The best style is plain, terse, various, intense and strange.
Short plain words, short plain clauses and sentences, plenty of verbs with plain personal subjects, firm connectives to rivet it together, all galvanized against the rust of cliché. These build a prose which is sturdy and aerodynamic. But it needs imaginative fire to make it fly.
An artist frames a style to give calm sensuous form to an imagined pattern of delirious beauty. It is a way of speaking to the soul through the conduit of the senses.
Thought gives form to the chaos of reality. Language gives form to the chaos of thought. Style gives form to the chaos of language.
Artists make works of perfect taste by creating patterns which border on vulgarity.
Style is to language what beauty is to biology, superfluous but redemptive.
A poem is a small formal house that opens on to infinity.
Poets concentrate thought and feeling in a prolix form. And the style of their prolixity lends their verse its particular complexion. Pope’s is brittle and sententious, Wordsworth’s prosaically sublime, Tennyson’s melodious and plangent, Pound’s hectoring and sentimental.
In poetry it’s the purity of the gold that counts, not the amount of the alloy.
Poets must be sober to execute their elaborate dance, though they may look drunk as they are not just walking.
Shakespeare trips up our blame and outruns our praise. He contains almost all that’s worth saying and all the multifarious ways to say it. He is as noble as Antony, as various as Cleopatra, and as shrewd as Enobarbus. Bacon is a plodding Polonius to his quicksilver Hamlet.
Most poets are dead by forty, though they may continue to live and write for thirty years more. They keep on pumping, though the well has long gone dry. A prose writer’s prime lasts for a mere twenty years, customarily from when they’re thirty to fifty, and their golden age lasts for as short as seven. After that the mind starts to grind on its own gears. So brief an instant between two eternities in which to catch a timeless world.
2 Poetry and prose
A poem dances to the rhythm of song. Prose strides to the direction of thought. Prose, like an equation, must press on to its conclusion. Verse, like a melody, returns in each line to where it took off from.
Prose transports you to a destination, poetry is the journey.
The errant moon holds sway as the goddess of poetry, the stern sun as the cruel god of prose. The vocation of the poet is to enrapture, that of the prose-writer is to undeceive. ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.’
A poem, like Antaeus, springs from the soil. But prose should seem machine-tooled rather than hand-tooled, flawlessly engineered not flawlessly expressive, taut, exact and inhuman.
A poem makes a regular music, rhetoric regular structures. A grand piece of oratory is the poetry of syntax. It makes similar in form what is dissimilar in sense by repeating patterns of sounds, words and constructions.
Money is not a kind of poetry, as Stevens claimed. It is rather, as Emerson said, the archetype of prose, cool, colourless and unforgiving, which peels all its statements back to a stark and abstract grammar. Money dissolves illusions, as prose dissolves poetry.
The body is a sturdy prose. The face is an enchanting poetry.
3 The poetry of language
Poetry is the grand sacrament of language, which acts out a rite which each poem makes new.
A poem is speech most essential and most gratuitous. It shows us words showing us the world. It points inwards to the small perfections of form, and outwards to the immense world of thought.
Electric poetry restores to dulled words their buzzing magnetic pulse.
A poem is a measured ecstasy of language. It is a brief surge of life’s unbound erotic current transmitted through words.
Poetry is language operating at full pressure and highest pitch, overstraining all its sinews till they crack.
Poetry is distilled imagination decanted into language.
A poem is a choice lexicon classified according to the mad alphabet of uncanny imagination.
A poem sounds like a strange translation from a perfect tongue which the poet had not quite got the trick of, or like a fragment from some lost play.
Poets get almost as far as the truth. Then they fill the gap in between with blazing words, to disguise that they didn’t quite reach it.
4 The language of poetry
A poem is the manifestation of an intense vision of the world in words which match its intensity. It is speech imagined most passionately and composed most musically. A poem builds its frail house of sound to give a lodging to thoughts that will live throughout the ages. It orchestrates words as melody, and conceives the world as metaphor. The poet turns the riot of day to day life to an ordered magic, and the cacophony of day to day speech to an eloquent music.
