Proust on cliches and light

Proust on cliches and light

What’s with all the fuss about using clichés in creative writing?

I had the opportunity recently to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life – an amusing yet utilitarian text which encourages both the reading of Proust and finding the time to do so, no mean task. I hit upon a passage about why clichés are discouraged by writing teachers the world over.

Obviously, it’s because they’re not original – and because they’re not original they carry the tired dull effect of having been heard so often. Which is the opposite effect that you as a writer want to engender in your readers.

So, to share a little of de Botton’s entertaining insights directly from his research on Proust – a persistent ‘originalist’ par excellence – here we go with de Botton’s telling of a tale of moons, sunsets and the sun rising:

De Botton on Marcel Proust

‘Proust had a friend called Gabriel de a Rochefoucauld. He was an aristocratic young man whose ancestor had written a famous short book in the seventeenth century, and who liked to spend time in glamorous Paris night spots, so much time that he had been labelled by some of his more sarcastic contemporaries, ‘… Rochefoucauld de chez Maxim’s’. But in 1904, Gabriel forsook the night life in order to try his hand at literature. The result was a novel, The Lover and the Doctor, which Gabriel sent to Proust in manuscript form as soon as it was finished, with a request for comments and advice.

“Bear in mind that you have written a fine and powerful novel, a superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship,” Proust reported back to his friend, who might have formed a slightly different impression after reading the lengthy letter which had preceded this eulogy. It seems that the superb and tragic work had a few problems, not least because it was filled with clichés: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” explained Proust, treading delicately, ‘but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality. It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.’ [No doubt the parlance of moons described as ‘discreet’ was more commonly used in French in the early twentieth century than the early twenty-first century.]

We may ask why Proust objected to phrases that had been used too often. After all, doesn’t the moon shine discreetly? Don’t sunsets look as if they are on fire? Aren’t clichés just good ideas that have proved rightly popular?

The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or a moon, we will end believing that this is the last rather that the first word to be said on the subject. Clichés are detrimental in so far as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

The moon Gabriel mentioned might of course have been discreet, but it was liable to have been a lot more besides. When the first volume of Proust’s novel was published eight years after The Lover and the Doctor, one wonders whether Gabriel [if he wasn’t back ordering Dom Perignon at Maxim’s] took time to notice that Proust had also included a moon, but that he had skirted two thousand years of ready-made moon talk, and uncovered an unusual metaphor better to capture the reality of the lunar experience.

“Sometimes in the afternoon sky a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to ‘come on’ for a while, and so goes ‘in front’ in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself.”‘  (pp 96-98)

Salut! Alain Botton. We’re grateful to you for this snippet by Proust – as ever, thoughtful and painstaking with language, marking out an original route regardless of how long it might have taken him to extend the metaphor to make it vital and therefore memorable.

The sun also rises …

But before we go on to show how members of our writing groups, when pressed, might also give acclamation to some qualities of morning light, may I offer you Sophocles’ power-packed presentation from about 440 BCE?:

Now the long blade of the sun, lying

Level east to west, touches with glory

Thebes of the Seven Gates. Open, unlidded

Eye of golden day! O marching light

Across the eddy and rush of Dirce’s stream,

Striking the white shields of the enemy

Thrown headlong backward from the blaze of morning!


And so to the original thoughts of some of our own Sydney Writers Circle meetup members …

Rising sun  by Maria Issaris

The sun rising,: I think of Goethe’s Faust, and murder. The sun rising is supposed to be the antidote to dark thoughts and deeds. So, in murder investigations it is well known that killings very rarely take place at dawn or in the brightness of new day – when the sun spills itself open like an egg over the city or fields or sea or mountains – which is the thing isn’t it – you forget in the warmth of sleep where you are, what you are doing; you are numbed for good or bad from the times and stress of the previous day, and, here it is – ah yes – the new day, and here it is – ah yes – the landscape; and for me – having moved from the country overlooking the sea, and waking to a suburb with city noises so close you almost feel them within a breath’s distance, close and vibrant as a new lover – this city, this noise.

So murderers, rarely are found to have murdered at dawn or close to the lightening of the new day. And Faust, if you remember, his heaving dark night, his wrestle with soul and devil and thoughts, this  all happened at night, and it was the sound and smells and uncovering of the new day with the rising sun, the sun that banished those dark thoughts, took the devil’s voice away, and brought him down to this; there was light, there was soil, there was the hill that grew vines for his favorite wine, and much as he could think and talk and pummel his brain into deducing that life was not worth living, it was the dumb ferocious beauty of the day and the day-ness and life-ness spilling out into those first fronds of daylight, that shook him into living – and uncalled for, unbeckoned, unrealized, ever-present, this   boisterousness of the life-force pressed him into living that next day, a wordless, body-singing, heart-wrenching new day.

Outback Sunrise by Graham Wilson

Somewhere, out past where most roads end, a scrubby track through sandhills begins. Here I make my camp. The night is cold. I burrow into my swag, just the top of my head protruding. At first, stars twinkle like a distant spray of sparklers. I sleep and wake to their fading light. Far east, land and sky are separating between a band of glow. Now it is bright enough to outline shapes of trees on a low horizon. One dead mulga stands tallest – sharp ended branches point above the light into darkness. Now the glow zone widens and a deep pink rises to give colour. It grows steadily brighter, mauves and golds washing through. A shaft of yellow shoots up to light clouds high above. It is dawn.

Sunrise without clichés  by Helena Ameisen

In the grey stillness that surrounds me, a glimmer penetrates; a shimmer of light that strikes the eye and separates the day from night.

Awakening, I breathe in the life force that I have needed. Deep lungfuls of light to fuel the coming year of transformation; a ringing acclamation of the fruit I hope it bears.

I look around and greyness has been banished, warmed and painted to a burnished bronze. Apricot splendour all around me. Another day springs forth.


Article & original pictures by C V Williams. Contributing SWC meetup members: Maria Issaris, Graham Wilson, Helena Ameisen.


Cazneaux, Harold. Pergola Pattern. 1931. Property of the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.

De Botton, Alain. How Proust Can Change Your Life, Picador, London 1997.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises, Scribner’s, New York, 1926.

Sophocles. Antigone Harcourt Brace, Orlando, 1976 p 190.


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