On paradox, oxymoron, and synœciosis in Stefan Zweig’s “Chess”.
Let’s talk about chess.
Sixty-four squares, half white, half black; thirty-two pieces, half white, half black; two players, half playing as white, half playing as black.
Of course, Stefan Zweig put it better in his novella Chess (translation from the German by Anthea Bell), often also titled The Royal Game in English.
Quote: Is [chess] not also a science and an art, hovering between those categories as Muhammad’s coffin hovered between heaven and earth, a unique link between pairs of opposites: ancient yet eternally new; mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by the imagination; limited to a geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; constantly developing, yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere; mathematics calculating nothing; art without works of art; architecture without substance – but nonetheless shown to be more durable in its entity and existence than all books and works of art; the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, although no one knows what god brought it down to earth to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind.
That’s a single sweeping sentence, so richly deep, that you could dive into it repeatedly andcome up each time with a new pearl.
What makes the Quote (and the whole novella) quiver?
Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.
I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.
In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.
I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.
She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.
So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.
On hendiadys, Hernández, and heat in Latin American prose.
Infatuation has been described so many times, you’d think triteness was its middle name. And yet Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández digs fresh channels down which to guide the imagination. The Quote is from the short story The New House, from his book Lands of Memory.
Quote: … she even allowed herself to lower her eyelids. I told my poet friend that when she had her eyes like that her stance was somewhere between infinity and a sneeze.
Felisberto Hernández (1902–1964) was a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing in cafés and cinemas and wealthy private homes, until he finally dedicated himself to writing full-time in his later years. His blend of dream, reality, memory, and magic was a potent influence on many of the Latin American greats, including Márquez and Cortázar.
To my mind, Hernández’s stories have a distinct, viscous consistency—imagine if air were like water, hard to walk through, easy to float in—lacking in the Latin American magical realism that came after him. Maybe lacking is the wrong word: distilled is better.
But, like other Latin American authors, Hernández’s writing radiates heat. Not Californian heat, not African or Asian heat, not even Mediterranean heat. It’s specific and maybe, in some convoluted way, connected to his vision of how magic permeates the ordinary.
The closest to Hernández in the blending of the worldly with the otherworldly comes his contemporary, Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), a Polish-Jewish writer. The viscosity is there, as is a dank European chill.
But let’s leave my literary proprio- and thermoreceptors aside; they bear only limited scrutiny before starting to take false readings.
To get this post back on track, here is another quote from the same short story, about the same woman.
She talked continually and this was fine with me since it concealed the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I was trying to detach her from her words, like someone extracting a sweet from infinite layers of cardboard, paper, string, frills and other nuisances.
What makes the (first) Quote quiver?
The scale that contains both a sneeze and infinity.
On first person point of view, the Rashomon effect, and refutation in Niel Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples”.
A candle is a rectangle when seen from the side, a circle when seen from above (or below), and a pinprick of light when seen in the dark.
Stories, like candles, depend on our point of view. Let me sketch a comparatively tame example. Setting: student A taking oral exam in history with Professor B.
Point of view A: Did I hear him right? I’m shaking, shambling through the narrative, yup, aaaand said that name wrong, I’ve got sweat patches on my white shirt, I should have worn dark. The professor, he keeps piercing me with that look telling me I’m going to fail, and now he’s writing something down, probably the year I just got wrong, and the battle I just misplaced, he’s counting my mistakes, disaster, disaster, disaster.
Point of view B: Aha, correct, fine, right, God this is boring, why does she keep playing with that earring, she’s already got droopy ears, now she’s tapping her foot, chewing gum between questions, and she just checked the time on her phone, again. I’m as bored as her, I gave her maximal marks the moment she opened her mouth because we both know she’s learned the book by heart, but there’s the protocol, I have to ask another question after this, tralala, let me doodle a Snoopy for a while to pass the time.
A first person narrative is an intimate experience, the closest to living someone else’s life, but it suffers from the same limitations as living your own life: it’s a blinkered perspective, prone to bias. There is no right or wrong.
The inability to see beyond ourselves to the “objective reality” can lead to a severe disparity of viewpoints. This is the so-called Rashomon effect, named after Rashomon, a film by Kurosawa from the 1950-s, where murder witnesses give contradictory statements.
Unsurprisingly, conflicts are rooted in the Rashomon effect—as are most good novels.
In mainstream fiction, truth and thoughts are fickle, highly sought-after commodities that are usually hidden by the conniving author. Indeed, most misunderstandings have to be inferred by the reader or by the characters, and only occasionally is the book’s “objective reality” made explicit in a Watson-Holmes type of interaction.
But wait, objective reality is boring; don’t you wonder what it’s like to be someone else?
