Literature Without Style

David Levine: Pieta.png
David Levine

What is literary style and why is it bound to change as the novel rapidly goes global?

“Style is the transformation the writer imposes on reality,” Proust tells us. We know what he means, perhaps, but the claim hardly helps us describe how a style is created or how it achieves its effects. In fact I can think of no adequate definition of style, if only because it is always diffuse throughout a text. It cannot be pinned down or wrapped up. All the same, we know at once when style is present, especially when it is extreme. Here are the opening lines of Henry Green’s novel Partygoing:

Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead at her feet. There it lay and Miss Fellowes looked up to where that pall of fog was twenty foot above and out of which it had fallen, turning over once. She bent down and took a wing then entered a tunnel in front of her, and this had DEPARTURES lit up over it, carrying her dead pigeon.

This is not standard English. The deixis, in particular the combination of dropped articles and unnecessary demonstratives, is wayward. There’s something unusual too in the syntax of the opening sentence of the second paragraph: “Miss Fellowes looked up to where that pall of fog was twenty foot above and…” And what? “And very thick,” you could say. Or, “and decided to pick up the pigeon.” But you can’t at this point say, “and out of which….” It’s as if two different syntactical structures had been imperfectly aligned around the word “and,” an effect not unlike the breaking up of visual planes in cubism. In general, there is an odd fragmenting of information, and a curious uncertainty about where sentences are going, “turning over once.”

It’s easy enough to see how this fragmentation links to what is being described: the loss of direction and orientation a fog causes, the idea of departures, both in train stations and in prose. But alongside the disorientation, the alliterative rhythms of the writing suggest purposefulness and solidity. Fog flat fell feet, the first sentence offers, and again, dense bird disturbed balustrade dead. The acoustic effect is intensified by the prevalence of monosyllables and the elimination of unstressed articles, or their substitution with a stressed demonstrative. As in nonsense poetry, if the sense seems wayward or uncertain, the forward movement is extremely confident. Here is another sentence playing the same tricks:

Headlights of cars above turning into a road as they swept round hooting swept their light above where she walked, illuminating lower branches of trees.

So a number of strategies interact in a pattern to create something homogeneous and distinct. You know immediately you are reading Henry Green. But this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Readers would not notice the text was “special” if they were not expecting something different. There must be a shared understanding of standard language and syntax, a range of more common usages that generally prevail. English readers in particular (as opposed to American) will notice that some of the effects here recall the working class dialects of northern England, in which articles are often dropped and one says “foot” rather than “feet” when indicating lengths. There’s an irony here since the book focuses on London’s aristocratic rich, while the voice recalls a working class north, distant and potentially critical. Yet the voice is not a straight imitation of dialect, since many other dialect elements are missing. In the end, it is not clear what Green’s style “means” or where exactly it’s coming from, but it does begin to establish, as it were, a position, a new and unusual space, within the known cultural setting of 1930s England.

Style, then, involves a meeting between arrangements inside the prose and expectations outside it. You can’t have a strong style without a community of readers able to recognize and appreciate its departures from the common usages they know. Much of what is surprising in Green’s text is inevitably lost in translation, in a language, for example, with different rules of deixis; some is lost simply by shifting the book across the Atlantic. Green’s work never travelled well.

Perhaps such an extreme example is too easy. Here is F. Scott Fitzgerald, introducing Gatsby’s old lover Daisy and her husband Tom in The Great Gatsby:

Why they came East I don’t know. They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together. This was a permanent move, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn’t believe it—I had no sight into Daisy’s heart but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.

At first glance this may seem fairly standard prose. But the Word spell-check does underline “unrestfully,” and in fact this word is not in Webster’s dictionary. It’s a classic case of a word gaining meaning by not being what you expected: They drifted here and there…how? restlessly, of course. But “restless” suggests an impulse to be up and doing. It can be a noble attribute. “Unrestfully” suggests not so much the impulse that drives Daisy and Tom to move—actually they only drift—but a lack of benefit from their languor. They drift without relaxing. Fitzgerald feels this mental state is sufficiently special to require a neologism to point it up.


But a style requires a combination of interacting elements. What do we have? Well, a reiterated absence of knowledge or meaning: “I don’t know.” “No particular reason.” “I didn’t believe.” “I had no sight into Daisy’s heart.” This lack of knowledge might connect up with the repetition of the verb “drift.” One doesn’t know where to go, so one drifts. Then at the heart of the paragraph is one affirmation of certainty—“This was a permanent move”—but the claim is undermined by a blatant oxymoron, made possible by the double meaning of move: “move house” or just movement. To read a few more pages of The Great Gatsby would alert us to the fact that the book is full of oxymorons—ferocious indifference, magnanimous scorn, inessential houses—suggesting a general state of precariousness.

Perhaps related to the oxymoron, “permanent move,” is the other oddity in this paragraph: “wherever people played polo and were rich together.” Standard usage has people being happy together, or sad together: emotional states. Alternatively partners can get rich together, or get stoned together: progressive developments. But this confusion of an emotional state with a generous bank balance “were rich together” is emblematic of everything that makes Gatsby’s elegant world so oddly fragile, as if it existed only in the magic of words that somehow stick together despite their contradictory energies.