A poem is above all else a piece of verbal music.
A poem must both mark out its unlikeness from the everyday language around it and knit patterns of similarity of the sounds and structures within it.
Poets make an art of strange conjunctions, which they brace with plaited bands of assonance.
Clumsy writers use clattering alliterations, artful ones arrange delicate traceries of assonance. Assonance is the more subtle sister of stiff and strutting alliteration. It is the difference between Shakespeare and Swinburne.
Great prose, like the Bible’s, is as impassioned as poetry and as stern as truth.
Prose must be meticulously patterned, as it has no predetermined form, and it must be packed with insights, as it lacks imagination.
Prose may be chiselled in stone, as in the Bible, or curiously carved in wood, as in the elizabethans, or etched on glass with a diamond pencil, as in Chesterfield or La Rochefoucauld, or wrought in steel, like a hard modern style, cold, tensile, polished and unnatural.
The best modern prose was written in the glazed textures and simple shapes of Mies’s buildings, Mondrian’s pictures and Brancusi’s carvings. Like modern building, it is a modular, horizontal art of clean transparent lines.
Most writing is not prose, as most building is not architecture.
No one wrote a purer white style or a more rank purple one than Wilde.
The world is radically discontinuous and heterogeneous. How then could we set out the truth but in unconnected bits? ‘Aphorisms,’ as Schlegel points out, ‘are the true form of the universal philosophy.’ Only jagged fragments are sharp enough to slice their way through the rough skin of the real, and it’s their fracturing that gives them their serrated edge.
An aphorism must assume much that the writer would be at a loss to explain, and imply much that it would be at a loss to explain. Like a proud lord, it would prefer to be misunderstood than to give an account of itself. And even those of the same author can hardly stand one another’s proximity without quarrelling.
Hard bright sentences attack like blitzkrieg. They strike with swiftness and focused force, and leave broad swathes of terrain encircled but unsubdued.
The aphorist acts like a lone and patient sniper, stealthy, precise and lethal. ‘Artillery is still too cumbersome, too complicated,’ Napoleon said. ‘There is yet more to simplify and retrench.’
An aphorism, though uniformed in its crisp impersonality and abstraction, still reeks of the anguished blood which it is too proud to show.
A maxim blows up like a little stick of dynamite when ignited by the reader’s insight and imagination.
An aphorism, Kraus says, ‘is either a half-truth or one-and-a-half-truths.’ It packs plausible fibs so tight that when it detonates its stunned students think they see the truth in a flash.
7 Poisoned pen
A maxim with no malice would taste as bland as a dish with no herbs. Kind sentences caress you, but it’s the cruel ones that stick. A poem, Goethe says, is ‘a kiss bestowed on the world.’ But an aphorism is a bite. And if you don’t feel its teeth then it most likely won’t leave any mark on you at all. A pungent saying secretes an acid which tries to dissolve the things of time before time can erase it. And it’s this acid that will grave it in your mind.
Aphorisms condense wisdom in pill form, though most of the pills prove to be poisoned.
Aphorisms are the fleas of literature, miniature, nimble, nipping and at times deadly.
A shrewd maxim depicts its victims so accurately, that they fail to make out their own likeness in it. It’s written for those who think that it doesn’t apply to them, so that they can apply it to those who don’t think at all, as satire is, as Swift said, a mirror, ‘wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.’
8 Style and matter
The realm of form stands aloof from the realm of truth. Good style is not an echo to the sense but its counterpoint. It’s only in kitsch that form tries to mimic its content. In a great work it masters it. It does not pretend to enact what it portrays. Its task is not to display the object more legibly, but to manifest its medium more shiningly.
Form and sense are not one, though imagination makes them seem so. It renders beauty as stark and strange as truth, and makes truth glow with a dark allure.
Nature blazes like a heraclitean fire of dynamic violence. Art is a parmenidean sphere of faultless equilibrium and repose. Art is as fierce as a warrior, and as stately as a priest acting out a decorous ceremony for its savage god.
