On Style

February 4, 2012

All works of art are founded on a certain distance from the lived reality which is represented. This ‘distance’ is, by definition, inhuman or impersonal to a certain degree; for in order to appear to us as art, the work must restrict sentimental intervention and emotional participation, which are functions of ‘closeness.’ It is the degree and manipulating of this distance, the conventions of distance, which constitute the style of the work. In the final analysis, ‘style’ is art. And art is nothing more or less than various modes of stylized, dehumanized representations. … Style is the principle of decision in a work of art, the signature of the artist’s will. And as the human will is capable of an indefinite number of stances, there are an indefinite number of possible styles for works of art. … To the extent that a work seems right, just, unimaginable otherwise (without loss or damage), what we are responding to is a quality of its style. The most attractive works of art are those which give us the illusion that the artist had no alternatives, so wholly centered is he in his style.

That’s Susan Sontag — who I could go on quoting ad infinitum — brought in here to speak to the takeaway paragraph in a great discussion between David Winters and Anthony Brown over at 3:AM Magazine. The subject is modernism, “then and now”:

David Winters: You mention Bernhard in the same breath as Lydia Davis, which I think is fruitful. What I mean here is that I read Bernhard for the same reasons I read some recent American writers. I want to say that I read for the style, but I don’t mean ‘style’ in the ‘superficial’ sense you astutely describe [in discussing "Peter Gay's 'modernism as style' position"]. In the work of the writers I most admire, a style is always also a stance. That is, for them, a way of arranging words on the page is also a way of reaching a view of the world.

Over at The Apiary, an artistic-archival project “specialising in films made about and in collaboration with musicians, theatre-makers, dancers and visual artists,” Marden Dean ventures into the fabled workspace of Gerald Murnane. Murnane has often spoken about his workspace, a bare office populated by dozens of filing cabinets in which he stores and catalogues every last note he has ever written on any subject whatsoever over the last forty or fifty years, but to my knowledge Dean is the first person ever to be allowed to enter and film Murnane’s little world. Some of the resultant images match up with Murnane’s own descriptions of his workspace, such as the typewriters atop the filing cabinets and the horse racing colours on the wall, but others took me by surprise. I always expected that Murnane organised all of his various notes in some sort of logical order, perhaps biographically or chronologically in accordance with whatever larger project he was working on at the time he wrote them. Not so. While he concedes that most of his notes are organised biographically, others are gathered together under more intriguing categories such as “IF I WERE A COWARD, I WOULD BURN THIS,” “WHAT I BELIEVE ABOVE ALL,” and “ENTER, WITH FLOURISH, H. FAWKNER.”

Speech and Stoner

November 11, 2011

Appreciations of John Williams’ Stoner have been floating around the blogosphere for a while now, thanks to John SelfdovegreyreaderEmmett Stinson and, more recently, D.G Myers and Rohan Maitzen, but another voice in praise of the novel can’t hurt. Stoner is a masterpiece. There’s no use festooning it with superlatives. They can’t convey how great it is. Read it!

More than its perfect prose, tone, characterisation, and narrative momentum, what impressed me about Stoner was the subtlety of its self-awareness. I expected a reprise of the startling but unwavering realism of Williams’ previous novel, Butcher’s Crossing, which is arguably one of the half-dozen or so truly outstanding New Westerns and which offered me my first taste of Williams’ work. What I found instead was a work of literature that acknowledged and justified its own literariness right from the very first page, and continued to do so throughout:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910. … Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

That’s how the novel opens. Straight away it marks out its literary territory. On the one hand, by noting the inadequacy of the sole surviving written record of the life of William Stoner, it implies that what is required is something like itself: an account of Stoner’s life that is both more elaborate and more specific than what currently exists. On the other hand, by noting the “casual” questioning of Stoner’s life and the variations in the verbal accounts offered in response, it implies also that what is required is not only a more elaborate and specific account but, crucially, a written one. What Stoner wants, from its very first page, is an account of Stoner’s life that becomes more elaborate and specific the more it both supersedes the inadequate written record in the University of Missouri library and militates against the transience and ambiguities of speech as an alternative means of superseding that record. Time and again throughout Stoner, as the novel goes about setting the record straight, it casts speech as an act through which its task might be accomplished if only speech was not so capable of misdirection via rhetorical seduction, distraction, and outright deception.

Here, for instance, is the young Stoner’s adviser, Archer Sloane, whose speech mannerisms seduce Stoner into devoting himself to the study of literature:

The instructor was a man of middle age, in his early fifties; his name was Archer Sloane, and he came to his task of teaching with a seeming disdain and contempt, as if he perceived between his knowledge and what he could say a gulf so profound that he would make no effort to close it. … His voice was flat and dry, and it came through barely moving lips without expression or intonation; but his long thin fingers moved with grace and persuasion, as if giving to the words a shape that his voice could not.

