Friday, 6 August 2010

Are novels poetry?

(There seems to be an unwritten etiquette about keeping blog postings quite short. Well, in this I'm violating it, but don’t know where else to put it. Apologies if it’s too much to read on a screen.)

Somewhere recently I read a mention of a comment by Leavis (FR Leavis, critic, fl. 1930s-50s) that a particular novel by, I think, Dickens, was truly or genuinely poetic. I should look at Leavis to see what he meant by ‘poetic’, though probably he wouldn’t have spelled it out, being dead set against definition and theory.

But I wonder if what he meant is anything like what occurred to me a few weeks ago in reading, finally, the last three novels in Anthony Powell’s sequence of twelve, A Dance to the Music of Time. More importantly, irrespective of Leavis, are novels a sort of poetry, or like poetry, or something quite different? (And thus, I suppose, is ‘literature’ essentially one sort of thing or several?)

Novels create and present (two verbs but one process) their own ‘world’, an interlinked set of characters, situations, times, places, relationships and so on. That’s perhaps the most obvious thing you might say about fiction, and not the first thing you’d say about poetry where you’d be more likely to point to the prominence of patterned form -- rhyme, metre, prosody, structure, patterns of images etc -- and perhaps the expression or activation of feeling.

But in this bout of novel-reading what struck me more than once was a quite different awareness, to do with the sort of speech act a novel was. Yes, a world was being created by the narration but I found myself noticing rather what the author was doing rather than saying, which was, as if were, miming narration, and speculation, reflection, comment, interpretation, evaluation and so on.

Let me try to explain. Here’s a typical passage:

BAGSHAW WAS AT ONCE ATTENTIVE to the idea of an American biographer of X. Trapnel seeking an interview with himself. In fact he pressed for a meeting to hear a fuller account of Gwinnett's needs. Television had made him more prolix than ever on the line. One was also increasingly aware that he was no longer Books-do-furnish-a-room Bagshaw of ancient days, but Lindsay Bagshaw, the Television 'personality', no towering magnate of that order, but, if only a minor scion, fully conscious of inspired status. He suggested a visit to his own house, something never before put forward. In the past, a pub would always have been proposed. Bagshaw himself was a little sheepish about the change. Complacent, he was also a trifle cowed. He attempted explanation.
'I like to get back as early as possible after work. May prefers that. There's always a lot to do at home.'
The idea of Bagshaw deferring, in this manner, to domesticity, owning, even renting, a house was an altogether unfamiliar one. In early life, married or single, his quarters had been kept secret. They were in a sense his only secret, everyone always knowing about his love affairs, political standpoint, prospects of changing his job, ups and downs of health. Where he lived was another matter. That was not revealed.

Now what would normally impress me about such a piece of writing, in so far as I surfaced at all from my immersion in the ‘world’, was how real, convincing, detailed and plausibly interconnected that world was, despite being nothing but imagination. (And in the case of a world sustained over twelve volumes and some seventy fictional years the achievement is the more incredible.)

The passage is the start of a chapter (chapter 4 of Temporary Kings); the end of the previous one was about an unconnected incident in a bus station. Yet I immediately latch onto the references: Bagshaw, his television career, his marriage to May and his bohemian past; Trapnel; Gwinnett, the American biographer: I know so much about this world that even casual references can be picked up. Yet the whole thing’s made up; nothing in it is true, though we compulsively read on for what we can’t help taking as further information, receiving it as knowledge of the truth despite our all the time knowing perfectly well that’s it’s fiction.

In so far as I pause to wonder, that’s what I normally wonder at, the achievement of that vast coherent invented world. On this reading though, in the perspective I'd for some reason fallen into, albeit intermittently, the striking thing was not the density and extent of the world or its purely invented nature but the fakeness of the operation being conducted, its character as charade or shadow play. The author is performing an elaborate mime of informing, devoid of any actual referent or substance, yielding nothing in the way of knowledge, generating not a jot of informedness in the reader. If he was really narrating I could go and check on his report but in this case it’s all fake. There’s nothing real to check on apart from other parts of the narration.

So the possibility strikes me that it’s exactly that that we should be experiencing in a novel, attending, with at least part of our consciousness, precisely to the pretend nature of its moves; and that it’s in affording that sort of experience that a novel can be poetry.

If that’s right, it seems there are two levels at which one might read in that way. One registers what the speaker or utterer is doing, the other what the language is doing.

