Tuesday, July 16, 2019

'A Looking-Glass, Distorting but Powerful'

“What turns me off in reading is writing that doesn’t respect the need for appealing sound, writing that’s too plain, that doesn’t surprise me.”

But the solution isn’t to tart up the language. “Appealing sound” – call it musicality, with an emphasis on rhythm, bolstered by concision and precision – isn’t cosmetic. William Gass had an alliteration tic, the simplest of poetic effects to manufacture. No one seems to have noticed how easily his prose can be mistaken for Thomas Wolfe’s. You can tell when a writer comes up with a particularly choice purple patch and is self-huggingly proud of himself. The passage quoted at the top is from an interview with Maryann Corbett, a poet, though she doesn’t specify prose or verse.

I have nothing against plain language, which I would distinguish from language that is flat, clunky, vague or generally tin-eared. I’m reminded of a contemporary critic who champions Gass and similar writers, and whose prose reads like cold oatmeal. Daniel Defoe mastered the plain style in prose and Yvor Winters in verse. Over the weekend I read From a View to a Death (1933), in which Anthony Powell uses the plain style with comic intent. Here is the novel’s opening:

“They drove uncertainly along the avenue that led to the house, through the bars of light that fell between the tree-trunks and made the shadows of the lime-trees strike obliquely across the gravel. The navy-blue car was built high off the ground and the name on its bonnet recalled a bankrupt, forgotten firm of motor-makers. Inside, the car was done up in a material like grey corduroy, with folding seats in unexpected places, constructed liberally to accommodate some Edwardian Swiss Family Robinson. This was a period piece. An exhibit. The brakes had ceased to work long since. On the wall in front, immediately behind the chauffeur’s neck, which was goose-flesh in spite of the heat, there was a German silver vase for flowers, and below it a looking-glass, distorting but powerful.”

I like soft-spoken, seemingly matter-of-fact prose that smuggles in implications, never cracks a knowing smile and lays off the lilting alliteratives.

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