The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Sunday, August 13, 2006


I only saw Foss [a famous stagecoach driver] once, though, strange as it may sound, I have twice talked with him. He lives out of Calistoga, at a ranch called Fossville, One evening, after he was long gone home, I dropped into Cheeseborough's, and was asked if I should like to speak with Mr. Foss. Supposing that the interview was impossible, and that I was merely called upon to subscribe the general sentiment, I boldly answered "Yes." Next moment, I had one instrument at my ear, another at my mouth, and found myself, with nothing in the world to say, conversing with a man several miles off among desolate hills. Foss rapidly and somewhat plaintively brought the conversation to an end; and he returned to his night's grog at Fossville, while I strolled forth again on Calistoga high street. But it was an odd thing that here, on what we are accustomed to consider the very skirts of civilisation, I should have used the telephone for the first time in my civilised career. So it goes in these young countries; telephones, and telegraphs, and newspapers, and advertisements running far ahead among the Indians and the grizzly bears.


RLS is writing about the prevalence of forest fires in the California mountains:

I have an interest of my own in these forest fires, for I came so near to lynching on one occasion, that a braver man might have retained a thrill from the experience. I wished to be certain whether it was the moss, that quaint funereal ornament of Californian forests, which blazed up so rapidly when the flame first touched the tree. I suppose I must have been under the influence of Satan, for instead of plucking off a piece for my experiment, what should I do but walk up to a great pine-tree in a portion of the wood which had escaped so much as scorching, strike a match, and apply the flame gingerly to one of the tassels. The tree went off simply like a rocket; in three seconds it was a roaring pillar of fire. Close by I could hear the shouts of those who were at work combating the original conflagration. I could see the waggon that had brought them, tied to a live oak in a piece of open; I could even catch the flash of an axe as it swung up through the underwood into the sunlight. Had anyone observed the result of my experiment my neck was literally not worth a pinch of snuff; after a few minutes of passionate expostulation I should have been run up to a convenient bough.

"To die for faction is a common evil;
But to be hanged for nonsense is the devil."

I have run repeatedly, but never as I ran that day. At night I went out of town, and there was my own particular fire, quite distinct from the other, and burning as I thought with even greater vigour.


I've recently finished an intermittently brilliant (and rather expensive, for the size of it) book called The Writer's Voice by Al Alvarez. He manages to crystallise something I've been mulling over for the past couple of years, namely that the worth of a piece of writing lies ultimately in what he calls 'voice', the sense of what is implied, the tone, the sense of what lies in between and underneath the words used, in the same way that music is what takes place between the notes. Writing that doesn't have that depth, that level of perception and control, is no longer of any interest to me. But you have to be awake to it, and I don't think I was, prior to beginning to read poetry in 2003 - with poetry, each word has to be in the right place in order for the whole to work. When you begin to apply that level of focus to prose, in which I think one can get away with a lot more, it begins to reveal things you weren't previously aware of. That's been my experience, anyhow. Alvarez goes so far as to say:

"In order to acquire facts efficiently, scan a synopsis, or gut a newspaper, you have to master the art of reading diagonally. Real literature is about something else entirely and it's immune to speed-reading. That is, it's not about information, although you may gather information along the way. It's not even about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures. Imaginative literature is about listening to a voice. When you read a novel the voice is telling you a story; when you read a poem it's usually talking about what its owner [owner?] is feeling; but neither the medium nor the message is the point. The point is that the voice is unlike any other voice you have ever heard and it is speaking directly to you, communing with you in private, right in your ear, and in its own distinctive way [...] an undeniable presence in your head, and still very much alive, no matter how long ago the words were spoken."

That thing about the secondary importance of storytelling seems radical to me. I can't remember who it was - possibly Somerset Maugham - who said something along the lines of, one has to be slightly immature to care whether or not Tom will fall for Daisy and vice versa. What I take from that is the essential silliness and vulgarity of the machinery of plot, the sense of things working out so, just because the author has determined they will. Stephen King describes plot as a jack-hammer - but then he also also asserts the primary importance of story. Of the novels in my top ten, plot only has a significant role to play in two of them; and in Kidnapped, the heart of the novel, what Henry James called the "really excellent" chapters of the flight in the heather, is pure narrative; in The Day of the Owl, the plot is merely a skeleton on which to hang the exploration of the mafia mentality - whether or not Colasberna's killer will be caught quickly becomes a moot and relatively minor point.

I'm not sure if I'd go so far as to say voice is the single most important, or significant thing in any novel, but I do agree that no novel can reach the summit of achievement without it. One simply isn't convinced, otherwise.

A final note on this - Alvarez distinguishes between style and voice, noting that one can get in the way of the other.


Alvarez quotes Samuel Beckett's phrase for the hard work of getting the right words down on paper: "balls-aching". Which ties in neatly with a quote from RLS, from a letter to his mother, in fact, during the writing of The Silverado Squatters: "I work, work away, and get nothing or but little done: it is slow, slow, slow: but I sit from four to five hours at it, and read all the rest of the time from Hazlitt."


At 18 August 2006 at 15:22 , Blogger Joe said...

Poetry is like jazz against literature's classical symphony (or pop song for some bestsellers), or alike to magic against science. As one character in Gaiman's Books of Magic put it, both are right but different; science and reason explains and explores the universe in a tangible manner while magic speaks directly to the universe in a manner it cannot ignore. So with the best poetry, I feel; a few words and lines can sometimes achieve a visualisation and empathy of emotions for me a chapter of prose cannot. Although of course some of the best prose writers can create descriptive passages which are alike to poetry.

Constantly amazes me how moving and changing a few words in a few lines can create entirely different meanings, images and thoughts in the reader. The paradimatic and syntagmatic (choice and combination) components of any text, from poem to film can alter so much from such little changes, which a good artist in any medium knows on both the intellectual scale (this word fits best here, this lighting system works best for this shot) but must also know on the emotional level (this feels right).

And that's before the reader's interpretation of the text; the encoded or preferred reading intended by the author is not necessarily what each reader will take from it. Especially if the buggers have been reading a lot of poetry :-). And such readings will change over time so that older texts will be interpreted in perhaps a totally different manner. It's all good though, it all makes people think; as the old song put it 'feed your head'.

At 3 September 2006 at 19:17 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Interesting points about plot and story and voice. Ursula le Guin always says she is bad at plots - but her books are wonderful, and have a very distinct voice, or perhaps tone. In a way one should cease to notice the plot whilst reading, because one has come to care about the characters. Though sometimes the outcome of the story brings one up short, for example the ending of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which apart from being sad, didn't feel right or ring true. Plot to me implies something almost mechanical, whereas story implies flow and rightness and inevitability.

My analogy for the difference between poetry and novels would be that poetry is like a painting, and a novel is like a film, only one where you can see the thoughts of the characters (if it's the sort of novel that has an omniscient author).

At 4 September 2006 at 22:33 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Apparently Borges has a story something along the lines of: a contemporary writer writes a version of Don Quixote, only upon going back to compare his work with the original, he finds he's written the Quixote. It's the same book, word for word, except that because it's been written hundreds of years later, it reads in a totally different way.


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