And here is Stoner’s first contact with the woman who will become his loveless wife — who will eventually do everything in her power to ruin him — as she, too, seduces him with words, and less with the words she actually speaks than with the simple act of speaking:

Stoner had turned back when she began to speak, and he looked at her with an amazement that did not show on his face. Her eyes were fixed straight before her, her face was blank, and her lips moved as if, without understanding, she read from an invisible book. He walked slowly across the room and sat down beside her. She did not seem to notice him; her eyes remained fixed straight ahead, and she continued to tell him about herself, as he had asked her to do. … And [later] something unsuspected within her, some instinct, made her call him back when he started to go out the door, made her speak quickly and desperately, as she had never spoken before, and as she would never speak again.

And here is Stoner’s first in-depth encounter with Charles Walker, the arrogant student who will destroy Stoner’s professional life just as Stoner’s wife destroys his life at home:

[Walker's] voice rose and fell, his right hand went out with its fingers curled supplicatingly upward, and his body swayed to the rhythm of his words; his eyes rolled slightly upward, as if he were making an invocation. … Walker’s voice dropped to a conversational level, and he addressed the back wall of the room in a tone that was calm and equable with reason. …

Anger, simple and dull, rose within Stoner [when he realised the extent of Walker's intellectual vapidity], overwhelming the complexity of feeling he had had at the beginning of the paper. His immediate impulse was to rise, to cut short the farce that was developing; he knew that if he did not stop Walker at once he would have to let him go on for as long as he wanted to talk. … He had waited too long to interrupt, and Walker was rushing impetuously through what he had to say. …

After he became used to his anger Stoner found a reluctant and perverse admiration stealing over him. However florid and imprecise, the man’s powers of rhetoric and invention were dismayingly impressive [and] Stoner became aware that he was in the presence of a bluff so colossal that he had no ready means of dealing with it.

And here is Walker again, delivering a presentation followed by a question and answer session that has been scripted by his supervisor, Hollis Lomax, precisely in order to distract Walker’s listeners from noticing his limited intellectual capabilities:

Walker’s presentation was lucid, forthright, and intelligent; at times it was almost brilliant. Lomax was right; if the dissertation fulfilled its promise, it would be brilliant. Hope, warm and exhilarating, rushed upon [Stoner], and he leaned forward attentively.

Walker talked upon the subject of his dissertation for perhaps ten minutes and then abruptly stopped. Quickly Lomax asked another question, and Walker responded at once. … Walker’s voice continued, fluent and sure of itself, the words emerging from his rapidly moving mouth almost as if — Stoner started, and the hope that had begun in him died as abruptly as it had been born. … Lomax finished his questioning, and Holland began. It was, Stoner admitted, a masterful performance; unobtrusively, with great charm and good humor, Lomax managed it all. … He rephrased [other listeners'] questions… changing them so that the original intent was lost in the elucidation. He engaged Walker in what seemed to be elaborately theoretical arguments, although he did most of the talking. And finally… he cut into [other listeners'] questions with questions of his own that led Walker where he wanted him to go.

During this time Stoner did not speak. He listened to the talk that swirled around him. … He was waiting to do what he knew he had to do, and he was waiting with a dread and an anger and a sorrow that grew more intense with every minute that passed.

At one point, when Lomax threatens to charge Stoner with professional misconduct and construes actual events in a way that makes them appear sinister, Stoner cries out: “How you make it sound! Sure, everything you say is fact, but none of it is true. Not the way you say it.” And later, when Stoner’s retirement dinner offers him an opportunity to publicly construe events however he pleases, he is rendered powerless by his inability to speak:

As the applause dwindled someone in the audience shouted in a thin voice: “Speech!” Someone else took up the call, and the word was murmured here and there. …

[Stoner] got to his feet, and realized that he had nothing to say. He was silent for a long time as he looked from face to face. He heard his voice issue flatly. “I have taught…” he said. He began again. “I have taught at this University for nearly forty years. I do not know what I would have done if I had not been a teacher. If I had not taught, I might have–” He paused, as if distracted. Then he said, with a finality, “I want to thank you all for letting me teach.”

And finally, at the end of his life, Stoner receives news of Katherine Driscoll, the colleague and lover he was forced to abandon when their affair jeopardised both of their careers, and this last encounter with Katherine affirms the strength of the written word:

In the early spring of 1949 he received a circular from the press of a large eastern university; it announced the publication of Katherine’s book, and gave a few words about the author. … He got a copy of the book as soon as he could. When he held it in his hands his fingers seemed to come alive; they trembled so that he could scarcely open it. He turned the first few pages and saw the dedication: “To W.S.”

