theory of Literary Style

I’m always surprised when I read one of the thinkers generally, and perhaps lazily, lumped in to the general category of post-structuralist, when I find how great a disservice the term does to their work. To read Derrida, Foucault or Deleuze, is not to find a triad of philosophers who struggle to produce a coherent system via addled half-thoughts in order to deconstruct, stymie or relativise everything. In fact, I’m not sure there’s another philosopher I’ve read who displays greater attention to detail in their work than Derrida, and Deleuze, far from being a deconstructionist, presents us with painstaking and intricate schemata and models of thought. The rhizome, to take the most well-known concept associated with Deleuze and his collaborator, Félix Guattari, doesn’t provide us with a free-for-all, but an intricately worked-out model to enable further thought. Difference and Repetition is likewise painstaking, and so involved is Deleuze’s model of difference, applying it in great depth to my theory of literary style, might be something to do if one wished to be a mad person, particularly since, at an early stage in the work, he attempts to map his concepts to particular authors, such as Borges, Joyce, Beckett and Proust. But I’ll do my best.

My notion of literary style has been influenced by the fact of my dealing with the matter via computation, i.e. multi-variate analysis and machine learning. All the reading I’m doing on the subject, is leading me towards a theory of literary style founded on redundancy. When I say redundancy, I don’t mean that what distinguishes literary language from ‘normal’ language is its superfluity, an excess of that which it communicates. For the Russian formalists, this was key in defining literary language, its surfeit of meaning. I don’t like this distinction much, as it assumes that we can neatly cleave necessary communication from unnecessary communication, as if there were a clear demarcation between the words we use for their usage (utilitarian) and the words we use for their beauty (aesthetic). The lines between the two are generally blurred, and both can reinforce the function of the other. The shortcomings of this category become yet more evident when we take into account authors who might have a plain style, works which depend on a certain reticence to speak. Of course, a certain degree of recursion sets in here, as we could argue that it is in the showcased plainness of these writers that the superfluity of the work manifests itself. Which presents us with the inevitable conclusion that the definition is flawed because its a tautology; it’s excessive because it’s literary, it’s literary because it’s excessive.

My own idea of redundancy comes from a number of articles in the computational journal Literary and Linguistic Computing, the entire corpus of which, from the mid-nineties until today, I am slowly making my way through. It provides an interesting narrative of the ways in which computational criticism has evolved in these years. At first, literary critics would have been sure that the words that traditional literary criticism tends to emphasise, the big ones, the sparkly ones, the nice ones, were most indicative of a writer’s style. What practitioners of algorithmic criticism have come to realise however, is that it is the ‘particles’ of literary matter, that are far more indicative of a writer’s style, the distribution of words such as ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘said,’ which are sometimes left out of corpus stylistics altogether, dismissed as ‘stopwords,’ bandied about too often in textual materials of all kinds to be of any real use. It’s a bit too easy, with the barest dash of an awareness of how coding works, to start slipping into generalisations along the lines of neuroscience, so I won’t go too mad, but I will say that this is an example of the ways in which humans tend to identify patterns, albeit maybe not necessarily the determining, or most significant patterns, in any given situation.

We’re magpies when we read, for better or worse. When David Foster Wallace re-instates the subject of a clause at its end, a technique he becomes increasingly reliant on as Infinite Jest proceeds, we notice it, and it becomes increasingly to the fore in our sense of his style. But, in the grand scheme of the one-thousand some page novel, the extent to which this technique is made use of is statistically speaking, insignificant. Sentences like ‘She tied the tapes,’ in Between the Acts, for instance, pass our awareness by because of their pedestrian qualities, much like many other sentences that contain words such as ‘said,’ because of the extent to which any text’s fabric is predominantly composed of such filler.

In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze is concerned with reversing a trend within Western philosophy, to mis-read the nature of difference, which he traces back to Plato and Kant, and the idealist/transcendentalist tendencies within their thought. They believed in singular, ideal forms, against which the notion of the Image is pitched, which can only be inferior, a simulacrum, as they are derivative copies. Despite his model of the dialectic, Hegel is no better when it comes to comprehending difference; Deleuze sees the notion of synthesis as profoundly damaging to difference, as the third-way synthesis has a tendency to understate it. Deleuze dismisses the process of the dialectic as ‘insipid monocentrality’. Deleuze’s issue seems to be that our notions of identity, only allow difference into the picture as a rupture, or an exception which vindicates an overall sense of homogeneity. Difference should be emphasised to a greater extent, and become a principle of our understanding:

Such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept, rather than being maintained under the domination of a concept in general already understood as identical.

Recognising this would be the advent of difference-in-itself.

