The Limitations of Clarity
In Sunday's NY Times Book Review, Brooke Allen reviews a new biography of Somerset Maugham, on behalf of whose faded reputation some critical labor has been expended lately, mostly, in my view, as part of a larger effort to identify certain unthreatening modern writers as possible alternatives to the modernists. (See also this review of the same biography in the February New Criterion.)
After mostly avoiding an assessment of Maugham's fiction (and a voluminous body of work it is), Allen finally concedes that "What characterizes a great writer, perhaps [note the perhaps], is what is left out--what must be read between the lines--and on this level Maugham falls short." I have myself read Of Human Bondage and a few of the "South Sea" stories, which I had been advised were his best work. Allen's judgment here seems right to me. There is no "between the lines" at all in these fictions, and very little style. If these were the author's best efforts, I concluded, there seemed little point in reading more.
The most interesting part of Allen's review, however, is this bit of quasi-praise: "But Maugham's strengths, it must be remembered, were very considerable. As William Plomer once felt it necessary to remind highbrow readers, 'To be a man of the world, to be acquainted with all sorts of different people, to be tolerant, to be curious, to have a capacity for enjoyment, to be the master of a clear and unaffected prose style--these are advantages.' "
These are perhaps advantages in the attempt to lead a worthwhile life, but they are advantages of no kind in creating works of literature. They are, in fact, except for the imperative "to be curious," wholly irrelevant to the enterprise of writing fiction.
Surely we can all agree that being a "man of the world" and "to be acquainted with all sorts of different people" are in no way necessary qualifications for the job of fiction writer, and can often enough get in the way of doing the job (as they seem to have in Maugham's case). If they were, how to account for Faulkner, for Sherwood Anderson, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy?
Being tolerant is of course nice, but in my reading of literary biographies, most great writers are anything but, aside from the tolerance they show in their work for the human frailties we all share.
It is certainly an advantage for the writer to be curious, although one might think that this curiosity would extend as well to the possibilities of literary form, rather than the persistent incuriousity about it to be found in the work of a writer like Maugham. And as to the "capacity for enjoyment," Samuel Beckett, for one, appears to have had very little talent for this, yet he turned out to be perhaps the greatest writer of the twentieth century.
This leaves us with the mastery "of a clear and unaffected prose style." I confess that the demand for this particular quality among certain kinds of readers and critics has always seemed inexplicable to me. For one thing, how many great writers of fiction can actually boast of such a style? Hemingway's style is "clear," but certainly not "unaffected." Dreiser's style is unaffected, but not at all clear. (Personally, I wouldn't want them to be otherwise.) I am hard pressed to think of a great British writer of fiction whose style could be described thus. Maybe Austen. But Dickens? Hardy? Lawrence? Conrad? For another, why would a fiction writer want such a style? It is a great advantage if you're sending a telegram, but why would a writer seeking to use the resources of language to explore human motivation and psychology, our frequently mysterious behavior and actions, be interested in such a style? Does Shakespeare have it?
If Allen's list of Maugham's attributes is the best that can be said of him, then he will assuredly continue to fall into obscurity. For that matter, all such attempts to rescue "clear" and "unaffected" writers (such attempts have been made on behalf of writers like James Gould Cozzens and J. P. Marquand, among others) will always fail. In the long run, their "advantages" are just not the sorts of things readers interested in what can be accomplished in fiction are looking for. Perhaps it would have been interesting to meet the likes of Somerset Maugham (if indeed he was the kind of man Allen describes), but his fiction, in almost all ways unremarkable, is another matter entirely.
The Connection Between Personality and Prose
According to Zadie Smith, in a Guardian essay by now showered with much praise for its "honesty:
. . .writers do have a different kind of knowledge than either professors or critics. Occasionally it's worth listening to. The insight of the practitioner is, for better or worse, unique. It's what you find in the criticism of Virginia Woolf, of Iris Murdoch, of Roland Barthes. What unites those very different critics is the confidence with which they made the connection between personality and prose. To be clear: theirs was neither strictly biographical criticism nor prescriptively moral criticism, and nothing they wrote was reducible to the childish formulations "only good men write good books" or "one must know a man's life to understand his work". But neither did they think of a writer's personality as an irrelevance. They understood style precisely as an expression of personality, in its widest sense. A writer's personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don't think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.
Wow. Style is "an expression of personality" It's also a mark of the writer's "manner of being in the world." It's also "a personal necessity. . .the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness." It's also "a writer's way of telling the truth." It's also "the refinement of a consciousness." And it's also the "education of the emotions."
