Thursday, September 16, 2010

be they silk or worsted

Reading Jay Parini's The Last Station soon after writing that last post about Dickens, I start to think about the older writer's similes and metaphors, because Parini in this matter is an unDickens or an anti-Dickens. His metaphors fall into the story and out again without leaving a lasting impression. Meanwhile Dickens is a hot octopus, his tentacles start at one point and go out in all directions, clutching things together, so that Mr Tulkinghorn's clothes represent Mr Tulkinghorn's personality and behaviour, and the personality and behaviour represent the clothes.

He is of what is called the old school ... and wears knee-breeches tied with ribbons, and gaiters or stockings. One peculiarity of his black clothes and of his black stockings, be they silk or worsted, is that they never shine. Mute, close, irresponsive to any glancing light, his dress is like himself. He never converses when not professionally consulted.

The effect is so holistic that it changes the properties of light itself in a private zone around Mr Tulkinghorn's clothes -- "they never shine" -- and he becomes a kind of small planet with its own atmosphere and law. Dickens is a cosmology of these people, these characters who are Types rather than Stereotypes, extremely forceful and exaggerated. If a person is not already an eccentric then they become one because Dickens is writing them.

Meanwhile the Last Station author chops his metaphors off dead. Parini writes brief descriptions --

... the long serpentine drive with parallel rows of silver birches rising along it like an honour guard.

Varvara Mikhailova, who has the sensitivity of a granite monument

... each moment shines separately, like cobbles on a strand. One yearns to repossess them, and mourns their distance.

His fingers opened and closed mechanically, like the mandibles of an insect.

-- and never takes the idea further. Varvara Mikhailova's granite behaviour does not infect her clothes, as Tulkinghorn's behaviour infects his; she never does anything stonelike, her skin does not look hard, her manners are not monumental, and so this comparison to granite vanishes. The man connected to the insect-fingers is not insectlike, the scenery around him is not transformed sympathetically into a insect-nest, and the doctor who comes along in the next sentence to help him with his fearsome convulsions is not compared to a predatory and insectivorous bird, or to an ant helping the queen ant, or to anything else that might carry the idea of insects onwards. This is how he appears: "Dushan Makovitsky gave orders like a military captain." With that the idea of insects is utterly gone. The military captain has erased the insect, and the reader can expect that when the next metaphor or simile comes along it will obliterate the military captain.

Here we are. Three lines later Dushan is "a scientist."

Dushan remained cool and dispassionate, a scientist through and through.

"A scientist" in turn drops through the text and vanishes.

To the mind behind Parini's prose, the important thing is that the fingers are moving, not that they're moving "like the mandibles of an insect." You could substitute anything for these mandibles and nothing would happen to the next sentence, or the sentence before. You could say that the fingers open and close "like the claws of a dying crab." You might call them the toes of a falcon clutching and releasing its prey. Dushan Makovitsky would still give orders like a military captain and soon he would turn into a scientist. Parini's description-things keep to themselves. They're private and self-contained. They are Mr Tulkinghorn. They don't talk to their fellow metaphors, they don't share themselves around, and they don't reflect light. The state of Parini's metaphor-objects (the mandibles, the granite, etc) is the state that Dickens won't let Tulkinghorn achieve, since the motto of Bleak House is connection, and the motto of Parini's metaphor-objects is isolation. Mr Tulkinghorn can behave with as much reticence as he likes, but the author still obstinately puts him in relationships with other people and gives consequences to his actions.

He never converses when not professionally consulted. He is found sometimes, speechless but quite at home, at corners of dinner-tables in great country houses and near doors of drawing-rooms, concerning which the fashionable intelligence is eloquent, where everybody knows him and where half the Peerage stops to say “How do you do, Mr. Tulkinghorn?” He receives these salutations with gravity and buries them along with the rest of his knowledge.

