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%.
At this stage in my PhD research into literary style I am looking to machine learning and neural networks, and moving away from stylostatistical methodologies, partially out of fatigue. Statistical analyses are intensely process-based and always open, it seems to me, to fairly egregious ‘nudging’ in the name of reaching favourable outcomes. This brings a kind of bathos to some statistical analyses, as they account, for a greater extent than I’d like, for methodology and process, with the result that the novelty these approaches might have brought us are neglected. I have nothing against this emphasis on process necessarily, but I do also have a thing for outcomes, as well as the mysticism and relativity machine learning can bring, alienating us as it does from the process of the script’s decision making.
I first heard of the sci-fi writer from a colleague of mine in my department. It’s Robin Sloan’s plug-in for the script-writing interface Atom which allows you to ‘autocomplete’ texts based on your input. After sixteen hours of installing, uninstalling, moving directories around and looking up stackoverflow, I got it to work.I typed in some Joyce and got stuff about Chinese spaceships as output, which was great, but science fiction isn’t exactly my area, and I wanted to train the network on a corpus of modernist fiction. Fortunately, I had the complete works of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence to hand.
My understanding of this recurrent neural network, such as it is, runs as follows. The script reads the entire corpus of over 100 novels, and calculates the distance that separates every word from every other word. The network then hazards a guess as to what word follows the word or words that you present it with, then validates this against what its actuality. It then does so over and over and over, getting ‘better’ at predicting each time. The size of the corpus is significant in determining the length of time this will take, and mine required something around twelve days. I had to cut it off after twenty four hours because I was afraid my laptop wouldn’t be able to handle it. At this point it had carried out the process 135000 times, just below 10% of the full process. Once I get access to a computer with better hardware I can look into getting better results.
How this will feed into my thesis remains nebulous, I might move in a sociological direction and take survey data on how close they reckon the final result approximates literary prose. But at this point I’m interested in what impact it might conceivably have on my own writing. I am currently trying to sustain progress on my first novel alongside my research, so, in a self-interested enough way, I pose the question, can neural networks be used in the creation of good prose?
There have been many books written on the place of cliometric methodologies in literary history. I’m thinking here of William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups, Mallarmé’s infinite book of sonnets, and the brief flirtation the literary world had with hypertext in the 90’s, but beyond of the avant-garde, I don’t think I could think of an example of an author who has foregrounded their use of numerical methods of composition. A poet friend of mine has dabbled in this sort of thing but finds it expedient to not emphasise the aleatory aspect of what she’s doing, as publishers tend to give a frosty reception when their writers suggest that their work is automated to some extent.
And I can see where they’re coming from. No matter how good they get at it, I’m unlikely to get to a point where I’ll read automatically generated literary art. Speaking for myself, when I’m reading, it is not just about the words. I’m reading Enright or Woolf or Pynchon because I’m as interested in them as I am in what they produce. How synthetic would it be to set Faulkner and McCarthy in conversation with one another if their congruencies were wholly manufactured by outside interpretation or an anonymous algorithmic process as opposed to the discursive tissue of literary sphere, if a work didn’t arise from material and actual conditions? I know I’m making a lot of value-based assessments here that wouldn’t have a place in academic discourse, and on that basis what I’m saying is indefensible, but the probabilistic infinitude of it bothers me too. When I think about all the novelists I have yet to read I immediately get panicky about my own death, and the limitless possibilities of neural networks to churn out tomes and tomes of literary data in seconds just seems to me to exacerbate the problem.
However, speaking outside of my reader-identity, as a writer, I find it invigorating. My biggest problem as a writer isn’t writing nice sentences, given enough time I’m more than capable of that, the difficulty is finding things to wrap them around. Mood, tone, image, aren’t daunting, but a text’s momentum, the plot, I suppose, eludes me completely. It’s not something that bothers me, I consider plot to be a necessary evil, and resent novels that suspend information in a deliberate, keep-you-on-the-hook sort of way, but the ‘what next’ of composition is still a knotty issue.
The generation of text could be a useful way of getting an intelligent prompt that stylistically ‘borrows’ from a broad base of literary data, smashing words and images together in a generative manner to get the associative faculties going. I’m not suggesting that these scripts would be successful were they autonomous, I think we’re a few years off one of these algorithms writing a good novel, but I hope to demonstrate that my circa 350 generated words would be successful in facilitating the process of composition:
be as the whoo, put out and going to Ingleway effect themselves old shadows as she was like a farmers of his lake, for all or grips — that else bigs they perfectly clothes and the table and chest and under her destynets called a fingers of hanged staircase and cropping in her hand from him, “never married them my said?” know’s prode another hold of the utals of the bright silence and now he was much renderuched, his eyes. It was her natural dependent clothes, cattle that they came in loads of the remarks he was there inside him. There were she was solid drugs.
