Books

Pathways to Pleasure

What a story is “about” doesn’t really matter. What matters is how a story is performed

Photo by Erik Christensen / The Globe and Mail
Author Margaret Laurence at her home in Lakefield, Ontario on April 11, 1974. Erik Christensen / The Globe and Mail

After living in England for a decade, Margaret Laurence returned to Canada in 1970 as the author of The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers, and A Bird in the House. Her presence and her work created wild enthusiasm and she became almost instantaneously the poster-woman of CanLit. Compared with what had preceded her in Canada and with what was contemporary with her, her writing was undeniably important. Her books struck readers as vibrantly new and as at the leading edge of Canadian writing. She died in 1987.

Time’s kaleidoscope, however, has tapped her work into a different shape. My old friend the Vancouver antiquarian book dealer, William Hoffer, also dealt in painful truths and was given to quoting, among other brilliances and scurrilities, the following thought: “With the passing of time we stand the more clearly revealed.”

Listen to these sentences from the story “The Drummer of All the World,” published in 1956, wherein Mathew, the son of a missionary, is returning to Ghana on the eve of its independence from England. The red umbrella this extract mentions was part of the paraphernalia of Ashanti tribal rank and nobility. Mathew concludes:

We were conquerors in Africa, we Europeans. Some despised her, that bedraggled queen we had unthroned, and some loved her for her still-raging magnificence, her old wisdom. But all of us sought to force our will upon her.

My father thought he was bringing Salvation to Africa. I do not any longer know what salvation is. I only know that one man cannot find it for another man, and one land cannot bring it to another.

Africa, old withered bones, mouldy splendour under a red umbrella, you will dance again, this time to a new song.

Setting aside the question of whether these explanatory sentences of summation ought to be in the story at all, the essential point to be made is that the writing is recognizable now as historical writing. It recognizably belongs to a particular period and its literary traditions, traditions that ran counter to the traditions of modernism, which informed the most powerful work of the twentieth century. The passage’s self-conscious rhetoric and studied cadences will find a place in a literary museum rather than being read with a flashlight under the blankets.

I will not raise the question of whether or not bones can wither.

It has become very much clearer in the thirty years since her death that Margaret Laurence’s writing was less the beginning or expression of something new and much more the culmination and probably best expression of a tradition of writing that was poised to disappear. Her work makes certain advances on the work of such writers as Morley Callaghan, Sinclair Ross, Ernest Buckler, W.O. Mitchell, and Hugh MacLennan. But she never fully embraced modernism; she teetered on the brink of doing so, most notably in A Jest of God, but nearly always fell back into the tradition from which she emerged.

Consider another passage from “The Drummer of All the World.” Mathew bumps into his boyhood best friend Kwabena:

“Oh, I am a medical orderly.” His voice was bitter. “An elevated post.”

“Surely you could do better than that?”

“I have not your opportunities. It is the closest I can get now to real medical work. I’m trying to get a scholarship to England. We will see.”

“You want to be a doctor?”

“Yes”—He laughed in an oddly self-conscious way. “Not a ju-ju man, you understand.”

Suddenly I thought I did understand. With me, he could never outgrow his past, the time when he had wanted to be another kind of doctor—a doctor who dealt in charms and amulets, in dried roots and yellow bones and bits of python skin. He knew I would remember. How he must have regretted betraying himself to me when we were both young.

I wanted to tell him that I knew how far he had travelled from the palm hut. But I did not dare. He would have thought it condescension.

The construction of this passage—dialogue or picture followed by commentary and summation—is entirely typical of Laurence’s work. It accounts for her great popularity at the time she was writing. She did the work for the reader; she showed a little and explained a lot. She was spoon-feeding the reader. She was, in a word, easy. And it is that loose easiness that will explain why in the future her reputation will decline.

The seed of self-destruction is sowed even in the first line of the quoted passage:

“Oh, I am a medical orderly.” His voice was bitter. “An elevated post.”

The spoken words “An elevated post” are, in context, obviously bitter. We do not need a PhD to understand that, do we? We are bright enough to know that an orderly is not “elevated.” But Margaret Laurence added in the explanatory spoon-feeding sentence, “His voice was bitter.” This merely clogs up the works. It also reveals a very un-modernist mistrust of readers’ ability to read. Good readers will drift away from such repetitive irritation, seeking work that will involve them more by letting them work, by letting them become participants in the creation of the work.

When I wrote that “the seed of self-destruction” lay in that sentence, what I actually had in mind was not seeds but rebars—the reinforcing rods in concrete.

Some years ago, Myrna and I were on an archaeological tour of Bronze Age sites in Greece. I was chatting with one of the venerable accompanying Oxford archeologists as we drove from Piraeus into Athens. Ghastly expanses of raw concrete lined the highway, most of them fresh-poured to house visitors to that year’s Olympic games. He was explaining to me that ancient stone buildings survived because of the antique methods of construction. Rebars, he said, are destroying modern buildings from inside because damp penetrates to the rebars and they begin to rust, spreading corrosion out into the concrete.

