Wednesday, November 30, 2011

of what we now know

On Sunday I started a novel by William Heinesen, the same author whose short stories I was reading earlier this year in Faroese Short Stories -- the one who wrote about the two women whose house blew away in a storm -- the author who couldn't mention a man without also mentioning his ship, and then the name of the ship, and then the king of Sweden, and then the king of Sweden's son -- the author who loved digressions -- that one.

The novel starts modestly but gradually it thickens, the characters pile up, their histories pile up, there are several different flavours of everything -- three different Christian leaders (two pastors, one prophet), multiple women dating the British soldiers who are stationed on the Faroes, several ship-owners individually worrying about their fish -- everybody arguing, sailing off, becoming pregnant, dying, falling in love -- and every time someone falls in love or dies it's a new love and a new death, not like any of the rest, and we go inside the heads of cynics and journalists and mystic fox-farmers from Iceland. Then there is the war, which is World War II, people are worried about the Communists, and there is the growing pro-Faroes movement among the islanders, who are subjects of the Danish king. The thoughts of the characters are sketched in quickly and sharply, even crudely, simply, but the simplicity has a purpose; it makes each cast member easy to identify. The subtlety of the book comes not in the fineness of their thoughts but in the variety and shading between competing points of view. And this builds and builds and the story moves along in a bubbling mass.

But I was thinking about Lisa over at ANZ Litlovers, who, in the middle of November, mentioned a Ghanaian Literature Week, held by Kinna over at Kinna Reads, and Lisa had read a Ghanaian short story for this book week, and, coincidentally, I'd been reading Money Galore by the Ghanian writer Amu Djoleto only a month before, and Money Galore was what I was thinking of, in connection with the Heinesen book, which was named The Black Cauldron.* It was the tempo of the two books that I was reflecting on, the way that Money moved in jerks, jumping up one minute, fading out the next minute, and how different it was to the constant bubble of Cauldron, how opposed they were, temperamentally speaking. Because inside each book there is a personality that has nothing to do with the characters or the narrative, and is only concerned with the thickness or thinness of the writing, the speed and start and stop of the sentences, "the particular density with which detail occurs in that writing, the span of sensory stuff in that writing," as David Malouf said once on the radio.

Djoleto writes like a man who had moments of excitement when the story riveted him, moments when he knew exactly what he wanted, followed by moments when he was wandering from A to B and not sure how he was going to get there. He gropes, he repeats. His women characters will enter in a mass of detail, the exact shade of their skin tone will be noted, then their build, but this description will not play a role in their development afterwards, their actions are sketchy, their brains are halfhearted; they become a collection of vaguely sexy presences. They enter with a summary of themselves; the rest is a diminishing of their original essence. We hear passing references to the construction of a new public toilet, and then suddenly the toilet exists, ready to be opened by a politician, and the formal opening is a scene that bounces into focus -- it is a comic set piece. The book wakes up then drowses again. The author gets deeply interested in a headmaster's office, and for a few pages it looks as if this headmaster's school is going to play an important ongoing role in the book, then we go somewhere else, the school becomes background noise, the introduction was out of proportion to its importance.

Money has its own pace, a shout followed by a mumble, or a leap followed by a stall -- a book like a lumpy bed. And I thought, also (my brain walking up West Africa to the chopped-out reverse-L of Mali), of Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence, which has the dense bubbling-pace of Heinesen with a different emotion behind it: the book is one flood of brutality and murder, a tightrope performance on a wire of satirical rage. Heinesen is satirical as well, but less brutal. Both of them will vary the bubbling by taking the reader from a scene with one character to a scene with two or three characters, to a scene with a mass of characters, and then back again. Brutality in Ouologuem is almost absolute, but the flavours of that brutality are so various, so florid, that it becomes both decorative and hideous. Add ennui and it would be Decadent. Mass deaths are followed by more detailed personal deaths and then the miniature story of a dynasty that goes mad and dies. There is gross indiscriminate death and then very precise death. A single kitten is poisoned. A man is torn apart by exactly three crocodiles. One crocodile would have been enough. Two, and you could call it a reasonable amount of competition among natural enemies. But three is just enough to be overkill. The edge of absurdity is tickled with a fingertip.

George Eliot plays this one-character, two-characters, group-of-characters game blatantly in public, devoting whole chapters to one idea or the other -- those groups of men talking in the local pub in Middlemarch, or in the barber shop in Romola, etc -- and then scenes between married couples or family members. Like this she gives us the domestic setting and then the community whose ideas will affect the domestic setting, putting these two spheres of action in proximity. Djoleto doesn't have this ongoing attention to the community; he brings it in when he needs it for a crowd scene and then it's gone.

At the start of the month in a coffee shop I listened to someone giving their opinion on commas (authors used to use more commas in the old days because they didn't know any better, said this person, but now we know better and we take them out), and I thought of this speaker when I came across an editor online explaining that The Man Who Loves Children "breaks an awful lot of what we now know to be rules for good writing" adding "You couldn’t get away with it now" -- and I remember them because I know that if Djoleto had handed in Money Galore during a writing class he would have had it given back to him with marks in the margins, "add more here" "build up to this part" "uneven" "who is speaking here?" and "fix."

