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Place_in_Fiction - Sweet Wei-Z Edovm “9am an wanr...

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Unformatted text preview: Sweet Wei-Z; Edovm- “9am an @ wanr: Roma...” muse) Hm Plate 272 Ratio” ”“’ ’ ‘33 " .65 Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction, perhaps the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, sym- bolic meaning, and so on, are doing a good deal of wing- beating about her chair, and feeling, who in my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade. Nevertheless, it is this lowlier angel that con- cerns us here. There have been signs that she has been rather neglected of late; maybe she could do with a little petitioning. What place has place in fiction? It might be thought so mod- est a one that it can be taken for granted: the location of a novel; to use a term of the day, it may make the novel “re- gional.” The term, like most terms used to pin down a novel, means little; and Henry James said there isn’t any difference between “the English novel” and “the American novel,” since there are only two kinds of novels at all, the good and the bad.' Of course Henry James didn’t stop there, and we all hate gen- eralities, and so does place. Yet as soon as we step down from the general view to the close and particular, as writers must and readers may and teachers well know how to, and consider what good writing may be, place can be seen, in her own way, to have a great deal to do with that goodness, if not to be responsible for it. How so? ' ‘3. 1. i ‘ is ON WRITING 5p 1 I 7 First, with the goodness—validity—in the raw material of writing. Second, with the goodness in the writing itself—the achieved world of appearance, through which the novelist has his whole say and puts his whole case. There will still be the lady, always, who dismissed The Ancient Mariner on grounds of implausibility. Third, with the goodness—the worth—in the writer himself: place is where he has his roots, place is where he stands; in his experience out of which he writes, it provides the base of reference; in his work, the point of view. Let us consider place in fiction in these three wide aspects. Wide, but of course connected—vitally so. And if in some present-day novels the connection has apparently slipped, that makes a fresh reason for us to ponder the subject of place. For novels, besides being the pleasantest things imaginable, are pow- erful forces on the side. Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more ' precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel. _ Why? Because the novel from the start has been bound up in the local, the “real,” the present, the ordinary day-to-day of human experience. Where the imagination comes in is in di— recting the use of all this. That use is endless, and there are only four words, of all the millions we’ve hatched, that a novel rules out: “Once upon a time.” They make a story a fairy tale by the simple sweep of the remove—by abolishing the present and the place where we are instead of conveying them to us. Of course we shall have some sort of fairy tale with us always—— just now it is the historical novel. Fiction is properly at work on the here and now, or the past made here and now; for in novels 'we have to be there. Fiction provides the ideal texture through which the feeling and meaning that permeate our own personal, present lives will best show through. For in his theme 1x8 9‘45 —the most vital and important part of the work at hand—the novelist has the blessing of the inexhaustible subject: you and me. You and me, here. Inside that generous scope and circum- ference—who could ask for anything moreP—the novel can accommodate practically anything on earth; and has abundantly done so. The novel so long as it be alive gives pleasure, and must always give pleasurepenough to stave off the departure of the Wedding Guest forever, except for that one lady. It is by the nature of itself that fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place. The human mind is a mass of associations— associations more poetic even than actual. I say, “The York— shire Moors,” and you will say, “Wutbering Heights,” and I have only to murmur, “If Father were only alive—” for you to come back with “We could go to Moscow,” which cer— tainly is not even so. The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the prov- ing ground of “What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” —and that is the heart’s field. Unpredictable as the future of any art must be, one condi- tion we may hazard about writing: of all the arts, it is the one least likely to cut the cord that binds it to its source. Music and dancing, while originating out of place—grovesl—and per— haps invoking it still to minds pure or childlike, are no longer bound to dwell there. Sculpture exists out in empty space: that is what it commands and replies to. Toward painting, place, to be so highly visible, has had a curious and changing relation— ship. Indeed, wasn’t it when landscape invaded painting, and painting was given, with the profane content, a narrative con- tent, that this worked to bring on a revolution to the art? Im— pressionism brought not the likeness-to-life but the mystery of place onto canvas; it was the method, not the subject, that told this. Painting and writing, always the closest two of the sister arts (and in ancient Chinese days only the blink of an eye seems to have separated them), have each a still closer connec- tion with place than they have with each other; but a difference ON WRITING 8,9 119 lies in their respective requirements of it, and even further in the way they use it—the written word being ultimately as dif— -, ferent from the pigment as the note of the scale is from the chisel. One element, which has just been mentioned, is surely the underlying bond that connects all the arts with place. All of them celebrate its mystery. Where does this mystery lie? Is it in the fact that place has a more lasting identity than we have, and we unswervingly tend to attach ourselves to identity? Might the magic lie partly, too, in the name of the place—since that is what we gave it? Surely, once we have it named, we have put a kind of poetic claim on its existence; the claim works even out of sight—may work forever sight unseen. The Seven Wonders of the World still give us this poetic kind of grati— fication. And notice we do not say simply “The Hanging Gardens”——that would leave them dangling out of reach and dubious in nature; we say “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” and there they are, before our eyes, shimmering and garlanded and exactly elevated to the Babylonian measurement. Edward Lear tapped his unerring finger on the magic of place in the limerick. There’s something unutterably convinc- ing about that Old Person of Sparta who had twenty-five sons and one darta, and it is surely beyond question that he fed them on snails and weighed them in scales, because we know where that Old Person is from—Sparta! We certainly do not need further to be told his name. “Consider the source.” Expe— rience has ever advised us to base validity on point of origin. Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us believe it, not merely allowing us to, may the account be the facts or a lie; and that is where place in fiction comes in. Fiction is a lie. Never in its inside thoughts, always in its outside dress. _ Some of us grew up with the china night-light, the little lamp whose lighting showed its secret and with that spread enchantment. The outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; then, when the lamp is lighted, through the porcelain no vo§ sides a new picture comes out through the old, and they are seen as one. A lamp I knew of was a view of London till it was lit; but then it was the Great Fire of London, and you could go beautifully to sleep by it. The lamp alight is the combina— tion of internal and external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is the good novel. Seeing that these inner and outer sur— faces do lie so close together and so implicit in each other, the wonder is that human life so\often separates them, or appears to, and it takes a good novel to put them back together. The good novel should be steadily alight, revealing. Before it can hope to be that, it must of course be steadily visible from its outside, presenting a continuous, shapely, pleasing and fin— ished surface to the eye. The sense of a story when the visibility is only partial or intermittent is as endangered as Eliza crossing the ice. Forty hounds of confusion are after it, the black waters of disbelief open up between its steps, and no matter which way it jumps it is bound to slip. Even if it has a little baby moral in its arms, it is more than likely a goner. The novel must get Eliza across the ice; what it means—the way it proceeds—is always in jeopardy. It must be given a surface that is continuous and unbroken, never too thin to trust, always in touch with the senses. Its world of experience must be at every step, through every moment, within reach as the world of appearance. This makes it the business of writing, and the responsibility of the writer, to disentangle the significant—in character, inci- dent, setting, mood, everything—from the random and mean- ingless and irrelevant that in real life surround and beset it. It is a matter of his selecting and, by all that implies, of chang- ing “real” life as he goes. With each word he writes, he acts— as literally and methodically as if he hacked his way through a forest and blazed it for the word that follows. He makes choices at the explicit demand of this one present Story; each choice implies, explains, limits the next, and illuminates the one before. No two stories ever go the same way, although in different ON WRITING 5.. 1 21 hands one story might possibly go any one of a thousand ways; and though the woods may look the same from outside, it is a '« new and different labyrinth every time. What tells the author his way? Nothing at all but what he knows inside himself: the same thing that hints to him afterward how far he has missed it, how near he may have come to the heart of it. In a working sense, the novel and its place have become one: work has made them, for the time being, the same thing, like the explorer’s tentative map of the known world. The reason why every word you write in a good novel is a lie, then, is that it is written expressly to serve the purpose; if it does not apply, it is fancy and frivolous, however specially dear to the writer’s heart. Actuality, it is true, is an even bigger risk to the novel than fancy writing is, being frequently even more confusing, irrelevant, diluted and generally far—fetched than ill-chosen words can make it. Yet somehow, the world of appearance in the novel has got to seem actuality. Is there a reliable solution to the problem? Place being brought to life in the round before the reader’s eye is the readiest and gentlest and most honest and natural way this can be brought about, I think; every instinct advises it. The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work. Besides furnishing a plausible abode for the novel’s world of feeling, place has a good deal to do with making the characters real, that is, themselves, and keeping them so. The reason is simply that, as Tristram Shandy observed, “We are not made of glass, as characters on Mercury might be.” Place can be transparent, or translucent: not people. In real life we have to express the things plainest and closest to our minds by the clumsy word and the half-finished gesture; the chances are our most usual behavior makes sense only in a kind of daily way, because it has become familiar to our nearest and deareSt, and it--. " 122 m6 still demands their constant indulgence and understanding. It is our describable outside that defines us, willy-hilly, to others, that may save us, or destroy us, in the world; it may be our shield against chaos, our mask against exposure; but whatever it is, the move we make in the place we live has to signify our intent and meaning. Then think how unprotected the poor character in a novel is, into whose mind the author is inviting us to look—unpro- tected and hence surely unbelievable! But no, the author has expressly seen to believability. Though he must know all, again he works with illusion. Just as the world of a novel is more highly selective than that of real life, so character in a novel is much more definite, less shadowy than our own, in order that we may believe in it. This is not to say that the character’s scope must be limited; it is our vision of it that is guided. It is a kind of phenomenon of writing that the likeliest character has first to be enclosed inside the bounds of even greater like- lihood, or he will fly to pieces. Paradoxically, the more nar- rowly we can examine a fictional character, the greater he is likely to loom up. We must see him set to scale in his proper world to know his size. Place, then, has the most delicate con- trol over character too: by confining character, it defines it. Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress. Location pertains to feeling; feeling profoundly pertains to place; place in history partakes of feeling, as feeling about his- tory partakes of place. Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else. Imagine S'wann’: Way laid in London, or The Magic Mountain in Spain, or Green Mansion: in the Black Forest. The very notion of moving a novel brings ruder havoc to the mind and affections than would a century’s alteration in its time. It is only too easy to conceive that a bomb that could destroy all trace of places as we know them, in life and through books, could also destroy all feelings as we know ON WRITING 55v 123 them, so irretrievably and so happily are recognition, memory, history, valor, love, all the instincts of poetry and praise, wor- ship and endeavor, bound up in place. From the dawn of man’s imagination, place has enshrined the spirit; as soon as man stopped wandering and stood still and looked about him, he found a god in that place; and from then on, that was where the god abided and spoke from if ever he spoke. Feelings are bound up in place, and in art, from time to time, place undoubtedly works upon genius. Can anyone well. explain otherwise what makes a given dot on the map come passionately alive, for good and all, in a novel—like one of those novae that suddenly blaze with inexplicable fire in the heavens? What brought a Wutbering Height: out of Yorkshire, or a Sound and the Fury out of Mississippi? If place does work upon genius, how does it? It may be that place can focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point. Focus then means awareness, discernment, order, clarity, insight—they are like the attributes of love. The act of focusing itself has beauty and meaning; it is the act that, continued in, turns into mediation, into poetry. Indeed, as soon as the least of us stands still, that is the moment something extraordinary is seen to be going on in the world. The drama, old beyond count as it is, is no older than the first stage. With- out the amphitheatre around it to persuade the ear and bend the eye upon a point, how could poetry ever have been spoken, how have been heard? Man is articulate and intelligible only when he begins to communicate inside the strict terms of poetry and reason. Symbols in the end, both are permanent forms of the act of focusing. Surely place induces poetry, and when the poet is extremely attentive to what is there, a meaning may even attach to his poem out of the spot on earth where it is spoken, and the poem signify the more because it does spring so wholly out of its place, and the sap has run up into it as into a tree. But we had better confine ourselves here to prose. And then, to take the most absolutely unfanciful novelist of them all, it :24 «<3 is to hear him saying, “Madame Bovary—c’est moi.” And we see focusing become so intent and aware and conscious in this most “realistic” novel of them all as to amount to fusion. Flaubert’s work is indeed of the kind that is embedded im- movably as rock in the country of its birth. If, with the slicers of any old (or new) criticism at all, you were to cut down through Madame Bovary, imross section would still be the same as the cross section of that living earth, in texture, color, composition, all; which would be no surprise to Flaubert. For such fusion always means accomplishment no less conscious than it is gigantic—effort that must exist entirely as its own reward. We all know the letter Flaubert wrote when he had just found, in the morning paper, in an account of a minister’s visit to Rouen, a phrase in the Mayor’s speech of welcome which I had ,written the day before, textually, in my Bovary . . . Not only were the idea and the words the same, but even the rhythm of the style. It’s things like this that give me pleasure . . . Everything one invents is true, you may be perfectly sure of that! Poetry is as precise as geometry . . . And besides, after reaching a certain point, one no longer makes any mistakes about the things of the soul. My poor Bovary, without a doubt, is suffering and weeping this very instant in twenty villages of France. And now that we have come to the writer himself, the question of place resolves itself into the point of view. In this changeover from the objective to the subjective, wonderful and unexpected variations may occur. Place, to the writer at work, is seen in a frame. Not an empty frame, a brimming one. Point of view is a sort of burning-glass, a product of personal experience and time; it is burnished with feelings and sensibilities, charged from moment to moment with the sun-points of imagination. It is an instrument—one of inten- sification; it acts, it behaves, it is temperamental. We have seen that the writer must accurately choose, combine, superimpose ON WRITING 5.- :25 upon, blot out, shake up, alter the outside world for one abso- lute purpose, the good of his story. To do this, he is always seeing double, two pictures at once in his frame, his and the world’s, a fact that he constantly comprehends; and he works best in a state of constant and subtle and unfooled reference between the two. It is his clear intention—his passion, I should say—to make the reader see only one of the pictures—the au— thor’s—under the pleasing illusion that it is the world’s; this enormity is the accomplishment of a good story. I think it likely that at the moment of the writer’s highest awareness of, and responsiveness to, the “real” world, his imagination’s choice (and miles away it may be from actuality) comes clos- est to being infallible for his purpose. For the spirit of things is what is sought. No blur of inexactness, no cloud of vague- ness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncom- promise of purpose. I speak, of course, of the ideal. One of the most important things the young writer comes to see for himself is that...
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