Introduction to a Series of Ruminations on Prose
This doesn’t intend to be but an introduction to a short series of rambles, consequence of some fun little exercises that I tend to carry out while re-reading narrative pieces.
I’d like to begin by explaining why I embark in such — one could argue, petty, squeamish examinations, to, in future pieces, dedicate myself to them exclusively.
Depending on format, I either leaf to a random page, or scroll to a random spot, and, wherever I have arrived, I look about for a particularly interesting sentence that I then transcribe and dissect.
My aim is to recognize what in the sentence in question is virtuous, if anything, if it is weak, why, and if there is something there to imitate. There’s something to be learned from each sentence, some lessons are more blatant than others.
Each sentence requires a different approach. I have imposed upon myself no strict method. The first step isn’t but to mark whatever captures my attention first. Sometimes, it’ll be a rhythmic effect, sometimes a word, sometimes, the way that the sentence develops, and that will guide further observations. I am drawn to an element of the sentence, and once I have attempted to understand it, I carry on examining what surrounds it. In some cases, I first recognize what information is being conveyed, and in what order, and then, what rhythmic or aesthetic effect is achieved. But, sometimes, for instance, I notice a cacophony and dedicate myself to it first.
How deep I’ll go- if I’ll end up dedicating myself to the fragment word by word, or just making annotations on its general structure, depends on my subject. It’s very hard not to over-analyze, particularly when dedicating oneself to such brief portions of a text. Not every word demands more than a nod. Not every word bears some contextual quirk, or is a secret piece of a game of underlying subtler, tender meanings. Sometimes, the preposition “to” appears as a grammatical imperative, not as tacit commentary on the existential journey of a character.
Lately, I’ve been entertaining myself with Truman Capote’s writings. In January, I took a brief course on the American Short Story, whose reading material included “Music For Chameleons”. This inspired a re-visitation of In Cold Blood, and a brief skimming through The Glass Harp. Both pieces I will treat in this series’ next installment.
Capote’s prose is crystalline, and nonchalantly brilliant, particularly in In Cold Blood, where, by these qualities, it serves right to his journalistic aspirations.
Like Sophia Leonard well noted in her status quæstionis of the critical discourse on the book, “…Capote is a silent outside observer, commenting without becoming a presence within the novel…”
One of the most interesting of my latest nitpickings, and of those that I’ll treat in the next weeks, was one over a beautiful sentence that marks a transition between two narrative focuses. It’s dense in information, and presents it in the closest I can think of as an “ideal” order, while conjuring beautiful imagery. It is:
“… Far off, in the town of Olathe, in a hotel room where window shades darkened the midday sun, Perry lay sleeping, with a grey portable radio murmuring beside him…”
Capote precedes a zoom-in, with a nexus. Through most of the work, we are taken through parallel narratives, “far off” reminds us of the contemporaneity of the story lines. “Far off” acknowledges what has been told before, as coexisting with what we will see now.
This miniscule decision that, most likely, wasn’t creatively heavy for the author to make, and that, perhaps, wasn’t even a decision, but the way to proceed that came to Capote naturally, in a detail, strengthens the tension generated by treating the investigation of the crime, and the lives of its authors in parallel. Those guilty are out there, and we have to wait for them and those who are looking for them, to meet. Now, they are to be found “far off”.
On the other hand, Capote explains. He explains that Olathe is a town, and that it’s the midday, but the room is darkened by window shades. The sentence ends with a personification, that is: With a synthesis. Capote explains that Olathe is a town, and that it’s the midday, but the room is dark due to the window shades. The first is a necessary clarification, and the second is a vivid detail that enriches the scene. Where Capote finds it fit to synthesize, he synthesizes, and he does so with figures of speech.
I’d argue that Capote’s sentences are easy to pull apart, but hard to re-confection. It’s easy to recognize what he has done, but not as easy to imitate.
If I was examining this sentence with others, I’d probably propose a little game: That of conveying the information that Capote conveyed, in another order, or seeing how many pieces of information we can remove until the sentence appears so deprived that it’s unsustainable and crumbles apart.
If any piece of information was removed, the sentence’d appear incomplete- Perhaps it is because we’d know that something is lacking, so all rearrangements would seem rearrangements about an empty spot; perhaps one can only remove the smallest pieces — The colour of the radio, for instance.
