Thick Description

Nicholas Spice

  • The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín
    Picador, 245 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 330 32124 2

To write simply is always to seem to write well. Bad writing is usually identified with over-writing: too many adjectives and adverbs, flowery figures of speech, verbosity. No one is ever accused of under-writing. Yet the unadorned prose which often passes for good writing these days could aptly be described as under-written. The sentences which open several of the pieces in Granta’s much trumpeted Best of Young British Novelists are plain to a fault. ‘Andy runs across the ice,’ ‘I had no time for vices,’ ‘Lisa was meeting her father for supper,’ ‘He didn’t like attending County Hall,’ ‘The first person I was in love with was called Mark Lyle’ – all these sentences could have been written by the same person, the person who wrote ‘Frank drops me off outside the sisters’ flat,’ ‘You could hear the kids yelling in the pool,’ ‘I could hear kids on the waste ground behind me,’ ‘The travel-agent smoked in the empty church’ – first sentences, by different writers, from an anthology of new fiction published last year by Faber.

Colourless sentences open enough great novels to show that you cannot reliably judge a piece of fiction by its first sentence. Still, the first-sentence test is fun and it isn’t pointless. It epitomises the basics of our critical expectations, our impatience when we sit down with a novel or story for the author to prove he can hold our interest and reassure us that we aren’t wasting our time.

We allow for a certain bagginess in a novel which we would not allow for in a poem, but the qualities we look for in fiction are in important respects poetic. In particular we ask for the quality which Ezra Pound identified in poetry as ‘density’ or ‘thickness’. In the ABC of Reading Pound points out how the German for ‘poems’, Gedichte, is cognate with the word for ‘thick’, dicht. A poet is a maker of dense things. I think the same should be true of a novelist. The sentences quoted from the Granta and Faber anthologies do not possess this density. They are thin, gruelly, transparent. They give no hint of the plasticity of poetic language, how it can mould reality and be moulded by it. Put another way, one could say that these sentences are conspicuously unlike the sentences of Henry James, which were the opposite of bald and remarkable for the poetic thickness they could, at their greatest, deliver.

The opening sentence of The Wings of the Dove shows how much work a first sentence can do and what it means to talk of fictional prose as poetry, as Dichtung: ‘She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.’ By the end of this sentence we know a lot about Kate Croy. We know that she is young enough to have a living, active father. We know that her relationship with this father is less than easy. We know of her capacity for impatience and irritation, of a certain restlessness in her. We feel we know, in some measure, Kate Croy. We know these things not because we have been told them, but by experiencing them through the sinuous movement of a sentence, whose grammatical structure allows us to be both inside and outside a self-contained scene, a dramatic vignette with extension in time (‘and there were moments’) and space (the reflection in the mirror above the mantelpiece). Like a painting by Renoir or Manet, this scene invites limitless speculation about the novels that might lie behind it. The poignancy of such openness is sharpened by our knowing that the scene belongs not to many novels, but to one novel in particular, which will in the course of time show the scene to have been laden with symbolic significance, to be, in fact, far from open. By the end of The Wings of the Dove it will have become clear that the frustration of waiting is Kate Croy’s peculiar destiny.

‘She waited, Kate Croy.’ It’s not just that these words take us deep into the purpose of the novel, but that they enact it and in enacting it make us take that purpose in. One might almost suppose that James had named his heroine just so as to allow for this opening effect, for the slowness of enunciation and emphasis ‘Kate Croy’ forces upon the reader.

In the late prose of Henry James we feel the interplay between text and representation. To a high degree this writing draws our attention to the surface of the text – to the life of words in sentences – while at the same time it plunges us deep into an imagined world. Text is felt to create reality, while reality appears to dictate the choice of words and their arrangement in sentences. Where, in this way, words and what words convey seem to determine one another, we can speak of style. And where there is style, there is inevitably density, Dichtung.

There’s no end to the ways in which reality may be thought about and, therefore, written about, written about and, therefore, thought about. The repertoire of possible styles is infinite. Density can be achieved in a simple sentence as well as in an elaborate one. So a fairer comparison for the sentences from the Granta and Faber anthologies might be the work of Colm Tóibín, a contemporary of the authors represented there, and like them, a practitioner of the art of bald prose.

The relation of text to representation in The Heather Blazing, Tóibín’s second novel, is established in its first sentence, which stands as a good example of how density can be achieved within grammatically simple and sparely clad prose: ‘Eamon Redmond stood at the window looking down at the river which was deep brown after days of rain.’ There are hundreds of sentences like this in The Heather Blazing, sentences in which simple elements are arranged simply. What Eamon Redmond did makes up most of the substance of the novel. But many of the verbs of doing with Eamon as their subject are verbs of perception. The verb ‘to notice’ is one of the commonest in the book. Over and over again, Eamon is described as watching, looking, noticing, apprehending the outside world. So our knowledge about Eamon accumulates in a double perspective: we look at Eamon (‘Eamon Redmond stood at the window’) and we look with Eamon (‘down at the river’). Out of this double perspective a third is created, in which we watch Eamon watching himself. By the end of the first paragraph of the novel, the narrative technique, with its subtle movements between objective, subjective and self-objectifying viewpoints, is firmly established:

Eamon Redmond stood at the window looking down at the river which was deep brown after days of rain. He watched the colour, the mixture of mud and water, and the small currents and pockets of movement within the flow. It was a Friday morning at the end of July; the traffic was heavy on the quays. Later, when the court had finished its sitting he would come back again and look out once more at the watery grey light over the houses across the river and wait for the stillness, when the cars and lorries had disappeared and Dublin was quiet.