That's an awful lot of weight to heap on words and sentences and paragraphs, especially in fiction, which, except in the hands of narcissists and pseudo-philosophers, is not a medium for the "expression" of anything, but the attempt to convince your readers that words on a page evoke a "world," and to make something aesthetically pleasing out of prose. If you can do this, then all of the handwringing about "human consciousness" and "telling the truth" and educating emotions is just so much pomp and circumstance.
Frankly, I really don't know what any of the declarations made in the above-quoted passage are even supposed to mean. How am I to know anything about the writer's "personality" from reading his novel? I don't care about his personality in the first place; I want to know what he can do with words. He can take his "personality" to his therapist. "A writer's personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner." Is this like "grace under pressure"? The writer goes around perfecting his "manner" and then transfers his concocted "lifestyle" to the printed page?
There's no way that fiction can embody the writer's personality. Personality is itself a fiction that we use to make overgeneralizations about ourselves and other people. At best, a work of fiction might create what seems to be a personality "behind" the work, but this doesn't happen with all fiction (and Eliot was right in suggesting that good writers try to avoid it, anyway) and to equate that personality with the "real" personality of the writer is only a mark of bad reading. Neither of these personalites exist in the first place.
I suppose style could be "the expression of a particular human consciousness" if the writer's "consciousness" was itself the subject being explored. That is, if the writer was writing some kind of psychological memoir rather than fiction. But I don't see how consciousness in this pretentious way of speaking about it is even at issue in the writing of fiction, and I certainly don't see how style has anything to do with getting it expressed. A good writer's style does exhibit certain continuities and characteristics over time, but is this an effect of "consciousness"? Isn't it just a function of that writer's particular way of living with language? (Perhaps in alluding to the expression of "consciousness," Smith is actually referring to the creation of consciousness in fictional characters, the pursuit of "psychological realism," but this is not how I read the passage in question.)
Similarly, style as a way of "telling the truth" might be plausible if by this we mean that the writer has found the right style--the right words and sentences and paragraphs--to evoke the fictional world he/she is after. If it means "telling the truth" about the characters and events portrayed in the fiction. If it means telling the truth in some more metaphysical sense, telling the truth about The Way Things Really Are, to me such pronouncements are just cant.
And I have to say that Smith really launches herself into outer space when she concludes that style has something to do with "the refinement of a consciousness" rather than refinement of "words on a page." "Style" in art and literature is a material characteristic, an identifiable, distinctive arrangement and rearrangement of the elements of the medium, whether that be language, paint, musical sound, etc. It is not some ineffable, mystical quality, a "personal necessity," something these people have but those do not. Literary style is the means by which accomplished writers manipulate language for aesthetic effect. You can educate your emotions all you'd like, but if you haven't created something aesthetically pleasing with your words, you haven't succeeded as a writer of fiction.
In her own response to Smith's essay, Jenny Davidson carries the argument to its unfortunate conclusion: "I find in particular as a reader that my doubts about a particular writer's style (his/her sentences, say) can rarely be expressed in strictly aesthetic terms, it always shades into questions of character--it is good to see Zadie Smith saying that so clearly here." Here we return to what I've previously described as "style as moral failure." The inevitable consequence of associating a writer's "sentences" with "questions of character" (with the "expression" of character) is to confuse a response to writing as a response to the writer. A failure of art becomes a moral defect. Conversely, an artistic success becomes a vindication of "character," the experience of art reduced to the degree of one's sympathy with the artist, however much a figment of the imagination he/she turns out to be. Compared to these "refinements of consciousness" the writer makes available, all discussion of the skill with which he/she organizes "words on a page" is, of course, "merely literary."
A Quirk of Language
Most of the reviews of Adam Thirlwell's The Delighted States (including the British reviews of the book under its original title of Miss Herbert) concentrated on its idiosyncratic structure and unceremonious tone (idiosyncratic and unceremonious for a work of literary criticism, at any rate). Reviewers seemed to find both annoying distractions from the occasional critical insight Thirlwell offers, and their reservations about Thirlwell as a critic were generally confined to these admittedly unorthodox features of his book.
While it is true that the central argument Thirlwell wants to make in The Delighted States could probably have been made in a much shorter book, perhaps even in a critical essay, I can't say I found either Thirlwell's circuitous method of analysis, which proceeds both back and forth across time and national literatures and sideways from author to author (at times providing unusual and surprising juxtapositions), or his conversational style particularly bothersome. I take the travelogue approach to be Thirlwell's attempt to reinforce the book's overriding point--that fiction in effect speaks an international language that manages to survive its migration through translation from one literary tradition to another--in the form his book assumes, and it is an effective enough device. It might not be the sort of method one expects from a work of serious literary criticism, but there is no inherent reason criticism can't accommodate such an alternative strategy.
