It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.
Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*
In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.
As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.
Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.
By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.
My PhD research will involve arguing that there has been a resurgence of modernist aesthetics in the novels of a number of contemporary authors. These authors are Anne Enright, Will Self, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. All these writers have at various public events and in the course of many interviews, given very different accounts of their specific relation to modernism, and even if the definition of modernism wasn’t totally overdetermined, we could spend the rest of our lives defining the ways in which their writing engages, or does not engage, with the modernist canon. Indeed, if I have my way, this is what I will spend a substantial portion of my life doing.
It is not in the spirit of reaching a methodology of greater objectivity that I propose we analyse these texts through digital methods; having begun my education in statistical and quantitative methodologies in September of last year, I can tell you that these really afford us no *better* a view of any text then just reading them would, but fortunately I intend to do that too.
This cluster dendrogram was generated in R, and owes its existence to Matthew Jockers’ book Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, from which I developed a substantial portion of the code that creates the output above.
What the code is attentive to, is the words that these authors use the most. When analysing literature qualitatively, we tend to have a magpie sensibility, zoning in on words which produce more effects or stand out in contrast to the literary matter which surrounds it. As such, the ways in which a writer would use the words ‘the’, ‘an’, ‘a’, or ‘this’, tends to pass us by, but they may be far more indicative of a writer’s style, or at least in the way that a computer would be attentive to; sentences that are ‘pretty’ are generally statistically insignificant.
Every corpus that you can see in the above image was scanned into R, and then run through a code which counted the number of times every word was used in the text. The resulting figure is called the word’s frequency, and was then reduced down to its relative frequency, by dividing the figure by total number of words, and multiplying the result by 100. Every word with a relative frequency above a certain threshold was put into a matrix, and a function was used to cluster each matrix together based on the similarity of the figures they contained, according to a Euclidean metric I don’t fully understand.
The final matrix was 21 X 57, and compared these 21 corpora on the basis of their relative usage of the words ‘a’, ‘all’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘are’, ‘as’, ‘at’, ‘be’, ‘but’, ‘by’, ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘had’, ‘have’, ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘I’, ‘if’, ‘in’, ‘is’, ‘it’, ‘like’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘no’, ‘not’, ‘now’, ‘of’, ‘on’, ‘one’, ‘or’, ‘out’, ‘said’, ‘she’, ‘so’, ‘that’, ‘the’, ‘them’, ‘then’, ‘there’, ‘they’, ‘this’, ‘to’, ‘up’, ‘was’, ‘we’, ‘were’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘which’, ‘with’, ‘would’, and ‘you’.
Anyway, now we can read the dendrogram.
Speaking about the dendrogram in broad terms can be difficult for precisely the reason that I indicative above; quantitative/qualitative methodologies for text analysis are totally opposed to one another, but what is obvious is that Eimear McBride and Gertrude Stein are extreme outliers, and comparable only to each other. This is one way unsurprising, because of the brutish, repetitive styles and is in other ways very surprising, because McBride is on record as dismissing her work, for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’
Jorge Luis Borges and Marcel Proust have branched off in their own direction, as has Sara Baume, which I’m not quite sure what to make of. Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner have formed their own nexus. More comprehensible is the Anne Enright, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, F. Scott FitzGerald and Virginia Woolf cluster; one could make, admittedly sweeping judgements about how this could be said to be modernism’s extreme centre, in which the radical experimentalism of its more revanchiste wing was fused rather harmoniously with nineteenth-century social realism, which produced a kind of indirect discourse, at which I think each of these authors excel.
These revanchistes are well represented in the dendrogram’s right wing, with Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes having clustered together, though I am not quite sure what to make of Ford Madox Ford/Joseph Conrad’s showing at all, being unfamiliar with the work.
The basic rule in interpreting dendrograms is that the closer the ‘leaves’ reach the bottom, the more similar they can be said to be. Therefore, Anne Enright and Will Self are the contemporary modernists most closely aligned to the forebears, if indeed forebears they can be said to be. It would be harder, from a quantitative perspective, to align Sara Baume with this trend in a straightforward manner, and McBride only seems to correlate with Stein because of how inalienably strange their respective prose styles are.