Whilst in real life you can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or see the world through their eyes, in a book, however, you can. Remember Grimm’s Snow White? Young beautiful girl put by evil stepmother into comatose state after swallowing poisonous apple until rescued by prince? The stepmother (I’ll call her Queen) is so evil she orders a huntsman to murder the stepdaughter (I’ll call her Princess) and bring back her heart or lungs or liver, depending on which version you read, to be eaten by the Queen.
That was so 19th century.
Steps in Neil Gaiman with Snow, Glass, Apples in 1994.His short story is a retelling of Snow White—it keeps all the well-known elements of the fairy tale —but it’s written in the ultimately biased viewpoint: in first person, from the Queen’s perspective. (Far from the omniscient narrator of fairy tales.)
Quote: And some say (but it is her lie, not mine) that I was given the heart, and that I ate it. Lies and half-truths fall like snow, covering the things that I remember, the things I saw. A landscape, unrecognisable after a snowfall; that is what she has made of my life.
“… to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.”—Alberto Manguel
Quote: During the student revolts that shook the world in the late 1960s, one of the slogans shouted at the lecturers at the University of Heidelberg was Hier wird nicht zitiert!, “No quoting here!” The students were demanding original thought; they were forgetting that to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present. To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.
The Quote illustrates part of the reason I chose to blog about quotes. As Alberto Manguel says, to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.
Context determines meaning; without it we are doomed.
She stomped down hard and everyone applauded means one thing if she stomped as part of a flamenco dance, another if she stomped on a snail, yet another if she stomped on the fingers of her opponent in a fight to the death.
Creating personas to prove a point in non-fiction. Quote from Tolkien’s speech “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”.
To illustrate a point you can relate an anecdote (it happened to me) or quote from a source (it happened to others, elsewhere, possibly in a book)—that’s called using testimony as a form of argument. But what if you need something tailor-made for the occasion of your argument? Well, then you fire-up your imagination and your Singer model 2.E (E for English) and fabricate your own testimony.
Yes, you call upon a fictional person, or indeed, you personify whomever you need—that’s the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia.
As I hinted in my previous post on Tolkien’s fox, prosopopoeia isn’t limited to fictional characters, on the contrary, it can come to your aid in everyday conversation (If he were here he’d tell you [insert convenient pseudo-quote]), and even more so in carefully-crafted arguments.
Before he became the celebrated author behind the modern Lord of the Rings franchise, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) was a philologist with a penchant for developing imaginary languages. Indeed, he says in his 1951 letter to Milton Waldman how “I have been at it since I could write” and how “behind my stories is now a nexus of languages”. That storytelling, nay, world-building can spring from such a low-level linguistic basis—language first, world later—fascinates me.
But perhaps it shouldn’t: in a lot of ways it’s one of the most logical places to start if you want a complex world which is self-consistent and complete. Because, ultimately, world-building is about cohesion on a grand scale.
Personification, creating characters in fiction, and the fox in “Lord of the Rings”.
Humans are anthropocentric. By extension, so are our creative efforts, like writing.
I use anthropocentric to mean caring about what happens to man or man-like presence, fictive or real,more than caring about anything else. It’s the reason why personification in writing—a figure by which an animal or inanimate object or idea is given human characteristics—is such a powerful imagination catalyst. Take the following three sentence:
The car was enclosed in fog.
Two rosebuds were bent towards each other on the terrace.
An armchair was tilted backwards.
Boring? Now take the way three authors decided to “bring them to life” using various degrees of personification (from weakest to strongest):
Carson gives fog a fist, White turns rosebuds into courtiers, Banville imbues the armchair with nuanced human feelings. The next step up would be a full-blown image, for example, Death as a scythe-wielding skeleton. But each of these is a mere eidolon, a spectre of personification, a teaser that enlivens the writing but stays safely in the realm of the non-human. To elevate an eidolon you need to give it the one thing that defines us: you need to make it speak like a human.
“Ha, ha, ha I’ve got the car in my fist,” said the fog.
“My Lord,” said the rosebud, bowing. “My Lady,” said the other, bowing back.
“Wow,” thought the armchair, “humans, long time no see. I shouldn’t have passed wind just now. Whoops.”
The difference is vast.
Uttering or thinking what we perceive as human speech means passing the literary Turing test of personification. The thing that is being made to speak isn’t necessarily human, not even fictionally so, but it’s so darn close you’d take it with you to a deserted island and consider it company.
Which brings us to Tolkien’s fox.
Here is J. R. R. Tolkien, in The Fellowship of the Ring(the first book of the Lord of Rings trilogy), using his power as a third-person omniscient narrator to saunter into the head of a fox. For those unfamiliar with his world: short, human-like beings called hobbits live in a woody, hilly green-grasses-of-England type of place called the Shire; Frodo and his friends are hobbits.
Quote:They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.
‘Hobbits!’ He thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.
And that’s it: no more mention of the fox. So why bother?
Let me try to explain what these words have in common.
