Waves and Fingernails

Ivor Bellinson, last seen chronicling Bulgarian poet Tomas Lurgsy’s London years (see here) has popped his head above the parapet again, in the form of an article appearing in this month’s Lit Up, the hip-new-literary-magazine-that-inexplicably-has-no-online-presence.

As usual, his findings are perfectly sensible, and make for a mildly interesting read. Just don’t expect anything groundbreaking. Bellinson specialises in a middle-of-the-road kind of criticism, in which one follows a lead or two, stitches together a quote or three, and muses with no real intent on a handful of vaguely intriguing questions. He would make a useless hound: Bellinson is more of a lazy Labrador – a fluffy, charming, friendly dog; the type that one might expect to find following you around in the house of a wealthy old woman with hearing difficulties.

What Bellinson proposes in this new article is that the work of the contemporary novelist Danish novelist C.P.Pedrik, pride of smart Scandinavian schoolteachers, bears some similarities to the work of deceased English writer Virginia Woolf, pride of burly construction workers and lovelorn fishmongers.

Fair enough. However, where we might expect the scholar to shine the barely flickering light of his critical attention on Pedrik’s recently republished The Chronicles of Dorothy Pepperstone (see here), he turns instead to the better-known Ignoble Trilogy, passing through a wealth of fascinating possibilities to forage for food of rather less potential. So much could be said about Pepperstone, so little about Ignoble. But Bellinson, in his sweet little way, likes nothing so much as pointing out the obvious. At his best he’s harmless, at his worst pointless.

The subject on which Bellinson’s paper swings is something that used to interest me a little more than it does now. This is the art of near-obsessive description. Think of Woolf in The Waves, desperately seeking yet another way of letting words stand in for the shifting sea. Think of Pedrik in The Ignoble Trilogy, giving page after page over to his protagonist’s fingernails. How many ways does one Danish writer describe a fingernail? Let me count the ways… Actually, no: let me not count the ways – I haven’t all day. Suffice it to say, Pedrik is persistent. He gives the task his all.

Are there parallels between the way these two writers operate? Most likely. Woolf does for waves what Pedrik does for fingernails. It’s not a point I’m willing to debate. I do wonder, however, whether I ought to admire their dedication (or at least the extent to which I should). As suggested, this is something I have been pondering over for a while. I used to think, a long time ago, that this is what writing was about, that this was what true writers did: they scrambled their way to the very heart of things with ceaseless, diligent unerring devotion to the art of description. I used to adore nothing more than a novel that opened with twenty pages of descriptive prose; I would lose myself for hours in the lingering scene-setting of novelists such as Pedro Sõlavar and Nancy Kerosakov, writers who never used one sentence when they could use seventy instead, because they were writers: because that was what they were meant to do.

I wouldn’t say I’ve entirely lost patience with this approach. Not at all. I admire Pedrik’s fingernails as much as anyone. Who couldn’t? But I have come to admit that this style of writing can be as tedious as it can be thrilling – and that the vast majority of those who wander along this long old path are wasting their reader’s time. The truth is this: there is so much more to being a writer than the ability to give twenty pages over to a horse chestnut tree.

Still, god bless those who continue to do it, and do it well.

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