Imagination is the most arbitrary thing in the world. The task of the artist is to find a form that makes it seem inevitable.
Architecture builds the music of space. Music composes the architecture of time. Writing designs the music and architecture of thought. Ideas are the melodies of writing, words are the instruments that play them.
Style is a cold moon. It has its own shape, but must borrow its light from the sun of its sense.
Thought is the food, style is the flavour. Ideas nourish you, but words give them zest.
Thought is the gunpowder, style is the match.
9 Natural style
Artifice is art’s nature. To write plainly calls for great artfulness. And to write unaffectedly, you have to forsake nature. ‘Simplicity,’ as Leonardo said, ‘is the height of sophistication.’ You reach spareness by an extravagance of effort.
Not one thing about writing is natural. If there were, it would be the lazy conventionality which phrases every thought in the first cliché that comes to mind. Set out to write artlessly or extempore, and what you make will be a hotchpotch of habit and fashion. But most readers think a style looks natural if it conforms to the unnatural catchphrases that they are used to hearing.
Only a seeming artist aims at seeming artless, though to look too artificial is a naive failure of artifice.
Art works by a conscious mastery of deliberate form, not by the momentary indulgence of unrehearsed feeling. The spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion breaks out not in poetry but in pop tunes and kitsch.
You grow spontaneous by long and weary assiduity. And you earn vivacity by dint of systematic drudgery. Thus Matisse by joyless toil made designs of incandescent vitality and delight.
10 Style and place
Craft your style out of the place that you imagine and the language that is given. A style is a time and place that has found its own shape in words. Those who build for the future frame the timeless contours of the age by battling its incidental idioms.
A flawless sentence flows like water and stands as stiff as stone.
Torrid zones such as the Mediterranean have fashioned a limpid formalism. Frosty cities like Paris or St Petersburg, which live on the interior, have sniffed out a clammy fevered psychology. The shivering north disclosed the sweating secrets of the heart. The warm nude south carved the cool essential forms.
Some writers have shaped a desert style, stark, remorseless and sparse, which lays bare the unadorned lines and planes of the form beneath. The Bible is a flinty wilderness of burning sublimities, Shakespeare a teeming woodland of boundless imagination.
Dialect in fiction ought to make a strange tribal poetry, not a documentary transcription.
The true originators shun historicism for anachronism. What do they care for archaeology or antiquarianism? Rapturous vision makes all things new. Art is indifferent to time and place. Kitsch is both topical and eclectic, localized and globalized. The historical sense benumbs the imagination. ‘All beautiful things,’ as Wilde says, ‘belong to the same age.’
11 The style of pride
Pride gives life to form, conceit kills it. Sincerity makes the style of conceit, artifice the style of pride. Presumption and habit pervert taste, pride and premeditation purge it. All that is great we owe to pride, all growth comes from its monsters.
Conceited people presume that all that they say is worth saying. The proud know that they must make good each word that they dare to use. Braggarts are as loquacious as the high-minded are laconic, who are too proud or too modest to explain.
Artists draw their energy from their pride, and their discipline and taste from their shame. Pride directs, shame corrects. Pride bestows imagination, force, exuberance and fruitfulness. Shame stamps its order on it, and lends it awareness and restraint. Audacity spurs you to write, and shame schools you to write well. Pride hates to seem conventional, and shame hates to seem eccentric. But when they couple they can breed fresh thoughts in foursquare bodies.
Guilt imagines all things, and fright observes all things. Guilt and fear dig up the truth, and pride shapes for it a form, which craft refines in complaisance to the inherited canons of taste.
Shy people write as a way to show off without needing to quit their room.
Life complicates but impoverishes. The task of the artist or thinker is to enrich the world by simplifying it. But how few of them find the clarity that lies concealed at the core of most questions.
Simplify your means, elevate your aims.
‘To be simple,’ Emerson says, ‘is to be great.’ Simplicity is the test of great thoughts. ‘When a thought is too feeble to be stated simply,’ Vauvenargues says, ‘it ought to be repudiated.’
