Tuesday, November 24, 2015

`Discoveries that Demand Expression'

The only thing better than a prolific good writer, is a costive bad one. We should count our blessings for every time Norman Mailer didn’t publish a book. On the other hand, Evelyn Waugh turned out peerless prose at an industrial clip. One could easily spend a month reading nothing but Waugh without fear of the supply running dry. My current Waugh-binge has included Decline and Fall, Scoop, Put Out More Flags, his life of Ronald Knox and occasional dips into Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. That last collection, in which Waugh the novelist is joined by Waugh the scrambling freelance journalist and reviewer, reacquainted me with “Literary Style in England and America,” an essay he published in Books on Trial in 1955:

“Literature is the right use of language irrespective of the subject or reason of the utterance. A political speech may be, and sometimes is, literature; a sonnet to the moon may be, and often is, trash. Style is what distinguishes literature from trash.”

Waugh is no Yellow Book aesthete. He thought James Joyce was insane, and in “Literary Style” says the Irishman was “possessed by style. His later work lost all faculty of communication, so intimate, allusive and idiosyncratic did it become, so obsessed by euphony and nuance” – as good an encapsulation of Finnegans Wake as I know. In contrast to the ingrown mutations of late Joyce, Waugh says the “necessary elements of style are lucidity, elegance, individuality; these three qualities combine to form a preservative which ensures the nearest approximation to permanence in the fugitive art of letters.”

Lucidity in Waugh’s estimation doesn’t mean Dick-and-Jane flatness. Several years ago I tried to read a novel by the noir cult-favorite David Goodis. Every sentence seemed stamped out with the same subject-verb-object cookie cutter. Goodis plodded along in four-four like a drummer on the nod. Was he intelligible? Sure, but so is the phone book. Waugh clarifies:

“Henry James is the most lucid of writers, but not the simplest. The simplest statements in law and philosophy are usually those which, in application, require the greatest weight of commentary and provoke the longest debate. A great deal of what is most worth saying must always remain unintelligible to most readers. The test of lucidity is whether the statement can be read as meaning anything other than what it intends.”

Elegance has a dubious reputation among readers and critics. The just-the-facts crowd deems elegant writing effete, elitist and probably intended to conceal its absence of substance. Not Waugh:

“Elegance is the quality in a work of art which imparts direct pleasure; again not universal pleasure. There is a huge, envious world to whom elegance is positively offensive. English is incomparably the richest of languages, dead or living. One can devote one’s life to learning it and die without achieving mastery. No two words are identical in meaning, sound and connotation. The majority of English speakers muddle through with a minute vocabulary.”

About individuality, the third of his prerequisites for true style, Waugh is succinct: “It is the hand-writing, the tone of voice, that makes a work recognizable as being by a particular artist.” Most of Waugh’s prose readily meets that criterion. “Style,” he says, “is what makes a work memorable and unmistakable.” He cites Max Beerbohm and Ronald Knox as exemplars of style, saying, “[Knox’s] Enthusiasm should be recognized as the greatest work of literary art of the century,” a sentiment I wouldn’t get into a fight over. As to novelists with “intensely personal and beautiful styles,” Waugh names Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green. For some reason, while I admire and enjoy the others, I’ve always found Greene almost unreadable. Waugh concludes his essay like this, probably writing in an autobiographical mode:

“In youth high spirits carry one over a book or two. The world is full of discoveries that demand expression. Later a writer must face the choice of becoming an artist or a prophet. He can shut himself up at his desk and selfishly seek pleasure in the perfecting of his own skill or he can pace about, dictating dooms and exhortations on the topics of the day. The recluse at the desk has a bare chance of giving abiding pleasure to others; the publicist has none at all.”

1 comment:

Edward Bauer said...

Bravo to Waugh, and to you for this post. Any interest in the short stories? I have added it to the shelf, but haven't gotten to it yet. Also, last week I purchased the Kingsley Amis short story collection from NYRB. Any thoughts on his shorter works? I hope your family will all be together this week and enjoy a Happy Thanksgiving.