Sir Leicester Dedlock is with my Lady and is happy to see Mr. Tulkinghorn. There is an air of prescription about him which is always agreeable to Sir Leicester; he receives it as a kind of tribute. He likes Mr. Tulkinghorn’s dress; there is a kind of tribute in that too. It is eminently respectable, and likewise, in a general way, retainer-like. It expresses, as it were, the steward of the legal mysteries, the butler of the legal cellar, of the Dedlocks.

Even in his reticence he can't escape the observant eyes of other characters. They take him and insert him in their worldviews just where they want him. But in The Last Station nobody comments on the insect mandibles except the first-person narrator, nobody thinks that Varvara has a granite sensitivity except the narrator -- the wider world goes by unaffected. Parini's sunlight doesn't start swerving around a certain set of clothes because a certain character is wearing them. The hand can be a pair of insect mandibles, or a housebrick, or a whisker on a tiger, and the prose does not care. It ploughs on. Dushan Makovitsky persists in being a military captain. The mandibles occupy their part of the sentence undisturbed and viginal. For them, there are no consequences. In his saddest and most hopeful fantasies, Mr Tulkinghorn is a metaphor by Jay Parini.


  1. Fascinating. I am making my way through Little Dorrit at the moment, with the aim of putting together a post highlighting the many wonderful things that get lost when such books are converted into telly. Reading your post, I wondered if the process works the other way too: not only do novels written before tv was invented have to be stripped bare of most of what makes them valuable in order to work within the new medium, but also, perhaps, writers such as Jay Parini, who work in the television/film age, imagine their books primarily within the context of the moving image. Could it be that writers today often - possibly unknowingly - write within this new, image driven perspective, stripping things down to sharp, clear snapshots, getting rid of the rich, tangled verbal interconnections of Dickens, which cannot be conveyed by a few neat bits of film? In other words, is what you're seeing in The Last Station an example of the profound effect that the moving image has had on the way that fiction is written - instead of seeing words as the medium, words are only used to indicate the images that could as easily replace them (Pancks in Little Dorritt is typical of the earlier approach. He is always described with verbs associated with a tug boat - he chugs and steams and moors himself et cetera - but none of this can be conveyed in film, as it is all entirely word based)? Of course, there is also the question of first person narration, which is often irritatingly restrictive.

  2. That's an interesting point. It seems undeniably true that there's less "rich, tangled" verbal language in books than there used to be, and it seems likely (I say "likely" because I don't have proof, but my gut thinks your idea is a good one) that film and TV have something to do with that, not only through their emphasis on visual rather than spoken or written effects, but also the speed of them -- and, perhaps, a corresponding lack of patience in the audience, and in the writers as well? I think a good long sentence is harder to conceive than a good short one.

    I wonder if other things have fed into this too, not only film, but also, say the modernist rejection of the Victorians (those doyens of "rich, tangled" language), and even the rise of the US as a power -- a country that considers simplicity and directness two of its virtues. "It is proof of high culture to say the greatest matters in the simplest way," said Emerson. "We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts." And the ideal of clarity that the 19th century saw in the Ancient Greeks.

    And perhaps even multiculturalism, and the idea that everyone in society should be literate, and even the early 20th century enthusiasm of so many writers for permutations of communism? If you're writing with the idea that everybody should be able to understand you, even new migrants (worn out, working in the salt mines, stumbling through simple sentences), then short-spoken and punchy language is the way to go.

