Spring has come to country Arizona. The sun is warm and the ground squirrels are out, undulating across the bare earth like large fast caterpillars, although they have only four legs each; half-caterpillars then. "We rambled to a pretty stream," wrote George Eliot in her journal in 1834, "and there sat watching a caterpillar. When it had been cut in two the fore-part set to work to devour the other half. In the afternoon we had a two hours' walk in the pine woods. They are sublime." There's one squirrel around the side of the house who likes to climb trees. I go out there with my human noise and mass and this ripe grey piece of fruit slides out of the branches and runs into a burrow.
Indeed, if we want to describe a summer evening, the way to do it is to set people talking in a room with their backs to the window, and then, as they talk about something else, let someone half-turn her head and say, "A fine evening" when (if they have been talking about the right things) the summer evening is visible to anyone who reads the page, and is for ever remembered as of quite exceptional beauty.
What would "the right things" be, I wondered, when I read this passage in Woolf's review of Kipling's published Notebooks. What dialogue could be so calibrated, and so perfect, that it would send you away imagining for ever an evening of quite exceptional beauty? I have an idea that if I came across line like that in a book, I would pay no attention to the appearance of the evening, in fact I would barely pay attention to the fact of there being an evening at all; I would think of the character (a continuation of the thoughts I would have been having up to that moment, as Woolf's imaginary book is a book about people), and of the conversation this character was having with other characters, and how her, "A fine evening," fitted into that conversation, and what the author might want her to imply. "A fine evening," might mean, "I am uncomfortable. We should change the subject," or, "I hate you and I'd rather look out the window than listen to you," or, "Isn't it melancholy, we're all so sad, and yet the sun shines, the leaves rustle, all of nature is satisfied," or something else, but when did an author ever put, "A fine evening," into a conversation because they wanted the reader to picture a fine evening?
But it's possible that they do, all the time, and that every time a character in a book says, "It's raining," or notices tree branches swaying, as Colm Tóibín recommended,* the author is really wanting us to do nothing more than admire the rain or the view, which we can't see, a tease, and all of this is the silent revenge of the world of authors on the world of readers, the authors back there behind the curtain, laughing: "And all this time they thought we were being subtle! They fell for it!" One author tries to break ranks and tell the rest of us about this outrageous fraud -- "No, hoi!" say the rest. "No dobbing! Shh!" And they pull that author back by the elbow.
* In an interview with John Preston
Tóibín proceeds to demonstrate what makes him such a good writer – and also, you suspect, an inspiring teacher. “For instance, you could write a sentence like: 'He hated his mother more in that moment than he had ever hated her before.’ But, alternatively, you could say: 'When his mother turned away from him, he looked out and he noticed that the branches of the tree were swaying. He held his eyes on it for a moment, and when he looked back she was staring at him.’ See? It doesn’t really matter who hates who anymore, but something has occurred. There’s something there that makes the reader shiver. All writing is a form of manipulation, of course, but you realise that a plain sentence can actually do so much."
While we were in Portland I finished Tóibín's The Master, a book with an absolute surfeit of people staring subtly at views. "He was interested in the desk and the papers and the books. He went to the window and looked at the view."
The Journals of George Eliot were edited by Margaret Harris and Judith Johnson and published in 2000 by the Cambridge University Press. Harris, if you want to know some trivia, was also the editor of Dearest Munx: the Letters of Christina Stead and William Blake. She teaches at the University of Sydney.