In art simplest is strongest, as the Bible shows. In order to do justice to large thoughts, you have to keep to the smallest words. Surpassing writers have a power to simplify which finds the most spartan terms for the most sumptuous ideas. ‘Style,’ as Cocteau said, ‘is a simple way to say complicated things.’
The glory of english and the key to its poetry is the wealth of its one syllable words.
What is simple will last longest, since it will coast through time with least drag from the diurnal tides of fact or fashion.
The best writing is too simple to be natural.
What is truly simple looks unfathomably strange or unbearably dull to our eyes, dazzled as they are by all our intricate novelties.
Strong writers make their own strange phrasing of a thought seem the one shape that it could take.
A perfectly plain style must be perfectly executed, since it has no extrinsic adornments to fall back on.
13 Rich style
Even the most opulent style is a deliberate impoverishment of means. As Goethe points out, ‘Mastery is shown in limitation.’ In life luxury is bought with tremendous diligence, in art bareness is. There is, as Yeats wrote, ‘more enterprise in walking naked.’
Rich style is unnatural redundance and unnatural compression. It is at once rigorously sparing and impetuously abundant. Not one word more than is needed, but a whole book more than is wanted.
The energy of art both compacts and expands what it goes to work on. It is finely focused yet luminously suggestive.
14 Exactness and clarity
An exact style has the abstract rigour of a geometrical figure, not the representational veracity of a photograph. It crafts precise forms by disdaining slight details. It doesn’t deign to discuss the pennies that it owes to low fact. So it seems neat, since it has trimmed off the roughness of specifics. And it glides, because it meets such faint friction from turbulent actuality. It subjects the chaos of real life to the dispassionate canons of abstract form.
Art distils truth, which too strong an infusion of vapid fact would dilute. ‘Our life is frittered away by detail,’ Thoreau warns. ‘Simplify, simplify.’ Like all grand authors, the Lord, when he wrote his holy books, cared more for style than for the literal truth. ‘It is the nature of all greatness,’ Burke says, ‘not to be exact.’
Don’t search for the narrowly correct word. Search for the strange and uncontainable one. The right word points out what all the world knows. The wrong word may give us the key to a startling significance that no one would have had an inkling of. But you have to hunt diligently to find just the right wrong word. The exact word crimps your vision, the inappropriate one sets it free to wander. ‘The cistern contains, the fountain overflows,’ as Blake wrote.
Writers know that beauty looks like lucidity. So they polish their style so smooth that it seems translucent, but it’s in fact reflecting back its own opaque effulgence. Keep clarity to the surface, and let all below breed darkness and ambiguity, heaving monsters of the deep.
You have to keep to a few terse words, if you aim to reveal the vast essential. But we now go too fast and want too much to submit to brevity’s strenuous concentration. And writers have had to grow more and more voluminous, to catch up with our distracted hurry.
The great writers, as Renard points out, had few things to say and said them in few words. But most authors lack the patience to find out how little they have to say, since they have such ready means to say as much as they like. ‘Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.’ And the judgment takes place at every act of reading.
Most works, like most lives, would be the better for being shorter. We scribble too much, and live too long. ‘A big book,’ as Callimachus wrote, ‘is a big evil.’ How small a part of a great book is a great book. How small a part of a great man or woman is a great man or woman. And how short a part of a great life is a great life. ‘One could say of almost all literature that it is too long,’ as Renard remarked. But what author would not exempt from this stricture their own lapidary works?
16 Bad style
‘Plain living and high thinking are no more,’ as Wordsworth said. How could we write well, when we don’t wish to live well? We want to live luxuriously and hectically, so how could we write thoughtfully and unpretentiously?
A prose that has been scoured of stale phrases may well seem dull to readers who have grown used to their gloss and smoothness. We find it flat, if it doesn’t pop and fizz with newly bottled clichés. But writing that tries to match vernacular verve and liveliness dies soonest and smells worst.
People don’t just fail to avoid clichés, they go out of their way to find them, considering them the smartest form in which they could frame their thoughts.
