Not enough thought went into either reading or writing, of that he was sure. People churned out words like endless pats of butter, or snakes of sausage meat – and other people swallowed these words without chewing, or thinking twice about the flavour. ‘We need to slow down’ he noted, ‘or better than that, stop entirely. For a week, for a month, maybe even for a year, we should put down our pens. We need to take stock of everything that has been written already. To re-read what has gone before. To rethink our very attitude to the process of creating and consuming. Writing is a wonderful, wonderful thing, but we are in danger of losing sight of what it means, and of what it can do. We need to stop, in short, in order to start again’.
‘A popular man. Yes, Paavo Laami was a popular man. Popular with all. A real knack for popularity, on the coat-tails of which I rode a little shamefully, though not without the man’s encouragement. For he was, above all, a great encourager. He never really grasped the fact that his was a unique talent, you see, and laboured under the impression that anyone could write like him if they set their mind to it. Because writing came so easily to him, he presumed it came easy to everyone. Ha!’
Johannes Speyer on Paavo Laami. One of many revelations from Chapter Three, Part Three
I sense I may have caused confusion in my last post by neglecting to make an adequate distinction between unpleasant content and unpleasant style.
Regarding the latter: it is possible, I maintain, that a writer – who may or may not be a lovely person, and may or may not desire to write about lovely things – may be naturally inclined to write in a manner suggesting unpleasantness. Where does this nastiness lie? It lies in the space between the commas, in the colons and the dashes, the paragraph breaks and sentence lengths. It lies in the way the long words hang over the short words; in the manipulation of alliteration and assonance; of onomatopoeia and colloquialisms. It lies in the strangely sinister syntax.
This is poorly explained, I know. How can I accuse a writer of an unpleasant style in such vague terms? It is a major accusation – and yet it stands. Some writers, I believe, employ semi-colons in a way that only be described as ‘evil’. I am not saying that they are evil, or that their writing concerns evil things. It is something in the way their writing walks across the page: the sadistic gait of their sentences. Their writing is simply disposed towards unpleasantness.
Sometimes an unpleasant style (which it not necessary unpleasnt to read, I might add) comes with unpleasant content, as in the case of Pyetr Turgidovsky. More often that not, however, the two remain apart – which is why they must not be confused. One can write about wonderful things in a style that is not wonderful. Furthermore, one can do this and yet still write something that is wonderful to read. I am not talking about a bad style, after all, but an unpleasant one; a style inclined to evil. And what is more wonderful than an inclination (but not necessarily a definite movement) toward evil?
I notice only in retrospect that the title of my last post did not do justice to the content. Or at least that it anticipated content that was not there. In my rush to expose Leberret and Frome as attention-seeking poseurs, with the combined literary talent of a potted lobster, I neglected to mention that there is a history of ‘coincidences’ such as theirs – and that we should hesitate before slamming them. After all, what does it matter that two stories start in the same way, so long as they go on to explore different avenues? As a child, I was never consciously frustrated by ‘once upon a time’: it was but a familiar diving board from which writers would stage a range of eccentric dives.
Now, unless Leberret and Frome have mastered the art of synchronised diving, the similarity of their opening lines shouldn’t bother us one bit. And here, I think we can safely say, the argument ends. Though their novels are equally bad, their plotlines share as many features as a crab and a cloud. Even then, though, I wonder if I would have a problem. One can steal a plot and still write a completely different story.
I am, once again, struck by a passage in George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man, in which he notes of Balzac (the best advert for coffee I know of) that ‘he seems to me to have shown greater wings of mind than any writer that ever lived’.
‘Wings of mind’: what a marvellous phrase this is! It is hardly original – writers have long referred to thoughts as winged creatures – but it could not have been better put, or found in a more appropriate context. Balzac’s mind had so many wings: he could soar like an albatross, swoop like a swallow or hop from branch to branch like a foraging sparrow. He could even be a bat if need be. His was a mind which could twist and turn in any direction, at any speed. It could be clumsy, yes, but it was a graceful clumsiness. It was a clumsiness that knew what it was about – and where it was going.
Enough, however, of Balzac. What of our own minds? Do our thoughts fly, or have they (as I often feel myself) something of the ostrich about them? On some days, I sense that my mind is distinctly penguin: it waddles, slides and swims with the best of them, but will never take flight. On other days, I am as a wren trapped in a shed. I can get into the air without trouble – but where am I going? The ceiling is the limit; the sky no more accessible than the landscape in a painting. The wings of my mind, alas, are clipped.
‘To write sentences in which the spirit of life resides’
(Jean-Pierre Sertin, when asked about his literary aims last night at The Crippled Bee)
Marc St.Martin, who died last week, was a great writer of sentences. Whole stories were, alas, beyond him; but when it came to the single sentence, there was no one better.
He wrote sentences that would turn a story on its head; that would say, between two full-stops, what others could not say between fifty. For this reason his friends would often ask him to solve problems in their manuscripts; to contribute a sentence (or two, if he was in the mood), for which he would be paid handsomely. In such a way St.Martin made his career as a writer – almost, if not completely, unknown to the general public (though well-paid, he was never named as a contributor).
Rumour has it, indeed, that some of the most famous lines in modern european literature were written by him. He can take no credit, however, for the ideas behind those lines, or for the great narratives of which they formed part. His vision was far too limited for that. Set him on the small tasks, though, and there was no stopping him. He truly was a master of the single sentence.