South, Tóibín’s first novel, opens in the first-person present, and when the narrative switches into the preterite, even the third-person preterite, it still feels as though it is being told from inside. Katherine, the subject of South, can say ‘I’ and experience her own interior life. The choice of narrative perspective in The Heather Blazing defines a quite different experience of selfhood. Eamon Redmond does not think of himself as an ‘I’ but as a ‘he’, and his subjectivity is turned outwards to the physical world. The refinement of Eamon’s attention to the things outside him has no equivalent in his inner life. He has the sensibility of an artist, but he cannot communicate what he sees, not even that he sees.

Eamon Redmond’s silent perceptions create the sensitively detailed physical world of The Heather Blazing. His experiences as a child in the town of Enniscorthy, and at Cush, in a house on the Wexford coast south of Dublin, where he has spent his holidays since childhood, come to us through the way he describes them to himself, in the simple sentences which define the extent of his self-consciousness: ‘The land looked good in the warm light of the summer evening,’ ‘There was no wind, but there was still a faint dew on the grass ... The sea was a light green with patches of a darker green and further out patches of blue,’ ‘The days were getting longer; he noticed the pale light in the evening sky,’ ‘He could see the stars of frost on the pavement under the street lights.’

This man, who is capable of noticing the subtle difference between the sound of pebbles as a wave washes over them in summer (‘They made a clattering, gurgling sound as each wave hit them and then retreated ... like two hollow objects being banged against each other, except that this was more modest, intimate’) and the sound they make in autumn (‘It was a harder sound now, more brittle and hollow than on calmer days in the summer’), is a cold and unempathic judge. Eamon’s judicial decisions in the Irish High Court are immune from the interference of subjectivity or compassion. But the point about Eamon’s judgments is not that they are harsh but that they are dispassionate and disconnected from the complexities of feeling.

As a younger lawyer he had prosecuted a man who was sentenced to death and hanged. Carmel O’Brien, the girl Eamon will eventually marry, confronts him with her dismay. He replies: ‘I was doing my job.’ A while later, still doing his job, he drafts a Bill that leads to the abolition of the death penalty, but doesn’t tell Carmel (‘He had become involved because he was asked, not because he wanted to placate her’). The episode establishes the pattern of their subsequent marriage. Towards the end of it, soon before Carmel dies (she has had a stroke), she tells him: ‘I feel I don’t know you at all,’ ‘You don’t love me ... You don’t love any of us.’

Eamon has been driven inside himself by loss: the loss of his mother when he was a baby. Speaking of this, he tells Carmel: ‘It made me very self-sufficient.’ In the chapters of The Heather Blazing which deal with Eamon’s childhood, we see this self-sufficiency portrayed in a young boy, an only child living alone with his father and managing house for him. The quiet pathos of these scenes lies in the way they show Eamon getting on with things, as a child would, not thinking to question his outward circumstances and unaware of his need to tell people (who do not ask) what is going on inside him. During Mass in Enniscorthy Cathedral Eamon’s father collapses from a stroke. In the moment of emergency, as his father is carried from the church, Eamon gets forgotten, so he stays for the rest of the service (‘He thought that they would come looking for him and it was best if he stayed where they could find him’). No one comes, so he goes home on his own and starts to prepare his father’s lunch:

Several times he went to the window and looked out, but the street was empty. He took the breakfast things from the table in the back room and put them into the sink. It would take 25 minutes for the potatoes to boil, he checked the clock in the back room for the time. It would take 15 minutes for the chops to grill. If his father was not back in ten minutes he would put his own chop on.

When his father doesn’t come, Eamon gets on with his homework, then falls asleep. Waking in the dark to the sound of a key in the door, he thinks it’s his father at last: ‘It would be easy, he thought immediately, to have his father’s pork chop cooked in 15 minutes and he could put the potatoes and carrots into a colander and heat them over a saucepan of boiling water.’ It isn’t his father.

The Heather Blazing is an account of the desolations of Eamon Redmond: the loss of his mother, the loss of his father, the loss of his wife. His response to these losses is instinctively to search for stability in things and in occupations rather than in people: in the precise pleasures of his schoolwork, in the beauties of language, in the impersonalities of legal argument, and, above all, in the quiet luxury of looking out at the world from the hideout of his head.