Adjectives tint the plain face of beauty with cosmetics, adverbs scent it with a false fragrance. A healthy sentence ought to smell of nothing but its own clean form. Those who have little to say work up its effects with colourful qualifiers. They use sheaves of words as vain italics to lend emphasis to their hefty ones which they don’t trust to speak loud enough on their own.
Only authors who pay no heed at all to their style, and those, like Pater, who seem to pay no heed to anything else, have found how to write execrably.
Climaxes have their place in fireworks, not in art. Serious works of art, such as Shakespeare’s plays or Paradise Lost, fade out on a quiet note.
17 Cannibal style
Some writers, such as Babel, Céline or Houellebecq, have fashioned a cannibal style, brutal, lean and agile, at once savage and tender, like Pollock’s paintings or the Rite of Spring. As Dickinson wrote, they ‘deal their pretty words like blades.’
The artist needs all the traits of a cunning hunter, a fatal grace, a fierce elegance, cleanliness, stealth, poise and equanimity, patience to wait for the right moment, nimbleness when it comes. They share in addition a cold playfulness, a saving discipline, a high delight and insular pride.
With regard to timing, an artist, like a soldier, has to master five skills, frugality of time, which abridges, modulation of time, to shift velocity, exactitude and fitness, to time each thing right, deceit of time, to wrong-foot opposition, and an eventual submission to time, which knows how and when to end it.
Good prose, like champagne, ought to be both astringent and mildly intoxicating. Too little acid, and a style lacks tang, too much, and it will curdle. ‘Take it, and eat it up, and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.’
18 Styles of the self
We don’t write well, because we write as we speak or as others write. We try to express our own personality or to mimic their manner.
Style apprentices artists to wisdom and serenity. And yet they prove wise or serene in their style alone, which is the better self that they don’t care to become in life. Like Poe or Baudelaire, they are content to camp out in a grimy sty, while they build their gorgeous palace of art next door. An artist is glad to swap the thin fictions of life for the imaginative superabundance of art. A clean bright work must rise up on the filth and squalor of a life.
Only those who have no more promising stuff to work on would make it their aim to fashion a self. A saint aspires to self-denying subjectivity, an artist to an impersonal selfishness. Saints effect their miracles by faith, artists create theirs by form. Men and women are subjective but not singular, art is individual but abstract.
19 Style is not expression
The greatest artists, like expert criminals, leave the fewest fingerprints. It’s the bunglers whose smudge can be found all over the scene.
Artists shape their style by not being themselves and yet not belonging to anyone else. It transmits thought without trying to look like it, and gives voice to the vitality of a being who is not of flesh and blood.
Style is pose not personality. Only a maladroit style is ‘the man himself,’ a grab-bag of accidents, counterfeitings, lapses of taste, thefts, conformity and caprices, bad lessons badly learnt. Why do those who bleat that style is character write so unnaturally?
Scrupulous style is a calculated hypocrisy. ‘All profound things love masks,’ as Nietzsche said. The mind that discovers loves to hide. A creator must put on the mask of form to elude earnestness and tell the truth.
False style is an involuntary confession of our grave faults. True style is a deliberate atonement for our mean virtues.
We form our style out of what we most admire. But what we most admire is the whitewashed image of our own heart mimicking the tired idols of our time. And so we forge nothing but kitsch.
Good style does not come from within us. The writer must build it up slowly from without by painstaking daily application.
Literature is an ardent expression of estrangement, a mocking expression of wonder, a sane expression of delirium, a scrupulous expression of depravity, and a lucent expression of bewilderment. ‘The finest things,’ Gide notes, ‘are those that madness prompts and reason writes.’ The tale of every frenzied Ahab is told by sober Ishmael.
20 To reveal art and conceal the artist
Artists don’t aim to articulate who they are through their art. They aim to replace themselves with it. They bear no more resemblance to their work than the machine bears to its output. What’s the point of working, if what you make is no better than what you are? ‘To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim,’ as Wilde showed. But to conceal art and display the artist is the aim of kitsch. True artists flaunt their art in each line and tone. Vain performers strive to hide their art and make it look accessible, as a trick to glue their watchers’ gaze to their own shabby dramatics. Only bad painters spill their soul on the canvas.
