It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.
Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*
In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.
As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.
Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.
By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.
Aspiration: 50/50 gender & POC split (currently at a lame and terrible 20% and 0% respectively)
Samuel Beckett — How It Is
Reaching the conclusion that How It Is represents Beckett’s prose writing reaching its most concentrated point of distillation and intensity is somewhat inevitable, seeing as it was his last novel; the longest prose work subsequent to How It Is barely reaches the length of a novella, almost as if the weight of the novelistic tradition, a form known for its expansiveness and maximalism, couldn’t withstand Beckett’s striving towards a more hermetic and taciturn literature.
Having said this, I don’t wish to fetishise How It Is for its its impecuniousness alone, for there are plenty of sections in which traditionally pretty descriptive prose appears:
we are on a veranda smothered in verbena the scented sun dapples the red tiles yes I assure you the huge head hatted with birds and flowers is bowed down over my curls the eyes burn with severe love I offer her mine pale upcast to the sky whence cometh our help and which I know perhaps even then with time shall pass away
The ‘yes I assure you’ is demonstrative of How It Is’ overriding push/pull dynamic, in advancing an almost sickly description, almost reminiscent of Keats alongside its subverting narrative commentary. But this doesn’t deaden the effect of the writing, just as setting imagery of abject ugliness and inhumanity amid these lyrical digressions intensifies the effects of both:
as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom
2. Jorge Luis Borges — Labyrinths
In talking about the short story’s as one of the more concentrated literary forms, one in which space is at a premium, and there can’t be too many words that don’t belong there, I think the work of Jorge Luis Borges is most deserving of mention. No other writer that I’m aware of is capable in under five hundred words of totally challenging the ways in which you think, how you think about how you think, and how you think about how you think about how you think. His capacity to do so through use of a style that is predominantly unadorned and perhaps uninviting makes him all the more fit to be praised.
Since ‘On Exactitude in Science’ is the length of just one paragraph, I’ll present it here:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
At the premium of literary art is its capacity to open up entire worlds with just words on a page. For those who believe world-building to be a preserve of genre fiction only, I encourage them to read Borges.
3. J.M. Coetzee — Waiting for the Barbarians
The allegory, and playing with the conventions around allegory, is a way in which Coetzee’s writing career in its entirety has been characterised by critics, but it might be a line of interpretation advanced too tenuously; it might be more accurate to say that his novels reflect a radical scepticism regarding narrative itself; an unwillingness to confront anything directly. In the Heart of the Country is one of the most deft examples of metafiction I’ve ever come across, and in its refusal to fix its plot around any one sequence of events, we see a narrative force that is as congenial to the forces of its unmaking as its genesis.
Waiting for the Barbarians is more contained than In the Heart of the Country in this sense, but in no other. That it has parallels to South African society under apartheid will surprise no one familiar with the rich literary tradition of that political milieu of the past fifty years, but it has also an uncanny capacity to encompass and seemingly respond to the nature of racial prejudice and ethnically-based in general. I was so sure that it was a product of the Bush years, so I Googled it to find out whether it was written in 2007 or 2005, only to discover that it was published in 1980. Not to turn my ignorance into a virtue, but I think this speaks to its universality.
Which is not to say that the narrative entire is grounded in geopolitics — in the colonial administrator’s love affair with one of the supposed barbarians, we are permitted to meditate on the unknowability of any love object, and by extension ourselves, how ‘In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.’
4. Don DeLillo — Underworld
To write a Great American Novel has, thankfully, become rather passé, after feminist critics drew attention to how unusual it is for a female author to be feted with this title. The liberal commentariat’s realisation that they have committed the error of elevating Jonathan Franzen to the role of cultural commentator. Underworld, I would say, is one of the few published in recent years that’s worth reading, for the reason that it is a novel about America that won’t allow real life in.
Underworld is a novel supposedly about baseball, the lost era of old New York, the faux-simplicity of the Cold War, and yet there is nothing ordinary, white bread or milquetoast about the America in this novel; the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted and unsettling sections in the text.
It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As you read it, you may find yourself compulsively noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the famous magic bullet. But for once, I’d encourage any potential reader not to spend their time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this good.
Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.
5. Anne Enright — The Green Road
Enright is one of those few authors that refuses to write the same book twice, and never makes you regret it. Because there is, as publishers well know, a great seductive quality in becoming used to one writing style. Many authors who are too protean, simply do not catch on in a crowded marketplace. Well Enright is interested, and is good at, change. This is how she can move from the hilariously picaresque and surreal The Wig my Father Wore through the tortured monologue of The Gathering to an adept Irish family novel about land, which one could almost call realist, so subtle is the indirect discourse which drives it.
Enright is a deeply intellectual author, but unlike many book-readin’ writers, her ideas exists beneath the surface of the words, just gestured towards, to be decoded on repeated readings. For first readings, just allow the sentences to do their thing. You could read The Green Road all the way through and have no notion of the fact that its in conversation with William Shakespeare’s King Lear. You wouldn’t want to, of course, but you could.