The landscape at Cush provides a special constant in Eamon’s life. Returning, summer after summer, to the house where as a child he had spent his summer holidays with his father, walking in the same countryside, swimming in the same sea, he feels a profound continuity in things: ‘Hardly anything had changed in all the years,’ ‘He felt that he had always been here.’ But the stability of the scene offers a background against which human movement can the more accurately be measured. Cush remains the same, but Eamon is getting older, and Carmel dies. After her death, when, in a sense, Eamon no longer has anyone close with whom to evade contact, his flight into himself, on country walks and swims in the sea, no longer brings him comfort, but instead a sense of greater isolation. Unable to bear being in the house, haunted by memories and plagued – like a man plagued by phantom pains in an amputated limb – by fleeting delusions that Carmel is still alive, he walks himself to exhaustion each day through a landscape which turns an impassive face on his grief.

An implicit preoccupation in The Heather Blazing is the way experience is repeated down our lives as we spiral our way towards old age and death. The careful structure of the novel makes the most of the parallels, the turns and returns, in the pattern of Eamon’s life. But it does so tacitly, without drawing attention either to the particular point being made about Eamon or the generalisation we might draw from it. This is typical of Tóibín’s method, the way his style characteristically operates. The richness and density of his text arise unstated out of simple words and simple sentences which appear to be devoted to the construction of a primary, non-figurative reality. There are very few figures of speech in The Heather Blazing, but many particulars which come to seem symbolic of more general truth. Hence, the considerable space given by the novel to Eamon’s perceptions tacitly defines a fundamental aspect of his character, and leads us, equally quietly, to reflect on the truth that our lives are made up less of the events we pay such attention to, than of a continuous flow of ‘uneventful’ experience. Our lives play themselves out in the broad interstices between the things we regard as important.

The ironies of Eamon’s life are also the ironies of life, and Tóibín points up neither. Eamon is born into a tradition of distinguished activist Republicanism, and he is born with a gift for language. Showing himself to be an effective public speaker, he gets marked out early by Fianna Fail for a brilliant career in the service of the radical cause. But Eamon’s career draws its sustenance from emotional deprivation and a deep need for security and stability, so he ends up devoting his energies and talents to the consolidation of the Establishment, to the protection of the state and the defeat of terrorism. The wider truth embedded here about the determinants of history needs no explicit unearthing.

Eamon Redmond’s interest in language and his talent with words quietly suggest a kinship between him and his creator. Eamon enjoys reading the legal opinions of his colleagues on the Bench, because he is interested in ‘the words they chose’. When he meets old relatives and neighbours in Cush, he is alert to the idiomatic differences in the way he and they speak. Were he to write a novel, he would do so in parsimonious prose: on first encountering fiction as a teenager, he is puzzled by the way ‘the unfamiliar was being described in too much detail’ and he learns ‘how to skip the descriptive passages’. That his father and his wife should both suffer strokes which impair their ability to speak is, we may imagine, a sobering reminder to Eamon of the fragility of the gift of language. In all this, Colm Tóibín seems to stand behind Eamon. His style as a novelist is not to build up the surface of his text with a palette-knife, but to allow its foundations to show through. Life is to be allowed to disclose itself. This is admirable, but it is not without fault, specifically the fault of a too self-conscious virtue.

The feeling of a certain fastidiousness in Tóibín’s prose, a righteousness in the care and unpretentiousness with which he crafts it, gets picked up obliquely in the presentation of The Heather Blazing. The publisher’s copywriter speaks of the novel as ‘written in prose of great purity’, and the picture of the novelist on the inside back flap seems to brood with suspicion on the literary frivolities of our age. Fanciful, perhaps, but packaging these days is everything in the publishing world, and Tóibín has permitted himself to be packaged like a bottle of Irish spring water. The real point, though, is that The Heather Blazing doesn’t contradict this packaging. This is a very serious, very pure novel. Like Eamon Redmond himself, The Heather Blazing is ‘very earnest’ and has ‘no sense of humour’.

Tóibín has allowed Eamon to determine too tightly this novel’s universe. Eamon’s ability to experience the world is defined by the sorts of sentence that he can form, and they also define what we can experience. In bringing to life the excitement of court cases or a political rally, Tóibín shows that his style can beat with a faster pulse than it beats with in most of this novel, which is mainly made up of sentences like: ‘After a few days of drizzle the weather improved,’ ‘the house seemed strange, as though they had been away for a long time,’ ‘he peeled the potatoes, but she prepared the other vegetables,’ ‘he noticed the pale light in the evening sky, but there was still no news,’ ‘they didn’t speak in the car, but there was no tension.’ By the end of the book, and especially on rereading it, the rhythm of Tóibín’s prose has grown slightly monotonous and soporific. The melancholy of tact is something we feel a need to get away from for a breath of something more invigorating. The prose and the portraiture, text and representation, coincide too closely. Perhaps this is why Tóibín seems to find it so difficult to extricate himself from his book at the end. He hovers about for a bit, then simply stops.