This is all fairly consistent with Deleuze’s sense of Being as being (!) in a constant state of becoming, an experiential-led model of ontology which doesn’t aim for essence, but praxis. It would be fairly unproblematic to map this onto literary style; literary stylistics should likewise depend on difference, rather than similarity which only allows difference into the picture as a rupture; difference should be our primary criterion when examining the ways in which style becomes itself.

Another tendency of the philosophical tradition as Deleuze understands it is a belief in the goodness of thought, and its inclination towards moral, useful ends, as embodied in the works of Descartes. Deleuze reminds us of myopia and stupidity, by arguing that thought is at its most vital when at a moment of encounter or crisis, when ‘something in the world forces us to think.’ These encounters remind us that thought is impotent and require us to violently grapple with the force of these encounters. This is not only an attempt to reverse the traditional moral image of thought, but to move towards an understanding of thought as self-engendering, an act of creation, not just of what is thought, but of thought itself.

It would be to take the least radical aspect of this conclusion to fuse it with the notion of textual deformance, developed by Jerome McGann, which is of particular magnitude within the digital humanities, considering that we often process our text via code, or visualise it, and build arguments from these simulacra. But, on a level of reading which is, technologically speaking, less sophisticated, it reflects the way in which we generate a stylistic ideal as we read, a sense of a writer’s style, whether these be based on the analogue, magpie method (or something more systematic, I don’t want to discount syllable-counts, metric analyses or close readings of any kind) or quantitative methodologies.

By bringing ourselves to these points of crisis, we will open up avenues at which fields of thought, composed themselves of differential elements, differential relations and singularities, will shift, and bring about a qualitative difference in the environment. We might think of this field in terms of a literary text, a sequence of actualised singularities, appearing aleatory outside of their anchoring context as within a novel. Readers might experience these as breakthrough moments or epiphanies when reading a text, realising that Infinite Jest apes the plot of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, as it begins to cast everything in a new light. In this way, texts are made and unmade according to the conditions which determine them. I for one, find this to be so much more helpful in articulating what a text is than the blurb for post-structuralism, (something like ‘endlessly deferred free-play of meaning’). Instead, we have a radical, consistently disarticulating and re-articulating literary artwork in a perpetual, affirming state of becoming, actualised by the reader at a number of sensitive points which at any stage might be worried into bringing about a qualitative shift in the work’s processes of meaning making.

Will Self’s ‘Umbrella’ and post-modern modernity

As has been repeated in any number of the literary outlets which give Will Self column inches, Self has thumbed his nose at the British literary establishment, readers and writers alike, by returning to the ground zero of avant-garde prose writing in his trilogy of Umbrella, Shark and the forthcoming Phone. I held off reading Umbrella for some time, for the same reason that one generally doesn’t read a novel written by one of the authors that one might rate highly, sensing in advance that it will be in some way a disappointment, particularly when said author has set themselves the task of re-invigorating an dormant genre in which one is steeped in, on a semi-professional basis.

But I did listen to, and read, an awful lot of interviews in which Self spoke on why he’s returning to modernism as a wellspring for his own fiction. In one of these interviews, which unfortunately, I can’t seem to find, Self says that one of the things he was trying to avoid, was writing a post-modern version of modernity. At the time I heard it, I had no idea what that might mean, or what a post-modern modernity might look like. After having read Umbrella, whether Self intended it or not, I have a far better understanding of the phrase, because I think that a post-modern modernity is exactly what Self has stumbled upon in Umbrella.

The plot moves between roughly three time frames, centred around four individuals, the primary one being Zack Busner, a fixture in many of Self’s works, Busner generally functions as a composite of the author and the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. In Umbrella, Busner is a psychiatrist based in London, treating Audrey Death for her encephalitic lethargica, which has left her in a catatonic state for decades. In some parts of the novel, Busner is doing so in 1970, and in other parts, he looks back on the affair in 2010. While this is happening, the narrative will jump back to the Audrey’s early adulthood in the opening decades of the century, working in a munitions factory, getting involved in radical socialist circles. Her brothers, Stanley and Albert, are also focalisers of the narrative at points, albeit in very different ways. Indirect discourse and interior monologue are probably the two best known characteristics of modernist prose, and these two take the lion’s share of the novel’s foray into experimentation, allowing for the character’s voices to blend suggestively with the narrator’s, making it difficult to tell where Audrey, Busner, Albert and Stanley are speaking amidst the barrage of music-hall pieces, street rhymes and song lyrics. Side Note: Azaelia Banks and The Kinks feature. Unfortunately, Self generally does so through use of italics. Here’s a typical example:

The boyfriend hadn’t minded gotta split, man and Busner was split…a forked thing digging its way inside her robe. She fiddled with bone buttons at her velvety throat. His skin and hairs snagged on the mirrors, his fingers did their best with her nipples. She looked down on me from below … one his calves lay cold on the floorboards. There was the faint applause of pigeons from outside the window —