The primary point to take away here, if there is one, is that more investigations are required. The analysis is hardly unproblematic. For one, the corpus sizes vary enormously. Borges’ corpus is around 46 thousand words, whereas Proust reaches somewhere around 1.2 million. In one way, the results are encouraging, Borges and Barnes, two authors with only one texts in their corpus, aren’t prevented from being compared to novelists with serious word counts, but in another way, it is pretty well impossible to derive literary measurements from texts without taking their length into account. The next stage of the analysis will probably involve breaking the corpora up into units of 50 thousand words, so that the results for individual novels can be compared.
Aspiration: 50/50 gender & POC split (currently at a lame and terrible 20% and 0% respectively)
Samuel Beckett — How It Is
Reaching the conclusion that How It Is represents Beckett’s prose writing reaching its most concentrated point of distillation and intensity is somewhat inevitable, seeing as it was his last novel; the longest prose work subsequent to How It Is barely reaches the length of a novella, almost as if the weight of the novelistic tradition, a form known for its expansiveness and maximalism, couldn’t withstand Beckett’s striving towards a more hermetic and taciturn literature.
Having said this, I don’t wish to fetishise How It Is for its its impecuniousness alone, for there are plenty of sections in which traditionally pretty descriptive prose appears:
we are on a veranda smothered in verbena the scented sun dapples the red tiles yes I assure you the huge head hatted with birds and flowers is bowed down over my curls the eyes burn with severe love I offer her mine pale upcast to the sky whence cometh our help and which I know perhaps even then with time shall pass away
The ‘yes I assure you’ is demonstrative of How It Is’ overriding push/pull dynamic, in advancing an almost sickly description, almost reminiscent of Keats alongside its subverting narrative commentary. But this doesn’t deaden the effect of the writing, just as setting imagery of abject ugliness and inhumanity amid these lyrical digressions intensifies the effects of both:
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
2. Jorge Luis Borges — Labyrinths
In talking about the short story’s as one of the more concentrated literary forms, one in which space is at a premium, and there can’t be too many words that don’t belong there, I think the work of Jorge Luis Borges is most deserving of mention. No other writer that I’m aware of is capable in under five hundred words of totally challenging the ways in which you think, how you think about how you think, and how you think about how you think about how you think. His capacity to do so through use of a style that is predominantly unadorned and perhaps uninviting makes him all the more fit to be praised.
Since ‘On Exactitude in Science’ is the length of just one paragraph, I’ll present it here:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
At the premium of literary art is its capacity to open up entire worlds with just words on a page. For those who believe world-building to be a preserve of genre fiction only, I encourage them to read Borges.
3. J.M. Coetzee — Waiting for the Barbarians
The allegory, and playing with the conventions around allegory, is a way in which Coetzee’s writing career in its entirety has been characterised by critics, but it might be a line of interpretation advanced too tenuously; it might be more accurate to say that his novels reflect a radical scepticism regarding narrative itself; an unwillingness to confront anything directly. In the Heart of the Country is one of the most deft examples of metafiction I’ve ever come across, and in its refusal to fix its plot around any one sequence of events, we see a narrative force that is as congenial to the forces of its unmaking as its genesis.
Waiting for the Barbarians is more contained than In the Heart of the Country in this sense, but in no other. That it has parallels to South African society under apartheid will surprise no one familiar with the rich literary tradition of that political milieu of the past fifty years, but it has also an uncanny capacity to encompass and seemingly respond to the nature of racial prejudice and ethnically-based in general. I was so sure that it was a product of the Bush years, so I Googled it to find out whether it was written in 2007 or 2005, only to discover that it was published in 1980. Not to turn my ignorance into a virtue, but I think this speaks to its universality.
Which is not to say that the narrative entire is grounded in geopolitics — in the colonial administrator’s love affair with one of the supposed barbarians, we are permitted to meditate on the unknowability of any love object, and by extension ourselves, how ‘In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.’
