Saturday, April 4, 2015

You Don't Say

To the same degree it is possible to guess the century of a musical composition's birth when hearing it, the alert reader should be able to get an accurate sense of the century in which a particular novel was written.

Even such convention breaking composers as Beethoven and a writer as purposeful in his narrative intent as Henry James speak to their times, at once of them and beyond them.  Beethoven thrust harmonies and forms at his audiences.

James's readers knew when they were being directed to consider the intelligence of a character and when they were asked to consider and accept the subconscious workings of the character.  Time and repetition have made it easier to give close listening to Beethoven and close reading to Henry James, but the smallest seeming truffle from Beethoven, say Fur Elise, and a more direct narrative from James, say The Aspern Papers, still require our attention if we are to get the intended effect.

By settling on the degree to which the author's presence manifests itself in the narrative, sometimes even explaining for us what the character saw, felt, and intended, you've pretty well attuned yourself to the generational or century sound of a novel.

Because you wish to have your own work, nonfiction as well as fiction, sound late twentieth and early twenty-first century, you dance about the fire of revision with the fullest attention to making sure your presence is neither seen nor felt.  

Rather, your characters scurry about, which of course is to say you scurry about, looking for lapses, looking for places where you said "It was raining" as opposed to "Mary always felt giddy in the presence of rain, a feeling she'd traced back to her elementary school days, where rainy days meant less time in class and more time tramping through street puddles."

The effect you seek is for the narrative to come through the characters, often to the point where you glean the strong sense of what the character is thinking and feeling by watching the character as she moves through the dances of relationships with other characters.  

To that standard, you like to add the effects implied from the way the character behaves rather than having the author tell you, "John felt terrible when he had to disagree about such things with his grandmother because he could see how hurt she was by his politics."

Some recent reading has taken you back to Thomas Hardy, whom you've been reading since high school, giving him an even greater focus as an undergraduate, then returning to him in more recent years because of your sense of the technical ways he employs, often in the same paragraph, of an author telling us things and as the more reclusive, cusp-to-the-twentieth century novelist, taking us beyond the descriptive closeness so that we may feel the character's responses to the dramatic beats. 

Hardy's troupe of characters, Tess, Jude, Eustachia, and not to forget Michael Henchard, remind you more of the manner of their presentation than their individual stories.  Yes, they are all conflicted, flawed, victims of some of the various forces Hardy noted and brought to life.  They are also important to you because of the ratio of things the author told you about them to the degree by which you are able to see them in tense moments or, as so often happens with Tess, while she is alone, on her way to or leaving a tense encounter.

You have to work hardest at fiction that stays with you the longest and which opens avenues of your own to explore.  This does not mean older fiction requires more work as much as it means there is more to be had from watching the characters than there is listening to the author, telling you about them. 

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