Italics are used here to allow us access to Busner’s mind, his memory, and for Lear references. There’s nothing bad in here (or in the novel overall, Self’s sentences are staggering for how rhymically attuned they are, particularly when he dallies with academic verbiage and sub-clauses to the extent that he does), the problem is you sort of know where these turns are coming from the typography. There was a ‘Remastered’ version of Ulysses published about six years ago, produced by Robert Gogan, in which the interior monologue appeared in italics. The three or four people in the world who care about such things were outraged at the simplification, seeing the text as having been purged of its ambiguity. I think this periodic italicisation is to Umbrella’s detriment overall; it substitutes a reading that might have demanded even more of you for a more surreal-looking typeface.

My own notion of Umbrella’s modernism would therefore be rather distinct from the identification made between Umbrella and this rather inflexible and monolithic modernism made in some literary journalism, because I don’t see it as modernist in the same way that the ‘men of 1914’ are modernists. Although they might have one thing in common.


Self’s modernism is a selling point serving a rather specific function in today’s literary marketplace. Self’s modernism builds upon his persona as a surly performer on television news-panel shows and newspaper columns, going out of his way to discourage people from reading his books by his performative hauteur and dismissive attitude regarding everything. Returning to a praxis of literary art some six decades out of date is the logical conclusion of being Will Self. For Self, being a latter day modernist is to reject the commodification of the literary artwork, and insist upon the right of the author to write something wholly non-commercial. Umbrella therefore carries with it a critique of commodity culture, and the proliferation of screens, which Self also decries regularly, believing it to signal an end to the novel. However, the canard of modernism’s opposition to commodity culture has been overhyped after postmodern novelists made such a point of engaging with the novel as a commodity, and one should remember that modernism was deeply involved in the marketplace of its time; Ezra Pound began using zeitgeist-y words like ‘modern’ and ‘futurity’ to draw Marinetti’s audiences, who were substantially larger than his own when he first came to London. Performative modernism, cultivated for the purchasing attentions of a well-groomed and discerning élite is one of the things that Self gets right regarding his channeling of the genre.

Umbrella also seems to draw on modernism’s sometimes overlooked heritage, as it is at least somewhat to blame for the volume of secondary literature written subsequent to its boom and bust. From even a vague knowledge of these texts we might produce some foundational aspects of modernism; that it is taken to entail a shift in consciousness and human subjectivity, that exposure to slaughter and death on an industrial scale led to an ambivalence regarding technology and a sundering of rigid social hierarchies, an increasing mediation of our reality through mass media, growth of radical political movements such as feminism and socialism, etc. etc. etc. Our responses to these texts are thereby pre-determined; we know what we can expect from a canonical modernist text.

Which is why the modernism of Umbrella seems post-modern. It’s hard to read Audrey’s re-animation in the 1970’s, or Busner’s recollection of the time in 2010, as a meta-commentary on Umbrella’s resuscitation of the genre. The fact that Audrey worked in a munitions factory, as a radical socialist and feminist, that one of her brothers, Stanley, went to fight in the war, while her other brother, Albert, Pynchon-like, became an arms manufacturer selling weapons which fuelled the conflict, that in her comatose state she rehearses the actions of her time at the lathe, seems to have been dictated by our relationship to modernism in our contemporary setting. In the novel’s closing stages, Audrey’s status as a symbol of technology’s encroachment into our subjectivity is made overt:

The final words Audrey Death had spoken before relapsing into a merciful swoon were a string of nonsensical fractions — eighteen over four-point-two, ninety-four over fourteen-point-seven, sixty-six-point-three over thirty-three…that, even as he accepted the futility of the exercise, Busner had tried to fit into some conceptual framework. Were they, perhaps, the numerical analogue of her brain-chemistry’s intro-conversions between the discrete and the continuous, the quantifiable and the relativistic?

The irony here is that the paragraph in which Self is telling you exactly what the novel is about, features a character attempting to make sense of a random string of numbers. This is far from what the book is, a novel which has been compulsively over-determined in any number of columns, interviews and lectures which, taken collectively, probably come to a length equal to the text. While the modernists can be considered guilty of pushing particular interpretations — they often wrote about their own work, in the way that authors often do, by pretending to write objectively on other authors, The Waste Land came with annotations (parodic ones, but annotations nonetheless) — it feels as though Self’s foray into it is too overtly packaged as such. It’s probably my own fault for consuming it as I did, a book has to be sold after all, and no one made me read those six Guardian interviews. I should wrap up by saying that this novel is very good, and that you should read it, and, in true modernist style, ‘the rest is noise’.

