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.

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