4. Don DeLillo — Underworld
To write a Great American Novel has, thankfully, become rather passé, after feminist critics drew attention to how unusual it is for a female author to be feted with this title. The liberal commentariat’s realisation that they have committed the error of elevating Jonathan Franzen to the role of cultural commentator. Underworld, I would say, is one of the few published in recent years that’s worth reading, for the reason that it is a novel about America that won’t allow real life in.
Underworld is a novel supposedly about baseball, the lost era of old New York, the faux-simplicity of the Cold War, and yet there is nothing ordinary, white bread or milquetoast about the America in this novel; the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted and unsettling sections in the text.
It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As you read it, you may find yourself compulsively noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the famous magic bullet. But for once, I’d encourage any potential reader not to spend their time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this good.
Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.
5. Anne Enright — The Green Road
Enright is one of those few authors that refuses to write the same book twice, and never makes you regret it. Because there is, as publishers well know, a great seductive quality in becoming used to one writing style. Many authors who are too protean, simply do not catch on in a crowded marketplace. Well Enright is interested, and is good at, change. This is how she can move from the hilariously picaresque and surreal The Wig my Father Wore through the tortured monologue of The Gathering to an adept Irish family novel about land, which one could almost call realist, so subtle is the indirect discourse which drives it.
Enright is a deeply intellectual author, but unlike many book-readin’ writers, her ideas exists beneath the surface of the words, just gestured towards, to be decoded on repeated readings. For first readings, just allow the sentences to do their thing. You could read The Green Road all the way through and have no notion of the fact that its in conversation with William Shakespeare’s King Lear. You wouldn’t want to, of course, but you could.
It is a novel of many parts. Each of Rosaleen Madigan’s children get their own section and so the novel roves from Clare to New York to Mali and back, before they are all assembled for the set piece of the Christmas dinner. I really can’t emphasise enough how well this is done. It is in the novel’s closing sections that the function behind its structure becomes clear, in seeing exactly where these people are coming from, their ambivalence regarding their role in the family before their adult lives, then watching those roles slowly overcome them is great, hilarious and sad. A novel with characters you care about, things to say and great writing is too rare, which makes The Green Road all the more valuable.
6. William Faulkner — As I Lay Dying
7. David Foster Wallace — Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace might be said to be undergoing his D.H. Lawrence moment, in having his reputation defined for too long by a reading community of dudey-bro-y dudebro brodudes, and y’know, to look at his representations of women, here and in The Pale King, not to mention his opinions, or life, it can be hard to say his books don’t deserve scrutiny. It is slightly disappointing all the same to see an author who, among the authors of phallogocentric literary fiction, to be tarred as such, considering he’s among the most giving of them. Infinite Jest apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre, and reading about eschaton is about as much fun as you can have with your eyes open.
Its flaws, the sections dealing with the Québecois separatists, the exposition-laden conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin, don’t totally come good in the end, but the unavoidable ambivalence one develops when reading a novel Infinite Jest’s length and ambition, is a feature, rather than a bug. As in any important relationship, the challenge is what matters.
So give yourself the chance to read it. It’s more than readable, and far more interesting than Foster Wallace’s persona as it has been construed in the pop-culture landscape since his death; as an icon, he simply cannot compare with the questions that his work throws up.
8. William Gaddis — The Recognitions
William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a very conflicted novel. It is a profoundly generative work, one which may have given us every maximalist, encyclopaedic 500+ page text in contemporary American letters since, and it is also a profoundly angry text, one which lashes out at everything: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, the complacently bourgeois creative class, all these and more are targets of Gaddis’ ire.
However, it is also a novel based on profound erudition and cultural awareness. Its most proximate literary cousin is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and just as gallantly as Proust does, Gaddis manages to balance many portentous thematic concerns with Being, death and sex, alongside a vibrant social comedy. If I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the hipsters of 1950’s New York are.
And of course, the sentences are very powerful
Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.
