Searching for beauty in language: on what can we agree?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Among the returning motifs in our memoir class is the idea of beauty in language—rhythm, pattern, song.  It's not easily classifiable stuff.  We come toward it each with our own idiosyncratic preferences, our mysterious politics.  Name your beauty, and I shall name mine.  Instruct me and I will teach you; I will show you what I mean; I will hearken and hold.

Toward the final pages of E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, a series of lectures delivered in 1927, the great novelist says this:
Music, though it does not employ human beings, though it is governed by intricate laws, nevertheless does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way.  Expansion.  That is the idea the novelist must cling to.  Not completion.  Not rounding off but opening out.  When the symphony is over we feel that the notes and tunes composing it have been liberated, they have found in the rhythm of the whole their individual freedom.  Cannot the novel be like that?
Forster writes of the novel, and I teach memoir, but there are lessons here, of course, just as there are lessons on every page we read.  We are honing our idea of good.  We are turning away from that which flattens our curiosity, our desire to know. 

This morning I was looking at the first pages of two award-winning debut young adult novels.  One teased and seduced me; it opened a world.  The varied shape and length of its sentences installed, within me, a mood, while its repeated words and sounds felt considered, not convenient.  The other opening page crunched as I read it; it stuttered.  Through a series of noun-verb, noun-verb declarations, it directed me to know and did not give me room to feel.  Both books, as I have noted, gained the adoration of judging panels.  Both have been widely read.  I wonder how these two examples work upon you? Which is the book you'd like to read?  Which is the one you feel you'd learn from?
Example 1:  By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.  We arose in the dark, hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smudge of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was still pure pitch.  We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the dark like our own tiny waving suns.  There was a full day's work to be done before noon, when the deadly heat drove everyone back into our big shuttered house and we lay in the dim high-ceilinged rooms like sweating victims.  Mother's usual summer remedy of sprinkling the sheets with refreshing cologne lasted only a minute.  At three o'clock in the afternoon, when it was time to get up again, the temperature was still killing.
Example 2:  Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free.  Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose.  He scrambled deeper into the duct, jerking more wire from its aluminum staples.  The staples pinged about the cramped metal passage like coins offered to the Scavenge God, and Nailer felt after them eagerly, hunting for their dull gleam and collecting them in a leather bag he kept at his waist.  He yanked again at the wiring.  A meter's worth of precious copper tore loose in his hands and dust clouds enveloped him.


Melissa Sarno said...

Personally, I like Example 1. I know exactly where we are. It's unbearably hot in Texas and no one can think of anything else. Example 2 is a little confusing. I'm not as interested in what this character is doing with the wires.

Unknown said...

In terms of beauty, example number 1 is uncontested. But I do think that it's important to note that both examples would be necessary for a complete novel: the first one develops a scene, describes a reality while the second has movement and relates action. Example 2 may not paint a detailed picture, but I know what's happening and it's getting somewhere. When authors start getting too dense with description and reflection, it gets boring-- especailly for a young adult audience.

Wendy said...

I love beautiful language in novels and example #1 would reel me right in. There are writers out there who stick out in my mind as "poetic" (as trite as that sounds), and I always look forward to their books. I remember one book that blew me away because of the use of language...and that was The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak. A stunning novel that celebrates words.

Lilian Nattel said...

Example 1 for me. It creates in me that relaxed feeling of oh, I can let go, this writer knows what she/he is doing.

Unknown said...

I personally enjoyed reading Example 1 more than 2. It was a much more descriptive writing and I could actually feel the burning heat of Texas as my eyes scrolled down the screen. In other words, it sort of transported me to the setting and changed the surroundings in my mind. However, I do agree with Joe that actions portrayed in Example 2 is needed in a writing. To me, the perfect reading material will be one that has both of them; that paints a perfect picture and situation for me, but also has a moving action that drives the story along.

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