Composition

Barbara Strang

  • Designs in Prose by Walter Nash
    Longman, 228 pp, £10.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 582 29100 3

The vogue for publishing series is baffling, since the ability to sustain quality, and interest for a given readership, is rare. Both, fortunately, are to be found in the Longman English Language Series edited by Randolph Quirk. This has so far produced a dozen good books, at least half of them works of high and lasting importance. The latest is among the best, and will appeal to, and beyond, the readership of the series as a whole.

What Walter Nash sets out to achieve is in the utmost degree traditional, and in the utmost degree original. The subtitle (‘A study of compositional problems and methods’) might suggest that his undertaking is no more than a rhetoric in modern dress. In fact, the work was first conceived as a study of cohesion by now familiar, so-called objective, methods of stylistic analysis: but another purpose took command, a preoccupation with achieving analytical understanding of the technical and psychological problems of the writer. Thus steered (by a mysterious process of precisely the sort the concluding chapter deals with), he sought to make an ‘insider’s assessment of compositional skills’. So what is newest, and most to be valued, derives from a drive internal to the writer yet outside his conscious grasp and intention. And this has brought in its train a technical innovation not as disjunct as might at first appear. The passages chosen for exemplification and analysis are almost entirely of the author’s own composition. Five centuries ago, the practice would have seemed commonplace: ‘As we must ask and learn about shoes from cobblers and about clothes from shopkeepers, so we find out about the method of speaking from orators,’ wrote Barbaro to Pico della Mirandola. Today it appears revolutionary, perhaps because most stylisticians are incapable of it. Nash is not afraid to lay his creative skills before the public as the fodder for his analytical ones. Rightly so: the freshness and gusto of the writing are among the most attractive features of the book.

At different stages the text functions, and works on the reader, in different ways. The pleasure afforded by the first two chapters is that of having scales lifted from one’s eyes, so that they behold the essence of what is too familiar to have been noticed. Why should it be a pleasure to be shown what you know without knowing you knew it? That is one of the ulterior questions the reviewer must leave unanswered, and like the ground of some questions unanswered by the book it is peculiar in being so general in human nature. Every writer’s anguish about where he is to start is familiar to Nash, as his concluding chapter shows. But his own start has a confident and deceptive obliqueness worthy of Henry James. He opens with lay-out, and with an example of the mismatching of lay-out, tone and content which is the more telling because it plays on what every reader unthinkingly knows:

Pamper yourself with the Archduke Trio Go on – put it on ...

From lay-out he moves, rather unpredictably, but justifiably, to varieties of rhetorical design, displaying four types – Step, Stack, Chain and Balance – and still letting the reader feel one jump ahead. And then, again unpredictably but rightly, to the gaps between sentences, showing us (what again we know but do not notice) how sequences of sentences are wrought into discourse.

Turning in Chapter Three to words, he has rather less impact, for part of the message is consciously familiar, though seldom so vividly put: ‘We rub and scrub at the text, cancelling this idiom, that synonym, fretfully convinced that there is always something a little more precise lying just out of mind’s reach, blessing and cursing English for its enormous and unrelenting fecundity.’ Even here there are fresh insights, notably into the determinant power of syntax over lexical choice. The next topic is ‘Words in phrases’, and there the kinship with traditional rhetoric is close, though functional comments are new. For instance, elaboration of a noun-phrase is shown to involve referential as well as structural complexity in a way not open to the elaborated verb-phrase (though the term ‘notional’ is not well chosen for the complexity typical of verb-phrases).

These chapters also mark a change in the writer’s relationship to the reader, telling him rather than opening his eyes to the wealth of knowledge he already has, and they begin to raise questions that loom larger in the remaining chapters. Not surprisingly, prominent among these unanswered questions is stylistic effectiveness – notably, rhythmical effect. At intervals, Nash shows awareness of the need to search for answers; at other times, he ignores the massive assumptions which he is free to make because they appear to be universal, but whose ground must be identifiable and ought to be discovered. At least intermittent awareness is an advance on traditional rhetoric and most current stylistics.

Let me take first the case of rhythm. I suppose we should all accept that ‘rhythmic considerations are sometimes so pressing that it is actually necessary to find words with the right number’ – or rather structure, I think – ‘of syllables to make up a prosodic pattern, one of the general constraints of verse being thus casually laid upon the writer of prose.’ But when does this happen and why, and why is there such general agreement about the occasions when it does or does not? And what is this rhythm we are all so compelled by? Not a metronomic beat, to be sure, nor even an approximation to it such as music requires. There would be widespread agreement with, Nash’s analyses of possible rhythmical variations: ‘the common device of loosening a tight prosodic grip by gradually adding to the number of unstressed or lightly stressed syllables. An alternative is a gradual constriction of the rhythmic form ... the preference for one prosodic arrangement or the other would have to be determined in the context of composition.’ On what principles, however, do we know and agree when and how to do this? What are the conditions for ‘an agreeable asymmetry of structure’? The bravura of Nash’s writing tends to conceal the frequency and significance of these unasked questions. There is some, but a superficial, attempt to deal with one of them, the value and danger of repeated patterns: ‘The hazard of reiteration is of course its potential clumsiness: the majestic tread of formal prose can so easily become a club-footed one-step’ Recognising this is at least an advance on the sort of stylistic analysis whose logical conclusion would be that 100 per cent repetition of the same item is the optimum condition for a text (in part of one case this may be right – ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ – but that tells us nothing about how we judge the conditions of its rightness). All Nash can offer is that for some of the conflicting effects aptness to topic is a possible explanation. Sometimes we may be convinced by an example, but doubt the generalisation it illustrates. ‘Asyndeton in long sequences is a favoured vehicle for the denunciatory tirade ... One of the qualities of polysyndeton, on the other hand, is to suggest emotion beating at the gates of restraint’ – if this is true, the most interesting question is why?

The last three chapters change again in tone, having much more the character of a handbook, despite the strongly personal, and thus valuable, quality of some of the last chapter, ‘Work in progress’. It is, however, difficult to resist the suspicion that an elaborate joke is being played here. The previous chapter had analysed the roles and tones available to the writer, showing the correlation between them and certain grammatical preferences. The final chapter (without saying so) works through these, concluding with a series of bald imperatives. Is Dr Nash setting the reader a test? It seems an unworthy mode of ending for one who has written so perceptively: ‘style is first and foremost a relationship, the expression of an agreement between writer and reader, in the light of which a role is enacted and a personality finds play ... The writer is the stylist who creates, the reader the stylist who interprets; and the style of written things ... is thus the lively expression of an accord reaching across countries or over centuries, framing one stranger’s thoughts in the likeness of another’s.’ There is a change in the stranger I meet at the end of this book. Not only does he give me chains of instructions, but he sets me series of exercises. It is all done extremely well, and there is a readership in urgent need of it. But the engaging personality was the one who began the book.