Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On some prose styles

There I was, dithering between Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen and a return to Proust, with Ron Powers's Mark Twain bio lurking about as a bushy-haired alternative, when my friend Jim convinced me to open Clive James's Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007). I did, to the piece on Edward Gibbon, a writer with whom I've never been able to get on, despite Silas Wegg's enthusiasm in Our Mutual Friend. A couple of hundred pages into The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the summit still shrouded in distant clouds, I've always turned away in search of lesser, more rewarding peaks.

Clive James, despite having made a far more honorable attempt than I, feels the same. Here he is on Gibbon's prose, which is unnecessarily baroque (even when set against the work of his contemporaries) and, what is worse, tic-laden:
[T]here is still something to the assumption that a sentence, however the reader gets to the end of it, should be intelligible by the time he does, and that if he is forced to begin again he has been hoodwinked into helping the writer do the writing. Readers of Gibbon don't just help: they join a chain gang, and the chain gang is in a salt mine, and the salt mine is reached after a long trip by galley, during which they are never excused the feel of the oar of the snap of the lash.
Ah, how refreshing are the hatred and disdain that can only come of a serious attempt to address a writer on his own terms!

Then I opened the book again at random and happened across the following lines about the prose style--memorable and effective, though frequently ungrammatical--of my favorite novelist, Anthony Powell:
Powell . . . was the arch-perpetrator of the dangling modifier. At least Waugh had got over the influence of Latin constructions. Powell, to the end of his career, wrote as if English were an inflected language, and at least once per page, in Powell's prose, the reader is obliged to rearrange the order of a sentence so that a descriptive phrase, sometimes a whole descriptive clause, can be re-attached to its proper object. In a book review I once mentioned Powell's erratic neo-classical prosody. He sent me a postcard quoting precedent as far back as John Aubrey.
Now, as much joy as there is to be found in Aubrey--no small part of which comes from the way he presses his brief, scattershot biographical insights into curving and complicated sentences--a writer who adduces him as favorable evidence in a question of contemporary usage is essentially pleading guilty and hoping he's drawn a kindly judge.

I can see that I'm going to have to spend some time with Cultural Amnesia. But it's at heart a bedside book, broken as it is into essays of comfortable length, so I'm still left in need of an answer to my initial question: Tomalin or Proust? I guess I'll have to let today's commute decide. I have a hunch that Proust will win out because, well, when does he not?


  1. Gibbon's autobiography is a most lovely book, it has my highest recommendation--I think you would really love it...

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Jenny. You've yet to steer me wrong, and the few paragraphs from Gibbon's autobiography that I've come across here and there have been surprisingly compelling, even (if my memory serves) emotionally open.

    To be fair to Clive James, by the way, he, too, points out that Gibbon's autobiography is proof that he can write good, readable, effective prose.

  3. By all means, read the biography of Proust, because reading 7 volumes of his reminiscences in the form of a novel, you don't really begin to scratch the depth and complication of the guy.

    As for dear Jane, you can watch Anne Hathaway in the biopic Becoming Jane, or skip biography altogether and just read Stephanie Barron's series of mysteries starring Austen as a detective. It's like being a Sherlockian in reverse, while being a Janeist instead!

    Yes, this is your new assignment, and all that you're getting for Christmas.

  4. Steve2:00 AM

    I picked up "The Christians and the Fall of Rome" for some "light" reading on the train. I don't think it's so much that you have to write the book along with Gibbon as you have to continually affirm that you are indeed not drunk.