Sunday, November 18, 2012

sensible enough, one would hope

Some of those opinion-words (the ones like "perfect," "good sense," etc) have been palmed off on Dunnett's characters but the language is the same once and again the same in everyone's mouth -- it is herself, badly disguised -- or she decides to involve the reader in these opinions, doing this (for example) after a tense scene that takes place between two characters during a festival, writing, "after that, the day was more the sort of festival it ought to be," without letting you know who has defined "the sort of festival it ought to be." It must be you and her together, maybe, working all this out with the collusion of a vague society of the book's anonymous inhabitants who are engaged in the festival: but it is not them, it is her, she assumes that anyone who reads the word "festival" will experience notions of frolicking happiness, the opposite of that angry just-read dialogue, and feel, at a level of thought formulated so automatically it is virtually subconscious, that this is how the day "ought to be."

(But, but, isn't that interesting, an author assuming her readers into herself and inhabiting them like a subtle Walt Whitman, see how intriguing it is, well, I say, well, clawing at my head, I don't want myself coerced into this nudge, nudge, nudge of a condemning mood against the characters, who are unnatural people, she says, because they are perverting a human day into what-it-ought-not-to-be -- that judgment is not my judgment -- maybe I was bullied as a child --)

The action in the plot is violent and surprising, one man betrays his uncle, a merchant is sabotaged, the kingdoms of the ancient British Isles can't keep their boundaries stable, but the language neuters violence with complacent words like "satisfactory" -- "The meal, served in the large room of the Vatican Palace, was satisfactory" -- it has the same opinion as the Countess in Proust's unfinished Sainte-Beuve book, a woman who does not like people who "exaggerate" (she is criticising Balzac); these people make things seem larger than the scale her mind inhabits; a meal in King Hereafter will never be an ecstatic experience, only a satisfactory one. The author gives a character a present and eviscerates his delight.

His wife of course would be delighted, and so was he: no one in Alba had such a cup. It was perhaps churlish to feel that something of a less domestic nature, a psalter perhaps, would have been more flattering from one high bishop to another.

Wry, wry, and wry again when a man during an attack sighs at his enemy because the weather is cold, "I don't know why, in the midst of all the elaborate plotting, you didn't have the common sense to keep your cloak on." Reading, I realised that Dorothy Dunnett couldn't endure the same world that she was trying to invent, rough sty where a cooked meal makes the air stink "with the smells of hot beef and grease," and you have to slosh your horse through an icy stream if you want to get to the other side; suffering in this world is necessary, but in her language no one suffers, though they may do a thing that is not "convenient."

They battle, herself and her world, they wrestle, she wins, she has won before the first page opens (you have to imagine the war from its traces), she murders violence, and here is the point where I connect her to Freya Stark (two posts ago), saying that Stark's language wants to unite sensuously with the world it is describing, and grasp it, and note a green thing with the simple adjective "green," planting it in the sentence firmly so that it suggests absolute greenness with acceptance of that greenness by the author who is issuing this undisguised description (and William Carlos Williams, when he wanted to explain a sight that was "the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon" gave his nouns a single word-friend each, first "red" for the wheelbarrow, then "rain" for the water, then "white" for the chickens, implacable, solid, planted, loved, respected), while Dunnett's language flies away from the world it is pretending to describe, evading the green thing's greenness by escaping into these otherwordly measurements of the gods. The character Macbeth has a hard point to make about another man, brutal, horrible; he has to soften it with a little polite bit of exasperated language before he can form his thought in the Dunnett-world: "He was sensible enough, one would hope, to realise that extra bloodshed was useless."

He is not protesting against bloodshed, he is protesting against too much extra bloodshed, which is not convenient or satisfactory, not shed with good sense, skilfully as it ought to be.

She goes to write thugs and plotters and Vikings, all pragmatists, but her language is polite, polite, it searches for the boundary line of taste, and remains carefully on the good side, manufacturing sins and informing you that they have been dodged. I protest, "But I do not think that those are sins."


  1. woof woof woof i loved henry treece too, also geoffrey trease's cue for treason, one led mistakenly to the other when i muddled up their names at the library one saturday. Have you read any Elizabeth Goudge (only connection being that I discovered her around that same time)

  2. I was going to say "No," but then I looked her up and realised that I'd read The Little White Horse. Did not remember the name of the author, only the name of the book. And now that I'm trying to remember the contents of the book I can't do that either. Wikipedia says there was a dog named Wiggins. Rosemary Sutcliff was the other history fiction writer I loved when I was little. Mark of the Horse Lord. My father tried me out on G.A. Henty but the whole let's-die-for-England-and-Saint-George thing didn't do much for me at seven.

    1. Eagle of the Ninth and Rider on a White Horse were the ones I read and loved by Sutcliff. One of my daughters says that JK Rowling said that The Little White Horse was her favourite book and it was all the detail in it that she wanted to get in H Potter. I never finished the Little White Horse but there was another of hers that I've still got and I really liked when I was about ten. It was called Linnets and Valerians. I must have another look and see if it's actually any good.

    2. Did you see the film of Eagle they released a little while ago? Earlier this year sometime: I don't remember when. I loved the book, but I couldn't remember anything from it that would seem distinctive on a movie screen. (I can imagine myself as a Tolkien fan, dying for December to arrive, "I need to see Smaug!" but Eagle -- no.)

    3. I didn't see it, because I hate seeing films of books and never being able to remember my imagined vision of the books once the images on the screen have replaced it/them.