A (Proper) Statistical analysis of the prose works of Samuel Beckett


Content warning: If you want to get to the fun parts, the results of an analysis of Beckett’s use of language, skip to sections VII and VIII. Everything before that is navel-gazing methodology stuff.

If you want to know how I carried out my analysis, and utilise my code for your own purposes, here’s a link to my R code on my blog, with step-by-step instructions, because not enough places on the internet include that.

I: Things Wrong with my Dissertation’s Methodology

For my masters, I wrote a 20000 word dissertation, which took as its subject, an empirical analysis of the works of Samuel Beckett. I had a corpus of his entire works with the exception of his first novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which is a forgivable lapse, because he ended up cannibalising it for his collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.

Quantitative literary analysis is generally carried out in one of two ways, through either one of the open-source programming languages Python or R. The former you’ve more likely to have heard of, being one of the few languages designed with usability in mind. The latter, R, would be more familiar to specialists, or people who work in the social sciences, as it is more obtuse than Python, doesn’t have many language cousins and has a very unfriendly learning curve. But I am attracted to difficulty, so I am using it for my PhD analysis.

I had about four months to carry out my analysis, so the idea of taking on a programming language in a self-directed learning environment was not feasible, particularly since I wanted to make a good go at the extensive body of secondary literature written on Beckett. I therefore made use of a corpus analysis tool called Voyant. This was a couple of years ago, so this was before its beta release, when it got all tricked out with some qualitative tools and a shiny new interface, which would have been helpful. Ah well. It can be run out of any browser, if you feel like giving it a look.

My analysis was also chronological, in that it looked at changes in Beckett’s use of language over time, with a view to proving the hypothesis that he used a less wide vocabulary as his career continued, in pursuit of his famed aesthetic of nothingness or deprivation. As I wanted to chart developments in his prose over time, I dated the composition of each text, and built a corpus for each year, from 1930–1987, excluding of course, years in which he just wrote drama, poetry, which wouldn’t be helpful to quantify in conjunction with one another. Which didn’t stop me doing so for my masters analysis. It was a disaster.

II: Uniqueness

Uniqueness, the measurement used to quantify the general spread of Beckett’s vocabulary, was obtained by the generally accepted formula below:

unique word tokens / total words

There is a problem with this measurement, in that it takes no account of a text’s relative length. As a text gets longer, the likelihood of each word being used approaches 1. Therefore, a text gets less unique as it gets bigger. I have the correlations to prove it:

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-12-18-03There have been various solutions proposed to this quandary, which stymies our comparative analyses, somewhat. One among them is the use of vectorised measurements, which plot the text’s declining uniqueness against its word count, so we see a more impressionistic graph, such as this one, which should allow us to compare the word counts for James Joyce’s novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his short story collection, Dubliners.


All well and good for two or maybe even five texts, but one can see how, with large scale corpora, this sort of thing can get very incoherent very quickly. Furthermore, if one was to examine the numbers on the y-axis, one can see that the differences here are tiny. This is another idiosyncrasy of stylostatistical methods; because of the way syntax works, the margins of difference wouldn’t be regarded as significant by most statisticians. These issues relating to the measurement are exacerbated by the fact that ‘particles,’ the atomic structures of literary speech, (it, is, the, a, an, and, said, etc.) make up most of a text. In pursuit of greater statistical significance for their papers, digital literary critics remove these particles from their texts, which is another unforgivable that we do anyway. I did not, because I was concerned that I was complicit in the neoliberalisation of higher education. I also wrote a 4000 word chapter that outlined why what I was doing was awful.

IV: Ambiguity

The formula for ambiguity was arrived at by the following formula:

number of indefinite pronouns/total word count

I derived this measurement from Dr. Ian Lancashire’s study of the works of Agatha Christie, and counted Beckett’s use of a set of indefinite pronouns, ‘everyone,’ ‘everybody,’ ‘everywhere,’ ‘everything,’ ‘someone,’ ‘somebody,’ ‘somewhere,’ ‘something,’ ‘anyone,’ ‘anybody,’ ‘anywhere,’ ‘anything,’ ‘no one,’ ‘nobody,’ ‘nowhere,’ and ‘nothing.’ Those of you who know that there are more indefinite pronouns than just these, you are correct, I had found an incomplete list of indefinite pronouns, and I assumed that that was all. This is just one of the many things wrong with my study. My theory was that there were to be correlations to be detected in Beckett’s decreasing vocabulary, and increasing deployment of indefinite pronouns, relative to the total word count. I called the vocabulary measure ‘uniqueness,’ and the indefinite pronouns measure I called ‘ambiguity.’ This in tenuous I know, indefinite pronouns advance information as they elide the provision of information. It is, like so much else in the quantitative analysis of literature, totally unforgivable, yet we do it anyway.