So far on this blog I’ve discussed quotes from two books about fictional murderers awaiting justice, Albert Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger (1942)and John Banville’s Montgomery in The Book of Evidence (1989). Today’s Quote is from a third: Ernesto Sábato’s The Tunnel(1948, translation from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden). His protagonist is Juan Pablo Castel, a successful painter. A woman visits Castel’s exhibition and is drawn to one of his paintings; he, in turn, becomes obsessed with her. Disaster ensues.
Quote: I returned home with a feeling of absolute loneliness.
Usually that feeling of being alone in the world is accompanied by a condescending sense of superiority. I scorn all humankind; people around me seem vile, sordid, stupid, greedy, gross, niggardly. I do not fear solitude; it is almost Olympian.
On synonymia in general, and in a quote from Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”.
When you’re feeling ill, are you indisposed or infirm? What about lousy, queasy, or woozy? Or are you just a hypochondriac who prefers the word valetudinarian (because it sounds a lot like valedictorian and valerian)?
A thesaurus may serve up a whole heap of “synonyms”, words that may be interchangeable in some contexts, but even in off-the-cuff speech you can rarely apply one at random—and if you do, you’re risking rosy cheeks, unintended humour, and hasty corrections.
Luckily, our minds do not work with machine-like precision: only a few more-or-less apt words will present themselves in any given situation. To recall the rest, we have to make a conscious effort, as the writers amongst us do.
But there’s more to synonyms than word-for-word considerations; what about phrase-for-phrase, description-for-description?
The Sun is the golden disk in the sky, the centre of a heliocentric worldview, the star closest to Earth, the giver of light and life, it is the Greek Helios, the Egyptian Ra, it is Romeo’s Juliet, … A fun exercise, you might say, but in the end you always need to chose le mot juste.1
Actually, no. Sometimes you can just pile on the synonyms. Here’s Thomas Mann writing about his protagonist Aschenbach in Death in Venice (translation by Michael Henry Heim). How many synonymous descriptions can you count?
Quote: There he sat, the master, the eminently dignified artist, the author of “A Wretched Figure,” who had rejected bohemian excess and the murky depths in a form of exemplary purity, who had renounced all sympathy for the abyss and reprehended the reprehensible, climbed the heights, and, having transcended his erudition and outgrown all irony, accepted the obligations that come with mass approbation, a man whose fame was official, whose name had been made noble, and whose style schoolboys were exhorted to emulate—there he sat, his eyes closed, with only an occasional, rapidly disappearing sidelong glance, scornful and sheepish, slipping out from under them and a few isolated words issuing from his slack, cosmetically embellished lips, the result of the curious dream logic of his half-slumbering brain.
On how patterns of parenthesis determine writing style; quote from Banville’s “The Book of Evidence”.
… would be impossible.
Day-to-day dialogue would be unhelpful and dull without parenthetical asides, mid-sentence descriptions, reminders, questions, interjections. Written language would lose commas, dashes, and round brackets. Indeed, the news, already written to be as straightforward and stylistically unadorned as possible, would convey only half of the information, and only to the already informed reader. For example, as I am composing this post, the front page sports article of the BBC is about Venus Williams competing at Wimbledon, and the first time a comma appears in the article it signals a parenthetical insertion (italics are mine).
The American, 37, will overtake sister Serena’s record – set when she was 35 at the Australian Open in January – by winning her sixth SW19 title.
Imagine that those two italicised fragments were missing. The first, telling us Venus’s age, is crucial to the article’s lead sentence: Venus Williams could become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era; the second, answers a natural question that arises while reading about Serena’s record, namely, what is the record? (Added Saturday afternoon: Sorry, Venus!)
The language of literature, though, would suffer even further without parentheses. Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence (introduced in my previous post, The Woman and the Painter). The Irish protagonist reflects on life in America; the we refers to him and two of his Irish girlfriends.
Quote: Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia, of homesickness, even? Living there, amid those gentle, paintbox colours, under that dome of flawless blue, was like living in another world, a place out of a story-book. (I used to dream of rain — real, daylong, Irish rain — as if it were something I had been told about but had never seen.) Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It’s true, at times it crossed our minds, or it crossed my mind, at least, that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves.
Ekphrasis in “The Book of Evidence” by John Banville.
Who is she?
Quote: The squalor is what strikes her first of all. Dirt and daubs of paint everywhere, gnawed chicken bones on a smeared plate, a chamber-pot on the floor in the corner. The painter matches the place, with that filthy smock, and those fingernails. He has a drinker’s squashed and pitted nose. She thinks the general smell is bad until she catches a whiff of his breath. She discovers that she is relieved: she had expected someone young, dissolute, threatening, not this pot-bellied old soak. But then he fixes his little wet eyes on her, briefly, with a kind of impersonal intensity, and she flinches, as if caught in a burst of strong light. No one has ever looked at her like this before. So this is what it is to be known! It is almost indecent.
Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence, a fictional book-length confession of a man awaiting trail for bludgeoning a girl to death while attempting to steal a valuable painting. The narrative structure is complex and nonstandard: the protagonist, Freddie, interweaves his recollections of the events leading up to the crime (first person past tense) with his confessional voice addressing you, my lord, the judge (first person present, with second person thrown in occasionally). Or perhaps this is the simplest, most natural narrative structure: that of one person telling another about an event and interjecting commentary with hindsight.
Back to the Quote and the question: who is the woman in Banville’s story?
On circumlocution. Example from science journalism: Nature Magazine.
Genome editing is creeping out of science-fiction into real life, and the question is who owns the rights to a breakthrough. The CRISPR technology is particularly promising and lucrative, and has led to a legal fight for the patent between MIT and Harvard’s joint venture, Broad Institute, and the University of California, Berkeley. The Quote comes from a recent article in Nature Magazine.
Quote: Although that battle is over, the war rages on. Berkeley has already appealed against the decision; meanwhile, the European Patent Office has ruled in favour of Doudna and Berkeley. Doubtless there are many more patents to milk out of this versatile system. And then there’s the fistful of 66-millimetre gold medals they give out in Stockholm each year.
Why is that last sentence so long? Why didn’t the author just say: And then there’s the Nobel Prize?
What makes the Quote quiver?
A mini puzzle to make the readers feel in-the-know once they’ve worked it out.
On De Quincey’s narrative style in his book “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”.
How much do you know about opium?
Poppies. Sherlock Holmes. Afghanistan.
What about its “classical” forms?
Those came later. Opium meets “classical readers” in the form of laudanum, a 10% tincture of opium, discovered in the sixteenth century and recommended as a panacea during the first two hundred years of its existence.
(Not to be confused with ladanum or labdanum, which is made from rockrose, another flower, and which crops up in perfumes.)
The topic’s locus classicus is Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. It was meant as a cautionary tale of opium abuse, although the first part of the book is dedicated to justifying De Quincey’s contact with the drug and the second part to lauding its restorative qualities (before reaching the third, cautionary part). Good intentions aside, today’s post focuses on a piece of writing taken from the autobiographical section.
Quote: This person was a young woman, and one of that unhappy class who subsist upon wages of prostitution. I feel no shame, nor have any reason to feel it, in avowing that I was then on familiar and friendly terms with many women in that unfortunate condition. The reader needs neither smile at this avowal nor frown; for, not to remind my classical readers of the old Latin proverb, “Sine cerere,” &c., it may well be supposed that in the existing state of my purse my connection with such women could not have been an impure one.
De Quincey wants us to believe him. He asserts his honesty in the matter, then he invokes a proverb to testify in his favour: his pecuniary difficulties must imply his chaste behaviour.
The problem with the Quoteis that classical readers are rare in modern times.
What would have made the Quote quiver for the classical reader?
It is entirely plausible that some people have not heard of Apple, so let me just say that Apple Inc. is a forty-one-year-old technology company from California that designs computers, tablets, phones, and that names them MacBooks, iPads, iPhones. Theirs is the logo that looks like Snow White had a go at it.
Today’s Quote is Apple’s tagline for their upcoming operating system, iOS 11.
A giant step for iPhone.
A monumental leap for iPad.
A bit familiar, a bit grand, a bit silly. Let’s see why.
I do not often imagine the soul as a machine, but a good metaphor expands the imagination.
Quote: This was when Geryon liked to plan / his autobiography, in that blurred state / between awake and asleep when too many intake valves are open in the soul. / Like the terrestrial crust of the earth / which is proportionally ten times thinner than an eggshell, the skin of the soul / is a miracle of mutual pressures.
You probably know it as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I know it as T-shirt slogan and the vision of the credits from the James Bond film, GoldenEye, with Tina Turner singing the soundtrack in the background (speaking of farfetched memory and meaning overlay).
In More Mileage for Your Metaphorical Money, I gave a few clichés a new polish. Today, I look at Anne Carson‘s version of what is to be found in the eye of the beholder; her Quote isn’t as snazzy, but in some grotesque way it is memorable. Towards the end of Autobiography of Redthe protagonist, Geyron, attends a meal where guinea pigs are served … as food. He does not eat the poor cooked beast on his plate (it’s a she, we’re told). Geyron and his friends get up to leave.
Quote: In the cooling left eye of the guinea pig / they all stand reflected / pulling out their chairs and shaking hands. The eye empties.
Where the metaphorical seas lap the literal sands of language, idioms are born. Some of them are then picked up, like pebbles, to be tossed around, transmitting meaning and merriment. Some get dropped, others get so smoothed out by time, tongues, and tortuous trajectories, that they’re labeled clichés.
Does that mean that a cliché is linguistically dead in the water and beyond the pale? That everyone is sick and tired of it? That you run the risk of boring someone stiff if you use it? Not necessarily. There are ways and means. Let’s see a demonstration (emphasis is mine).