His eyes blurred, and for a long time he sat without moving. Then he shook his head, returned to the book, and did not put it down until he had read it through. … The prose was graceful, and its passion was masked by a coolness and clarity of intelligence. It was herself he saw in what he read, he realized; and he marveled at how truly he could see her even now.

Whether or not he can “truly” see her is, of course, an open question, and is just one aspect of the broader question of whether or not the written word is in fact more capable than speech of conveying the “truth” of a human life via the elaboration and specification of circumstantial detail. But with its continual ambivalence towards speech, Stoner seems to me to close off that broad open question in favour of the written word and thus in favour of richly detailed humanist realism as the literary mode best suited to its purposes — although, unusually for that sort of realism, it senses its own lack of intrinsic authority and works hard to accrue and justify it.

Just a quick note to say it is both the funniest and most despairing thing I’ve read all year, and an attempt to sketch out why I found it even funnier and more despairing than the blog from which it developed. I think the difference in quality has something to do with the difference in form, with the sense of claustrophobic compression which defines the novel but which the blog just cannot generate. I won’t go over the narrative, such as it is, since various summaries already appear in good reviews at The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. Instead I’ll pick up on a couple of the remarks John Self made when he read the novel in May:

[I]ts genesis [as a blog] shows: the chapters are short, like blogposts, and the consistency of voice and repetition of themes both emphasises and distracts the reader from the fact that there is not much directional plot.

I agree with that, but what I took away from the movement of Lars and W. through these short, repetitive chapters was the polar opposite of what John Self took away from it:

[W.] is relentlessly critical of Lars. … But the lightness of touch, the artfulness in the repetition, means that it sounds not like bullying but an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.

I’m with Michael Schapira when he writes that “[t]he levels of depravity and viciousness that W. is able to reach through his assessment of Lars and himself truly merit the exalted categories of cosmic, transcendental, and messianic,” and I’m with him on that point because of how the relationship between Lars and W. is warped by the novel lacking the occasional and continually unfolding nature o the blog. The blog, rather than the novel, leaves me feeling as if I’m reading something closer to “an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.” With a brief post here, a long post there, sometimes weeks without any posts and then a few posts in quick succession, the blog suggests that the animating sentiment behind its content is “let me tell you about something W. recently said.” Over time, then, the blog amounts to a piecemeal assemblage of W.’s character via Lars’ reports of the conversations he shares with W. The novel is the inverse. Running close to two hundred pages bound together between two covers, detailing a series of past events without a date stamp in sight, containing W.’s continual attacks against Lars in close proximity to one another, the novel suggests that the animating sentiment behind its content is “let me tell you some things W. said about me when we were together a while ago.” The novel involves much more definition of Lars’ character by W., whose assessments of Lars are later recorded by Lars himself for reasons only Lars can know.

I don’t mean to deny or downplay the artistry behind the content of the blog; I only mean to suggest that with its occasional posts, date-stamped and dispersed across time, each one a minor piece of a massive project that could potentially last as long as the author lives, the form of the blog serves that content differently, and to my mind less successfully, than the form of the novel serves similar content. Corralling the occasional and dispersed content of the blog into a more concentrated form, the novel forces W. to evolve from a petulant buffoon into a monomaniacal tyrant. This evolution in turn forces Lars’ chronicling of W. to evolve from intermittent acts of reportage into a sustained act of fascinated supplication — and the utter inexplicability of that act is what makes Spurious so funny and so despairing at the same time.

Unlike The Road, and unlike virtually any first-person narrative you might care to name, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea seems to provide a textbook example of strictly naturalist third-person omniscient narration. The narrative voice is plain and simple, lacking any obvious narratorial interjections as well as any stylistic peculiarities that would imply a narrative history for the controlling intelligence behind the narrative voice. And yet, there are moments at which it becomes clear that someone, some entity with a particular personality, narrates — or at least thinksThe Old Man and the Sea. A little under halfway into the story, it is remarked that the old man “knew no man was ever alone on the sea,” and the remark itself demonstrates the truth of what is remarked upon. Who makes the remark? Who is out there at sea with the old man, and close enough to him to know what he knows? Whose is the controlling intelligence of the narrative, of which the narrative voice is the intelligible mask?

The old man is clearly accompanied by an intelligence that is not only superior to his own intelligence but also to our intelligence as readers. This intelligence knows more than what the old man knows, and it knows more than what we know, and it knows that the old man sometimes knows more than we know, and it works here and there to bridge the gaps between our knowledge and his. It is right there, in fact, in the opening paragraph:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.