It is a novel of many parts. Each of Rosaleen Madigan’s children get their own section and so the novel roves from Clare to New York to Mali and back, before they are all assembled for the set piece of the Christmas dinner. I really can’t emphasise enough how well this is done. It is in the novel’s closing sections that the function behind its structure becomes clear, in seeing exactly where these people are coming from, their ambivalence regarding their role in the family before their adult lives, then watching those roles slowly overcome them is great, hilarious and sad. A novel with characters you care about, things to say and great writing is too rare, which makes The Green Road all the more valuable.
6. William Faulkner — As I Lay Dying
7. David Foster Wallace — Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace might be said to be undergoing his D.H. Lawrence moment, in having his reputation defined for too long by a reading community of dudey-bro-y dudebro brodudes, and y’know, to look at his representations of women, here and in The Pale King, not to mention his opinions, or life, it can be hard to say his books don’t deserve scrutiny. It is slightly disappointing all the same to see an author who, among the authors of phallogocentric literary fiction, to be tarred as such, considering he’s among the most giving of them. Infinite Jest apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre, and reading about eschaton is about as much fun as you can have with your eyes open.
Its flaws, the sections dealing with the Québecois separatists, the exposition-laden conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin, don’t totally come good in the end, but the unavoidable ambivalence one develops when reading a novel Infinite Jest’s length and ambition, is a feature, rather than a bug. As in any important relationship, the challenge is what matters.
So give yourself the chance to read it. It’s more than readable, and far more interesting than Foster Wallace’s persona as it has been construed in the pop-culture landscape since his death; as an icon, he simply cannot compare with the questions that his work throws up.
8. William Gaddis — The Recognitions
William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a very conflicted novel. It is a profoundly generative work, one which may have given us every maximalist, encyclopaedic 500+ page text in contemporary American letters since, and it is also a profoundly angry text, one which lashes out at everything: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, the complacently bourgeois creative class, all these and more are targets of Gaddis’ ire.
However, it is also a novel based on profound erudition and cultural awareness. Its most proximate literary cousin is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and just as gallantly as Proust does, Gaddis manages to balance many portentous thematic concerns with Being, death and sex, alongside a vibrant social comedy. If I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the hipsters of 1950’s New York are.
And of course, the sentences are very powerful
Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.
It can often be a struggle, Jonathan Franzen tried, and mostly failed to deal with it (in a public article no less), but the bonus of my edition is a foreword by William H. Gass himself, who provides us with a great key to the work, as well as a get-out clause, should we find it too difficult:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.
9. William H. Gass — The Tunnel
10. James Joyce — Ulysses
I was once challenged to sum up a novel’s plot in six words, and for Ulysses, my attempt was ‘2 sad men meet. a woman thinks.’ This is a perfect example of how, when it comes to summing up Ulysses, its hard to know where to begin. Humour, bathos, beauty, poetry, history, love, death, family, sex, great writing, it has everything you could ever want.
I won’t contest that it’s a grower, and if you come to it fresh (‘fresh’ in this case meaning, having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which will be necessary), expect to find yourself moving your eyes over large tracts of text without quite knowing exactly what’s happening. Reading aloud helps.
For those who may be used to more genre fare, there are sections for you too, there’s an episode written in the manner of a nineteenth-century romance novel, and while the line attributed to Joyce about enigmas codified into the text in sufficient quantities to keep the professors busy for hundreds of years is definitely apocryphal, what it tells us about the novel is definitely true — the novel is so dense with allusion, red herrings and unresolved questions that you’ll find yourself in the role of a sort of detective, which, is not a wholly inappropriate tack to take with Ulysses, since Joyce designed his one day in Dublin with meticulous attention to detail, his notes on how long it takes to walk down particular stretches of urban walkways, or the businesses Bloom encounters in his perambulations, were all derived from sources, and correspondences with people Joyce contacted in Dublin. A staggering work, everyone should make time for it.
11. Ben Marcus — The Flame Alphabet
12. Flann O’Brien — The Third Policeman
13. Marcel Proust — In Search of Lost Time
The term ‘baggy monster’, so often applied to the novel, is a rather ingenious one, as it captures a central ambivalence regarding the form in relation to itself. Both terms can be read negatively, in fact, they are perhaps more on the negative end of the spectrum than not, but taken together there’s something alluring about it, particularly when you have come to know, over the course of reading many of them, how successful a novel can be in reaching for exactly the kind of excess that ‘good taste’ might seem to advise against. Well there’s plenty baggy and monstrous in Proust’s seven volume work In Search of Lost Time, but, as much as it could be said to be in need of an editor, its vices are perhaps indissociable from its virtues.
And this is itself a virtue. What other work of fiction can be so assuming as to impose itself on you 1,267,069 words? Well it isn’t for no reason, and a close reading of fin-de-siecle French bourgeois culture next to the metaphysician Bergson is more than worth the time you’d spend on it. Yes, it is occasionally tedious, and seemingly repetitive, but you’re unlikely to come away from Proust without recognising yourself in at least a few of the characters, nor coming to some disturbing conclusions regarding the way you live your life. Write down your definitions of habit, love and time before getting into these novels. It’s unlikely they’ll have remained intact in your journey through these texts.