An artist is a philistine who happens to have a knack for fabricating works of art. Their art grows less where they try to be more than that, as Delacroix and the romantics show, whose pictures and music were debauched by literature.
Art is a long vanishing, and artists put up a style to charm our eyes while they disappear. Style is the personality of art, which they build up by dismantling their own.
The world wants so much and so little from you, that you answer it most appropriately with cheap irony.
Irony doubles and disguises the self, imagination multiplies new ones. Irony is imagination’s adolescence. It weans you from the literal, the didactic, the earnest and the personal. It is the via negativa of imagination. Sterne is the preeminent ironic imaginer, as Shakespeare is the preeminent poetic imaginer.
Irony is the bee’s sting, imagination is the honey.
Self-knowledge strips you of all your decent self-deceits. So what do you have to clothe your naked soul with but a few rags of irony?
The most adroit ironists, like Flaubert, don’t tone down idiocies but pump them up, till they balloon and burst.
22 Against sincerity
Life deserves no more than your artifice, and art deserves no less. An artist who held to frankness would be like a sailor who hugged the shore. They must put out on the deep sea of dissembling. Insincerity, which others use as a licence to cheat, for an artist is a passport to imagine. The poet affirms everything, but believes nothing. Sincerity makes art small. ‘The truest poetry is the most feigning,’ as Shakespeare wrote. Candour would make a plausible actor, but an inept artist. Dickens, Emerson commented, was ‘too consummate an artist to have a thread of nature left.’ A writer such as Hemingway who sets a high premium on authenticity ends up acting like a smug poseur. The task of the artist is to ward off authenticity with artifice, sincerity with irony, and spontaneity with application.
Poets need not be sincere in their feelings, as painters need not be sincere about pigments and brushstrokes, but they must know how to use them.
There is a bad poet in each of us, and it comes out when a true poet would be lost for words.
23 The ironist exposed
If you use irony to deter others from understanding you, you must, like Hamlet, earn the permit to your irony by understanding yourself. Some people know how to mask their self, and yet don’t know the self which it’s their aim to mask.
My irony, like my sincerity, conceals me from myself, and, like my self-concealment, it reveals me to others. I use it on the assumption that I know my real self and that I’ll be able to obscure it from others. But instead I bare it to them and obscure it from my own sight. We erect a screen of irony to veil us, and don’t see that all our deformities are projected on it.
We try so hard to hide from others, that we lose ourselves. And though proud of our ability to see through all pretences, we end up hoodwinked by our own evasive postures. ‘We are so used to disguising ourselves from others,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘that in the end we disguise ourselves from ourselves.’
What literary private now isn’t kitted out in the regulation camouflage of world-weary irony? Trust in its cover, and you’ll wind up lost in a wilderness of appearances.
Some people spoil their talk by larding it with too much irony, as some cooks spoil a dish by adding too much salt.
An ironist is kin to those teasers who refuse to tell you a secret but love to keep reminding you that they have one.
24 The style of happiness
‘Only in work,’ wrote Delacroix, ‘have I felt altogether happy.’ Out of their pain artists make their work, and out of their work they make their happiness, and this sets them free to go on working. In its mellow autumn they harvest the fruits sown in less settled weather. ‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy,’ as the psalmist sings. Perhaps they learn by suffering, but they can make no use of what they’ve learnt till they’ve found their peace once more. Misery may school them, but what they glean from it is a lesson of delight.
Affliction leaves wounds, glad days leave works. Delight purges artists’ style, and perfects their disenchantment. Misery dins their ears like a pelting tempest, but in joy’s halcyon calm they can hear the soft voice of reason and inspiration. When they gain their happiness and slough off their illusions, they grow free to turn their back on the world’s work and do their own.