It can often be a struggle, Jonathan Franzen tried, and mostly failed to deal with it (in a public article no less), but the bonus of my edition is a foreword by William H. Gass himself, who provides us with a great key to the work, as well as a get-out clause, should we find it too difficult:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.
9. William H. Gass — The Tunnel
10. James Joyce — Ulysses
I was once challenged to sum up a novel’s plot in six words, and for Ulysses, my attempt was ‘2 sad men meet. a woman thinks.’ This is a perfect example of how, when it comes to summing up Ulysses, its hard to know where to begin. Humour, bathos, beauty, poetry, history, love, death, family, sex, great writing, it has everything you could ever want.
I won’t contest that it’s a grower, and if you come to it fresh (‘fresh’ in this case meaning, having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which will be necessary), expect to find yourself moving your eyes over large tracts of text without quite knowing exactly what’s happening. Reading aloud helps.
For those who may be used to more genre fare, there are sections for you too, there’s an episode written in the manner of a nineteenth-century romance novel, and while the line attributed to Joyce about enigmas codified into the text in sufficient quantities to keep the professors busy for hundreds of years is definitely apocryphal, what it tells us about the novel is definitely true — the novel is so dense with allusion, red herrings and unresolved questions that you’ll find yourself in the role of a sort of detective, which, is not a wholly inappropriate tack to take with Ulysses, since Joyce designed his one day in Dublin with meticulous attention to detail, his notes on how long it takes to walk down particular stretches of urban walkways, or the businesses Bloom encounters in his perambulations, were all derived from sources, and correspondences with people Joyce contacted in Dublin. A staggering work, everyone should make time for it.
11. Ben Marcus — The Flame Alphabet
12. Flann O’Brien — The Third Policeman
13. Marcel Proust — In Search of Lost Time
The term ‘baggy monster’, so often applied to the novel, is a rather ingenious one, as it captures a central ambivalence regarding the form in relation to itself. Both terms can be read negatively, in fact, they are perhaps more on the negative end of the spectrum than not, but taken together there’s something alluring about it, particularly when you have come to know, over the course of reading many of them, how successful a novel can be in reaching for exactly the kind of excess that ‘good taste’ might seem to advise against. Well there’s plenty baggy and monstrous in Proust’s seven volume work In Search of Lost Time, but, as much as it could be said to be in need of an editor, its vices are perhaps indissociable from its virtues.
And this is itself a virtue. What other work of fiction can be so assuming as to impose itself on you 1,267,069 words? Well it isn’t for no reason, and a close reading of fin-de-siecle French bourgeois culture next to the metaphysician Bergson is more than worth the time you’d spend on it. Yes, it is occasionally tedious, and seemingly repetitive, but you’re unlikely to come away from Proust without recognising yourself in at least a few of the characters, nor coming to some disturbing conclusions regarding the way you live your life. Write down your definitions of habit, love and time before getting into these novels. It’s unlikely they’ll have remained intact in your journey through these texts.
But don’t come to it with a pious reverence. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, writes in his introduction to the second volume that
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…His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.
Far from being a virtuoso of words, or a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept, or amateurish, and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; the idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliantly bizarre novel.
14. Thomas Pynchon — Gravity’s Rainbow
15. J.D. Salinger — The Catcher in the Rye
Yes, I know, I should definitely have grown out of thinking this novel is great. Well, every time I’ve gotten back to it, convinced that this time, this time, I’ll realise that I am an adult, and that Holden Caulfield is an annoying idiot, and The Catcher in the Rye is a novel for teenagers, well, it doesn’t happen, and I could read him a hundred novels with him just going about his business, being judgemental and obnoxious inside his own head forever and ever. My liking him is somewhat beside the point, and perhaps proves my immaturity, so I’ll try to deal with why these critics are wrong, for the fact that they seem to miss the rather big reveal at the end that Holden’s been institutionalised, and the oscillation between two different periods of time in his narrative; a representation of his thoughts in the moment and his recollection, attest further to his divided state of mind. It’s a bit odd to hear literary critics condemn him so roundly when his curmudgeonly attitude surely doesn’t lack for a cause.