V: Hapax Richness

I initially wanted to take into account another phenomenon known as the hapax score, which charts occurrences of words that appear only once in a text or corpus. The formula to obtain it would be the following:

number of words that appear once/total word count

I believe that the hapax count would be of significance to a Beckett analysis because of the points at which his normally incompetent narrators have sudden bursts of loquaciousness, like when Molloy says something like ‘digital emunction and the peripatetic piss,’ before lapsing back into his ‘normal’ tone of voice. Once again, because I was often working with a pen and paper, this became impossible, but now that I know how to code, I plan to go over my masters analysis, and do it properly. The hapax score will form a part of this new analysis.

VI: Code & Software

A much more accurate way of analysing vocabulary, for the purposes of comparative analysis when your texts are of different lengths, therefore, would be to randomly sample it. Obviously not very easy when you’re working with a corpus analysis tool online, but far more straightforward when working through a programming language. A formula for representative sampling was found, and integrated into the code. My script is essentially a series of nested loops and if/else statements, that randomly and sequentially sample a text, calculate the uniqueness, indefiniteness and hapax density ten times, store the results in a variable, and then calculate the mean value for each by dividing the result by ten, the number of times that the first loop runs. I inputted each value into the statistical analysis program SPSS, because it makes pretty graphs with less effort than R requires.

VII: Results

I used SPSS’ box plot function first to identify any outliers for uniqueness, hapax density and ambiguity. 1981 was the only year which scored particularly high for relative usage of indefinite pronouns.


It should be said that this measure too, is correlated to the length of the text, which only stands to reason; as a text gets longer the relative incidence of a particular set of words will decrease. Therefore, as the only texts Beckett wrote this year, ‘The Way’ and ‘Ceiling,’ both add up to about 582 words (the fifth lowest year for prose output in his life), one would expect indefiniteness to be somewhat higher in comparison to other years. However, this doesn’t wholly account for its status as an outlier value. Towards the end of his life Beckett wrote increasingly short prose pieces. Comment C’est (How It Is) was his last novel, and was written almost thirty years before he died. This probably has a lot to do with his concentration on writing and directing his plays, but in his letters he attributed it to a failure to progress beyond the third novel in his so-called trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt (Malone Dies) and L’innomable (The Unnamable). It is in the year 1950, the year in which L’inno was completed, that Beckett began writing the Textes pour rien (Texts for Nothing), scrappy, disjointed pieces, many of which seem to be taking up from where L’inno left off, similarly the Fizzles and the Faux Départs. ‘The Way,’ I think, is an outgrowth of a later phase in Beckett’s prose writing, which dispenses the peripatetic loquaciousness and the understated lyricism of the trilogy and replaces it with a more brute and staccato syntax, one which is often dependent on the repetition of monosyllables:

No knowledge of where gone from. Nor of how. Nor of whom. None of whence come to. Partly to. Nor of how. Nor of whom. None of anything. Save dimly of having come to. Partly to. With dread of being again. Partly again. Somewhere again. Somehow again. Someone again.

Note also the prevalence of particle words, that will have been stripped out for the analysis, and the ways in which words with a ‘some’ prefix are repeated as a sort of refrain. This essential structure persists in the work, or at least the artefact of the work that the code produces, and hence of it, the outlier that it is.


From plotting all the values together at once, we can see that uniqueness is partially dependent on hapax density; the words that appear only once in a particular corpus would be important in driving up the score for uniqueness. While there could said to be a case for the hypothesis that Beckett’s texts get less unique, more ambiguous up until 1944, when he completed his novel Watt, and if we’re feeling particularly risky, up until 1960 when Comment C’est was completed, it would be wholly disingenuous to advance it beyond this point, when his style becomes far too erratic to categorise definitively. Comment C’est is Beckett’s most uncompromising prose work. It has no punctuation, no capitalisation, and narrates the story of two characters, in a kind of love, who communicate with one another by banging kitchen implements off another:

as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom

VIII: Conclusion

I would love to say that the general tone is what my model is being attentive to, which is why it identified Watt and How It Is as nadirs in Beckett’s career but I think their presence on the chart is more a product of their relative length, as novels, versus the shorter pieces which he moved towards in his later career. Clearly, Beckett’s decision to write shorter texts, make this means of summing up his oeuvre in general, insufficient. Whatever changes Beckett made to his aesthetic over time, we might not need to have such complicated graphs to map, and I could have just used a word processor to find it — length. Bom and Pim aside, for whatever reason after having written L’inno none of Beckett’s creatures presented themselves to him in novelistic form again. The partiality of vision and modal tone which pervades the post-L’inno works demonstrates, I think far more effectively what is was that Beckett was ‘pitching’ for, a new conceptual aspect to his prose, which re-emphasised its bibliographic aspects, the most fundamental of which was their brevity, or the appearance of an incompleteness, by virtue of being honed to sometimes less than five hundred words.