As with Henry Green, much of this is lost when Fitzgerald’s text leaves the culture it was written in and travels around the world in other languages. I’ve looked at five Italian translations. None is able to convey “unrestfully,” “permanent move,” or “get rich together.” It’s surprising how much trouble they have too with an “irrecover¬able football game,” a longing for an unrepeatable past that connects Tom with Gatsby and measures the distance between them: Gatsby dreams of reliving love, Tom of sporting glory. And as the separate stylistic devices disappear in translation, so does the pattern that they combined to sustain; losing the pattern one inevitably loses the peculiar position the text created for itself within its culture of origin and hence its special relationship with readers. In translation, stripped of its style, Gatsby really doesn’t seem a very remarkable performance.

What I’m getting at is that style is predicated on a strict relation to a specific readership and the more that readership is diluted or extended, particularly if it includes foreign-language readers, the more difficult it is for a text of any stylistic density to be successful. In the past, a work of literature would establish a reputation in its culture of origin, first among critics who were presumably equipped to appreciate it, then among the larger public; only later, sometimes many years later, would it perhaps be translated by those cosmopolitan literati who wished to make it known in another country. Now, on the contrary, everything is immediate; the work of a major established author is pronounced a masterpiece the day it is published; translations, even of less celebrated authors like myself, are often prepared for simultaneous publication in a score of countries. In the long run, whether through a growing awareness of the situation on the part of writers, or simply by a process of natural selection, it seems inevitable that style will align with what can be readily translated more or less into multiple languages and cultural settings, or into a readily intelligible international idiom.

In this regard let me mention again two recent novels at once very literary and evidently global in their aspirations: Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century, and this year’s Booker winner, The Luminaries, by the New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton. Neuman, Argentinian, but resident in Spain, sets his work in the early part of the nineteenth century somewhere in Germany (neither date nor place are exactly defined), where a mysterious traveler falls to frequenting the cultural salon of a rich family and deploys his wit to seduce a local and highly intellectual beauty. The register is high, the lexical range considerable, the style extravagantly articulated and playfully pompous; but the knowledge it asks of its reader is all book knowledge, general history, a vague awareness of what a high prose style once was. There is no appeal to anything writer and reader know and share in the here and now, though we do get some softly eroticized, politically correct enthusiasm for internationalism. This is what our mysterious traveler talks to his beloved about when they are at last between the sheets:


How can we speak about free trade, Hans pronounced as he lay next to Sophie, of a customs union and all that implies, without considering a free exchange of literature? We should be translating as many foreign books as possible, publishing them, reclaiming the literature of other countries and taking it to the classroom! That’s what I told Brockhaus. And what did he say? Sophie asked, nibbling his nipple. Hans shrugged and stroked her back: He told me, yes, all in good time, and not to get agitated. But in such exchanges, said Sophie, it’s important that the more powerful countries don’t impose their literature on everyone else, don’t you think? Absolutely, replied Hans, plunging his hand between Sophie’s buttocks, and besides, powerful countries have a lot to learn from smaller countries which are usually more open and curious, that is to say more knowledgeable. You’re the curious one! Sophie sighed, allowing Hans’s probing finger in and lying back. That, Hans grinned, must be because you’re so open and you know what’s what.

Reviewing The Luminaries, an eight-hundred-page mystery story set in 1860s New Zealand, Catton’s compatriot C. K. Stead remarks on its “chintzy,” “upholstered” pastiche of the nineteenth-century novel and adds:

Every episode has its setting, decor, clothing, its period bric-a-brac, its slightly formal but often sharp dialogue. This is costume drama. It is conventional fiction but with the attention to fact and connection that the (cross-checking and online research) facilities of the modern computer permit. That apart, only the author’s cultural sensitivity in dealing with Maori and Chinese characters, and an occasional anachronistic word or phrase in the dialogue (“paranoid”, “serendipitous”) locate authorship in the present.

In general terms this would also be an appropriate description of Neuman’s book. Removing us from the present, pastiching what the modern ear assumes the eloquence of the past to have been, the writer can appear “stylish” without appealing to anything in his readership’s immediate experience. Catton’s prose has been likened to that of Dickens in The Pickwick Papers. But for readers who followed Pickwick in the 1830s, the book was drenched in references to the world they shared and the language itself was not so far away from what could be heard and read every day. If one translates Dickens into another language, an enormous amount is lost; even for the Londoner reading him today, half the references mean nothing. But Neuman’s and Catton’s novels have dispensed in advance with this intense engagement with a local or national readership and seem set to lose very little as they move around the world in different languages. It is in this regard alone that one has to disagree with Stead. Authorship is located in the present exactly insofar as its appeal—as in a Hollywood costume drama or indeed an extravagant computer game—is to well-established, globally shared tropes and not to any real contact with the specificity of a here and now.

Such is the future of literature and literary style in a global age: historical novels, fantasy, vast international conspiracies, works that visit and revisit the places a world culture has made us all familiar with; in short an idea of literature that may give pleasure but rarely excites at the linguistic level, rarely threatens, electrifies, reminds us of, and simultaneously undermines the way we make up the world in our own language. Perhaps it is this development that has made me weary with so much contemporary fiction. In particular I have started reading poetry again. There indeed things can still happen with the language, and writers are still allowed to produce texts that are untranslatable and for the most part unprofitable.

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