It’s a great testament to Salinger’s skill as a writer that the surface level of the text, a brash, abusive narrator, can seem so available, that going any deeper into it would seem wrongheaded, but I think he, like all unreliable narrators, provides you with a clue up front. The novel begins, after all, with an act of self-censorship, an invocation to silence, as Holden refuses to provide a holistic appraisal of his self or his place in the world, something that he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”
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.
The question that this blog post sets itself is: What differences and similarities can be detected in modernist and contemporary authors on the basis of three stylistic variables; hapax, unique and ambiguity, and how are these stylistic variables related to one another?
I: The Data
The data to be analysed in this project were derived from an analysis of twenty-one corpora of avant-garde literary prose through use of the open-source programming language R. The complete works of the authors James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence were used.
Seventeen of these writers were active between the years 1895 and 1968, a period of time associated with a genre of writing referred to as ‘modernist’ within the field of literary criticism. The remaining four remain alive, and have novels published as early as 1991, and as late as 2016. These novelists are known for their identification as latter-day modernists, and perceive their novels as re-engaging with the modernist aesthetic in a significant way.
The unique variable is a generally accepted measurement used within digital literary criticism to quantify the ‘richness’ of a particular text’s vocabulary. The formula for uniqueness is obtained by dividing the number of distinct word types in a text by the total number of words. For example, if a novel contained 20000 word types, but 100000 total words, the formula for obtaining this text’s uniqueness would be as follows:
20000/100000 = Uniqueness is equal to 0.2
Ambiguity is a measure used to calculate the approximate obscurity of a text, or the extent to which it is composed of indefinite pronouns. The indefinite pronouns quantified in this study are as follows, ‘another’, ‘anybody’, ‘anyone’, ‘anything’, ‘each’, ‘either’, ‘enough’, ‘everybody’, ‘everyone’, ‘everything’, ‘little’, ‘much’, ‘neither’, ‘nobody’, ‘no one’, ‘nothing’, ‘one’, ‘other’, ‘somebody’, ‘someone’, ‘something’, ‘both’, ‘few’, ‘everywhere’, ‘somewhere’, ‘nowhere’, ‘anywhere’, ‘many’, ‘others’, ‘all’, ‘any’, ‘more’, ‘most’, ‘none’, ‘some’, ‘such’. The formula for ambiguity is:
number of indefinite pronouns / number of total words
Finally, the hapax variable calculates the density of hapax legomena, words which appear only once in a particular author’s oeuvre. The formula for this variable is:
number of hapax legomena / number of total words
II: Data Overview
Even before analysing the data in great depth, the fact that these variables are interrelated with one another stands to a logical analysis. Hapax and unique are best understood as an indication of a text’s heterogeneity, as if a text is hapax-rich, the score for uniqueness will be similarly elevated. Ambiguity, as it is a set of pre-defined words, can be considered a measure of a text’s homogeneity, and if the occurrences of these commonplace words are increasing, hapax and uniqueness will be negatively effected. The aim of this study will be to first determine how these measures vary according to the time frame in which the different texts were written, i.e. across modern and contemporary corpora, which correlations between stylistic variables exist, and which of the three is most subject to the fluctuations of another.
IV.I: The Three Groups Hypothesis
A number of things are clear from these representations of the data. The first finding is that the authors fall into approximately three distinct groups. The first is the base- level of early twentieth-century modernist authors, who are all relatively undifferentiated. These are Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. They are all below the mean for the hapax and unique variables.
The second group reach into more extreme values for unique and hapax. These are Djuna Barnes, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. Three of these authors are even outliers for the hapax variable, which can be seen in the box plot.