“I’m sons to see, then?’ she have no such description. The legs that somewhere to chair followed, the year disappeared curl at an entire of him frwented her in courage had approached. It was a long rose of visit. The moment, the audience on the people still the gulsion rowed because it was a travalious. But nothing in the rash.
“No, Jane. What does then they all get out him, but? Or perfect?”
Of came the great as prayer. He said the aspect who, she lay on the white big remarking through the father — of the grandfather did he had seen her engoors, came garden, the irony opposition on his colling of the roof. Next parapes he had coming broken as though they fould
has a sort. Quite angry to captraita in the fact terror, and a sound and then raised the powerful knocking door crawling for a greatly keep, and is so many adventored and men. He went on. He had been her she had happened his hands on a little hand of a letter and a road that he had possibly became childish limp, her keep mind over her face went in himself voice. He came to the table, to a rashes right repairing that he fulfe, but it was soldier, to different and stuff was. The knees as it was a reason and that prone, the soul? And with grikening game. In such an inquisilled-road and commanded for a magbecross that has been deskled, tight gratulations in front standing again, very unrediction and automatiled spench and six in command, a
I don’t think I’d be alone in thinking that there’s some merit in parts of this writing. I wonder if there’s an extent to which Finnegans Wake has ‘tainted’ the corpus somewhat, because stylistically, I think that’s the closest analogue to what could be said to be going on here. Interestingly, it seems to be formulating its own puns, words like ‘unrediction,’ ‘automatiled spench’ (a tantalising meta-textual reference I think) and ‘destynets’, I think, would all be reminiscent of what you could expect to find in any given section of the Wake, but they don’t turn up in the corpus proper, at least according to a ctrl + f search. What this suggests to me is that the algorithm is plotting relationships on the level of the character, as well as phrasal units. However, I don’t recall the sci-fi model turning up paragraphs that were quite so disjointed and surreal — they didn’t make loads of sense, but they were recognisable, as grammatically coherent chunks of text. Although this could be the result of working with a partially trained model.
So, how might they feed our creative process? Here’s my attempt at making nice sentences out of the above.
— I have never been married, she said. — There’s no good to be gotten out of that sort of thing at all.
He’d use his hands to do chin-ups, pull himself up over the second staircase that hung over the landing, and he’d hang then, wriggling across the awning it created over the first set of stairs, grunting out eight to ten numbers each time he passed, his feet just missing the carpeted surface of the real stairs, the proper stairs.
Every time she walked between them she would wonder which of the two that she preferred. Not the one that she preferred, but the one that were more her, which one of these two am I, which one of these two is actually me? It was the feeling of moving between the two that she could remember, not his hands. They were just an afterthought, something cropped in in retrospect.
She can’t remember her sons either.
Her life had been a slow rise, to come to what it was. A house full of men, chairs and staircases, and she wished for it now to coil into itself, like the corners of stale newspapers.
The first thing you’ll notice about this is that it is a lot shorter. I started off by traducing the above, in as much as possible, into ‘plain words’ while remaining faithful to the n-grams I liked, like ‘bright silence’ ‘old shadows’ and ‘great as prayer’. In order to create images that play off one another, and to account for the dialogue, sentences that seemed to be doing similar things began to cluster together, so paragraphs organically started to shrink. Ultimately, once the ‘purpose’ of what I was doing started to come out, a critique of bourgeois values, memory loss, the nice phrasal units started to become spurious, and the eight or so paragraphs collapsed into the three and a half above. This is also ones of my biggest writing issues, I’ll type three full pages and after the editing process they’ll come to no more than 1.5 paragraphs, maybe?
The thematic sense of dislocation and fragmentation could be a product of the source material, but most things I write are about substance-abusing depressives with broken brains cos I’m a twenty-five year old petit-bourgeois male. There’s also a fairly pallid Enright vibe to what I’ve done with the above, I think the staircases line could come straight out of The Portable Virgin.
Maybe a more well-trained corpus could provide better prompts, but overall, if you want better results out of this for any kind of creative praxis, it’s probably better to be a good writer.