But don’t come to it with a pious reverence. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, writes in his introduction to the second volume that
Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even…His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.
Far from being a virtuoso of words, or a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept, or amateurish, and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; the idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliantly bizarre novel.
14. Thomas Pynchon — Gravity’s Rainbow
15. J.D. Salinger — The Catcher in the Rye
Yes, I know, I should definitely have grown out of thinking this novel is great. Well, every time I’ve gotten back to it, convinced that this time, this time, I’ll realise that I am an adult, and that Holden Caulfield is an annoying idiot, and The Catcher in the Rye is a novel for teenagers, well, it doesn’t happen, and I could read him a hundred novels with him just going about his business, being judgemental and obnoxious inside his own head forever and ever. My liking him is somewhat beside the point, and perhaps proves my immaturity, so I’ll try to deal with why these critics are wrong, for the fact that they seem to miss the rather big reveal at the end that Holden’s been institutionalised, and the oscillation between two different periods of time in his narrative; a representation of his thoughts in the moment and his recollection, attest further to his divided state of mind. It’s a bit odd to hear literary critics condemn him so roundly when his curmudgeonly attitude surely doesn’t lack for a cause.
It’s a great testament to Salinger’s skill as a writer that the surface level of the text, a brash, abusive narrator, can seem so available, that going any deeper into it would seem wrongheaded, but I think he, like all unreliable narrators, provides you with a clue up front. The novel begins, after all, with an act of self-censorship, an invocation to silence, as Holden refuses to provide a holistic appraisal of his self or his place in the world, something that he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”
I’m always surprised when I read one of the thinkers generally, and perhaps lazily, lumped in to the general category of post-structuralist, when I find how great a disservice the term does to their work. To read Derrida, Foucault or Deleuze, is not to find a triad of philosophers who struggle to produce a coherent system via addled half-thoughts in order to deconstruct, stymie or relativise everything. In fact, I’m not sure there’s another philosopher I’ve read who displays greater attention to detail in their work than Derrida, and Deleuze, far from being a deconstructionist, presents us with painstaking and intricate schemata and models of thought. The rhizome, to take the most well-known concept associated with Deleuze and his collaborator, Félix Guattari, doesn’t provide us with a free-for-all, but an intricately worked-out model to enable further thought. Difference and Repetition is likewise painstaking, and so involved is Deleuze’s model of difference, applying it in great depth to my theory of literary style, might be something to do if one wished to be a mad person, particularly since, at an early stage in the work, he attempts to map his concepts to particular authors, such as Borges, Joyce, Beckett and Proust. But I’ll do my best.
My notion of literary style has been influenced by the fact of my dealing with the matter via computation, i.e. multi-variate analysis and machine learning. All the reading I’m doing on the subject, is leading me towards a theory of literary style founded on redundancy. When I say redundancy, I don’t mean that what distinguishes literary language from ‘normal’ language is its superfluity, an excess of that which it communicates. For the Russian formalists, this was key in defining literary language, its surfeit of meaning. I don’t like this distinction much, as it assumes that we can neatly cleave necessary communication from unnecessary communication, as if there were a clear demarcation between the words we use for their usage (utilitarian) and the words we use for their beauty (aesthetic). The lines between the two are generally blurred, and both can reinforce the function of the other. The shortcomings of this category become yet more evident when we take into account authors who might have a plain style, works which depend on a certain reticence to speak. Of course, a certain degree of recursion sets in here, as we could argue that it is in the showcased plainness of these writers that the superfluity of the work manifests itself. Which presents us with the inevitable conclusion that the definition is flawed because its a tautology; it’s excessive because it’s literary, it’s literary because it’s excessive.
My own idea of redundancy comes from a number of articles in the computational journal Literary and Linguistic Computing, the entire corpus of which, from the mid-nineties until today, I am slowly making my way through. It provides an interesting narrative of the ways in which computational criticism has evolved in these years. At first, literary critics would have been sure that the words that traditional literary criticism tends to emphasise, the big ones, the sparkly ones, the nice ones, were most indicative of a writer’s style. What practitioners of algorithmic criticism have come to realise however, is that it is the ‘particles’ of literary matter, that are far more indicative of a writer’s style, the distribution of words such as ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘said,’ which are sometimes left out of corpus stylistics altogether, dismissed as ‘stopwords,’ bandied about too often in textual materials of all kinds to be of any real use. It’s a bit too easy, with the barest dash of an awareness of how coding works, to start slipping into generalisations along the lines of neuroscience, so I won’t go too mad, but I will say that this is an example of the ways in which humans tend to identify patterns, albeit maybe not necessarily the determining, or most significant patterns, in any given situation.
