Friday, December 15, 2006

On the importance of a good prose style

A good dinner, a martini, a quiet hotel room with a wireless connection, a good book, and a Blogger account. What more could I want after a long week in New York of work and visiting friends?

So, as I've said before on this blog, I'm unlikely to enjoy a novel if I don't approve of the author's prose. The sentence, after all, is the first evidence I have by which to judge an author, and a writer who can't figure out the difference between a good sentence and a bad one is necessarily suspect. There are exceptions (see Jones, James), but usually what I want to know about a writer is, first of all, can he or she write?

The prose I like most straddles a fine line between careful observation and too much aestheticism, describing the world the way it is with near-perfect precision while not drawing attention to itself at the expense of the described. It's a product of continued, careful attention to the details that make up life and the language available to us for describing those details. At its best, such prose serves simultaneously to provide the background in which characters are placed for our contemplation and to convey a sense of those characters themselves. The following description of Dr. David Melrose, from the first page of Edward St. Aubyn's Never Mind (1992, collected in Some Hope), is a good example:
In his blue dressing gown, and already wearing dark glasses although it was still too early for the September sun to have risen above the limestone mountain, he directed a heavy stream of water from the hose he held in his left hand onto the column of ants moving busily through the gravel at his feet. His technique was well-established: he would let the survivors struggle over the wet stones, and regain their dignity for a while, before bringing the thundering water down on them again. With his free hand he removed a cigar from his mouth, its smoke drifting up through the brown and gray curls that covered the jutting bones of his forehead. He then arrowed the jet of water with his thumb to batter more efficiently an ant on whose death he was wholly bent.
Now, any half-competent high school English student could explain what St. Aubyn is conveying about the man--a doctor--in this paragraph, but that makes the achievement, concise and pointed, no less impressive. St. Aubyn has chosen the right details and the precise words in which to convey them. And it's not a matter of picking particularly unusual or erudite words, but of using words in a way that, in a sense, allows them to realize their full potential. Technique, struggle, thundering, arrowed, batter, wholly bent: these are not unusual words, but they are unusually well-chosen, creating an indelible picture of intense, almost finicky cruelty. Again, it's a matter of attentive observation of the world--or, in this case, of careful imagination of a character and how he would manifest himself in the world--followed by equal care applied to the words in which those observations are presented.

That sort of precision is the basis for the odd melding of minds of which the best reading consists, that sense of a real encounter with a previously unknown person who, through their prose, is showing you how they see the world. Encountering such clear evidence of care and intelligence in the first pages of a novel creates the trust that allows me to lend essential credence to the author's ideas about life and human relationships; I want to know what the author thinks because his prose has convinced me that those thoughts will repay the time I invest in them.

Further, in satire of this sort that trust, in turn, allows the author . . .
And yet, to Eleanor, David had seemed so different from the tribe of English snobs and distant cousins who hung around, ready for an emergency, or a weekend, full of memories that were not even their own, memories of the way their grandfathers had lived, which was not in fact how their grandfathers had lived. When she had met David, she thought that he was the first person who really understood her. Now he was the last person she would go to for understanding. It was hard to explain this change and she tried to resist the temptation of thinking that he had been waiting all along for her money to subsidize his fantasies of how he deserved to live. Perhaps, on the contrary, it was her money that had cheapened him. He had stopped his medical practice soon after their marriage. At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.
. . . to sink the stiletto with absolutely bloodless, surgical precision.

St. Aubyn seems to have the asperity, the cruel, unblinking honesty, of Waugh or Saki or Dawn Powell. Oh, I think I've found an author I'm going to really like.

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