Thursday, November 22, 2012

extra bloodshed was useless

So the action in Dorothy Dunnett's world is not the action of her language, the imagined world is described but it is not present in the souls of the words, it is not sympathised with by its materials, the atom-word fights against its role, this fight was clawing at me, and my princess was offended by her pea.

Dunnett must have read over her books before she sent them to the publisher and the feelings that came between myself and her book must have never have struck her, instead she saw the substance of her language being the substance of her plot's action, and the same with the person who told me to read her work; they did not see a split between the language and the action, they were rapt and stayed up past their bedtime with the Lymond Chronicles. The queen gave her an OBE; there was an International Dorothy Dunnett Day in 2011 with another Day planned for this year, and people travel to the places whose names she has used in her books though probably not Timbuktu at the moment due to the fighting and the destruction of monuments.

So I feel like a person who swears they have seen a ghost when everyone else says, "There is no ghost," and I am Ruskin in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, frantic over ribands.

Seeing the differences between myself and her I want to fill this gap out with a piece of reasoning to settle myself down, and I would like to decide that she was using her language unconsciously and not consciously, and that those well-mannered words she put directly into Macbeth's thoughts, one would hope ("He was sensible enough, one would hope, to realise that extra bloodshed was useless") were noises that came to her without shyness or premeditation; it must have seemed normal to her that a person should say that phrase, any person of any class or race, and this middle class formality in the mouth of a royal thug would never have seemed strange, never mind if she had read her draft a hundred times, though even when I remember that it is a modern translation of the imagined speech of an eleventh-century Briton (with the emphasis on translation) it still seems strange to me, this niceness, under the circumstances, which are bloody, and in the mouth of a man brought up among ancient Orkney sheep and hideous rocks.

She is everywhere in the book but she seems asleep, she seems to be using phrases because they are familiar. Patrick White -- going back to Riders in the Chariot -- seems alert in everything, and arch, alive, frustrated; not only does he have an opinion everywhere but he is aware of that opinion, and pushes it hard, often with disgust; every time he writes "brick houses" he is disgusted, and bristles with disgust. He is filled with force-points. The black goat is a force-point, he charges it with Mrs Jolley's foot, with the shock of that attack, the sudden cruelty, which is an emphasis, a Decadent technique, this violence, this sadism, and then maintains the shock with tension in the conversation that comes afterwards, about the goat, the aggression in the sentences, aggression generated between the characters but not released -- the goat is a multiple symbol but tension holds it tight, it does not dissipate. White's style is the fist-style. He likes diffusion but not dissipation. He places his opinion, you are never allowed to forget what he thinks of the brick houses, and his eyes exist throughout the book, his opinion looking out at you and pressing itself home in the arch placement of words; he writes a panopticon, you are always under surveillance, and the books crush in on you. "White ... does more than get under your skin; in his best work, he flays the reader bare," wrote Nicholas Shakespeare in the Telegraph on the nineteenth of October. I'm going to throw this in: he wants to make you hysterical.

Meanwhile the countryside in a book by Freya Stark or Ernestine Hill is filled with surprise performances, vaudeville acts, announcements, somersaults, nothing is completely expected, and at any moment another person might come on and entertain you with some strange behaviour. The right response (in the language of the books) is not hatred or disgust but it should include some kind of applause, in other words a description, which is evidence of the writer's attentiveness to this thing that is even more decisively not herself as she describes it. Ernestine Hill can see the man staring at a chicken and figure out his mental state from a distance, therefore she is not that man, and when she records him speaking to her then she is doubly not him. A sign of unity in these books would be silence.


  1. You could also say that White bullies the reader, which leaves him only with the most persistent of readers as his audience. Perhaps that's what he wants but it does raise one of the questions that most interests me about fiction writing: to what extent is it the duty of the writer to please the reader, to entertain them et cetera? Is it really worthwhile to write without any desire to be read or any interest in being read? MY impression is that White wrote with a grim, 'take it or leave it' attitude, flinging the manuscripts out at mankind, whom he hated anyway. I wonder who he was thinking of as his ideal reader

  2. He bullies, but I think he's a bully the way that Roald Dahl is a bully. He's an exhilarating bully, the sort of bully who gets really thrilled over his villains. He goes at Mrs Jolley the way Dahl goes at Mrs Trunchbull. He's committed to his disgust. He's energetic as a toaster. If people are put off by his bullying (I don't know if they are or aren't because I don't know anyone else, in the flesh, who reads him) then I suspect it's not the fact that he bullies, but the language he uses when he bullies. He is arch, and he plants his emphases in places where other writers don't have emphases. He doesn't flow. He coagulates in points.

    1. It's a good argument you make and I was almost seduced by it, but I've just had another look at Tree of Man and it's not the language, I don't think; it's the hatred of mankind. It's odd, because I don't hold mankind in high regard, but I think in some way he implies that he is above the fray, whereas I like a writer who says, 'Aren't we all awful', rather than 'Aren't they awful.' I don't really know what I'm talking about, I must really force myself to give him another really solid piece of my attention without gnashing my teeth and hurling the book on the floor after ten minutes. He must be doing something to provoke such a reaction. I mean he's not negligible.

    2. I think the archness might be part of that above-the-frayness -- he can make acid little prose moues at these people because he's not one of them. And the reader is not supposed to be one of them either. The person reading Riders is not supposed to mix themselves up with Mrs Jolley and her brick houses. The author wants them to be repelled, like him. If if he hadn't loaded the book down with spiritual weight and made the bad characters spiritually bad then it would just be pure snobbery. Look at those people over there with all that money and no taste! They live in brick!