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: Things Wrong with my Dissertation’s Methodology
For my masters, I wrote a 20000 word dissertation, which took as its subject, an empirical analysis of the works of Samuel Beckett. I had a corpus of his entire works with the exception of his first novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which is a forgivable lapse, because he ended up cannibalising it for his collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.
Quantitative literary analysis is generally carried out in one of two ways, through either one of the open-source programming languages Python or R. The former you’ve more likely to have heard of, being one of the few languages designed with usability in mind. The latter, R, would be more familiar to specialists, or people who work in the social sciences, as it is more obtuse than Python, doesn’t have many language cousins and has a very unfriendly learning curve. But I am attracted to difficulty, so I am using it for my PhD analysis.
I had about four months to carry out my analysis, so the idea of taking on a programming language in a self-directed learning environment was not feasible, particularly since I wanted to make a good go at the extensive body of secondary literature written on Beckett. I therefore made use of a corpus analysis tool called Voyant. This was a couple of years ago, so this was before its beta release, when it got all tricked out with some qualitative tools and a shiny new interface, which would have been helpful. Ah well. It can be run out of any browser, if you feel like giving it a look.
My analysis was also chronological, in that it looked at changes in Beckett’s use of language over time, with a view to proving the hypothesis that he used a less wide vocabulary as his career continued, in pursuit of his famed aesthetic of nothingness or deprivation. As I wanted to chart developments in his prose over time, I dated the composition of each text, and built a corpus for each year, from 1930–1987, excluding of course, years in which he just wrote drama, poetry, which wouldn’t be helpful to quantify in conjunction with one another. Which didn’t stop me doing so for my masters analysis. It was a disaster.
Uniqueness, the measurement used to quantify the general spread of Beckett’s vocabulary, was obtained by the generally accepted formula below:
unique word tokens / total words
There is a problem with this measurement, in that it takes no account of a text’s relative length. As a text gets longer, the likelihood of each word being used approaches 1. Therefore, a text gets less unique as it gets bigger. I have the correlations to prove it:
There have been various solutions proposed to this quandary, which stymies our comparative analyses, somewhat. One among them is the use of vectorised measurements, which plot the text’s declining uniqueness against its word count, so we see a more impressionistic graph, such as this one, which should allow us to compare the word counts for James Joyce’s novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his short story collection, Dubliners.
All well and good for two or maybe even five texts, but one can see how, with large scale corpora, this sort of thing can get very incoherent very quickly. Furthermore, if one was to examine the numbers on the y-axis, one can see that the differences here are tiny. This is another idiosyncrasy of stylostatistical methods; because of the way syntax works, the margins of difference wouldn’t be regarded as significant by most statisticians. These issues relating to the measurement are exacerbated by the fact that ‘particles,’ the atomic structures of literary speech, (it, is, the, a, an, and, said, etc.) make up most of a text. In pursuit of greater statistical significance for their papers, digital literary critics remove these particles from their texts, which is another unforgivable that we do anyway. I did not, because I was concerned that I was complicit in the neoliberalisation of higher education. I also wrote a 4000 word chapter that outlined why what I was doing was awful.
The formula for ambiguity was arrived at by the following formula:
number of indefinite pronouns/total word count
I derived this measurement from Dr. Ian Lancashire’s study of the works of Agatha Christie, and counted Beckett’s use of a set of indefinite pronouns, ‘everyone,’ ‘everybody,’ ‘everywhere,’ ‘everything,’ ‘someone,’ ‘somebody,’ ‘somewhere,’ ‘something,’ ‘anyone,’ ‘anybody,’ ‘anywhere,’ ‘anything,’ ‘no one,’ ‘nobody,’ ‘nowhere,’ and ‘nothing.’ Those of you who know that there are more indefinite pronouns than just these, you are correct, I had found an incomplete list of indefinite pronouns, and I assumed that that was all. This is just one of the many things wrong with my study. My theory was that there were to be correlations to be detected in Beckett’s decreasing vocabulary, and increasing deployment of indefinite pronouns, relative to the total word count. I called the vocabulary measure ‘uniqueness,’ and the indefinite pronouns measure I called ‘ambiguity.’ This in tenuous I know, indefinite pronouns advance information as they elide the provision of information. It is, like so much else in the quantitative analysis of literature, totally unforgivable, yet we do it anyway.