The quantification of differing categories of words seems like a radical, and the most fun, thing to quantify in the analysis of literary texts, as the words are what we came for, but the problem is similar to one that overtakes one who attempts to read a literary text word by word by word, and unpack its significance as one goes: overdetermination. Words are kaleidoscopic, and the longer you look at them, the more threatening their darkbloom becomes, the more they swallow, excrete, the more alive they are, all round. Which is fine. Letting new things into your life is what it should be about, until their attendant drawbacks become clear, and you start to become ambivalent about all the fat and living things you have in your head. You start to wish you read poems instead, rather than novels, which make you go mad, and worse, start to write them. The point is words breed words, and their connections are too easily traced by computer. There’s something else about knowing that their exact correlations to a decimal point. They seem so obvious now.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time: The Fugitive’ as speculative fiction

Speculative fiction is a straightforward enough concept to grasp. As the name indicates, it creates a breach in fiction’s conventions of representation and violates the rules that traditionally govern the world in which fiction takes place. In short, a speculative fiction begins with a ‘what if?’

Jorge Luis Borges is one of the most skilled practitioners of speculative fictions, though he rarely needs more than twenty or twenty five pages to exhaust his capacity to work through every aspect of the world that he has conjured up. Being as I am on the last volume of á la recherche I cannot over-emphasise how grateful I am to him for his capacity for brevity.

Of course, there are very few novels that don’t fall into the category delineated above; novels that are propelled by a question in the mind of the author are not a niche genre. There are certain coping mechanisms that one finds oneself devising when making one’s way through a 3500 page novel and one of them is to fixate on the abject strangeness of many of its key moments, many of which seem to border on aspects of science-fiction sub-genre.

Carol Clark, the translator of The Prisoner writes: “practical considerations of money, which would be at the centre of a novel by Balzac or Zola, seem to be of little importance here. Again, one feels that Proust is carrying out a thought experiment: let there be a young man M and a girl A, living in flat F. Let the money available to M be infinite.” The use of the term ‘thought experiment’ conveys how bizarre the novel can be. The Prisoner describes how Marcel’s lover Albertine moves into his apartment and how Marcel expends seemingly endless funds on lavish gifts for her. When she leaves him, he promises her a Rolls Royce and a yacht if she returns. All this focus on the financial inconsistencies glosses over the fact that Albertine’s aunt, Mme Bontemps, seems to be perfectly fine with her daughter living unmarried with a seemingly endlessly wealthy society dilettante with neurasthenia.

It’s not even fanciful to posit the existence of shape shifters in Proust’s novel, Odette de Crécy somehow manages to de-age as the novel continues; this is commented on by the narrator frequently with an appropriate incredulity and the scope of Albertine’s face seems to change dramatically at some point after In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, to an extent that I don’t think can be attributed to the normal changes brought about by adolescence. This presumably serves a metaphorical end about the multiplicity of self and the necessary masquerades adopted by people in the normal course of society life, a necessity that is only bolstered when one deviates from the proscribed sexual ‘norm,’ as very few characters in this novel don’t.

Proust also engages in a kind of description that I find myself noticing quite a bit recently, and that is prose that attempts to grapple with reality on a quantum level, to convey phenomena that are not visible to the naked eye:

“the whole sky was filled with that radiant, palish blue that the walker lying in a field sometimes sees over his head, but so uniform, so deep that one feels the blue of which it is made was used without any admixture and with such inexhaustible richness that one could delve deeper and deeper into its substance without finding an atom of anything but that same blue.”

It is this willingness to represent the ineffable in text that Proust’s best moments of confrontational strangeness that gets him his best moments as we see in the above, wherein an anonymous and yet universal representation of man ‘the walker,’ falls into the sky endlessly, which is at once the sky and also seems to prefigure some kind of undiluted cordial, perhaps anticipating the famous madeleine dissolved in tea. The paragraph is positively bristling with paradoxes and abstrusities, least among which is the suggestion that one can simply ‘find’ an atom, that atoms can be ‘pure’ and that they are colour-coded.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time: Sodom and Gomorrah’

35750-_uy200_At this stage, the fourth volume of six in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, it doesn’t need saying that Proust is a hyper-critical author. He doesn’t allow his characters to get away with anything and dwells for sentence after sentence after sentence on their most minute flaws and concealed insecurities. However, there seems to be shades of difference in Proust’s treatment of particular characters based on their class. Regardless of how denigrating he may be towards the Guermantes or the Princess de Parma, their characterisations retain an idealised quality, their personas never lose their sheen of seemingly fundamental decency. The origin of this positive discrimination is somewhat unclear, as the focalisation of In Search of Lost Time’s perspective is so overdetermined. Blame could lie with the narrator, M, who is, after all, hopelessly besotted with all members of the aristocracy, regardless of the depth of their ignorance. Some blame could well be attached to Proust himself, with one eye on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s admiration of rich people, for being in some self-evident way different from the have-nots.

