Monday, February 10, 2014

The Significantly Insignificant

A few posts back, I mentioned my reentry into Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, the opening volume of his modernist milestone, In Search of Lost Time.  It had been probably been six or seven years since my last read.  At any rate, I had suggested that, as soon as I finished reading it "in a few weeks," I'd write about setting and description--one of Proust's strengths--and how his writing is a superb example of how great detail can bring fiction to life.  The bad news is that I've not come close to finishing Swann's Way yet.  The good news is also that I've not finished Swann's Way yet, so I'm still savoring Proust's incredible subtlety and penetration in revealing to us not only the details of our surroundings in a way that makes us feel and smell and hear with a freshness that's new, yet comforting in its familiarity, but also in how he peels back the frailest of layers of the depths of what makes us human.  His writing brings the same deep warmth as the tiniest sip, rolled on the tongue, of a wonderful single malt, or a fresh cigar smoked in perfect surroundings, or--name your own sensual delight.

So, as I smile and close the book (figuratively, since it's on the Kindle app on my iPad) and lean back and dream and envy the way Proust has opened the world of ourselves to us, I recall another book I've been savoring these days, James Wood's How Fiction Works.  Wood makes his delightful and enlightening way through the craft elements of fiction and plumbs them with a subtlety and insight beyond most such books I've read.  Starting with POV and his rendering of "free indirect" style, through character, which he boldly notes as the single most difficult task in the craft of fiction, to setting and description (and much more.)  He pegs the deeper use of setting and description--what he terms a "commitment to noticing" or "thisness"--to Flaubert, as most do, and he then goes on to quote the sublime (Chekov and Mann and Bellow) and the flabby (sorry, John Updike in one of his later works!)  And, full circle, back to Proust, Wood says that "Literature makes of us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life."

But--there's always a but--Wood points out that the writer must use her details to exacting purpose, to accomplish multiple tasks of characterization and action and temporization, rather than simply listing, dossier-like, a string of items, or, worse yet, a set expository references.  One of the keys, then, he notes, is the powerful use of the seemingly irrelevant, or better, the insignificant, in a way that makes it, in the context of the fictional dream, utterly significant.  

And so, Proust, connecting and warming us with so much of insignificance:

"They were rooms of that country order which…enchants us with the countless odours emanating from the virtues, wisdoms, habits, a whole secret system of life, invisible, superabundant and profoundly moral, which their atmosphere holds in solution; smells natural enough indeed, and weather-tinted like those of the neighboring countryside, but already humanized, domesticated, snug, an exquisite, limpid jelly skillfully blended from all the fruits of the year which have left the orchard for the store-room, smells changing with the season, but plenishing and homely, offsetting the sharpness of hoarfrost with the sweetness of warm bread, smells lazy and punctual as a village clock, roving and settled, heedless and provident, linen smells, morning smells, pious smells, rejoicing in a peace which brings only additional anxiety, and in a prosaicness which serves as a deep reservoir of poetry to the stranger who passes though their midst without having lived among them.  The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent, that I never went into them without a greedy anticipation."


(Note, professional modernist in a 3000 page series of novels: do not try this at home.  But you get the point, right?)

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