“They ate in the cafeteria with the gilded front. There was the same art inside as outside. The food looked sumptuous. Whole fishes were framed like pictures with carrots, and the salads were like terraced landscapes or like Mexican pyramids; slices of lemon and onion and radishes were like sun and moon and stars; the cream pies were about a foot thick and the cakes swollen as if sleepers had baked them in their dreams.”
This is metaphor as celebration of the world’s bounty and the bounty of the mind lavishing so much electric insight on readers. The writer is almost profligate. Showing off is permitted, even encouraged, in one so gifted but we are tempted to say, “Enough, I think,” as we welcome the next efflorescence. The passage is from Seize the Day, Saul Bellow’s short novel from 1956.
“He was a short, deep, wide man, with grey hair kinked as if there were negro in him. His skin was kippered by a life of London smoke but it quickly flushed to an innocent country ruddiness at the taste of food: his face was bland, heavy of jowl, formless and kind, resting on a second chin like a bottom on an air cushion. It was the face of a man who was enjoying a wonderfully boyish meal, which got better with every mouthful; but in the lips and in the lines from the fleshy nose there was a refined, almost spiritual, arresting look of insult and contempt.”
Like Bellow, a practiced describer of bodies and faces, reflecting as they do the souls within, this writer skirts caricature. He lets verbs do the work of adjectives – “kippered” is priceless. We move without fuss from “flushed” to “bottom,” while the attentive smile. We know the sort of doughy man he describes and how greasy-fingered gluttony, the fat man's guilty pleasure, turns nasty. We know this from life and from books --from Dickens, of course. This is V.S. Pritchett’s sketch of the title character in Mr. Beluncle (1951).
“He spotted Mopiani from the Caddy as he drove up, the man pneumatic in the cop’s criss-crossed leather that bound Mopianai’s tunic, the thick straps and ammunition loops potted with bullets, the long holster like a weapon, it’s pistol some bent brute at a waterhole, the trigger like a visible genital, the uniform itself a weapon, the metal blades of Mopiani’s badge, the big key ring with its brass claws, a tunnel of handcuffs doubled on his backside, the weighted, tapered cosh, the sergelike grainy blue hide, the stout black brogans, and the patent-leather bill of his cap like wet ink.”
Mopiani bristles with hardware like a Transformer. Where does man end and metaphor begin? Mopiani is a walking, talking mass of metaphor, a landslide of simile. Like all good metaphors, these are memorable and work both ways. Now a puddle of ink looks like patent-leather. Excess never sounded so good. This is Stanley Elkin in The Franchiser (1976).
This gathering of metaphorical greatest hits was prompted by a passage in Leon Wieseltier’s review of Bellow’s Selected Letters:
“Metaphor is the juxtaposition of disparate elements of the world in which an unsuspected commonality, an illuminating partial likeness, has been discovered, and the more unlikely the juxtaposition, the greater the consequent sensation of the unifying of the world; and so the range of a writer’s metaphor is a measure of the range of his cognition.”
A good metaphor is witty and catalytic. It mingles surprise and recognition. In his Poetics, Aristotle says “command of metaphor” is “the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.” True enough but there’s also joyousness in metaphors, writing and reading them, a satisfying sense that things may connect after all: “slices of lemon and onion and radishes were like sun and moon and stars.”