Sunday, July 21, 2019

'There Was a Best Way of Saying Anything'

In his essay on Robert Louis Stevenson in Literary Distractions (1958), Msgr. Ronald Knox addresses an interesting phenomenon: our literary tastes as they ripen and wither across the decades. Knox rightly describes Stevenson as that rarest of writers, “the companion of a lifetime; you pick up the habit in childhood, and you must be in your second childhood before you depart from it.” Writing in 1949 when he was sixty-one, Knox says: “Of all modern authors, I find [Stevenson] most surely re-readable.” In my case I would substitute Swift and Defoe, two writers I still read and love almost sixty years after I first encountered them. My devotion to Stevenson has been less faithful, and today I prefer his essays to his fiction.

An adolescent who reads science fiction should be lauded; an adult who does so should seek professional help. It’s a childish genre written by and for the immature. It’s a phase many of us experience on the cusp of puberty -- age-appropriate but soon outgrown naturally when we put away childish things. Like Swift, Defoe and Melville, Stevenson has been marketed as a writer of children’s books. They are, I would argue, so long as we acknowledge that each matures as we mature. Re-reading will not exhaust them. Knox offers a slightly different understanding:

“[C]orrosion as well as erosion affects our literary loyalties; the mere lapse of time, the slowing down of life’s pulses, can breed infidelity. I do not mean simply that we outgrow our calf love for this author or that; a Pater or a Swinburne. I mean that the masterpieces we still admire no longer have the power to thrill us; use has staled them, and our worship, however sincere, has grown mechanical. We acknowledge their merit, we recommend them to others, but for ourselves the charm has vanished; perhaps years hence, perhaps never to be recaptured.”

That precisely describes my relationship with several writers, starting with James Joyce. I was an acolyte when young, a true believer. Most often I’ve read Ulysses, probably four or five times, and that seems to be enough. It no longer has the power to thrill, as Knox says, and I think I’ve solved most of its puzzles. Once I hacked my way through Finnegans Wake, but never again. The only Joyce I can foresee reading one more time is Dubliners. Perhaps Joyce is a true YA (young adult) writer. I acknowledge his merit, of course, but “the charm has vanished.” And yet I expect to read Proust again. Back to Knox on Stevenson:

“[F]or Stevenson writing was not merely putting down marks on a piece of paper, to arouse impressions in the mind. He was a man who delighted in the sound of speech, and the written word was but the score of a musical composition; there must be no sentence which was not worthy of being read aloud. Prose was not, any more than verse, merely a question of balancing your sentences right, of selecting the precise word that did justice to your meaning, of avoiding the clumsy and the cacophonous. It had its own moods and cadences; the old distinction between prose as saying the right thing in the right way and poetry as saying the best thing in the best way was a blunder. There was a best way of saying anything, in prose as in poetry.”


Harmon said...

Science fiction was the genre of my pre-teen & teenage years. I lost my taste for it when I went to law school, & always attributed that to the training I got in reading cases. You learn to argue with the text, which makes it hard to countenance foolishness.

In my late 60s, I started revisiting the genre. What I found was a greatly expanded universe of speculative fiction. Lots of dreck, but here & there a jewel. The City and The City by China MiƩville, for instance, The Three Body Problem series by Liu Cixin, and a couple of things by Michael Chabon. And there's still & always Stanislaw Lem.

One does not read Science Fiction for the literary experience, but rather, for imaginative engagement with possibility. There's one flavor of that for your youth, and perhaps a different one for your age.

Faze said...

Putting aside all the race-class-gender stuff people talk about nowadays, the real wedge issue among readers and writers of good will is science fiction and fantasy. There are good writers and smart people on both sides of the issue. The people (like me) who do not appreciate science fiction and fantasy are horrified by the enormous cultural space it now occupies, and the people who like it (apparently) can't get enough of it. This could become one of those issues that ends friendships.