We, humans, see human-like activity everywhere and it makes life all the more agreeable.
Be it the solution that jumped out at you, the chocolate ice-cream that calls your name every time you pass the fridge, or the red spots that dance on your eyelids if you close your eyes after staring at the sun. And those are just the terms that have crept into everyday language. Of course, there are also the poetic varieties, like:
- T. S. Eliot’s restless nights and The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock),
- Roger McGough’s Something freshly slaughtered / Dragged itself into the hall (There was Knock on the Door. It Was the Meat.),
- e e cummings’s fragment of angry candy (the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls).
Here’s John Banville, in Mefisto, giving a living room description. The shutters are down; outside is a sunlit afternoon.
Quote: Sophie opened the shutters. The room greeted the sudden glare with a soundless exclamation of surprise. An armchair leaned back, its armrests braced, in an attitude of startlement and awe.
What makes the Quote quiver?
The room, the armchair as living beings.
Say you haven’t ever—when the light is right, and the mood just so—thought that an armchair looks startled at seeing you entering the room of its dominion?
The one back home, that often made me think of it as living, had felt skin, golden and chaffed, two buttons for eyes, two buttons for a mouth, and a button for its nose that would come right out to hang on a long pale loop of thread if you weren’t careful. The front-facing surface of its armrests, swirled in a brown snail spiral like winding fingers, braced indeed, for the impending impact of a human body.
What is at the core of the Quote?
Personification is a figure by which an animal or inanimate object or idea is given human characteristics. Or, in an extended sense, it imbues inanimate objects with animal-like behaviour. Originally, when I wrote the definitions page, I made up an example:
The night galloped in through the windows.
Recently, I came across a line which started similarly, but was far more imaginative. In Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, Anne Carston has night arriving as a gust into a roomful of people:
A gust of night / pushed its way in the door / and everyone inside wavered once like stalks in a field then resumed their talk.
Of course, our Quote is also helped along by the sentence rhythm, the alliteration of g’s and s’s, and the context which I withheld till now. Here it is, for the curious reader and the word connoisseur, a Banville description, vivid and shining.
We came to the house, and climbed the steps to the front door. Sophie produced a huge iron key from a pocket of her skirt. In the hall a rhomb of sunlight basked on the floor, like a reclining acrobat. The wallpaper hung down in strips, stirring now in the draught from the doorway like bleached palm-fronds. There was a dry, brownish smell, as if something had finished rotting and turned to dust. On the threshold a barrier seems to part before me, an invisible membrane. The air was cool and dry. There was no sign of life. Dust lay everywhere, a mouse-grey flocculent stuff, like a layer of felt, cushioning our footfalls. We went into a large, darkened room. The shutters were drawn, bristling with slanted blades of sunlight. There was a skitter of tiny claws in a corner, then silence. Sophie opened the shutters. The room greeted the sudden glare with a soundless exclamation of surprise. An armchair leaned back, its armrests braced, in an attitude of startlement and awe.
In startlement and awe of such writing, I remain.
P.S. Challenge for readers: did you spot the synesthesia in the Extended Quote?
- Mefisto, John Banville.
- John Banville, The Art of Fiction No. 200, Paris Review Interview from Issue 188, Spring 2009. An insight into the life of the author and how he hammers out his prose.
- Collected Poems, Roger McGough. Because the other poems are just as great as There was Knock on the Door. It Was the Meat.
- Other QQ posts featuring Banville’s quotes.