Dismissing the relentless concrete ugliness around us with a cheery wave, he said, “No point in bemoaning. Take the long view. Always take the long view. In a hundred years they’ll all have fallen down. Though knowing Greece, it might well be considerably sooner.”

Am I proposing, then, seriously proposing, that a short story, or even a novel, can be criticized for, even invalidated by, a few less-than-perfect sentences? Is a single sentence important? Isn’t the point to get one’s point across? Isn’t a sentence a pretty simple thing?
No, a sentence isn’t a simple thing. Each sentence is a brick in the construction of a house.

Most of the writers I know have treasured particular sentences by whatever writers are in the pantheon they have constructed for themselves. One of the sentences in my own casket of treasures is by Evelyn Waugh. In a review for a newspaper of World Within World, the autobiography of the rather humdrum poet and literary functionary Stephen Spender, Waugh wrote: “To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.”

Evelyn Waugh brings me to the friend of his Oxford University days, Cyril Connolly. And Cyril Connolly will bring me back again to sentences.

Connolly was a man of surpassing ugliness yet was inundated with wives and mistresses. He was lazy to the point of being slothful, continually depressed and despairing, at times suicidal, always self-pitying and physically unappetizing.

To Evelyn Waugh he once wrote: “I can’t muster up the energy to think of going anywhere or doing anything. I have bought a tonic but can’t find a teaspoon; the iron lies rusting in the bottle instead of entering my bowel.”

Elspeth Huxley, wife to Aldous, records that after a visit from Connolly they found in their books that had been his solitary breakfast reading the skeletons of sardines and rashers of bacon used as bookmarks.

Barbara Skelton, Connolly’s second wife, describes him in her autobiography, Tears Before Bedtime, as “a slothful whale of a husband.”

Again:

“Had an appalling night. C. installed himself in my bed. He was only allowed in after I had scrubbed the soles of his feet. He now never wears shoes about the house and picks up all manner of filth; it was so engrained that I had to flake off the black clots with a brush.”

The ancient cleaning lady habitually asked of her bed-bound employer:

“Are you getting up today, Sir?”
– adding, sotto voce
“Slovenly bugger.”

Again in Tears Before Bedtime, Barbara Skelton wrote that Connolly would lie naked on the bed, sucking a corner of the sheet, and repeating over and over, “Poor Cyril, poor Cyril.”

Yet poor Cyril, in the year that I was born, 1938, published a masterwork about prose style called Enemies of Promise. The aim of the book, he said, was to discover why it is so difficult to write a book that lasts even ten years. This gorgeous book of his has so far lasted seventy-nine years and is still going strong. It has never been out of print. I caught up with it when I was sixteen or seventeen.

People say of this and that, such-and-such changed my life. I can say—always have said—that Enemies of Promise changed mine. What prompted Connolly to write Enemies of Promise was, in part, the poverty of style in contemporary British novels. In The Condemned Playground (1935) he wrote:

There are only about two ways to write a novel in English, one by using the moderately intelligent, rather academic language of the Mandarin class, a style which depends for its force on the combination of adjective and noun or two adjectives and noun:

“With his practical and professional eye, Mr. Cardan thought he could detect in his host’s expression certain hardly perceptible symptoms of incipient tipsiness.”

That style is the typical instrument of English fiction, and it badly needs tuning. The other [way of writing] seeks to avoid the Oxford, consciously intellectual attitude by extreme simplicity . . . but easily becomes whimsical and mousy. There is no lingua franca to correspond to the ‘tough’ colloquial American style . . . the vigorous workaday speech of reporters, journalists, and advertising men who turn out so many of the best American novels.

What he wrote in Enemies of Promise that changed my life was the following:

So much depends on style, this factor of which we are growing more and more suspicious, that although the tendency of criticism is to explain a writer either in terms of his sexual experience or his economic background, I still believe his technique remains the soundest base for a diagnosis, that it should be possible to learn as much about an author’s income and sex-life from one paragraph of his writing as from his cheque stubs and love letters and that one should also be able to learn how well he writes, and who are his influences. Critics who ignore style are liable to lump good and bad writers together in support of pre-conceived theories.

An expert should be able to tell a carpet by one skein of it; a vintage by rinsing a glassful round his mouth. Applied to prose there is one advantage attached to this method – a passage taken from its contest is isolated from the rest of a book, and cannot depend on the goodwill which the author has cleverly established with his reader. This is important, for in all the books which become best-sellers and then flop, this salesmanship exists.

One sentence from these paragraphs was the Damascus Road experience for me; the scales fell from my eyes. The idea of apprehending the whole by the close examination of an isolated paragraph. “An expert should be able to tell a carpet by one skein of it; a vintage by rinsing a glassful round his mouth.”