Perhaps this is due to my expressive clumsiness and the clumsiness of those that I’ve invited to participate in these exercises.
It’s not an outrageously original idea, but I will share it regardless: In literature, we can’t speak of the “ideal” way to do anything- There are only ways that work – and, still, whether they really do is up for debate.
But, perhaps, a sentence to be found in page 192 of a work by Truman Capote, or Virginia Woolf, or Julio Cortázar is the sister of the one that is lacking in whatever story one is at work.
Regardless of one’s expertise, eventually, it might be complicated to have something appear on the page the way one intends to. From other authors, we can get clues. By examining how a certain tone might have been achieved, or a certain detail, handled, we can learn how certain little prosistic mechanisms operate, and re-confection them to our needs and taste. I’ll steal from Susan Sontag: I enjoy agonizing over sentences, not only due to the rush that discovering some little hidden motif, or expressive curiosity arouses in me, but also because by doing so, I get tools to play with in my writing.
Writing sentences is hard. One could argue that, in fiction writing, plotting is harder, because the plot is the foundation of the work, things need to happen, even in novels where “nothing happens”, something happens; but the plot relies on sentences. One can ruin a story by lousy sentences, one can sabotage oneself in the details, as well as one can dote a piece with a delightful complexity by telling it in a certain tone. That tone, too, will determine what is shown and what is hidden. The dichotomy between “content” (the plot) and that accessory to the content, that which is “decorative” (the prose), is erred. The prose is the necessary vehicle of the plot, and prose and plot influence each other. The prose is the consequence of the plot, but the medium through which it unfolds.
On the other hand, one can begin from the mere sentence, to analyze the whole work. First we examine the sentence, then we get interested in its place or function in a paragraph, or a chapter, in the setting of a mood, in the development of a scene, and then go on to see it in perspective, as a necessary component in the vast the structure of the work.
I set my attention on the sentence, and on the detail, because I enjoy a sensualist notion of literature.
We tend to stop to re-read a sentence, either when the prose is so convoluted, or our attention so diluted that we haven’t understood it, or when something particularly curious happens (some interesting imagery, some observation that rings true), but in many small details, sentence by sentence, the tone of the work is determined. I find great enjoyment in the subtle, in the tender, in that which it takes concentration and, in the cases of some authors in particular, a certain wit to find. Imagine how useful I’d be if I was interested, not in literary inflections, but in the human heart, or in neurology.
This whole task might seem tremendously dull. Nowadays, literature is more commonly approached with a desire to learn about the society that the author participated or participates in, and how some of their stances on certain political issues filter into the narrative.
Some works are written as political allegories, and some works are particularly fit for a specific lens, they have all the elements that are relevant to a particular school – For instance, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is prone to feminist analysis, and a feminist critic has plenty, in the novel, to work with. But not all lenses are fit for all works. Criticizing certain pieces, under certain lenses, the political opinions or concerns of the critic might eclipse the work, and certain elements, events, or characters, could be misinterpreted — By this I don’t mean that there is a defined correct and a defined incorrect way to interpret a text, but approaching it with a checklist of ideological elements that must be present, attributing subtexts that are, perhaps, anachronistic, unlikely and irrelevant to the appreciation and understanding of the work, surely constitute a questionable method. But, still, making of every hero a martyr of one’s ideology, or of every anti-hero an unarmed goon, victim of a system of oppression, is not as bad as what might follow: An abandonment of the work, and the discussion of the social issues that the critic sees reflected. Far too often, literature is a “starting point”. I speak of my education and that of most people I know- Not many of us were taught to dwell in literature. With exceptions that, sadly, are becoming even rarer, literature tends to be an excuse to treat more important affairs.
I don’t care to approach literature as an activist, but as a writer. I carry out my inspections with the practical excitement of a painter who has just found a way to turn their wrist to crease the insides of a rose. These practices are a consequence of the kind of appeal that literature has to me.
I enjoy the craft because it’s a celebration of the private, it’s a celebration of experience, and of remembrance, it’s a celebration of the subjective, and of the minuscule, of the subtle, of the sensual. A couple of years ago, I was asked for a definition of literature, and I provided similar emotional, non-descriptive nonsense: Literature is a case for the sacredness of memory.
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