Joyce’s position as an extreme outlier in this context is probably due to his novel Finnegans Wake (1939), which was written in an amalgam of English, French, Irish, Italian and Norwegian. It’s no surprise then, that Joyce’s value for hapax is so high. The following quotation may be sufficient to give an indication of how eccentric the language of the novel is:
La la la lach! Hillary rillarry gibbous grist to our millery! A pushpull, qq: quiescence, pp: with extravent intervulve coupling. The savest lauf in the world. Paradoxmutose caring, but here in a present booth of Ballaclay, Barthalamou, where their dutchuncler mynhosts and serves them dram well right for a boors’ interior (homereek van hohmryk) that salve that selver is to screen its auntey and has ringround as worldwise eve her sins (pip, pip, pip)
Though Borges’ and Barnes’ prose may not be as far removed from modern English as Finnegans Wake, both of these authors are known for their highly idiosyncratic use of language; Borges for his use of obscure terms derived from archaic sources, and Barnes for reversing normative grammatical and syntactic structures in unique ways.
The third and final group may be thought of as an intermediary between these two extremes, and these are Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Beckett, Will Self and Anne Enright. These authors share characteristics of both groups, in that the values for ambiguity remain stable, but their uniqueness and hapax counts are far more pronounced than the first group, but not to the extent that they reach the values of the second group.
Gertrude Stein is the only author who’s stylistic profile doesn’t quite fit into any of the three groups. She is perhaps best thought of as most closely analogous to the first group of early twentieth century modernists, but her extreme value for ambiguity should be sufficient to distinguish her in this regard.
The value for ambiguity remains fairly stable throughout the dataset, the standard deviation is 0.03, but if Stein’s values are removed from the dataset, the standard deviation narrows from 0.03 to 0.01.
Two disclaimers need to be made about this general account from the descriptive statistics and graphs. The first is that there is a fundamental issue with making such a schematic account of these texts. The grouping approach that this project has taken thus far is insufficiently nuanced as it could probably be argued that McBride could just as easily fit into the third group as the second. Therefore, the stylistic variables do not adequately distinguish modern and contemporary corpora from one another.
IV.II Word Count
It should not escape our attention that those authors who score lowest for each variable and that the first group of early twentieth-century author are the most prolific. The correlation between word count and the stylistic variables was therefore constructed.
Both the Pearson correlation and Spearman’s rho suggest that word count is highly negatively correlated with hapax and unique (as word count increases, hapax and unique decreases and vice versa), but not with ambiguity.
The fact that the Spearman’s rho scores significantly higher than the Pearson suggests that the relationship between the two are non-linear. This can be seen in the scatter plot.
In the case of both variables, the correlation is obviously negative, but the data points fall in a non-linear way, suggesting that the Spearman’s rho is the better measure for calculating the relationship. In both cases it would seem that Joyce is the outlier, and most likely to be the author responsible for distorting the correlation.
SPSS flags the correlation between hapax and unique as being significant, as this is clearly the most noteworthy relationship between the three stylistic variables. The Spearman’s rho exceeded the Spearman correlation by a marginal amount, and it was therefore decided that the relationship was non-linear, which is confirmed by the scatter plot below:
The stylistic variables of unique and hapax are therefore highlycorrelated.
As was said already, the notion that stylistic variables are correlated stands to reason. However, it was not until the correlation tests were carried out that the extent to which uniqueness and hapax are determined by one another was made clear.
The biggest issue with this study is the issue that is still present within digital comparative analyses in literature generally; our apparent incapacity to compare texts of differing lengths. Attempts have been made elsewhere to account for the huge difference that a text’s length clearly makes to measures of its vocabulary, such as vectorised analyses that take measurements in 1000 word windows, but none have yet been wholly successful in accounting for this difference. This study is therefore one among many which presents its results with some clarifiers, considering how corpora of similar lengths clustered together with one another to the extent that they did. The only author that violated this trend was Joyce, who, despite a lengthy corpus of 265500 words, has the highest values for hapax and uniqueness, which marks his corpus out as idiosyncratic. Joyce’s style is therefore the only of the twenty-one authors that we can say has a writing style that can be meaningfully distinguished from the others on the basis of the stylistic variables, because he so egregiously reverses the trend.
But we hardly needed an analysis of this kind to say Joyce writes differently from most authors, did we.