In translating the word salao into English, the controlling intelligence of the narrative presumes that we do not speak Spanish and endeavours to help us make up for our shortcomings. And it continues to undertake such endeavours throughout the narrative, either translating the old man’s Spanish thoughts into English or expressing his thoughts in English via free indirect discourse and then translating them into the original Spanish. For instance, when the old man experiences a cramp in his hand, we are told that “he thought of it as a calambre,” and later, when he decides to eat the dolphin he has caught, we are told that “he called it dorado.” In a similar vein, the controlling intelligence also explains things to us that we could not know unless we, too, were fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. The old man, for instance, “rowed over the part of the ocean that the fishermen called the great well because there was a sudden deep of seven hundred fathoms where all sorts of fish congregated,” and, later: “The tuna, the fishermen called all the fish of that species tuna and only distinguished among them by their proper names when they came to sell them or to trade them for baits, were down again.”

The controlling intelligence, however, does not stop at simply translating the old man’s thoughts. Crucially, it also recognises itself as a translator and thus demonstrates the self-awareness of a sentient being. When the old man says, in despair, “Ay,” the narrative voice informs us: “There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” Yet the failure of the controlling intelligence to translate certain phrases is not solely restricted to untranslatable phrases. Sometimes, it simply refuses to translate, as when we are told that the old man “thought of the Big Leagues, to him they were the Gran Ligas, and he knew that the Yankees of New York were playing the Tigres of Detroit.” Gran Ligas is translated but Tigres is not; and although Tigres may not require translation given that we can easily infer its meaning, there are other instances in which a translation is not forthcoming even when we cannot as easily infer the meaning of the Spanish words. For instance, the old man thinks to himself: “This is the second day now that I do not know the result of the juegos,” and then he thinks: “Un espuela de hueso,” without translation in either instance.

The controlling intelligence, then, discloses and withholds information at whim, which is to say, by extension, that far from being merely an external observer or recorder of events, it has a verifiable personality, and the shape of the narrative is to some extent a reflection of the rigours of that personality. Indeed, there are other instances in the novel in which its personality more clearly shines through the ostensible objectivity of the prose.

For instance, the prose contains a number of descriptive similes that seem to have come from someone other than the old man, that do not reflect what we know of his existing sentiments and his prior experiences, and that therefore raise the question of their source. We are told that the sail of the old man’s boat, furled around his mast, “looked like the flag of permanent defeat.” But who makes this comparative assessment? We are told as well that a number of enormous clouds in the sky were “white cumulus built like friendly piles of ice cream,” that the old man’s cramped hand “was as tight as the gripped claws of an eagle,” that “the fish’s eye looked as detached as the mirrors in a periscope or as a saint in a procession,” and that an enormous shark “came like a pig to the trough if a pig had a mouth so wide that you could put your head in it.” Who makes these comparative assessments? Who exactly determines the simile? Who possesses an experiential familiarity with “friendly piles of ice cream,” “the gripped claws of an eagle,” “the mirrors in a periscope,” “a saint in a procession,” and “a pig [at] the trough,” sufficient to determine that the clouds, the cramp, the fish’s eye, and the shark respectively resemble these things? And to whom do we attribute the prosaic lyricism of the moment at which the old man first catches a glimpse of his enormous fish? The fish, we are told, “jumped in the air, true gold in the last of the sun,” and “jumped again and again in the acrobatics of its fear,” but surely those words are far too poetic and indeed self-consciously literary to have originated in the simple mind of the old man himself?

So in addition to the personality that it reveals via the selection and translation of narrative details, the controlling intelligence also positions itself in relation to both the old man at the heart of the narrative and the reader of the narrative, and makes itself known as an entity in possession of greater knowledge than either one. Sometimes, in fact, this positioning and this possession of greater knowledge is made startlingly obvious, if not quite explicit. “He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility,” we are told of the old man, presumably by a wiser entity that has passed judgement on him, “[b]ut he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.” And, further, the controlling intelligence reveals that it knows more than the old man when it tells us, as he gazes up at the night sky, that “[h]e did not know the name of Rigel but he saw it,” and the controlling intelligence also reveals that it presumably knows better than the old man when it remarks upon his attempts to contort himself into a more tolerable sitting position in his cramped skiff. The new position, we are told, “actually was only somewhat less intolerable” than the last,” but the old man “thought of it as almost comfortable.” Thus, when we receive no clues as to the actual nature of the fish that steals the old man’s bait from his line — “It could have been a marlin or a broadbill or a shark,” he muses, entirely without interjection or clarification from the controlling intelligence via the narrative voice — we must acknowledge that we are being played, toyed with, as much as the old man toys with the fish he ultimately catches. Just as he unspools and then abruptly revokes the line with which he catches the fish, so the controlling intelligence of his narrative freely discloses and then abruptly withholds the details of the narrative itself.

The old man, we are told, “knew no man was ever alone on the sea.” By the end of the novel, we, as readers, also know as much — although, unlike the old man, we at least can ascertain the qualities of the entity in whose company he is not alone.

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