Sometimes, after he’d been awake a few hours, though still in bed, Proust would decide on impulse to go out and see a friend. At ten or eleven at night in a dark bedroom, the only light comes from the lamp by his bed, and the fire in the fireplace if it’s winter. The dark room is crowded with furniture, including two large bookcases, a wardrobe, a grand piano, an armchair for visitors, and various little tables. Proust leaves his bed, crosses the short hallway, and gets dressed. His suit is made to measure and his patent leather boots were bought at the Old England Shop. He does not tend to wear out his shoes. He is transported by taxi and walks on carpet and parquet floors.
He arrives at his friend’s house, waking him up, and begins talking. His friend, perhaps exaggerating, later reports that Proust speaks in one long sentence that does not come to an end until the middle of the night. This sentence is full of asides, parenthetical remarks, parentheses, dashes, illuminations, reconsiderations, revisions, addenda, corrections, augmentations, digressions, qualifications, erasures, deletions, and marginal notes. The sentence, in other words, attempts to be exhaustive, to capture every nuance of a piece of reality, and yet to be correct–to reflect Proust’s entire thought. To be exhaustive and correct is of course an infinite task. More can always be inserted, more event and more nuance, more commentary on the event, and more nuance within the commentary. Many contemporaries of Proust’s insisted that he wrote the way he spoke, although when Swann’s Way appeared in print, they were startled by what they saw as the severity of the page. Where were the pauses, the inflections; there were not enough empty spaces, not enough punctuation marks. “I can’t read it,” said one old father to his son. “You read it aloud to me.” The sentences did not seem as long when they were spoken as when they were read on the page. The voice punctuated. On the page, the punctuation is eccentric. Certain sentences are remarkable for their absence of commas, and others for having suddenly so many more commas than you would expect. The punctuation obeys some other law. Is this style conversational or not? Well, it seems to want to give the illusion of the conversational. Sentences begin with “and so,” “but,” “in fact,” “actually,” “and yet,” “of course,” “yes,” “no,” “wasn’t it true,” “really.” But what a strange conversation, long and one-sided, composed in darkness and silence. And sentences so elaborately constructed with towering architectures of subordinate phrases that you have to stop and think, and then go back over them, just to figure them out.
From Lydia Davis’ terrific talk on Proust at PEN’s salute to him. Full text of her remarks is here.