This sentence changed the way I thought and felt about prose. As the sentence grew in my mind, the implications and ramifications continued to amaze me. The sentence forced me first of all to stop thinking about plot or context; plot was a given and usually simple.

My attention was focused on a single paragraph. As under a microscope, a new, previously hidden world appeared, previously blurred shapes jumped sharp. The sentence forced me to think about how a writer writes; it forced me to think about verbs and nouns, adjectives and adverbs, the nature and level of diction, the placement of words within sentences, the rhythms of sentences, the functions of punctuation. In brief, it forced me to begin to consider writing as technical performance, as rhetoric organized to achieve planned emotional effects.

What a story is “about” doesn’t really much matter. Most “abouts” are simple. What matters are “hows,” how the story is performed. Maurice Denis, the theoretician of Les Nabis (from the Hebrew, meaning “prophet”), a group comprising Bonnard, Vuillard, and Maillol, among others, uttered one of the great battle-cries of modern art when he said: “Remember that a a picture, before being a horse, a nude, or some kind of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.”

Connolly’s sentence also implies, of course, that the entire story, the entire book, must be written with an intensity that will live up to and survive the sort of scrutiny given to the one paragraph. Connolly is implying a prose written with the deliberation usually given to poetry.

Difficult?

Well-nigh impossible.

But as Connolly wrote in a later book, The Unquiet Grave, “The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.”

Connolly’s sentence further implies that form and content are indivisible, that the way something is being said is what is being said. A profound idea which is worth prolonged thought and grappling.

The sentence also suggests that a piece of writing should be a refined pleasure as is wine, as are the old Persian carpets made before the introduction of aniline dyes. This in turn implies that good prose is not something we read through for comprehension, for information, as a medium for getting us from A to B. Connolly is suggesting we taste the prose, fondle it, explore and experience it. What a radical way of looking at prose this is! For when we have explored it, we have not finished with it; we cannot then dismiss it as “understood.” We do not at the close of a Bach fugue or a Mozart concerto say “Heard it.” We do not after looking at, say, Picasso’s Night Fishing in Antibes dust off our hands and say “Seen it.” Similarly, we can come back again and again to brilliant prose and with a deepening of pleasure and understanding. “Understanding” in the utilitarian high school or university sense is a barrier to understanding; if we have read with wholehearted engagement, we have not “understood” the prose—an intellectual activity—rather, we have experienced the prose by entering into a relationship with it. Prose that is brilliantly performed offers inexhaustible pleasures.

So far I’ve been concentrating on technical concerns and on Connolly as a critic and editor, but Connolly not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. In The Unquiet Grave he writes of driving on Nationale Sept “sizzling down the long black liquid reaches—the plane trees going sha-sha-sha through the open windows . . . ”

I envy to death that sha-sha-sha and marvel at his employment of the word “reaches.” Check the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, reach (n. 3a).

With all my insistence on technique and on nuts-and-bolts, we must always remember that technique is simply in the service of something much more important; technique is a means to an end, and that end is, as Connolly chided us, the production of a masterpiece.

The core of what we should be at is always emotion, capturing emotion in words, the evoking of emotion in our readers, drawing our readers by delight inside all the worlds writers observe and create.

Seeing and hearing and touching the world intensely is perhaps the beginning of our journey.

Later this year, I have a new Selected Stories coming out and I called the book Finding Again the World. That comes from a poem of Howard Nemerov’s called “Blue Swallows.”

O Swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point . . . 

After the holy intensity of our childhood when the world was puddle-wonderful, many of us lose the world, don’t we? The marvellous story writer John Cheever longed to recover that vision so that he could “celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream.”

Poetry, I often feel, is our True North.

When I was a schoolboy, I wrote out poems that spoke to me in a big ledger, leather spine, marbled end papers, and Accounts Receivable in gold on the front cover.

Some of the poems brought me close to tears though I felt rather than understood them.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us all, where is your relief?

Other poems were orchestral, swaggering, swooping.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my blue sky trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Later, it was the early Auden:

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or today

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

Now, so many years later, it is Philip Larkin who haunts me. Just a few words of Larkin—

Some lonely rain-ceased summer evening  . . . 

—force me to put the book down and gaze off.

Stephen Spender wrote a poem whose first line ran—

I think continually of those who were truly great

—and it is fitting that I’m concluding with the voices of the truly great, because criticism is a useful activity but it is a secondary one. Criticism at its best exists merely to serve literature. At its very best, it points out pathways to greater pleasure.

This excerpt is taken from John Metcalf’s Margaret Laurence Lecture, which was delivered in Vancouver on June 2, 2017. You can also listen to the full lecture here.

John Metcalf is Fiction Editor at Biblioasis. His most recent collection of fiction is The Museum at the End of World.

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