V: Hapax Richness
I initially wanted to take into account another phenomenon known as the hapax score, which charts occurrences of words that appear only once in a text or corpus. The formula to obtain it would be the following:
number of words that appear once/total word count
I believe that the hapax count would be of significance to a Beckett analysis because of the points at which his normally incompetent narrators have sudden bursts of loquaciousness, like when Molloy says something like ‘digital emunction and the peripatetic piss,’ before lapsing back into his ‘normal’ tone of voice. Once again, because I was often working with a pen and paper, this became impossible, but now that I know how to code, I plan to go over my masters analysis, and do it properly. The hapax score will form a part of this new analysis.
VI: Code & Software
A much more accurate way of analysing vocabulary, for the purposes of comparative analysis when your texts are of different lengths, therefore, would be to randomly sample it. Obviously not very easy when you’re working with a corpus analysis tool online, but far more straightforward when working through a programming language. A formula for representative sampling was found, and integrated into the code. My script is essentially a series of nested loops and if/else statements, that randomly and sequentially sample a text, calculate the uniqueness, indefiniteness and hapax density ten times, store the results in a variable, and then calculate the mean value for each by dividing the result by ten, the number of times that the first loop runs. I inputted each value into the statistical analysis program SPSS, because it makes pretty graphs with less effort than R requires.
I used SPSS’ box plot function first to identify any outliers for uniqueness, hapax density and ambiguity. 1981 was the only year which scored particularly high for relative usage of indefinite pronouns.
It should be said that this measure too, is correlated to the length of the text, which only stands to reason; as a text gets longer the relative incidence of a particular set of words will decrease. Therefore, as the only texts Beckett wrote this year, ‘The Way’ and ‘Ceiling,’ both add up to about 582 words (the fifth lowest year for prose output in his life), one would expect indefiniteness to be somewhat higher in comparison to other years. However, this doesn’t wholly account for its status as an outlier value. Towards the end of his life Beckett wrote increasingly short prose pieces. Comment C’est (How It Is) was his last novel, and was written almost thirty years before he died. This probably has a lot to do with his concentration on writing and directing his plays, but in his letters he attributed it to a failure to progress beyond the third novel in his so-called trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt (Malone Dies) and L’innomable (The Unnamable). It is in the year 1950, the year in which L’inno was completed, that Beckett began writing the Textes pour rien (Texts for Nothing), scrappy, disjointed pieces, many of which seem to be taking up from where L’inno left off, similarly the Fizzles and the Faux Départs. ‘The Way,’ I think, is an outgrowth of a later phase in Beckett’s prose writing, which dispenses the peripatetic loquaciousness and the understated lyricism of the trilogy and replaces it with a more brute and staccato syntax, one which is often dependent on the repetition of monosyllables:
No knowledge of where gone from. Nor of how. Nor of whom. None of whence come to. Partly to. Nor of how. Nor of whom. None of anything. Save dimly of having come to. Partly to. With dread of being again. Partly again. Somewhere again. Somehow again. Someone again.
Note also the prevalence of particle words, that will have been stripped out for the analysis, and the ways in which words with a ‘some’ prefix are repeated as a sort of refrain. This essential structure persists in the work, or at least the artefact of the work that the code produces, and hence of it, the outlier that it is.
From plotting all the values together at once, we can see that uniqueness is partially dependent on hapax density; the words that appear only once in a particular corpus would be important in driving up the score for uniqueness. While there could said to be a case for the hypothesis that Beckett’s texts get less unique, more ambiguous up until 1944, when he completed his novel Watt, and if we’re feeling particularly risky, up until 1960 when Comment C’est was completed, it would be wholly disingenuous to advance it beyond this point, when his style becomes far too erratic to categorise definitively. Comment C’est is Beckett’s most uncompromising prose work. It has no punctuation, no capitalisation, and narrates the story of two characters, in a kind of love, who communicate with one another by banging kitchen implements off another:
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
I would love to say that the general tone is what my model is being attentive to, which is why it identified Watt and How It Is as nadirs in Beckett’s career but I think their presence on the chart is more a product of their relative length, as novels, versus the shorter pieces which he moved towards in his later career. Clearly, Beckett’s decision to write shorter texts, make this means of summing up his oeuvre in general, insufficient. Whatever changes Beckett made to his aesthetic over time, we might not need to have such complicated graphs to map, and I could have just used a word processor to find it — length. Bom and Pim aside, for whatever reason after having written L’inno none of Beckett’s creatures presented themselves to him in novelistic form again. The partiality of vision and modal tone which pervades the post-L’inno works demonstrates, I think far more effectively what is was that Beckett was ‘pitching’ for, a new conceptual aspect to his prose, which re-emphasised its bibliographic aspects, the most fundamental of which was their brevity, or the appearance of an incompleteness, by virtue of being honed to sometimes less than five hundred words.