Further, both the looser, more informal structure and the reader-friendly critical language Thirlwell employs seem to me to work to accomplish one of criticism's legitimate tasks, which is to explicate features of literary works that are not necessarily obvious to all readers, that require the critic to call attention to them as evocatively as possible. In The Delighted States, Thirlwell is making a case for the efficacy of translation that calls for numerous and at times subtle comparisons and analogies, and his manner of leading the reader along his route of unexpected congruences, pointing out the connections more as an enthusiastic guide than as a source of critical pronouncements, is a perfectly sound way to proceed. If the test of a worthwhile critic is whether his reader is able to regard an author. a text, or literary history with enhanced understanding, then Thirlwell passes this test readily enough.
Something that may have contributed to reviewers' lack of enthusiasm for The Delighted States is Thirlwell's emphasis on innovation in fiction, a preference that consistently informs his survey of literary influence and the role of translation in the evolution of fiction as a form. Along with his related emphasis on form (which he often conflates with "style"), Thirwell's focus on aesthetic innovation must have grated on the sensibilities of mainstream reviewers, who generally look askance at innovation as manifested in contemporary fiction and mostly ignore form in favor of what a work of fiction has "to say" (when they're not simply judging it for its superficial entertainment value, its success or failure at being a "good read"). For me, that Thirlwell's book illustrates the extent to which the history of fiction is the history of inspired change is its greatest virtue, but for some of its reviewers its own unconventional form as literary criticism may have only reminded them of Thirwell's implicit defense of the role of the unconventional in literary history.
None of the book's reviewers, however, chose to examine what to me is its most problematic claim--or, as it turns out, series of claims. In his commitment to the idea that all works of fiction are translatable, even down to a particular writer's distinctive "style," Thirlwell makes the following observations:
. . .A style may be as large as the length of a book. Its units may well be moe massive, and more vague, than I would often like.
A style, in the end, is a list of the methods by which a novelist achieves various effects. As such, it can seem endless.
In fact, it can become something which is finally not linguistic at all. For the way in which a novelist represents life depends on what a novelist thinks is there in a life to be represented. A style is therefore as much a quirk of emotion, or of theological belief, as it is a quirk of language.
A style does not entirely coincide with prose style, or formal construction, or technique. (20)
In order to maintain his position that fiction can be translated without appreciable dimunition in the integrity of the translated text, Thirlwell needs to minimize the obstacles posed by "style" understood as a writer's characteristic exploration of the resources of his/her native language. One way to do that would be simply to dismiss the importance of style in comparison to all of the other elements of fiction that could well come through in a good translation without loss of effect. To his credit, Thirlwell does not do this; instead, he radically expands the meaning of "style" so that it includes. . .well, just about everything: It is "a list of the methods by which a novelist achieves various effects. As such, it can seem endless."
But, of course, if style is everything, so "various" as to be "endless" in its features, it is actually nothing. Thirlwell in fact deprives it of its one materially definable quality when he asserts that it might be "something which is not linguistic at all." This notion, that style is not fundamentally a phenomenon of language, recurs throughout Thirlwell's discussions of his international (although primarily British and European) cast of writers, even of those writers, such as Flaubert or Chekhov, known for their attention to "linguistic" style. He picks up on Marcel Proust's comment about style as "quality of vision" and uses this phrase as a kind of summary concept encapsulating his definition of style in its most "massive" incarnation. What persists in a translation, then, is this quality of vision, which in its grand scope dwarfs mere facility with language.
I confess I don't finally understand the need for this erasure of style in its tangible, most coherent form. However much it grasps metaphorically at a less tangible if still apprehensible object of our experience of fiction, to speak of "quality of vision" does not adequately account for the concrete achievements of writers as stylists. However much I value Flaubert's "quality of vision" (which is a lot), it just seems to me manifestly obvious that reading Flaubert in English is not the same experience as reading him in French. Reading Virginia Woolf in French cannot be more than a necessary if barely sufficient substitute for those French speakers without English who want to read her work. While I am reasonably sure that the comic vision of Stanley Elkin would still be preserved for those reading his fiction in a translation, how in the world could this writer's style survive the crossing-over?
Near the end of The Delighted States, Thirlwell scales back the grandiosity of his claims about translation:
All through this book, I have been arguing that style is the most important thing, and survives its mutilating translations--that although the history of translation is always a history of disillusion, something survives. . . . (429)
Yes, of course something survives. What serious reader sadly restricted to one language (or even two or three) would claim otherwise? Certainly I wouldn't. But I'm comfortable with accepting that this "something" includes inspired storytelling or formal inventiveness or compelling characters, but not style except in a more or less successful approximation. To stretch "style" into "vision" or "theological belief" is way too misty and metaphysical for me. I'm willing to settle for style as irretrievably "linguistic," a writer's artful way with words.