Quote: Stories without [an implicit framework] go unread; stories with it are capable of knocking the socks off someone who’s barefoot.
It happened by accident. Geryon’s grandmother came to visit and fell off the bus. / The doctors put her together again with a big silver pin. / Then she and her pin had to lie still in Geryon’s room / for many months.
There is an awkward, creepy feeling between the lines.
A bit of context explains some of the above: Geryon is a small boy, who is also a red-winged monster; the close third person narrator is saying why Geryon had to move out of his room and into his brother’s. The Quote is heavily filtered through this unusual boy’s mind, with the purpose of not only providing the back story, but more importantly, providing insight into his worldview.
Imagine you’re reading about two people having an awkward night-time conversation. One of them says: this isn’t a question it’s an accusation. You then read:
Quote: Something black and heavy dropped between them like a smell of velvet.
My first thoughts: Fine line, weird line, I’m not sure I understand it, but I do actually, it’s neat, it passes.
What are your thoughts?
The Quote is from Anne Carson‘s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998), a mesmerising, modern re-creation of an Ancient Greek myth as a coming-of-age story featuring a red-winged boy called Geryon. Its form is unusual; its content, unforgettable.
An example of a typical verse novel, according to Wikipedia, would be Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is mostly written in the iambic tetrameter of Onegin stanzas that follow the rhyming scheme aBaBccDDeFFeGG, with the lower-upper case letters designating feminine-masculine endings. A restrictive form.
I recently reread Onegin, and the experience is nothing like that of reading the Autobiography of Red. Carson follows no rhyme or stanza scheme, no obvious metre; typographically, her lines alternate regularly between long and short lines. Whereas Onegin is written in corseted language of colloquial register, Autobiography of Red is written in loosely structured narrative verse while balancing poetic metaphor and plainly stated fact.
You’ll have a chance to see what I mean over the next few posts. But today’s poser is: What is black and heavy and can drop like a smell of velvet?
Words, power, and the Devil in Goethe’s “Faust”, pitted against Manguel’s “The Library of Night”.
Faust or Faustus of German legend started his literary life in a late sixteenth century chapbook by an unknown author. He was brought to the English audience by Christopher Marlowe in his play Doctor Faustus, and then flourished in Goethe’s Faust more than two hundred years later (and has become a literary trope since then).
Faust is God’s favourite scholar, bent on learning all there is but dissatisfied with what he has thus far achieved. Mephistopheles is a demon who bets with God that Faust can be corrupted, and proceeds to pit his wits against Faust. In Goethe’s dramatisation, Mephistopheles is a whimsical, down-to-earth character—he is the cynic to Faust’s romantic—and he has some of the best, if not wisest, lines in the play.
Since Quiver Quotes is devoted to fine writing, and in that sense too, the art of rhetoric and the power of the word, let us hear what Mephistopheles, or Mephisto as is his hypocoristic, has to say about words, paradoxes, and human nature. (Taken from the Wordsworth Classics edition; translation by John R. Williams.)
MEPHISTO. I’ve always found that you can fox
A wise man or a fool with paradox.
It’s an old trick, but it works all the same,
2560 And every age has tried time and again
To spread not truth, but error and obscurity,
By making three of one and one of three.
And so the fools can preach and teach quite undisturbed —
Who wants to argue with them? Let them wander on;
2555 Most men believe that when they hear a simple word,
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.
And so starts Charles Williams‘s War in Heaven. It’s a murder mystery. It’s a Grail quest. It’s a very British take on … ? Whatever it is, its beginning had me gripped—for about ten pages. The opening line isn’t today’s Quote, although, it has merit: there’s the urgency (the wildly ringing telephone), a conflict and contrast (but without results), and the kicker in the most emphatic position of a sentence (but the corpse).
Moving on. A character called Kennet Mornington is caught in a drizzle as he exits the train station. He takes refuge under a shed.
“Oh, damn and blast!” [Kenneth] cried with a great voice. “Why was this bloody world created?”
“As a sewer for the stars,” a voice in front of him said. “Alternatively, to know God and to glorify Him for ever.”
Kenneth peered into the shed, and found that there was sitting on a heap of stones at the back a young man of about his own age, with a lean, long face, and a blob of white on his knee which turned out in a few minutes to be a writing pad.
“Quite,” Kenneth said. “The two answers are not, of course, necessarily alternative. They might be con-con consanguineous? contemporaneous? consubstantial? What is the word I want?”
“Contemptible, concomitant, conditional, consequential, congruous, connectible, concupiscent, contaminable, considerable,” the stranger offered him. “The last is, I admit, weak.”
“The question was considerable,” Kenneth answered.
Personification in John Banville’s “Mefisto”, and other examples.
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:
“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Marlowe. I suppose I have a right to ask?”