The quantification of differing categories of words seems like a radical, and the most fun, thing to quantify in the analysis of literary texts, as the words are what we came for, but the problem is similar to one that overtakes one who attempts to read a literary text word by word by word, and unpack its significance as one goes: overdetermination. Words are kaleidoscopic, and the longer you look at them, the more threatening their darkbloom becomes, the more they swallow, excrete, the more alive they are, all round. Which is fine. Letting new things into your life is what it should be about, until their attendant drawbacks become clear, and you start to become ambivalent about all the fat and living things you have in your head. You start to wish you read poems instead, rather than novels, which make you go mad, and worse, start to write them. The point is words breed words, and their connections are too easily traced by computer. There’s something else about knowing that their exact correlations to a decimal point. They seem so obvious now.
Just below there, I talked about Anne Enright’s use of the short story forms as a means of affording space for thought and/or contemplation, signalled by Enright’s self-consciously retrospective focalising. I didn’t mean for this to sound too mindfulness-y, but that’s perhaps inevitable when talking about such things. The reason I think this is relevant to Enright, all the same, is for a particular reason.
When I was reading one of the stories, the salaciously entitled ‘In The Bed Department,’ Kitty, manages to find time between her two adolescent sons and her job to have a brief relationship with a man she meets in a local theatre group. Reading this story, I was reminded of what the poet Marianne Moore once said about unfair aspects of life to the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “One is always having to go to market or drive the children somewhere. There isn’t time to wonder, is this right or isn’t it?” Kitty is trying to work that out for herself, the escalators in the department store in which she works are a striking metaphor for how we order experience and how we categorise what happens to us as good or bad:
“Kitty was suspicious of the escalator, or more properly the escalators, as there were two of them, one falling and one rising…She disliked the push of the motor, and under that, the loose, light clacking sound of something she could not analyse. A chain perhaps, that ran freely deep in the machine.”
David Foster Wallace, speaking on surrealism in the David Lynch film Blue Velvetand in his own writing once said:
“being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities. But in fact it upped them…whatever the project of surrealism is works way better if 99.9 percent of it is absolutely real…most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra realism, it’s something on top of realism.”
In this schema, surrealism is a super-imposed topos, hovering just above the realness of the world, which bears most of the burden of proof.
In Enright’s fiction, it’s almost the other way around, as if Dali-esque archetypes, abstract interiors without individuation find themselves in relatively affluent South Dublin suburbs and “normal” family environments, or at least, in family environments where normality is expected.
As is her wont, Enright returns to the escalator metaphor:
“She could not bear the lopsided sight of the stalled steps, like someone endlessly limping at the other end of the shop floor…They packed around the central pivot like big slices of metal pie, then separated out on the way up, dangling their triangular bases into space.”
She then buttresses it further with boisterous working-class repair men who leave Kitty ambivalent. Such seemingly extraneous detail takes the rather straightforward escalator/categorising of experience metaphor from us and leaves us with a far more intricate and over determined vehicle, never mind all the interrelations of the organic/inorganic in the metal pie, or the radicalism of using such a pedestrian (literally, pedestrian) machine to characterise an inner state.
But Kitty is never stifled by all this. She becomes pregnant as a result of the aforementioned fling, but she doesn’t tell anyone. Most importantly, she deliberately doesn’t tell the man, who makes an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to follow up on their affair in a bungled phone call.
The final paragraph reverses the trajectory of Veronica at the end of The Gathering, who rather spectacularly concludes with: “I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.”
Kitty: “Her life was changing, that was for sure, though she seemed to be standing still. But, ‘Up or down?’ she wondered. ‘Up or down?’ The children threw the plane back in the air and circled again on the end of its wire. Kitty walked on. It had been a baby, she knew it. She had been visited. How could it be down, when she felt such joy.”
The Forgotten Waltz is narrated by one Gina Moynihan, writing about an affair she embarks on with Seán, a man she meets both through her sister and in her ‘in IT, sort of’ job. Most reviewers have this pegged as a sort of post-Celtic Tiger novel, narrated as it is in the first person in the winter of 2009 in retrospect, when ‘things’ had well and truly ‘slowed down’ and there was a lot of bad snow and the guy slipped on the news.