Some writers, like Beckett, have had their style scoured by desolation, and some, like Emerson, have had theirs burnished by happiness. Misery grinds your style smooth, and joy polishes it to a high sheen.
25 Satanic style
God is in earnest. Bright Lucifer is an ironist. That’s why he was hurled out of heaven, and how he survived.
Great characters have three traits, awareness, menace and vulnerability. They know their hearts so well, that they are a danger to themselves and others. Milton’s Satan is their prototype, a fiend redeemed by verbal fire and impassioned intellect.
The devil’s name in literature is legion. Most of its great characters are his avatars.
Irony is an aggressive game of cold power which is played by those who feel aggrieved that they have none.
Irony is the revenge of the witty and impotent on the dim and self-important.
Self-mockery is the sly magnanimity of the powerless. Mercy is the disdainful irony of the victor.
Some people use deference as Socrates used self-derision, to lure their dupes into a trap that will lay bare their fatuity more starkly. And some fools seem self-abasing, since they lack the wit to be anything but foolish.
26 The stupidity of story
The tale does not justify the telling, as Hardy claimed. It is the telling that must justify the tale, ‘the way to do a thing that shall make it undergo most doing,’ as Henry James phrased it. And yet we regard the artistry as gaudy and wasteful packaging which we rip off to unwrap the tale as fast as we can. A fiction is as great as it is greater than the story that it chronicles. And it means nothing at all if it means no more than that. Its grand characters outshine their fables as art outshines life, by illuminating its drift. Form and imagination are the pearls of writing, the tale is the dry twine on which they are beaded. Plot is not the soul of a great fiction. It is its dry bones.
The plot counts as little in literature as opinions count in speculation. Stories are the despair of art, as opinions are the desolation of thought. ‘The story,’ Henry James wrote, ‘is just the spoiled child of art.’
The tale belongs to mere entertainment, the treatment to high art. But the tale’s entertainment is the sole aspect of art that we care for.
Secondary writers know how to narrate a plot most effectually, since they have no rich ideas to deflect them from it. There are so few great short stories, because they have no time to do more than recite a piquant tale.
The true drama of a great novel is the drama of its author’s vision travailling to find the shining words to blaze forth its splendour. It’s what D. H. Lawrence calls the ‘struggle for verbal consciousness.’
27 The stupidity of invention
Good fictions draw their plots from life or else invent them. Great ones take them over readymade from previous fictions. Shakespeare was able to find fresh words for all things, because he was not distracted by the need to make up new stories. He sourced his plots from second-rate historians, chroniclers and romancers. Only his words are his own. But now storytellers have to surprise us with their clever plot twists, because they lack the capacity to reimagine their medium. ‘It is,’ Wilde says, ‘only the unimaginative who ever invent.’
Good writers amuse you by contriving highly-wrought tales. Great writers awe you by revealing the bare truth. They forgo the crude and evanescent shocks of plotting for the enduring marvel of fresh insights.
Why do we assume that an artist makes art by extracting the illustrative details from life? As if life, when purged of its quotidian slag, would leave a concentrate of unalloyed gold. A writer who knew how to delete would not, as Stevenson claimed, make an Iliad out of a morning paper. They would just report quotidian details in the random vein of a morning paper. Not even the fire of imagination burns at a high enough temperature to transmute banality’s refractory ore. Art does not select from life, but adds to it. It distorts and reshapes, intensifies and simplifies.
A god or a great literary character must be more or less insane and yet possess an irresistible discursive authority.
Falstaff is ebullient comic humanity made flesh and words. So how could he be anything but a monster of inhuman and selfish malignity?
Each supreme work of fiction must have room for at least one genius. But in most the sole one is the narrator, since the only kind of mastery that a writer knows or esteems is the one that can write. Balzac the commentator overbears his creatures. Austen has more wit than Elizabeth Bennett, and more spirit than Fanny Price. Ishmael’s diabolic eloquence surpasses Ahab’s diabolic questing. Dickens constructs not characters but colourfully tinted wind-up toys, which he jerks into mechanical spasms of life. Proust’s are dwarfed in the vast apartment of his sensibility. Dostoyevsky may be the one author who made his characters more capacious and articulate than his narrators. This may also be the reason why there have been no more than three great dramatists, Shakespeare, Molière and Ibsen.