We’re magpies when we read, for better or worse. When David Foster Wallace re-instates the subject of a clause at its end, a technique he becomes increasingly reliant on as Infinite Jest proceeds, we notice it, and it becomes increasingly to the fore in our sense of his style. But, in the grand scheme of the one-thousand some page novel, the extent to which this technique is made use of is statistically speaking, insignificant. Sentences like ‘She tied the tapes,’ in Between the Acts, for instance, pass our awareness by because of their pedestrian qualities, much like many other sentences that contain words such as ‘said,’ because of the extent to which any text’s fabric is predominantly composed of such filler.
In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze is concerned with reversing a trend within Western philosophy, to mis-read the nature of difference, which he traces back to Plato and Kant, and the idealist/transcendentalist tendencies within their thought. They believed in singular, ideal forms, against which the notion of the Image is pitched, which can only be inferior, a simulacrum, as they are derivative copies. Despite his model of the dialectic, Hegel is no better when it comes to comprehending difference; Deleuze sees the notion of synthesis as profoundly damaging to difference, as the third-way synthesis has a tendency to understate it. Deleuze dismisses the process of the dialectic as ‘insipid monocentrality’. Deleuze’s issue seems to be that our notions of identity, only allow difference into the picture as a rupture, or an exception which vindicates an overall sense of homogeneity. Difference should be emphasised to a greater extent, and become a principle of our understanding:
Such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept, rather than being maintained under the domination of a concept in general already understood as identical.
Recognising this would be the advent of difference-in-itself.
This is all fairly consistent with Deleuze’s sense of Being as being (!) in a constant state of becoming, an experiential-led model of ontology which doesn’t aim for essence, but praxis. It would be fairly unproblematic to map this onto literary style; literary stylistics should likewise depend on difference, rather than similarity which only allows difference into the picture as a rupture; difference should be our primary criterion when examining the ways in which style becomes itself.
Another tendency of the philosophical tradition as Deleuze understands it is a belief in the goodness of thought, and its inclination towards moral, useful ends, as embodied in the works of Descartes. Deleuze reminds us of myopia and stupidity, by arguing that thought is at its most vital when at a moment of encounter or crisis, when ‘something in the world forces us to think.’ These encounters remind us that thought is impotent and require us to violently grapple with the force of these encounters. This is not only an attempt to reverse the traditional moral image of thought, but to move towards an understanding of thought as self-engendering, an act of creation, not just of what is thought, but of thought itself.
It would be to take the least radical aspect of this conclusion to fuse it with the notion of textual deformance, developed by Jerome McGann, which is of particular magnitude within the digital humanities, considering that we often process our text via code, or visualise it, and build arguments from these simulacra. But, on a level of reading which is, technologically speaking, less sophisticated, it reflects the way in which we generate a stylistic ideal as we read, a sense of a writer’s style, whether these be based on the analogue, magpie method (or something more systematic, I don’t want to discount syllable-counts, metric analyses or close readings of any kind) or quantitative methodologies.
By bringing ourselves to these points of crisis, we will open up avenues at which fields of thought, composed themselves of differential elements, differential relations and singularities, will shift, and bring about a qualitative difference in the environment. We might think of this field in terms of a literary text, a sequence of actualised singularities, appearing aleatory outside of their anchoring context as within a novel. Readers might experience these as breakthrough moments or epiphanies when reading a text, realising that Infinite Jest apes the plot of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, as it begins to cast everything in a new light. In this way, texts are made and unmade according to the conditions which determine them. I for one, find this to be so much more helpful in articulating what a text is than the blurb for post-structuralism, (something like ‘endlessly deferred free-play of meaning’). Instead, we have a radical, consistently disarticulating and re-articulating literary artwork in a perpetual, affirming state of becoming, actualised by the reader at a number of sensitive points which at any stage might be worried into bringing about a qualitative shift in the work’s processes of meaning making.
The title of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury has its origin in a somewhat obscure soliloquy given by Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s play,Macbeth. It reads:
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
In Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the phrase comes under some pressure. ‘Sound’ and ‘fury’ are not, in Faulkner’s usage at least, abstractions of which the tale of life is full. The double-use of the definite article suggests a more particularising motivation; it is The Sound and The Fury. With this in mind, I control effed the text for uses of sound and fury, because what turned up presumably means something to somebody.
April Seventh, 1928
Sound Count: 3
Fury Count: 0
As the chapter that Benjy narrates is the first one, one could argue that The Sound of the title is the moaning noise that Benjy makes, the moaning bellow that serves as the clearest indication to those of us capable of restraining ourselves from Sparknotes or Wikipedia summaries despite how adrift they may feel in this novel, that Benjy is neurologically impaired. In a way that is, again, presumably significant, he is often unaware that he makes this sound at all, the reader is only capable of coming to the understanding that he is when putting Jason’s complaints about Benjy’s constant ‘bellering,’ next to how often other characters instruct Benjy to hush.
June Second 1910
Sound Count: 12
Fury Count: 1
The Sound, for Quentin, is almost certainly the ticking of clocks, the ringing of bells and markers of time’s passing in general. Like Benjy’s The Sound, it passes in and out of his awareness: “You can be oblivious to the sound for a long while, then in a second of ticking it can create in the mind unbroken the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear.”
