Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Two ways of entering a room

I happened to be entertained on consecutive days by two different descriptions of characters crossing the thresholds of rooms in two wildly different novels, so, since they amused me, I'll share them and hope they do the same for you.

The first comes from A Tale of Two Cities and is one of the only passages in which the prose carries some of the usual Dickensian playfulness and life. Dickens is describing a room in an inn along the mail route:
The Concord bedchamber being always assigned to a passenger by the mail, and passengers by the mail being always heavily wrapped up from head to foot, the room had the odd interest for the establishment of the Royal George, that although but one kind of man was seen to go into it, all kinds and types of men came out of it.
We have been living in deep winter for so long here that the concept is familiar: the L train takes in nothing but identical passengers, but once we get to our offices, we as suddenly our own individual selves again, if a bit the worse for wear.

The second passage comes from The Acceptance World, the third volume of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. This volume finds Nick Jenkins in his mid-twenties, properly embarked on life, if still working out how to unknot the lines that tether him to the dock in love. Early in the novel, his college acquaintance J. G. Quiggin, a forcefully left-wing writer and critic, arrives unexpectedly in the restaurant of the Ritz:
However, my attention was at that moment distracted by the sudden appearance in the palm court of a short, decidedly unconventional figure who now came haltingly up the steps. This person wore a black leather overcoat. His arrival in the Ritz--in those days--was a remarkable event.

Pausing, with a slight gesture of exhaustion that seemed to imply arduous travel over many miles of arid desert or snowy waste (according to whether the climate within or without the hotel was accepted as prevailing), he looked about the room; gazing as if in amazement at the fountain, the nymph, the palms in their pots of Chinese design: then turning his eyes to the chandeliers and the glass of the roof. His bearing was at once furtive, resentful, sagacious, and full of a kind of confidence in his own powers. He seemed to be surveying the tables as if searching for someone, at the same time unable to believe his eyes, while he did so, at the luxuriance of the oasis in which he found himself. He carried no hat, but retained the belted leather overcoat upon which a few drops of moisture could b seen glistening as he advanced into the room, an indication that snow or sleet had begun to fall outside. This black leather garment gave a somewhat official air to his appearance, obscurely suggesting a Wellsian man of the future, hierarchic in rank. Signs of damp could also be seen in patches on his sparse fair hair, a thatch failing to roof in completely the dry, yellowish skin of his scalp.
I enjoy the whole description, especially the way that it pauses the action to not only take in, but reflect on, all of Quiggin. It's one of the things Powell is best at: reminding us that our minds are always working, even in company, and letting his narrative slow for their deliberate operations and flights of association. And how effective is that run of adjectives midway through: "furtive, resentful, sagacious, and full of a kind of confidence in his own powers." Can't you just see Quiggin's face at that moment? Finally, there's the opening description that spools out from the hint of exhaustion--so entertaining. It makes me think we should all commit to adding a bit of over-the-top comic description to our daily lives.

1 comment:

  1. Andrea in enlessly snowy Ottawa11:22 AM

    Thanks for the amusement! Quiggin's leather coat evoking a Wellsian man of the future reminds me of another evocative outfit--the description in A Buyer's Market of Aunt Janet Walpole-Wilson:

    "She dressed usually in tones of brown and green, colours that gave her for some reason, possibly because her hats almost always conveyed the impression of being peaked, an air of belonging to some dedicated order of female officials, connected possibly with public service in the woods and forests, and bearing a load of responsibility, the extent of which was difficult for a lay person--even impossible if a male--to appreciate, or wholly to understand." (p. 179)