The appropriate responses in the first mode would be something like, ‘Look, he’s pretending to tell us about something that happened,’ or ‘Now he’s doing an imitation of reporting someone’s speech’ or ‘This is like someone taking something someone’s reported to have done and commenting on what it might have meant’ -- all wonderfully realistic even though nothing’s behind it. It’s a telling-like procedure as a demonstration of telling, and it never -- no matter how many volumes it fills -- turns into the real thing. It goes through the motions but the machine isn’t connected. (Wittgenstein’s ‘language idling’ like a motor, or ‘playing’?)

And these are often speech acts depending on speech acts, references referring to previous references referring to previous ones etc. etc., and not one of them anchored to anything actual in the real world (except entities like biographers and television and marriages) but only to virtual entities that are artefacts of thought and language rather than direct reports from reality.

But what the text might also be presenting -- the second mode -- is language doing its stuff.

The representation that we might be being invited to wonder at and enjoy might be language’s formal operations: the prolixity, catholicity and flexibility of its summonings and combinings, in syntax and prosody, across discursive domains -- every evocation of some sense or meaning the obverse of some formal balletic move. ‘There’s that simple declarative clause telling us something very specific that happened, but now look, here comes a clause in a different mood containing the more typical way things went, and next there’s an evocation of X by means of .... etc.’

Thus, for example:

Bagshaw’s attentiveness to the idea of an interview and his pressing for a meeting suggests but doesn’t confirm his talking to the narrator. But where and how is inserted only with ‘prolix on the line’, that casually added adverbial, specifying ’telephone’, in a sentence that’s about something quite different, the fact that television’s made him so -- and that has no bearing on the rest of the episode, except in being connected thematically to the next bit, his television personality, which again has nothing to do with the surprise of the proposal to meet at his house, and is presumably being ‘laid down’ as a marker that can, perhaps much later, be referred to.

Back to the simple past tense for a speech: ‘he suggested’... Verb, that could equally have been done with a noun.
a visit’...: Noun, that could equally have been done with a verb.

‘something never before put forward’ -- passive, somewhat strangely as it could mean never in the history of the world. Combination of the formal concision of that passive clause linked to the main by apposition (at least that’s what it was called at school) and not by a ‘which was’ or similar with a teacher’s-‘bad-English’ vagueness of reference: is the something the suggestion or the visit?

In the past, a pub would always have been proposed’: ‘in the past’ belongs to a temporal thread that has already occurred three times and maintains it in consciousness: working backwards, never before -- ancient days -- than ever -- had made.

That passive again.

Proposed = suggested? elegant variation? No, because he’s now less assertive -- indeed sheepish and cowed.

Now, this bit I like very much:
Bagshaw himself was a little sheepish about the change. Complacent, he was also a trifle cowed. He attempted explanation.

Not sure why himself: to reintroduce him as a human agent after those passives suggesting the bringing about of actions as if by impersonal forces? Now an ordinary feeble and vulnerable man?

a little, a trifle
sheep, cow.

Simple statements in one-clause sentences, three of them. Direct, though softened by those two down-playing adverbials; but still not simple and direct as in informal speech: there’s the formality (if that’s the term -- as if elevating these minor goings on in the private sphere to the status of history, making authoritative summation appropriate) of complacent, again that appositional construction instead of something wordier.

Complacent, he was also a trifle cowed: co- co-; 3 syllables, 1.

Those two sentences, as if expressing care to get the precise terms -- and diffident about claiming too much. Then, bang! the finality of that 3-word statement, with, again, the formality, this time of noun-for-verbal-construction: He attempted explanation.

I'll leave it there. Is something like that what it means for a novel to be ‘poetic’?

I don’t know -- am I saying anything more than that novels (some at least) repay attention to style? meaning the choices of syntax, lexis, sentence length, sound, prosody? Well, I wanted to say something more by that idea of awareness of ‘language doing its stuff’, but I don’t feel I’ve caught what I was after in that illustration.

My exegsis, I realise, would make the poeticness of a novel a matter largely of what goes on at the level of page, paragraph, sentence, clause, word -- whereas surely it has to be partly about what goes on at a larger scale. But I think I'm right that poetry directs attention with particular intensity onto language; that it can indeed be seen as being about language. Some poetry, anyway.

May come back to it.

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