Characters such as Charles Morel and Françoise lack this ‘upper-class’ status, which would otherwise have allowed for their redemption, at least partially, from M’s perspective. Therefore, there is something altogether crueler about M’s probing evisceration of Françoise’s character, considering she is employed as his family’s servant. Françoise also has the dubious honour of being the only character that M has told to her face exactly what he thinks of her, something that he would not dare do to someone with a secure place on a social scale of any kind (as yet, anyway, I have only read the first four parts of six): “’You’re an excellent person, I said smarmily, you’re kind, you’ve a thousand good qualities, but you’re no further on than the day that you arrived in Paris, either in knowing about women’s clothes or in how to pronounce words properly and not commit howlers.’”

M’s identification of Françoise’s primary failing as linguistic is, I believe, revealing. First, her way of speaking is wholly idiosyncratic, because she is from rural France and was not formally educated. This can be seen in her occasional tendency towards exaggeration, at occasions like being found by a member of the family in the kitchen, particularly when she is with her daughter: ‘She’s just had a spoonful of soup, Françoise said to me, and I forced her suck on a bit of the carcass,’ so as thus to reduce her daughter’s supper to nothing, as though it would have been wrong for it to be plentiful. Even at lunch or dinner, if I made the mistake of going into the kitchen, Françoise would make as if they had finished and even apologise by saying: ‘I just wanted a bite of something,’ or ‘a mouthful.’ Her supposed ineptitude in expressing herself exasperates M, who constantly demonstrates his facility in doing so with an endlessly proliferating sequence of sub-clauses erupting at the least prompting.

This relates to another reason for preferring Françoise above all others that populate Proust’s ‘world entire,’ as parts in the novel that feature her are generally an occasion of humour, as M’s frustration with her manifests itself in a haughty and staccato sentence style, often a welcome relief from his normative mode. The second part of In Search of Lost TimeIn The Shadow of Young Girls In Flower, contains what I believe to be the funniest part of the entire novel, if I can be allowed to decide this with two volumes remaining. This section of the novel describes a holiday that M, his grandmother and Françoise take in the coastal town of Balbec. They stay in a hotel and Françoise makes the acquaintance of a number of staff members, butlers and servants, etc. This has unexpected effects for M and his grandmother:

“she had also gotten to know one of the wine waiters, a kitchen-hand and a housekeeper from one of the floors. The result of this for our daily arrangements was that, whereas at the at the very beginning of her stay Françoise, knowing no one had kept ringing for the most trivial reasons, at times when my grandmother and I would never have dared to ring 0 and if we raised some mild objection to this,. she replies, ‘Well we’re paying them enough!’ as thought she herself was footing the bills – now that she was on friendly terms with one of the personalities from below stairs, a thing which had initially seemed to augur well for our comfort if either of us happened to have cold feet in bed, she would not countenance the idea of ringing, even at times which were in no way untoward; she said it would ‘put them out,’ it would mean the…servants’ dinner-hour would be disturbed and they would not like that…The long and short of it was that we had to make to do without proper hot water because Françoise was a friend of the man whose job it was to heat it.”

If that didn’t split your sides, Proust may not be the best place for you to get your laughs.

M probably gets annoyed as he does because he doesn’t want someone competing with him, in the realm of linguistic play, least of all an uneducated woman of the servant class, self-obsessed little twerp that he is.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time: The Guermantes Way’

A large proportion of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time is given over to salon conversations. Salons have a long history as gatherings of educated members of the upper and middle classes keen to discuss art and politics over good food and wine.

Proust makes clear that these gatherings are not mini-utopias of intellectuals forging the uncreated conscience of their race within drawing rooms. Instead, they consist mostly of nouveau riche philistines, uneducated social climbers and artists who compromise themselves through their wishes to succeed within ‘society.’

The conversations between the attendees at these salons are rendered in Proust’s deadpan manner, a mode in which he is particularly adept. The idiot comments of the idiot attendees are expressed with a minimal amount of overt editorial glossing on the part of the narrator, allowing the members of the petit gentry to condemn themselves out of their own words and actions. If one were to open the third instalment in In Search of Lost Time, The Guermantes Way on a random page, one is more likely to find one of these people sounding off on something on which they understand little about than not.

