Isaac Babel was certainly right when he summarised the power of great prose. The only problem is, from the writer's perspective, where exactly it is that that 'period' should go.
I'm working on a piece of writing at the moment and am starting to go a bit crazy with it. It is not helped by a book on editing I am also reading. This is a bad match. It makes me feel like every word I put down has to be in its final, finished, polished place, which kills the creativity and also means I am concentrating on the wrong thing for a first draft. The process of actually writing is, for me, mediative and in many ways transcendental - sometimes I feel like I have floated free of my body all together. Editing, on the other hand, is the refining, the afterwork (mostly) - it is a different craft, albeit an essential one for a writer. But it certainly anchors you firmly in the world of the critical - not something you want when your work is still uncertain.
To help me - and you, if you are perhaps also struggling with the written (well, the typed) word - I have constructed a list of what I love in the books I have recently read. This is sort of like the Sacred Sunday Extracts, except that it is a little more like the Cloudy Thursday Commentary.
THE CORRECTIONS - Jonathan Franzen
The EPICNESS. He boldly and insightfully satirises all of modern America, while keeping it real, man, and not losing the tender beats of the human heart. Also, conversely, he concentrates on the microcosm of family life and the difficulties of individual relationships. I feel like its a very 'masculine' book in the sense of its verbal stamina - keep a thesaurus handy and book the week off work, it's over 600 pages long. However, sentences like, '...dry-chafing the head of his erection...' were certainly grotesque highlights.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES - Jeffrey Eugenides
Everything about this novel is great. The collective narraters recounting the tragic mass suicides of the sisters across the street is enough to make you rethink your primary school years. It's childhood nostalgia manages to be totally specific to one town at one time and what it was like to grow up there, while contradictorily actively asking you to recount your own school years. The language is florid but perceptive - the almost teen-diary-angst metaphors work because of the cutting, yet always sensitively told story of the doomed Lisbon sisters. This is a great inspirational piece, with a big heart, an eye for detail and an ability not to look away when things get rough.
BONJOUR TRISTESSE - Francoise Sagan
I know I go on about this all the time, but it really is supreme. Brief and cutting prose really cuts out all the crap when it comes to the difficulties of human relationships. In true Hemmingwayian fashion, there is not a word out of place and not one extra that doesn't fulfil a function. Beautiful images and metaphors are far and in-between so when they emerge they hold all the more power. Opposite in some ways to The Virgin Suicides, Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness) often doesn't show the main event, again, empowering its simple sentences. A minimalist triumph.
THE BELL JAR - Sylvia Plath
In lines with the rules of Modernist literature, Plath's prose, like Sagan's, too is sparse. It's literalism is heart-breaking in its exposition of a young woman with depression. Made all the more tragic by its highly autobiographical nature. However, it's sense of hope and dry humour are often ignored, and they are the qualities that make they such an enduringly readable work.
THE GREAT GATSBY - F. Scott Fitzgerald
When I first read this I felt like it was overrated. On closer inspection, I can see that I missed much of its depth and subtly. Written with the hindsight of the narrater, a perpetual sense of the impending doom of its characters pervades the narrative until its final (SPOILER ALERT!!), doom-like ending. The plot of its key characters is also a microcosm of America at the time (and most capitalist countries at most times) but never slips over into preaching (something I think The Corrections has a tendency to do) due to the intimacy which Fitzgerald creates between us and his characters. Beautiful, double-edged metaphors abound. Despite its age (first published in 1926) Gatsby is as modern and readable as if it was written now, as an exposition of the wealthy in 20's America. Supreme.
THE OUTSIDER - Albert Camus
On the dust jacket William Boyd states that this is 'one of those books that marks a reader's life indelibly.' And how right he is. Often when I type a sentence, I pause and briefly think, 'WWCD? - What Would Camus Do?' The brilliance of this book is in what is read between the lines - our narrator, Meursault describes his actions and what happens to him with pretty much no commentary on how it makes him feel - which is key. It is why he is 'The Outsider' or L'Etranger as it was first published as - due to his inability to feel. The opening sentence, 'Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know,' pretty much tells you all you need to know about this bloke - or so you think! A mastery in subjectivity and modernity, this is a book that will leave an impression, as William Boyd says, 'indelibly.'
So here, slightly off-topic is a song by Joanna Newsom that mentions Camus. Yeah ... end on a good quote or whatever...
OK - that's all for now. I gotta go freak out over some fullstops ... < AAAHH!!!!!