“Sure, but there’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade. I worked for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as an investigator once. His chief investigator, a man named Bernie Ohls, called me and told me you wanted to see me. I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives.”
It’s humour this week, and today I’m featuring one last Quote from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (for a while, at least).
If you read my previous post, Stained-Glass Romance, or indeed any of last week’s posts about Marlowe’s adventures, you’ll have a context for the Quote, and it’ll mean something if I say the client speaking is General Sternwood, whose front door accommodates Indian elephants and whose stained-glass windows feature clumsy, sociable knights attempting to untie scantily clad damsels bound to trees.
On quoins that make Raymond Chandler’s prose humorous. (Quoins are what I call quirks in the text.)
Raymond Chandler’sThe Big Sleepsets the standard for humour against which I measure other similar hard-boiled detective novels. In the second paragraph of the book, Chandler uses a number of figures to achieve his signature deadpan style. His private detective and first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe, is visiting a wealthy client, Mr Sternwood. Marlowe describes the place.
Quote: The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
Whilst the genre was already replete with humour before he started writing, Chandler managed to give Marlowe imaginative, literary metaphors and an eye for the amusing, making him both a pulp-fiction hero and poet of droll wit. Metaphors I discussed last week; this week is about humour.
(By the way, droll, the adjective, can be thought of as anauto-antonym, or Janus-word, meaning both intentionally and unintentionally amusingin a quirky, queer way.)
On Raymond Chandler’s “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts”, and why it works.
Quote: Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
This is one of Raymond Chandler‘s most famous quotes. If you haven’t read The Big Sleep you may think it comes as a closing line of a grand argument or as a poignant reminder of life’s tragedies during a display of heightened emotional turmoil. You may think it, but er … I guess I shouldn’t tell you. It is at least true that the protagonist says it and not some minor character or the antagonist (e.g. in Goethe’s Faust Mephistopheles gets some of the best lines).
Hard-boiled detectives in general, and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in particular, are descendants of the nineteenth century romantic heroes—think Goethe’s Young Werther who got it all started, Dumas’s Dantès, Pushkin’s Onegin—those self-destructive, misunderstood, lonely souls that pursue justice or a higher truth on society’s margins. So it is to be expected that Marlowe should contribute to this romantic tradition with a statement about love, death, and the thing that causes both and lies in the middle: life.
Chiasmus: ivory, white, and the dynamics of description in Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”. Recipe included: how to build your own chiasmus.
The American hard-boiled crime genre of the mid-twentieth century threw up at least three models for the private detective: Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. Of those, only in Marlowe do I find an unabashed ear for the poetic and the elegantly humorous. And only in Chandler’s writing an unapologetic use of rhetorical figures to achieve both ends.
Quote: The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the windows. The white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out.
On how to give a protagonist attitude: Raymond Chandler writes it into Marlowe’s interior monologue at the beginning of “The Big Sleep”.
If the back-cover blurb is a book’s CV, then the opening lines of a book are the opening lines of its job interview. Whether the book stays with you is likely to depend on your first impression.
Exceptions abound, as exceptions do—but not in today’s Quote.
The opening sentence of Raymond Chandler‘s novel The Big Sleep (the book that introduces his protagonist, private detective Philip Marlowe), concerns the time of day, the month, and the weather.
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.
We cut him some slack, because it was 1939, and you were still allowed to start a page-turning crime novel with the weather and skip the action for a whole 140+4 characters; even today’s readers can get as far as the length of a tweet and still be interested in the text that’s on the accompanying picture. (Also, according to The Guardian, that first line could have been one of Fitzgerald’s, so that’s alright.) The next few sentences of The Big Sleep are given in the Quote.
Quote: I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Most good books will start touting their wares as soon as possible, if not in the first line and not in an obvious fashion, then soon and subtly. Which part of the Quote caught your attention?
Quinn’s book is a short, gently humorous introduction to figures of speech with plenty of examples. (At their simplest, figures of speech are a form of speech artfully varied from common usage.) My eye caught on the metaphor in the Quote, as it felt fresh and apt, in a heartwarming way despite the mention of flesh.
John Banville in “Mefisto” describes a scene without verbs, masterfully. E. B. White would have had something to add to that.
Here is John Banville in Mefistodescribing a hospital setting. Read the Quote, then see if you can count the conjunctions and main verbs in each sentence—it’s easy, very easy. (Answer below.)
Sighs, groans. Shouts in the night. An old man puking up gouts of green stuff, leaning over the side of the bed, a young nurse holding his forehead. Slow, wet, coughs, like the noise of defective suction pumps ponderously labouring. In the huge, white-tiled bathrooms, little labels exhorting patients not to spit in the handbasins. Everywhere the same thick cream paint, smooth as enamel, clammy as skin. I wore a mouse-colour dressing-gown with faded red piping.
What makes the Quote quiver?
