Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov 1980, pps 212-215.
Style, I remind you, is the manner of an author, the particular manner that sets him apart from any other author. ...
The style of Proust contains three especially distinctive elements:
1. A wealth of metaphorical imagery, layer upon layer of comparisons. It is through this prism that we view the beauty of Proust's work. For Proust the term metaphor is often used in a loose sense, as a synonym for the hybrid form*, or for comparison in general, because for him the simile constantly grades into the metaphor, and vice versa, with the metaphorical moment predominating.
2. A tendency to fill in and stretch out a sentence to its utmost breadth and length, to cram the sentence with a miraculous number of clauses, parenthetic phrases, subordinate clauses, sub-subordinate clauses.
3. With older novelists there used to be a very definite distinction between the descriptive passage and the dialogue part: a passage of descriptive matter and then the conversation taking over, and so on. But Proust's conversations and his descriptions merge into one another, creating a new unity where flower and leaf and insect belong to one and the same blossoming tree. ...
My mother did not appear, but with no attempt to safeguard my self-respect (which depended upon her keeping up the fiction that she had asked me to let her know the result of my search for something or other) made Francoise tell me, in so many words 'There is no answer'—words I have so often, since then, heard the janitors of public dancing-halls and the flunkeys in gambling-clubs and the like, repeat to some poor girl, who replies in bewilderment: 'What! he's said nothing? It's not possible. You did give him my letter, didn't you? Very well, I shall wait a little longer.' And just as she invariably protests that she does not need the extra gas which the janitor offers to light for her, and sits on there ... so, having declined Francoise's offer to make me some tisane or to stay beside me, I let her go off again to the servants' hall, and lay down and shut my eyes, and tried not to hear the voices of my family who were drinking their after-dinner coffee in the garden.
This episode (from Swann's Way) is followed by a description of the moonlight and silence which perfectly illustrates Proust's working of metaphors within metaphors.
The boy opens his window and sits on the foot of his bed, hardly daring to move lest he be heard by those below. (1) "Things outside seemed also fixed in mute expectation." (2) They seemed not to wish "to disturb the moonlight." (3) Now what was the moonlight doing? The moonlight duplicated every object and seemed to push it back owing to the forward extension of a shadow. What kind of a shadow? A shadow that seemed "denser and more concrete than the object" itself. (4) By doing all this the moonlight "made the whole landscape at once leaner and larger like [additional simile] a map which is unfolded and spread out" flat. (5) There was some movement: "What had to move—the leafage of some chestnut-tree, for instance—moved. But its punctilious shiver [what kind of shiver?] complete, finished to the least shade, to the least delicate detail [this fastidious shiver] did not encroach upon the rest of the scene, did not grade into it, remaining clearly limited"—since it happened to be illumined by the moon and all the rest was in shadow. (6) The silence and the distant sounds. Distant sounds behaved in relation to the surface of silence in the same way as the patch of moonlit moving leafage in relation to the velvet of the shade. The most distant sound, coming from "gardens at the far end of the town, could be distinguished with such exact 'finish,' that the impression they gave of remoteness [an additional simile follows] seemed due only to their 'pianissimo' execution [again a simile follows] like those movements on muted strings" at the Conservatory. Now those muted strings are described: "although one does not lose one single note," they come from "outside, a long way from the concert hall so that [and now we are in that concert hall] all the old subscribers, and my grandmother's sisters too, when Swann gave them his seats, used to strain their ears as if [final simile] they had caught the distant approach of an army on the march, which had not yet rounded the corner" of the street.
*Nabokov illustrates a simple simile as "the mist was like a veil"; a simple metaphor as "there was a veil of mist"; and a hybrid simile as "the veil of the mist was like the sleep of silence," combining both simile and metaphor. HB
From Marcel Proust, Bloom's Major Novelists by Harold Bloom 2003.
Noiselessly I opened the window and sat down on the foot of my bed; hardly daring to move in case they should hear me from below. Things outside seemed also fixed in mute expectation, so as not to disturb the moonlight which, duplicating each of them and throwing it back by the extension, forwards, of a shadow denser and more concrete than its substance, had made the whole landscape seem at once thinner and longer, like a map which, after being folded up, is spread out upon the ground. What had to move — a leaf of the chestnut-tree, for instance — moved. But its minute shuddering, complete, finished to the least detail and with utmost delicacy of gesture, made no discord with the rest of the scene, and yet was not merged in it, remaining clearly outlined. Exposed upon this surface of silence, which absorbed nothing from them, the most distant sounds, those which must have come from gardens at the far end of the town, could be distinguished with such exact ‘finish’ that the impression they gave of coming from a distance seemed due only to their ‘pianissimo’ execution, like those movements on muted strings so well performed by the orchestra of the Conservatoire that, although one does not lose a single note, one thinks all the same that they are being played somewhere outside, a long way from the concert hall, so that all the old subscribers, and my grandmother’s sisters too, when Swann had given them his seats, used to strain their ears as if they had caught the distant approach of an army on the march, which had not yet rounded the corner of the Rue de Trévise.
Du côté de chez Swann by Marcel Proust 1913 translated as Swann's Way by C. K. Scott Moncrieff 1922.