Thursday, November 15, 2012
the transformation imposed on reality
I found a secondhand Vintage Books reprint of Dunnett's King Hereafter with the words "stunningly realized novel" on the back: "the celebrated author of the Lymond Chronicles peels away a thousand years of legend to to uncover the historical figure of Macbeth," but after the first few pages I was reading the language rather than the story because the language was biting me while the story was not and I think it makes sense for animals to pay attention to anything that attacks them (myself a book-animal) so that they can stay away, in future, from the bushes in which that enemy hides itself, and the caves where it sleeps; my animal mind nipped back and now it will express itself in quick barks and bite a flea under the back leg where fleas hide.
I was comparing her to my memory of Henry Treece, whose books I do not have here, but he was a historical novelist too, and one whose work I read when I was a child or teenager, and I was absorbed in them, especially the end of Man With a Sword, in which Hereward believes he is talking to someone when he is in fact falling over dead. For a few words Treece lets you think that the character really is speaking, then he slides up to you with the news that he is not; his death arrives in your mind while you're still occupied by the idea of his dialogue. Reality in Henry Treece's books is made up of these acts of surrealism. I am going to call this effect magical, by which I mean that he uses sleight of hand to show you things you know are impossible; you know they're impossible even while they're happening. Hereward is not dead and alive at the same time because this is not that kind of book; your brain has to turn the idea over and conclude that he is dead or else you can't finish and will be stuck forever mentally at the second-last page.
But reality in Dunnett's book is simple and a person does not hallucinate; instead the colour of their hair is noted truthfully, and they smile or frown to show their moods; every bit of behaviour is measurable, any action can be set out along her invisible ruler, as in, for example, "she parried them, thoughtfully, in different ways. Several places along the table she could hear the Earl her husband doing the same, but more skillfully." "Different ways," being unnumbered, might be infinite; her husband is more skilfully infinite, talent is limitless but even the infinite can be judged; and the author is an utter judge, squinting and saying, "This is less skilful, this more so," but by what measurement?
And like this her language removes her from the world of the characters to an environment of particulate estimation of the vague where she can write, "The ceremony was not a success, and neither was the banquet afterwards, at which the King's mother found herself seated staring across two tables at the young King of Alba, who had the good sense to stare woodenly back."
It was this appeal to alienated assessment that agitated me, these words that measure invisible things so absolutely, a phrase such as "good sense," for example, and then the extension of that evaluating sensibility through the entire book at the level of a white-noise hum with phrases like "perfect teeth" ("Lulach's perfect teeth showed in his slow, charming smile"), or the news that a man in a ship "made no mistake about his landing," or that another man decided to "dwell rather longer than was convenient" in someone's house when he could have gone elsewhere, all these words staving off an opposite existence, sadder and sharper, where teeth are not perfect but scratched or mucky, and a man landing a ship might not be perfect either, a wooden stare might not be good sense or even bad sense but only an ambiguous thing with inestimable consequences, that the success of a ceremony might not be able to be measured in a summary, that the length of a man's stay might not be able to be described with urbane words (that the anger and shame of the host might crack through), and that no one could ever say confidently, "It was a good answer, and a correct one," as the author does at one point, and again, "It was good advice" -- denial, I say, and wring my hands: it pretends to be a world like my real world, but it is not; it is an alien that will not admit itself, staring me in the face -- (I point, it wears an innocent expression, it is a lamb ) -- uncanny animal -- bright -- prose like plastic surgery -- it doesn't know what it is --
This is one of the reasons why I don't write book reviews. Whenever I don't agree with a book I feel frantic and not methodical; I am extinguished by outrage, and I am not like Proust, who attacks Sainte-Beuve in well-paced sentences translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner. He is angry but the speed of the prose in translation is the speed of reason. "Style is so largely a record of the transformation imposed on reality by the writer's mind that Balzac's style, properly speaking, does not exist." (Calm, sharp, thoughtful man, arming himself for the next sentence, rolling up a little ball of trust in the reader's heart, yus, ya, I'll trust him --.) "Here Sainte-Beauve is completely off the scent."