This may not be the most pleasant scene to paint, but it is well-painted. A lot of figures went into making it flow smoothly, but one particular figure is at the core: scesis onomaton, which means the relation of words, and it has something to do with verbs. How many verbs did you count in the Quote?
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeby Mark Haddon is a curious book indeed. It is written from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher who is good at mathematics, likes red things, but not brown, and has a photographic memory. However, he does not understand human emotions and can relate to other people only intellectually.
Christopher has Asperger Syndrome.
The book is insightful and well-written. I spent most of the time marvelling at a mind that could function just so.
Today’s Quote from The Curious Incident illustrates how an important and basic figure of speech can be employed to achieve a flow-of-experience impression.
(Ready Brek, Coco-Pops, and Shreddies are cereals, Dr Pepper is a carbonated soft drink—that’s for all of you, who like me, need to look up these things.)
Quote: For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milkshake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea I start thinking about Coco-Pops and lemonade and porridge and Dr Pepper and how I wasn’t eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room and Father wasn’t wearing a diving suit and so and even writing this makes me feel shaky and scared, like I do when I’m standing on the top of a very tall building and there are thousands of houses and cars and people below me and my head is so full of all the things that I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to stand up straight and hang onto the rail and I’m going to fall over and be killed.
Did you spot any metaphors? No? That’s because Christopher struggles with metaphors and hypotheticals and lies in general (although he did manage a simile). A little way down from the Quote he says as much.
This is another reason why I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.
And this is why everything I have written here is true.
Of course, the irony is that The Curious Incident is fiction, and not the diary of a real person. (But given that Christopher’s character is build around his inability to lie, it feels sneaky realising his statement can’t be true. Then you get into whether fiction is real, and if it is, in which way, and … you might get a headache thinking about it and hit a few paradoxes.)
What makes the Quote quiver?
Narrating unconnected thoughts and experiences sequentially without pause and punctuation, thereby creating the illusion of connectedness.
Here is Charles Bukowski in his short story collection Hot Water Music. If you naturally skim-read, I recommend slowing down and reading the following dialogue at as close to speech-speed as you can (out loud would be even better).
Back at the Red Peacock Louie went to his favourite stool and sat down. The barkeep walked up.
“Well, Louie, how did you make out?
“With the lady.”
“With the lady?”
“You left together, man. Did you get her?”
“No, not really …”
“What went wrong?”
“What went wrong?”
“Yes, what went wrong?”
“Give me a whiskey sour, Billy.”
Did you notice a difference between how you pronounced the two versions of What went wrong?
What makes the Quote quiver?
Repetition with different emphasis and raw dialogue, unencumbered by sophisticated descriptions.
Three is the most common number or repetitions, and we’ll see an instance thereof in the Quote.
More than three sounds weird in most places, unless it’s poetry. Here’s Edgar Allan Poe in The Bellswith two instances of epizeuxis:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
That’s seven bells!
Actually, it is possible to get away with extreme epizeuxis in prose, and in a short story at that. Here’s Hemingway in Hills Like White Elephants.
‘I’d do anything for you.’
‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’
If you ever encounter a sensible take on a more numerous epizeuxis, do let me know! (I note that Wikipedia cites Monty Python’s Flying Circus: I’ll have your Spam. I love it. I’m having Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam. But I reckon the baked beans spoils the deal, and it’s still only a seven-fold repetition.)
On teasing (asteismus) and on the hearing-unhearing boundary in Mark Medoff’s play “Children of a Lesser God”. Also, James Bond loves asteismus.
Today’s Quote is from Mark Medoff’s play Children of a Lesser God (1979), a romantic comedy exploring the conflicts arising in the professional and personal relationship between a former student, Sarah Norman, and her teacher in a State School for the Deaf, James Leeds. He is thirty-ish, she is in her mid-twenties.James is enthusiastic about his job at the school and motivates his students to speak through humour and fun. Sarah is deaf from birth, and she refuses to learn lip-reading, let alone to try learning how to speak; she communicates exclusively using Sign Language.
Prior to the Quote, James and Sarah have been going back and forth, between jokes and misunderstanding. He isn’t as good at signing as she is, nor is he as quick. She obstinately refuses to acknowledge any of his humour, and mocks his attempts to communicate with her.
It is assumed the average theater-goer doesn’t know Sign Language, therefore James vocalises Sarah’s lines for the audience; he signs and speaks his own words simultaneously. (I have inserted square brackets into the text to help remind you, as you read, that her words are not spoken but signed.)
SARAH. [Your timing is terrible and your signing is boring.]
JAMES. My timing is terrible and my signing is boring. If you could hear, you’d think I was a scream.
SARAH. [Why scream?]
JAMES. Not literally “scream.” That’s a hearing idiom.
SARAH. [But I’m deaf.]
JAMES. You’re deaf. I’ll try to remember that.
SARAH. [But you’ll keep forgetting.]
JAMES. I’ll keep forgetting. But you’ll keep reminding me.