Unfortunately for Quentin, even when this sound terminates, he gains no respite from interminable clock-ticking/bell-ringing. Even the absence of sound evokes violence and despair: “The bird whistled again, invisible, a sound meaningless and profound, inflexionless, ceasing as though cut off with the blow of a knife.”
Quentin’s The Fury appears in one of his extended degenerating mélange of voices, within which it is very difficult to situate oneself. Again, what emerges is Quentin’s overwhelming fatalism and desperation: “until someday in very disgust he risks everything on a single blind turn of a card no man ever does that under the first fury of despair or remorse or bereavement he does it only when he has realised that even the despair or remorse or bereavement is not particularly important to the dark diceman and i temporary.”
April Sixth 1928
Sound Count: 2
Fury Count: 0
Its perhaps only fitting that Jason’s The Sound, is the ‘hollow sound’ that soil makes as Quentin is being buried, its low sound’s reverberation subverting Mrs. Compson’s remark which appoints Jason her only hope, a son who is resentful enough of the opportunities that Quentin received to fleece maintenance money intended for her. Even the hollow sound fades, it re-surfaces later as ‘no sound’ from upstairs.
April Eighth 1928
Sound Count: 16
Fury Count: 1
Fury receives a rather bathetic treatment in the final chapter of the book. Jason, finding that his stolen money has been stolen in turn, holds the travelling show in town responsible and assaults the first member of it he comes across. Their struggle is awkward and ungainly, neither are triumphant: “Jason tried to grasp him in both arms, trying to prison the puny fury of him.” The anti-climax chimes with Jason’s failure to, 1) get his money back and 2) successfully carry out some sort of gesture, no matter how pointless, which might redeem the Compson’s from their over-determined misery. The Puny conclusively defuses all the potential rawness and hazard of The Fury.
Short video with footage of the Hemmingway house in Cuba, narrated by a man who worked as a cook for the author when he was younger, and was apparently quite close to his family.
I’ve yet to tell anyone what my PhD research question is without boring them. In the interests of brevity, key in not murdering conversational rhythm dead, I’m not above lying about what it involves, so I tell people I’m counting which authors use full stops and how many, and what that might mean. I suppose that I can’t blame them, just the word ‘modernist’ turns people off.
So, what it is that I am actually doing is utilising an open-source programming language (R) to ingest and index a large corpus of modernist prose authors, (using a wide-ranging definition of ‘modernist,’ to bring us beyond the tens and twenties of the nineteen hundreds to the fifties, in order to include people like Doris Lessing, for example) and compare them on the basis of a largely arbitrary range of stylostatistical indices (richness of vocabulary, sentence length, punctuation usage, among others) with a number of living authors who have, at one time or another, identified themselves as writing within the modernist tradition, as re-vivifying a presumably extinct ethic of novel-writing. These contemporary modernists will be Eimear McBride, Will Self & Anne Enright.
My hope in doing so is to move beyond the essentialistic critical reception of Anne Enright and Eimear McBride as existing within a canon of Irish modernism, consisting only of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, which reviewers are always keen to broach in analysing their works. Who’s to say Gertrude Stein might not be a better comparison? Or Proust? Or Woolf? Via computation and pseudo-formalistic analysis, I hope to focus my comparisons, and the comparisons of others, a bit more accurately.
All this justifies the Hegelian trajectory sometimes imposed on discussions of the novel as a genre; as if there was the modern novel, then there was the post-modern novel and now there is what we have now, the execrably named post-post-modern novel, or the newly sincere novel, which isn’t much better. How are we draw these lines, and are literary scholars doomed forever to cut the timeline of literature into ever thinner slices?
It is David Foster Wallace I think, that offers us the two best means of segmenting the modern from the post-modern in literary terms, by shaking his head and refusing to answer. But then he does answer, in two ways, though the first answer is Foster Wallace’s way of not answering, while still mounting a very astute point.
Answer the First
Answer the Second
‘…there are certain, when I’m talking about post-modernism, I’m talking about, maybe the black humourists who came along in the nineteen sixties, post-Nabokovians, Pynchon, and Barthelme, and Barth, De Lillo…Coover…’
What engages Wallace about these authors, as he goes onto explain in the interview, is the fact that they wrote novels that were absolutely bristling with self-conscious possibilities; of the text as a text that is mediated, constructed, conflicted, created in the act of its reading, writing and post-mortem discussion(s), the writer as historically constructed, discursive persona and the reader as persona. So we have two things we can probably say about literary postmodernity. It is a temporal phenomenon, kicking off after whenever it is that modernism petered out, and secondly, that a post-modern text is more self-conscious than a modernist one.
My own take would introduce a third encapsulation, and that is that post-modernism is an outgrowth from, and potential response to, modernism, rather than a rejection. This will come as a surprise to exactly zero people, and gets me to the fault line of this issue; that it is impossible to speak in broad terms about any literary grouping worth discussing that wouldn’t be essentially true of any other one. Literature’s pesky way of valuing ambiguity, referentiality and innovation ensures this.