Note: So it actually took me five tries of a random page to find a demonstrative example. The first paragraph on page 236 reads: “But still, don’t lets fool ourselves; the charming views of my nephew are going to land him in queer street. Particularly with Fezensac ill at the moment. That means Duras will be will be running the election, and you know how he likes to bluff,’ said the Duc, who had never managed to learn the precise meaning of certain words and thought that bluffing meant, not shooting a line, but creating complications.”

The effect of this exhaustive rendering of banal conversation is to suffocate the reader through over-exposure to the awful things that these boring people say, making it almost impossible not to despise these poor deludes. However, the appearance of a seemingly endless succession of conversations that the narrator is privy to prompt a question or two.

Getting access and moving through the ranks of society is a nuanced process. One risks becoming a figure of fun for others, being exiled from them altogether for being perceived as a flatterer or for attending other salons, namely, not showing sufficient loyalty to one’s hosts. Therefore each salon abides by a particular code of behaviour that one should not violate, if one wishes to maintain one’s position within them. The Verdurin salon demands absolute loyalty, the Guermantes insist that art and other ‘serious topics’ are too tedious to be discussed and for Odette Swann (née de Crécy)’s salon, being an anti-Semite is, (ironically, considering M. Swann is Jewish) a bonus.

‘Wit’ and ‘eloquence’ are prized traits for any would-be salon attendee and these terms are placed within perverted commas to demonstrate how advisedly they are used in this instance; both manifest themselves more frequently as obnoxiousness. Therefore one wonders how the narrator seems to succeed in gaining access to these exclusive social clubs when he barely speaks; all the space he provides is given over to the conversation of others. Are we as readers supposed to believe that in this hyper-critical environment that the narrator, M, is allowed to sit back in silence, committing every word of the conversations of others to his memory and be invited back week after week? Especially since even the most trivial detail or impression can send him into a two or three page verbal effusions at the least notice?

One suspects that he is guilty of saying exactly the same kind of shallow nonsense enunciated by those around him and covers himself by devoting all his time to describing the foolishness of others.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower’

van-gogh-self-portrait-e1361405076205In one of the more well-worn anecdotes of literary history, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece Du côté de chez Swann was rejected by Humblot, a reader for a publishing house. In a letter, Humblot wrote the following: “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense but I just don’t understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in his bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”

Trotting out these anecdotes in general introductions to cheep and cheerful Wordsworth editions serve a very particular end, a phenomenon that Julian Barnes describes in an essay written on Vincent Van Gogh’s life and work in the London Review of Books: “this…spurs us towards self-congratulation: look how we who have come later appreciate your work, how superior our eye and taste and sympathy are to those who snubbed and misprised you back in the day.” In other words, we look back at Humblot as perhaps the most tone-deaf reader in literary history, in contrast with us, those who, if the contingencies of fate were only aligned differently, would have been born in late nineteenth century France and would have appreciated Proust’s writing, as so many of his contemporaries did not.

This is to miss, if not the point, a point.

One of the themes that Proust consistently refers to is the relationship that exists between sensibility and habit. The general track of the novel (says I, being currently (almost) half way through) is how the narrator’s sensibility, his openness and receptivity to the world around him in all its strangeness and assorted differengenera comes to be overwhelmed by his habits. Sexual debauchery, love, drunkenness, no matter how novel and abject these feelings are when we first experience them, we, with surprising rapidity become adjusted to them, to the point that we barely can be said to experience them at all.

Habit is not a malign however, though it calcifies our precious and individual sensibility. It is a wholly necessary force, allowing us to grow accustomed to people and places that our sensibility led us to despise instinctively. As Proust writes: “habit…also undertakes to endear us to people whom we disliked to begin with, alters the shapes of their face, improves their tone of voice, makes hearts grow fonder.”

The average sentence length in English writing is around 15-17 words, style guides generally recommend that sentences longer than twenty words be shortened as it is likely that they are unclear or convoluted. From a very rudimentary quantitative analysis, I found Proust’s sentences to be, on average, 35 words long. It is therefore possible to view Humblot as not just the first, but one of the more perceptive of Proust’s critics, immediately getting to the heart of what it is that is unique about Proust’s style.

The point behind Proust’s excessively long sentences is precisely this – their excess. What we judge as a coherent sentence in a novel runs to a certain length. We are accustomed to it and when we read, we are within the realm of habit. Proust’s prose is intended to be shocking, to awaken us to the possibilities of language and thought, to appeal to our sensibilities again by having our texts violently defamiliarised from ourselves.

I would accord more with Humblot’s reading than with the mainstream understanding of Proust as a canonical author, among the other masterpieces that we stock our bookshelves with and rarely read. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, speaks pithily of Proust’s irreconcilable strangeness, based on the highly irregular nature of his prose style: “Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even.” If that wasn’t devastating enough, Grieve delivers a final cruelty: “His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.”

Far from being a word virtuoso, a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; his idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliant and bizarre novel.