  3. A footnote. Proust was arguing against cinema-style writing as long ago as the 1920s.

    "An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase filled with perfumes, with sounds, with projects, with climates. What we call reality is a relation between those sensations and those memories which simultaneously encircle us — a relation which a cinematographic vision destroys because its form separates it from the truth to which it pretends to limit itself — that unique relation which the writer must discover in order that he may link two different states of being together for ever in a phrase. In describing objects one can make those which figure in a particular place succeed each other indefinitely; the truth will only begin to emerge from the moment that the writer takes two different objects, posits their relationship, the analogue in the world of art to the only relationship of causal law in the world of science, and encloses it within the circle of fine style. In this, as in life, he fuses a quality common to two sensations, extracts their essence and in order to withdraw them from the contingencies of time, unites them in a metaphor, thus chaining them together with the indefinable bond of a verbal alliance. Was not nature herself from this point of view, on the track of art, was she not the beginning of art, she who often only permitted me to realise the beauty of an object long afterwards in another, mid-day at Combray only through the sound of its bells, mornings at Doncières only through the groans of our heating apparatus. The relationship may be of little interest, the objects commonplace, the style bad, but unless there is that relationship, there is nothing. A literature which is content with “describing things”, with offering a wretched summary of their lines and surfaces, is, in spite of its prétention to realism, the furthest from reality, the one which impoverishes us and saddens us the most, however much it may talk of glory and grandeur, for it abruptly severs communication between our present self, the past of which objects retain the essence and the future in which they encourage us to search for it again. But there is more. If reality were that sort of waste experience approximately identical in everyone because when we say: “bad weather”, “war”, “cab-stand”, “lighted restaurant”, “flower garden”, everybody knows what we mean — if reality were that, no doubt a sort of cinematographic film of these things would suffice and “style”, “literature” isolating itself from that simple datum would be an artificial hors d’oeuvre."

    (From Stephen Hudson's translation of Le Temps Retrouvé, or Time Regained.)

  4. I've only made it halfway through Swann's Way so far (it's taken me fifteen years, on and rather more off, with a dictionary - doing it that way is ridiculously slow, but I think it gives you the best opportunity to really take in all the observant detail of the thing - that's my excuse anyway for being too lazy to make fast progress). One of the bits I have read that did really amuse me is faintly relevant to the whole idea of a more image-driven world, although it deals with photography, rather than cinema. Proust is describing the attitude of his grandmother to the new-fangled process:
    "She would have liked me to have in my room photographs of ancient buildings or of beautiful places. But at the moment of buying them, and for all that the subject of the picture had an aesthetic value, she would find that vulgarity and utility had too prominent a part in them, through the mechanical nature of their reproduction by photography. She attempted by a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether this commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to supplant it to a certain extent with what was art still, to introduce, as it were, several "thicknesses" of art: instead of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, of the Fountains of Saint Cloud, or of Vesuvius, she would enquire of Swann whether some great painter had not depicted them, and preferred to give me photographs of "Chartres Cathedral" after Corot, of the "Fountains of Saint Cloud" after Hubert Robert, and of "Vesuvius" after Turner, which were a stage higher in the scale of art. But although the photographer had been prevented from reproducing directly these masterpieces or beauties of nature, and had there been replaced by a great artist, he resumed his odious position when it came to reproducing the artist's interpretation. Accordingly, having to reckon again with vulgarity, my grandmother would endeavour to postpone the moment of contact still further. She would ask Swann if the picture had not been engraved, preferring, when possible, old engravings with some interest of association apart from themselves, such, for example, as show us a masterpiece in a state in which we can no longer see it today (like Morghen's print of Leonardo's "Last Supper" before its defacement). It must be admitted that the results of this method of interpreting the art of making presents were not always happy. The idea which I formed of Venice, from a drawing by Titian which is supposed to have the lagoon in the background, was certainly far less accurate than what I should have derived from ordinary photographs." (this is from the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation)

  5. And she gives people old furniture, too: I remember. It's a terrific passage. I think he has a great way of, first, being tickled by the impractical and ludicrous things people do, and, second, chasing those ludicrous or impractical things down with remorseless cool grace until they explain themselves and dovetail into the theme of the book. Later on he digs into the subject of painting. It seems fair to say that representations interest him.

  6. Something for me to look forward to in approximately 2017, at present rate of progress

  7. Then your next seven years of reading are destined to be magnificent.