As I was reading Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Short Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, I was trying to locate some qualitative phenomenon that one would not find in a post-modernist novel. And I was unsuccessful in doing so. I might say that post-modernists are more prone to textual experimentation than the modernists were; I’m always disappointed by modernist writers’ words appearing in a linear, left to right, up to down way. You’re more likely to find an image, a font change, or interruptive clause in the counter cultural writers coming in Gaddis’ wake.
But, self-consciousness is not a quantifiable phenomenon, and to say that it increases or decreases is at least a little futile. (In the context of a literary discussion that is. Given a wide enough scope of inquiry, everything is futile.) To say that post-modern novels are self-conscious to an extent that was impossible before the sixties is untrue; Don Quixote encounters a counterfeit version of himself during one of his sagas, which was Miguel de Cervantes’ clever method of criticising those who were distributing pirated, unofficial and non-canonical versions of the Quixote. Laurence Sterne also provides a blank page in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; a Gentleman, so that the reader may draw a character according to how they think she might look. As always, far more valuable literary discussions operate in the range of the qualitative rather than the quantitative. As such, back to Mansfield.
One could turn to a story such as ‘Psychology’ for example, which appears in Bliss and Other Stories. It is a story of about six pages, deriving its title from a pseudo-scientific movement that was then disrupting the notion that the self was knowable, and that we acted according to rational impulses. It’s a bold title, and by choosing it, Mansfield promises us much about what it is that motivates us, how we judge, how we interpret. But, rather than calling the story something like ‘What It Is To Be Human,’ she calls it ‘Psychology,’ shifting the focus from some Platonic realm wherein such lines of enquiry are easily defined, to the discipline or institution of psychology itself. Which is of course, carried out by a human agent, just as flawed and prone to unreason as the subject, and, in Mansfield’s time at least, male. And no one writes about how stupid men can be better than Mansfield.
The story represents two unnamed characters, male and female. The narrator makes it clear that they are deeply attracted to one another, perhaps even in love, but something, whether it be their own defensiveness or social convention, prevents them from expressing it. Mansfield represents this by doubling the presences in the text, providing each character with a ‘secret self.’ Significantly, these secret selves, at one or two points speak with the same voice:
‘Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?’
Their ‘real’ conversation is stilted and awkward. The male character makes up an excuse to leave and in response, the female character inwardly rages:
‘You’ve hurt me; you’ve hurt me! We’ve failed!’ said her secret self while she handed him his coat and stick, smiling gaily.’
In her despair, the female character is overly affectionate and glad to receive a normally unwelcome friend, then writes a letter to the departed object of her affection, in which she is far more at home with expressing herself, almost as if the mediated, imaginative space of a letter is far more comfortable than the ‘real’ social encounter, in which both of them flailed.
The subject they discuss, is the ‘psychological novel,’ which I have seen practicing modernist authors use as a term which refers to the work that they and their contemporaries are doing with the novel form. (Joyce refers to Proust taking it as far as it can go in Á la récherche.)
It might not be a stretch to see Mansfield as doing some meta-commentary in referring to the psychological novel and in having here two characters, explicated in terms of their inner, imaginative psychology far more illustrative than in their outer, social one. So, we have a story that is pointing to its ‘about-itselfness,’ throughout, a narrative concerning the discontinuity of self-hood and the intractable crevasse that separates our inner being from the outer world. The contours of the inner/outer are perhaps more clearly drawn than you’d get in something written today, but were double-blind test to be arranged, adjusted for historical changes, (appearance of trains, telegrams v. planes & the internet) the emphasis upon social convention, the use and meaning of the word ‘gay,’ I’m not sure that a reader could be relied on to tell the difference between a modernist and a post-modern text.
Maybe it might be more useful to say that post-modernism is like modernism, only more so.
Ernest Hemmingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a peculiar text for a number of reasons. First among which is the tension residing in the novel’s style. Hemmingway’s prose is among the most identifiable of the twentieth century, not just because he’s a canonical mainstay, but because of his commitment to shearing his works of all ‘unnecessary’ verbiage. His work is easily parodied as a result, just avoid adverbs, sub-clauses and never use a poly-syllabic word when a mono- will do.
Hemmingway’s sparse approach is the reason why websites such ashttp://www.hemingwayapp.com/ exist, which allow you to ‘write like’ Hemmingway, by highlighting complicating phrases that you should trim. We all await the first Booker-prize winning novel written with the help of this tool, I am sure.
It might sound strange to posit that For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel about an American, Robert Jordan, volunteering to fight a leftist guerilla war against the Spanish fascists, is a novel about its own stylistic restraint, but this is my blog and I’ll say what I damn well please.