But then I hear Ruskin stepping in and saying, no, this unevenness is human, and he tells the story of the glass beads again, and says that he prefers flawed exploratory sincerity to accomplished callow gloss, and he points out that Djoleto wanted to (judging by the story) write about corruption in Ghanaian politics, and behold, he has done that. Would evenness have made the book better? Evenness would have made it even, which is a different thing. It's been proposed that Dante came up with The Divine Comedy because he wanted an excuse to say the name of Beatrice (as lovers love to speak or hear the name of the beloved: see also: Proust) and Money might as well have been written to showcase the opening of that public toilet, a scene that gives us the author's opinion of his country's politicians in one tight burst.**

How do we describe, how do we value, how do we judge? Could I say that Djoleto's book moves like an organism, that it has periods of wakefulness and periods of restfulness, and periods when it wants to sit and fatten itself and periods when it is very lean, and, so, when I'm tempted to describe one of those dense and bubbling books as organic, because I want to do tribute to its motion, its vitality, am I perhaps using the word too quickly and easily, am I disregarding a less flattering idea of "the organic," of life, the life that is not steadily vital, but fades and dies and revives and gasps and dies again ...

Give us uneven beads, says Ruskin the Awkward, devilled in front of his naked wife, give us awkwardness --

*Which has nothing to do with Lloyd Alexander's fantasy novel. Same title but two books completely alien. Heinesen sets his story in a Faroese harbour nicknamed "the Cauldron" and one of the characters makes a sarcastic mechanical diorama-cum-social-critique which he calls "The Black Cauldron," and, therefore ...

Alexander's cauldron is an honest to god necromagical black pot.

** I came across that idea of Dante for the first time in one of Borges' non fiction pieces. If you can get hold of the Selected Non-Fictions then look in the Nine Dantesque Essays section and it should be there somewhere.


  1. If writing is about communicating, then a judgment of any piece of writing has to include some consideration of whether or not the thing is communicating successfully - and holding a reader's attention is an important part of communicating. That doesn't mean that all writing must be easy or polished, but that, when the author decides to let his work have "periods of wakefulness and periods of restfulness, and periods when it wants to sit and fatten itself and periods when it is very lean", if he still wants attention, he may want to think about what effect his decision will have on a reader - he needs to be aware that a reader might just stop being his reader, throwing his book aside and going to do something else. If that happens, he's not really being successful. This is all rather a banal statement of the obvious, isn't it? Since I've written it already, I won't delete it, but don't feel any need to respond.

  2. No, I'll respond, because this idea of things communicating or not communicating is fascinating to me, I mean, how do you, if you're the one doing the writing, know whether the person on the other end will or won't find it readable or bearable or boring? You're trying to do something more or less magical; you're trying to predict the future. It's like playing the stock market, you guess and you gamble and hope for good luck. And these How To Write instructions that I see online look like talismans, they're fetishes, you wave them at your hopes and dreams and assume they'll work. "Reduce adjectives!" Ah, so that's the secret! Author, full of hope and joy, goes through, crossing out adjectives. Magic! One of the recent bits of advice that I've seen is, "Avoid Description. Readers are bored by description." And some of the people writing this advice even try to get chummy, and say, "Hey, you reading this, don't you start to skip paragraphs when you see a passage of description coming up? Of course, we all do! We move ahead to the dialogue." But I love to read well-written description, and I end up raising eyebrows and lips at the person who tells me that I don't. "Lies," I tell them in my head, "lies, lies, lies." Then I think, "You are ignorant, pah, I will learn nothing from you -- nothing! -- farewell!" and I stride out of the room, whirling a Byronic cape, off to save Greece from the Ottoman. So they've communicated with me very badly. But I know they believe that they're communicating with me incredibly well. They must think they're absolutely brilliant at communicating because they confidently give advice. And here I am, whirling my cape.

    In Djoleto's case I didn't get the feeling that he really "decide[d] to let his work" go fat and thin -- I had the impression that he was groping in the dark, so the thinness and fatness wasn't planned, it was natural. That was just the way it came out. "Go away and do another draft," says my strawman creative writing teacher, and I'd probably say the same thing if someone came up to me with a manuscript like that. "Undeveloped here, here, and here." But it's a pioneering novel. It was published in 1975 and Ghana didn't even have its own personal government to write fictional criticisms of until the late 1950s. Pioneer literature is normally shaky.

  3. Oh dear, DKS, you do pack in a lot ... it's hard to know where to start but I do like the vision of you in your Byronic cape saying "I DO like to read descriptions, so there!"

    I like your comment that 'inside each book there is a personality that has nothing to do with the characters or the narrative, and is only concerned with the thickness or thinness of the writing, the speed and start and stop of the sentences, "the particular density with which detail occurs in that writing, the span of sensory stuff in that writing," as David Malouf said once on the radio'. You capture that essence that makes it hard to apply rules ... it may be good to remove adjectives, evenness may be safer, but if you don't know what you are doing and if you're writing has no heart, no amount of rules will save you.

  4. It was Malouf who made that idea concrete for me. I'd had vague feelings about it before but he put it into words.

  5. Oh dear and my writing has no grammar (but hopefully you got its heart!) Of course, I meant "your writing" not "you're writing". Malouf is so measured and thoughtful isn't he?

  6. He is -- he's a Classicist by temperament and not just by virtue of writing about Ancient Romans. There's a writer over at The Ember arguing that he muffles all "sexual rapture or blissful infatuation" in his books, and directly he does (I mean, on the surface of the story, in scenes of characters having sex, wanting sex, etc), but that rising, "measured" flow at the end of Imaginary Life and Babylon strikes me as a great example of sensual sublimation -- sexual feelings moved into another sphere, going up and up and finally loosened out.

    (The Ember article: )

    Completely unrelated, but you saw the news about "the lost Jane Austen portrait"?