When I started Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time and, indeed, when I had finished Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, the only awareness that I had of French literature was limited to Gustave Flaubert’s one volume novel Madame Bovary, which I tapped out of reading at around page seventy, firstly because my idealistic commitment to reading it in French was proving very difficult and I was too pig-headed to change over to the English translation. The three or four page rant the guy gives in the pub about agriculture and rational philosophy seemed to be overly explicit thematising on Flaubert’s part, too holistic, too nineteenth-century and too boring. I went on to something else, Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1970, I think. Apart from this, I had no knowledge of French literature, with the possible exception of Samuel Beckett if he counts and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, which is magical of course, but not terribly applicable to Proust.
As such, I was on the lookout for comparisons that could be made between Flaubert’s novel and Proust’s. The most obvious point of comparison could perhaps be found in the ballroom scene in the early stages of Madame Bovary, when the newlyweds Emma and Charles attend a fairly swish party in the castle of La Vaubyessard, hosted by the Marquis and Marquesse d’Aubervilliers. What follows is a rather famous description of the wealth and luxury of the party, both of which are augmented through Emma’s inflected perspective on reality and her desire to enter into her abstract notion of what that society is:
“Their clothes, of better cut, seemed to be of softer material, and their hair, gathered in curls at their temples, had the sheen of finest pomade. Their complexion was that of wealth, the shade of white that enhances the pallor of porcelain, the watered shimmer of satin, the shine of beautiful furniture, maintained in the peak of health by a simple and exquisite diet. Their necks moved effortlessly in low cravats; their long sideburns rested on turned-down collars; they dabbed their lips with handkerchiefs embroidered with large initials and from which rose sweet smells. The older ones looked youthful, while there was something middle-aged about the young men’s faces.”
This is a really vivid sequence and stands out among the almost a third of the novel that I’ve bothered to read. The description is subtly grounded in Emma’s point of view (how else would the words ‘better’ and ‘softer’ have a point of reference?), the strikingly luxurious diction is accentuated by the languorous undulation of the sentences but most of all, the people it supposedly describes are encumbered; they become mere referents for the materiality of their appearance, which is precisely the point. This is a mechanism deployed to emphasise Emma’s naiveté.
The closing sections of the final volume of In Search of Lost Time contains an equally striking description of a soirée, although it is so for very different reasons. Marcel, the narrator, is at this point in the novel, an old man and has recently returned to high society after a long period of seclusion. He has recently realised that his lifelong literary ambitions, if they are to be fulfilled, will be realised by bringing to life in prose the world that he now occupies, that of the Parisian upper and middle classes. This world then begins to manifest itself in a rather macabre and abject manner:
“it is more as a jigging puppet, with a beard made of white wool, that I saw him twitched about and walked up and down in the drawing-room, as if he were in a scientific and philosophical puppet show, in which he served, as in a funeral address or a lecture at the Sorbonne, both as a reminder of the vanity of all things and as a specimen of natural history…puppets which were an expression of Time, Time which is normally not visible, which seeks out bodies in order to become so and wherever it finds them seizes upon them for its magic lantern show.”
Marcel has arrived at a party and finds all of his friends so aged and changed, that he is unable to recognise any of them, and casts them as old marionettes, manoeuvred by the invisible hand of time, jostled along by threads (a word he later uses in relation to the links that bring us to other people that we meet in our lives) that only he, the author can perceive. In some ways, he makes himself the puppet master, at a safe distance from the decline visible in his extended group of friends.
That irrevocable agent of time may be responsible, but its him that gawps over it for a hundred or so pages, describes each one of his supposed friends past their prime in detail. Exactly why Emma perceives this age-reversal dynamic in the crowds of the upper crust remains for me to puzzle over, but if I was to reach for a fun, if unlikely explanation, I could sit it next to the final paragraph in the Proust quotation, which seems to evoke some sort of composite of the mythological beings of the changeling and the succubus, of immortal hermit crab people, capable of ‘entering’ these marionette bodies as they wish to. Probably not, never mind.
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.
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 Time, In 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.
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.
In 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.