A good book is hard to find. So hard, in fact, I have taken to re-reading all the good books I have read once before. I find this to be comforting in the same way watching an old movie is comforting or looking at old photo albums is comforting. And while re-reading might sound like going backwards or even just plain blah, it is anything but, it is almost revelatory.
As a person who also likes to write, I am finding that stepping back and taking the time to re-read some of those novels which moved me, inspired me and made me want to write stories myself, is also an act of discovery. I realize that what I remember about each book is the feeling it left me with. I may or may not remember the character’s names and my memory of the settings and even the plots are fuzzy, like a Monet painting. In re-reading, I am rediscovering the language and the technique of some of the twentieth century’s master story tellers.
Right now, I am re-reading Thornyhold and My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart. I suppose Mary Stewart was considered to be a middle brow novelist, yesterday’s version of chick lit, but as I re-read these books, I am discovering she was much, much more.
Here is a passage from Thornyhold:
“Now empty your mind as best you can, and look. Without hope, without fear, without memory, and without guile. Just look”
My own face, small and distorted. The running light of the river. A flash or blue, the kingfisher. A shoal of black streaks, like tadpoles, but I knew from the screaming in the sky that they were swifts, skimming the tree-tops. Another shoal, white, sailing, tilting, silent as a snow-storm; a flight of doves or pigeons, wheeling and dipping, like a cloud of snow in an old fashioned paperweight. Then crystal, grey as mist, reflecting my eyes and the crimson of my school blazer and the tiny trees behind me.
Isn’t that lovely? When I read some of the contemporary popular fiction written today (and I don’t mean literary fiction or Booker Prize winning fiction) I do not seem to find very much of this sort of careful description. It is hard to pin point exactly, hard to describe without giving multiple examples, but there seems to be almost too much clever dialogue in contemporary offerings. Witty this, witty that. Conversations carefully crafted like a romantic comedy screen play. Fun, but highly unlikely. Description is what seems to be missing in newer fiction. We have become so fast paced, we can’t stop for even a moment to observe the minute details or to simply be quiet and let an author write without having the characters talk so much.
Every critic seems to scream these days what seems to me to be an over interpretation of Henry James’ admonition to “SHOW! Don’t tell!” And yet, the first thirty-eight pages of Thornyhold are just that, telling, she is telling a story. One long flashback, a brief, yet effective summary of the main character’s life, how she arrived at the central location of the novel, which she does not even get to until chapter five. As I read along, I find myself thinking, “I wonder what a writer’s workshop would say about this? Would they criticize for lack of dialogue? Would they say, “this is a flashback, it is good information for the author to know, but the reader does not need to know any of this…it is important to get right to the story…”
Maybe, just maybe, the past is important to the present. Maybe it is permissible to spend thirty-eight pages on what happened before. After all, it is what got us here in the first place.