30 The great characters are poets
The great imagined characters are not personalities but poets. Each is a fragment of the poetic mind, of which the poet is a yet lesser fragment. Writers don’t feel what a real lover, prince or madman feels. They take on these roles as masks to give voice to the thoughts that no lover, prince or madman would conceive in words that no lover, prince or madman would use. They fashion characters who have earned our ears.
Character makes itself by what it makes. The best ones, like the authors who give them life, are makers and not moral beings. They captivate us not by dint of what shaped them but by the works which they shape.
Great characters don’t have great motives. But they are greater than their motives. Real people are interesting for their knotty and recondite intents, grand characters for the eloquent sense that they make of their intolerable plight.
31 Shakespeare, master of character
Shakespeare gave birth to hundreds of poets, but not one lifelike personality, just as he wrote thousands of lines of great verse, but not one that would sound natural in day to day conversation. He doesn’t inhabit the souls of real types. He multiplies himself to make unlikely imaginers. With ungrudging egoism he makes all his figures prodigal imaginers like himself, endowing them with a matchless articulate force. Unlike the demiurge who made this maimed world, he shaped nothing that fell short of his best gifts. He is beyond compare, not because he knew how to portray a convincing cobbler or knight, but because he didn’t deign to bring on stage a persona who was unable to frame unsurpassed verse.
Shakespeare’s art grew to ripeness, not as his characters grew more like real people, but as they grew more like true poets, though the live poet of the Sonnets may be one of the least of them. Lear outshines Richard, not because he acts like a more authentic king, but because he speaks a more comprehensive poem.
Shakespeare’s dark masters, such as Edmund or Aaron, are adepts not of crime but of language. Like him, they are not ingenious but imaginative, great poets not great plotters. Their best achievement is their bright words, not their black devilry, as the real witchcraft of his tricksters, such as Prospero or Puck, is not their cheap sorcery but their rich poetry. They think and speak compellingly about it, but the mischief or magic that they do is showy and rudimentary.
Shakespeare doesn’t make us feel that his characters are real people. That’s the job of cheap movies.
32 Great characters are words
Personality becomes character where thought catches articulate fire. Like Cleopatra, all their other elements they give to baser life. The most solid and indelible characters are words, mere words. Both they and their framers have just as much power as the airy speech that they use. They are more than anything else a voice, an emanation of language. Their one accomplishment that can’t be shammed is their capacity to speak great words. The characters in a potboiler are memorable for what they do. The characters in a great fiction are memorable for what they say. Thus Conrad summed up the genius of Kurtz, ‘He had something to say. He said it.’
In life temperament and circumstance mould style. In art style gives birth to character.
33 Character is not personality
Art has characters, the world must make do with personalities, and character is to personality what art is to life. Character is imagination, personality is cliché. Character makes music. Personality makes noise, striking and vibrant, but random, meaningless and repetitious. A figure on a narrow stage may display more depth and breadth in three hours than most of us do in all our years. How little we cram into our long and hectic lives, yet how much they bring to light in a brief existence in words.
Those who have no life but on a flat page or stage lead the fullest life of all. Those who tenant the dream of fiction are able to wake to the truth, since they alone can bear its harsh luminosity.
A great character is unencumbered with the minutiae that comprise live men and women, their daily round, partialities and loathings, frowsy opinions, kin and credentials, or the patched-up identity that they hug. Writers don’t assiduously individualize their characters with the shallow tics, quirks and habits that distinguish a person of flesh and blood. They vest them with the vocal fire that gives them a brighter lustre. Yet we still seek to know them as we would a real man or woman. So we add these cheap traits back in, as if we were infusing them with more depth, since this is the sole kind of depth that we see in life.
Great writers give us few clues as to the physical appearance of their characters, not because they want to leave us free to visualize it, but because it is of no importance.