Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Reading Hammett and Proust at The Same Time

In conjunction with watching the series Monsieur Spade (about which more next week perhaps), I decided to do some Sam Spade reading. There's not much of it, of course, just The Maltese Falcon and three short stories, but I'd never read two of the three Spade stories before. So in addition to re-reading "A Man Called Spade", the longest of his stories, I read "Too Many Have Lived" and "They Can Only Hang You Once". They're all solid Hammett stories, written in his sharp, not-a-wasted-word style. Sentences are short, and we get little to no writing that goes inside the characters' minds. We get gestures, actions, facial descriptions, descriptions of conversational tones. Explorations of characters' mental states we do not get, though we can infer a lot about what people are thinking from their actions, words, how they present themselves and so on. Hammett, like Hemingway, uses the iceberg approach to writing. You see the top tip of the iceberg and not the seven eighths of it underwater, but you're certainly aware of what's below the surface. The Theory of Omission, as the Iceberg Theory of writing is also called, allows for a lot of interesting ambiguity in a story, which Hammett excels at.

Now while reading the Sam Spade stories, which I did on the subway going to and from work, I also was reading Marcel Proust. About a year ago, after decades of pondering the massive work, I finally plunged into In Search of Lost Time. My plan, if I can do it (and assuming I like it) is to read the entire thing before I die. Time is limited these days, with so much reading getting done in short snippets, especially during the work week, so I decided that the way I'd read Proust would be to read two to three to five pages a night, most nights, before bed. At this rate, it'll take me years to get through In Search of Lost Time, maybe almost as long as it took Proust to write it (not that long really, I'm exaggerating), but reading it this way, I can take my time and really savor what I'm reading. Besides, as I knew going in, Proust is someone you sort of have to read slowly, or at least I do; he's not hard to read (like, say, Joyce from Ulysses on can be hard to to read), but he does demand full attention and patience. All those long sentences, all the incredibly detailed descriptions of nearly everything, the introspection upon introspection upon reflection upon yet more reflection of the events long gone by -- we are firmly in the Narrator's mind and this is writing that is majestically unhurried. You cannot do justice to this type of writing by trying to rush through the reading.

But it's interesting. As I read the Spade stories by day and continued on with Proust at night, I realized I could not have picked two more different writers to read at the same time. One is almost entirely about introspection, the other very much about surface. That's not to say Hammett doesn't achieve depth; he does, but it's of an entirely different sort than Proust's. But I also realized, reading both, that one of the pleasures I'm getting out of reading Proust, even at a few pages a night, is the pleasure of reading someone who does write long, complex, fascinating-in-themselves sentences. It's said that Proust spoke as he wrote, in long sentences, with dependent clause following dependent clause, while the listener had to wait for the sentence's verb to finally come, and one can believe that. Nobody could write as he does without having a thought process that functions that way. And I find that reading him comes as a welcome change from all the crime fiction I read, and fiction in general I read, that tends to follow the short sentence model. At its most extreme, you get the staccato sentence model. So much fiction is made up of clipped, terse, to-the-bone sentences. So much fiction is "spare".  It's definitely the dominant mode now, and that's fine. Anyway, it's hard to imagine the material of crime fiction, for example, fitting something like a Proustian model. That would be crime fiction trying to achieve effects entirely different than what most crime fiction aims for. But I find now that it can be a pleasure to pick up writing that does have an entirely different rhythm, that conveys what it does in long, syntactically complex sentences, if for no other reason than to exercise a different reading muscle than is usually required, and right now, nobody could fit that bill better than Marcel Proust.

PS: I should add that after that reading Proust or any other long sentence master for awhile, it is always enjoyable to go back to someone who writes primarily short sentences, and reading Hammett's Sam Spade stories certainly was that.

1 comment:

Art Taylor said...

Fascinating project, Scott — and yes, such fun to read things dramatically different at the same time. (I've never tried to tackle Proust... though that kind of project is right up my alley generally. I read War and Peace a chapter a day one year... there were, surprisingly, almost the exact number of chapters.)