But I see your point, Hemmingway does permit himself occasional exuberances, or at least exuberances by his standard. These occasionalities cluster around moments of physical contact between Jordan and his Spanish lover, Maria:
“Now as they lay all that before had been shielded was unshielded. Where there had been roughness of fabric all was smooth with a smoothness and firm rounded pressing and a long warm coolness, cool outside and warm within, long and light and closely holding, closely held, lonely, hollow-making with contours, happy-making, young and loving and now all warmly smooth with a hollowing, chest-aching, tight-held loneliness that was such that Robert Jordan felt he could not stand it”
The Hemmingway app, incidentally, doesn’t like this sentence. It’s easy to see why. The pronouns repeat and clump together, (‘closely,’ ‘closely,’ ‘lonely,’) though perhaps repetition is inaccurate or insufficiently nuanced, they sort of rhyme, rather than repeat, ‘smooth/smoothness’ ‘coolness/cool,’ ‘warm/warmly,’ almost as if the words are working through their various grammatical permutations rather than changing into something more apposite. This results in some hyphenated neologisms that could summon up a Montessori Finnegans Wake, i.e., “happy-making.” So within this veritable explosion of linguistic energy, Hemmingway is still restraining himself by limiting his vocabulary.
The fact that it is at these points, the points at which Jordan is particularly botheredly hot-making is significant, as almost all of Jordan’s time, when in solitude, represents him as tussling with his doubts, subduing his panic about his outward presentation of stoic restraint. His self-recriminations power the narrative’s quieter moments, and make a poignant contrast with the admirably suspenseful shoot-outs that come towards the novel’s end. Therefore, restraint, both in emotion and in prose style serve a coterminous goal, and are mutually raised to the level of a moral imperative.
The elevation of a plain style to a moral realm comes into play also in the novel’s use of language. The dialogue is rendered as clunky and old-fashioned style, making use of ‘thou’ and ‘thee,’ which I think serves at least two purposes. First, it imbues the novel with a old-world grandeur. One’s mind immediately goes to the early modern English of William Shakespeare’s plays, an association that no novelist, however bare they wish their works to be, would resist. Second, Hemmingway wishes to preserve the spirit of demotic Spanish in which the dialogue is putatively being spoken, and therefore has them speak as if their words are being translated literally, which is strange, since the Spanish words which crop up, Inglés, qué va, are italicised, and are written as they are spoken. I wonder if the Spanish translation of the novel reads more naturally.
But it is the treatment of ‘bad’ language that sticks out the most. Rather than having his characters say ‘fuck,’ ‘damn,’ or their continental equivalents, they will say things like ‘I obscenity in the milk of thy shame’ or the narrator will intrude: ‘He said unprintable.’
I confess to ignorance on how difficult or easy it was to print cuss words in novels in the early twentieth century, but this does seem like a particularly convoluted solution, if they did indeed present a problem. I’d rather think of it as another instance of Hemmingway keeping his character’s on a leash, letting the moments in which physical desire and emotion intertwine be the only ones allowed to run rampant on the page, and open up an aspect to Hemmingway’s writng we wouldn’t normally see.
And that’s why a bleedin’ app isn’t the only thing you need to be a good writer.
For novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, or novels within the tradition of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, where the length or complexity thereof acts to a certain extent as a deterrent, endings are difficult things. Finnegans Wake, Ulysses or Infinite Jest are densely referential, intricate and occasionally intractable narratives and the very notion of ending them can seem antithetical to the impulse that motivates an author to write a book that brushes up against a thousand pages.
For each of the novels I’ve named above, different strategies are adopted where the notion of an ending is elided or dodged. Those who are familiar with Finnegans Wake will know that Joyce deliberately constructed the novel to have a circular structure, where the ending, in theory, brings the reader back to the beginning. I say ‘in theory.’ I have to doubt myself that any reader who, having made her way through the Wake in its entirety finds herself now naively leafing back to the front page, on and on ad infinitum. This is to leave aside Joyce’s final inscriptions onUlysses and the Wake with the city he wrote the novel in, and the years spent writing it. As such, the circularity of the Wake can only really be conceptual. All novels have to end, so it is, as I said, a dodge. But an interesting dodge.
The final lines of the Wake read as follows:
“We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved along the”
The beginning reads:
“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”
If we were to read these lines sequentially, we can detect a definite shift in tone, the ending is told in almost a fervent hush, lots of haitch sounds and staccato repetitions. I’m never usually one for syllabic analysis, but ‘grass behush the bush to’ seems to insist on a certain mutedness, a sense of petering out. So too the elegiac ‘Coming, far! End here. Us then’ Equally I suppose, it could summon memories of Father Ted‘s ‘small, far away’ schema. The final ‘sentence’ ‘a way a lone a last,’ seems particularly evocative, rather than serving an adjectival function, as in ‘alone’ or ‘away,’ they become nouns, alone-ness or last-ness incarnated, before we are rushed forward into the panorama of Dublin Bay once again, Howth Castle and Environs where Bloom proposed to Molly, and at the same time evoking the generative, fertile image of H.C.E., which stands for a lot of things in the course of the Wake, but may as well, for the moment, mean Here Comes Everybody.
