Wednesday, January 13, 2010

his deficiency serves

It would be easy to enumerate many important and splendid gifts in which Butler as a novelist was deficient; but his deficiency serves to lay bare one gift in which he excelled, which is his point of view. To have by nature a point of view, to stick to it, to follow it where it leads, is the rarest of possessions, and lends value even to trifles.

This is Virginia Woolf, writing about Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh in 1919, and she's articulating an idea that comes to me whenever I try to explain to myself my liking for a writer like ER Eddison, someone "deficient" in "many important and splendid gifts" but hedgehoglike able to do one thing very well, to produce a piece of work that is particular to themselves, and is remarkable not for its intelligence, or its insight into character, or any of the other things that people commonly draw on when they want to praise a book, but for its apparent fidelity to the writer's - I don't know what to call it. Perspective, perhaps, with 'perspective' encompassing voice as well as subject matter. These writers seem to embody themselves in their mistakes as well as their successes; in some cases the two are indistinguishable. Here I'm thinking of someone like William Hope Hodgson, whose characters are so thin they're almost nonexistent, whose settings are rudimentary pulp, whose plots are often borrowed and shaky (The Night Land excepted), but whose point of view, which, in Hodgson's case, is one of raw fear, is so strong and apparently genuine that it heats the reader through this weak façade like fire behind a sheet of cloth, like UV through a cloud. The flimsiness of the façade helps to remind the reader that it is a façade, and the storyteller who keeps interrupting himself throughout Hodgson's short story The Hog to ask his friends, "Do you understand?" "I wonder whether you can understand" "Can you understand?" "I wonder if I make it clear to you?" seems to be the author himself, struggling to smash a hole through the feebleness of words. The writer is wrestling with language; language is getting away from him, and at any moment he might give up the struggle and collapse into a gibberish of which the only comprehensible words will be "Outer Monstrosities," "Black void," and, "It was yellow."

If Hodgson seemed to be doing this on purpose you could call his writing Brechtian, the work of a man who never lets you forget that the actors are acting, but no, there's nothing to suggest that he's anything but an author whose passions outstripped his ability to articulate them. He died of a bullet in World War I, a simpler fate than anything he imagined for his characters, but maybe not less horrifying.

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