SARAH. [But you’ll still forget.]
JAMES. I’ll still forget. But you’ll still remind me.
SARAH. [No. I’ll give up.]
JAMES. Maybe you won’t have to give up.
JAMES. Maybe I’ll remember.
SARAH. [I doubt it.]
JAMES. We’ll see.
In 1987, the play was made into a film of the same title starring Marlee Matlin as Sarah (she received an Oscar for the role) and William Hurt as James. If you’d like to get an idea of the dynamic—she signs, he repeats her line vocally, then he signs and speaks his lines—you could watch the first thirty seconds of the clip, up until he says “I’ll buy that”. Do not watch more, because it might ruin the film/play for you. (I couldn’t find a more appropriate clip, for example, one with the words from the quote, and I couldn’t truncate this video easily.)
Important point: In the instructions before the play the author insists that in any professional production of the play the role of Sarah and two other characters be performed by deaf or hearing impaired actors. (Indeed, Marlee Matlin has been deaf since she was 18 months old.) This is the reason I chose to discuss Children of a Lesser God; it may be a challenge for a play to explore the boundary of the hearing-unhearing world, but it can be done, with great success—a fact not so well-known, perhaps.
Symmetry and Time in T. S. Eliot’s poem “Eyes That Last I Saw in Tears”.
Today’s Quoteis a short poem by T. S. Eliot. It is the closest I have come to finding an embodiment of internal mirroring, or of the so called chiasmus.
A chiasmus, pronounced /kʌɪˈazməs/, from the Greek word meaning crossing or diagonal arrangement, is a figure of speech that repeats two ideas or grammatical structures in inverted order.
At its simplest and silliest it adds no meaning:
He dreams of success, and of success he dreams.
(Although, there are examples where this special case of chiasmus, also sometimes called antimetabole, is made to work to splendid effect; an oft-cited example is John F. Kennedy’s United Nations Speech in 1961, when he said: Mankind must put an end to war—or war will put an end to mankind. It’s clever, and it’s not something you come up with on the spot.)
Beyond the simplest inversion, chiasmus can use parallel word pairs to add meaning:
Loving is a celebration of life, just as living is a celebration of love.
Or it can pun on different meanings of a word:
The novel must be written, but also the writing must be novel.
At its most advanced, an extended chiasmus can invert ideas and images on a larger scale. Here is the poem; see if you can spot a chiasmus or two.
Eyes That Last I Saw in Tears by T. S. Eliot
Eyes that last I saw in tears
Here in death’s dream kingdom
The golden vision reappears
I see the eyes but not the tears
This is my affliction
This is my affliction
Eyes I shall not see again
Eyes of decision
Eyes I shall not see unless
At the door of death’s other kingdom
Where, as in this,
The eyes outlast a little while
A little while outlast the tears
And hold us in derision.
What makes the Quote quiver?
Clever, imperfect symmetry that allows for a sense of progression from one side to the other.
“Average at life; average at truth; morally average,” says Julian Barnes in The Sense of an Ending. Tricolon with a twist makes the quote tick.
Quote: Average, that’s what I’d been, ever since I left school. … Average at life; average at truth; morally average.
This is Tony speaking, the protagonist of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize for 2011. He, Tony, is brooding over a life lost to muddling about, to getting by, to letting go of aspirations and dreams.
The full quote gets the point across explicitly, familiar example included.
Average, that’s what I’d been, ever since I left school. Average at university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt, at sex. There was a survey of British motorists a few years ago which showed that ninety-five per cent of those polled through they were “better than average” drivers. But by law of averages, we’re most of us bound to be average. Not that this brought any comfort. The word resounded. Average at life; average at truth; morally average.
What makes the Quote quiver?
Word-hammering of average with the word-order change.
Diane Ackerman describes our senses, vividly, with humour and humility. Studying her writing for clues what makes her prose sing.
Quote: White clouds shoot out in all directions, in a dust storm of flame, a gritty, swirling Sahara, burning from gray-white to an incandescent platinum so raw it makes your eyes squint, to the radiant gold so narcotic you forget how to blink.
It has become trite to label a book wonderful, as if the word has been bleached of meaning, and left only with a wash of lukewarm approval. A shame. I rather prefer and, in this case, mean: full of wonder; such as to excite wonder or astonishment; marvellous. Truly.
Let me dole out a bit more of her prose, as precious proof, how non-fiction can stir an image as much as fiction can. The Quote above continues as follows.
The air is full of bee stings, prickly and electric. Your pores start to itch. Hair stands up stiff on the back of your neck. It used to be that the launch pad would melt at lift-off, but now the 300,000 gallons of water crash from aloft, burst from below. Steam clouds scent the air with a mineral ash. Crazed by reflection, the waterways turn the color of pounded brass. Thick cumulus clouds shimmy and build at ground level, where you don’t expect to see thunderheads.