Speaking of the Blooms, in Ulysses, Molly is permitted to close things out, with an extended soliloquy of sixty some pages, with about eight full-stops. It’s an ingenious structural technique, especially after the comparatively ‘dry’ episodes that precede the final ‘Penelope’ episode, ‘Eumaeus,’ and ‘Ithaca,’ the latter of which takes the form of a series of questions and answers that seem to pride themselves on the cool detachment, pedantry of their tone. In this way, Molly’s closing sentences seem more like a celebration of the fecundity of language and the body, without wishing to get too Earth Mother about it.
“then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
One should note that Molly have Bloom’s proposal in mind as she thinks this, equally, she might be thinking about her other great love when she was younger in Gibraltar. Either this is an affirmation of her relationship with Bloom, that there may be hope for them to re-kindle their ailing (depends on how you look at it, all the same) relationship, or she might continue to feel nostalgia for past loves, what might have been. Or both. They’re not mutually exclusive. On a final note, that ‘s’ sound transmutes fairly easily into the opening salvo, ‘Stately plump Buck &c.’
Infinite Jest presents us with an interesting negotiation of this issue, its one hundred pages of footnotes means we have a choice when deciding what ‘the ending’ is. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, but I think I remember the last footnote being arch and self-aware in some way. The final sentence of the prose narrative proper, takes place I think a few years, maybe a decade before the thrust of the actual narrative gets underway, it consists of a flashback of a extended drug binge the venerable Don Gately indulges on in some point during his years spent in the Massachusetts drug scene. But Foster Wallace has us in deciding on a beginning too, the start of the novel takes place a few months after the main events of Infinite Jest have concluded, long after the Quebecois separatists have shown up at the Enfield Tennis Academy and after the dust has settled with everything regarding the samizdat, that great scene with Hal Incandenza failing to make himself understood to a panel of interviewers working in the University of Arizona. With all these conflicting, interwoven chronotopes based around establishing the novel’s beginning or ending, Foster Wallace seems to have pulled off a successful elision of finishing Infinite Jest; the novel ends more or less arbitrarily, leaving the reader to try and figure out the chronology of the action-packed climax that the novel has supposedly been building to. Not only does Infinite Jest not have a proer beginning or end-point, there isn’t really a coherent middle-point to speak of either.
The ending to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow takes a different, no less self-conscious tack. Much of the novel’s arc is concerned with Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of an experimental V-2 rocket, and a component thereof known as the Schwarzgerät, or ‘black device.’ Many, many other things happen too, this being a Pynchon novel, but I will endeavour to keep myself focused on the ending, which relates the actual launching of the device at a cinema, a real-life actual event in Antwerp, where 567 people were killed. Just as the rocket is about to strike, the jovial correspondent narrator halts its momentum in mid-air:
“And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely forever and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.
There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs…or, if a song must find you…here’s one…sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:
There is a Hand to turn the time,
Though thy Glass to day be run,
Till the Light that hath brough the Towers low
Find the last poor Pret’rite one…
Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,
All through our crippl’d Zone,
With a face on ev’ry mountainside,
And a soul in ev’ry stone…
I don’t think it’s too extravagant to view these last two words as an invective to the reader, to every potential reader, to partake in the communal sing-song, one that is quite morbid, not to mention laden with references to the narrative that precedes it. The fact that it takes place in the briefest moment before the rocket’s impact adds to the poignancy, and casts all the other apparently whimsical vaudeville old-Hollywood sing-alongs in an altogether different pall, perhaps they are just for the purposes of distracting ourselves from our own demise, whether it be for the onanist or the happily coupled. In the pages leading up to this, we get a throwaway reflection on the nature of endings:
“He thinks of their love in illustrations for children, in last thin pages fluttering closed, a line gently, passively unfinished,”
which is of course what we get in the above hyphen. It would be a straightforward matter, also, to link this with the Hansel & Gretel pantomime that Roger Mexico and Jerssica Mossmoon attend with Jessica’s nieces, during the production, (significantly, just before Gretel is about to dispose of the witch by beating her into the furnace) the Germans bomb a building down the street. The children become distressed, and the actor playing Gretel leads the crowd in another, seemingly innocent tune, which addresses the fact of our existences as transitory and contingent:
“And the lamps up the stairway are dying,
It’s the season just after the ball…
Oh the palm trees whisper on a beach somewhere,
And the lifesaver’s heaving a sigh,
And the voices you hear, Girl and Boy of the Year,
Are of children who are learning to die…”
This is only an excerpt of the song, and there is plenty of it to unpack, but I’ll stick to the topic for the moment. The fact that Gravity’s Rainbow‘s ending is caught in a moment of indefinite postponement, a kind of narrative caprice, is crucial, bearing in mind what Pynchon encourages the reader to dwell upon in the moments leading up to it, and in sections of the novel that anticipate the ending. Namely, death. Which is omnipresent, and inescapable. We all know this, and singing songs about it are all very well and good to distract us, but Pynchon seems to be focusing on the ending as an instrument through which we can re-assimilate our understanding. Death is an ending, of course, but an ending doesn’t have to be death. It, like the moment of Molly Bloom’s yes, can be just as affirmative and celebratory as a story’s beginning.