From Gina’s stately viewpoint, the era of the Celtic Tiger becomes a time of lost innocence. Each chapter is named after a saccharine, nostalgia infused ballads from the fifties, ‘There Will be Peace in the Valley,’ ‘Love is Like a Cigarette,’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow.’
There is a kind of irony in this proscribed soundtrack, not least because Gina’s acerbic tone is present throughout, (despite her professed love for Seán, she never seems to have fallen for him), because the Celtic Tiger doesn’t usually get represented as a bygone day of innocence, so much as a tacky era of indulgence and reckless deregulation for which deserved punishment was received. ‘We all partied,’ etc.
With a Bret Easton-Ellis-esque turn, designer label names are sprinkled throughout. Gina’s sister Fiona notices the brand of shoe a lawyer is wearing and Seán’s wife is at one point referred to as ‘Missus Issey Miyake.’ I panicked when I read it as I remembered no character named something so distinctive.
Another thing to notice is how prevalent alcoholism is. In a recent interview, with Miriam O’Callaghan, Enright, speaking on the past quarter-century, says that she hopes that the Irish will one day develop a grown-up view of themselves. I reckon that the prevalence of booze in The Forgotten Waltz bears this at least partially adolescent quality to Irish society out. No matter how fancy the shoes, tiled kitchens and holiday homes in Ballymoney get, alcohol as hobby remains. It is generally fancy, European booze though, like Campari, Krug and ‘Canadian ice-wine.’ When people drink at the time in the book that I presume in the eighties, it’s just generic naggins of gin or vodka. Guinness never appears, which is progress, I suppose.
Published as The Forgotten Waltz was between The Gathering and The Green Road, its content straddles both. Like The Gathering it takes the form of a sort of an extended justification or witness statement, with the same narratorial self-consciousness that Veronica has. Gina sees the world a lot like Veronica does, but interacts with it very differently. I can’t see Veronica ever saying “Those mango slices are a crime!” at a New Year’s party or anywhere else.
Scenes like the party at Fiona’s house are new territory for Enright, a movement into less claustrophobic environs, from the tortured Nabokovian first person, to third-person comedy set-piece, like the Christmas dinner in The Green Road and its fallout.
In the previous post I confessed to having a first-year-of-undergraduate-itis when it came to annotating books that I was reading, taking up space in margins that should probably be reserved for my future self who (hopefully) knows a thing or two more about a thing or two than I do.
In the library, it’s generally the texts that are prescribed in first year that are in the worst nick, not least for the often jaw-dropping levels of hubris exhibited by its readers. If you want to see a sequence of teenagers who have recently encountered Karl Marx for the first time quibble uselessly with Terry Eagleton about his definition of a novel, you’ll know where to look. It sometimes impresses me that students in later years make an effort to respond; as if the page functions as an analogue comment board and that the conversation is some way ongoing.
As was made clear below, I wasn’t immune from the tendency myself, I also once explained Roland Barthes’ theory of the honest sign as reminiscent of the way Heath Ledger’s Joker moves in the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight. But occasionally my notes aren’t as oppressively baffling, as I found in my copy of James’s Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The paragraph in question reads as follows:
“Now it seemed as if he would fail again but, by dint of brooding on the incident, he thought himself into confidence. During this process all those elements which he deemed common and insignificant fell out of the scene. There remained no trace of the tram itself nor of the tram-men nor of the horses: nor did he and she appear vividly. The verses told only of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon. Some undefined sorrow was hidden in the hearts of the protagonists as they stood in silence beneath the leafless trees and when the moment of farewell had come the kiss, which had been withheld by one, was given by both. After this the letters L. D. S. were written at the foot of the page, and, having hidden the book, he went into his mother’s bedroom and gazed at his face for a long time in the mirror of her dressing-table.”
My note helpfully notes: “Women, Freud, Lacan.”
What set me of on this trail was the presence of the mirror in the above scene, a bit of home décor that can get the interpretative ball rolling in any novel handily.
This is due to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, a juncture in a person’s life in which their self begins to exist. According to Lacan, this happens when a child first perceives themselves as an individual subject, a being that is distinct from their mother. It doesn’t necessarily involve an actual mirror.
This is fitting and is a loaded scene because of how Portrait is a novel concerned with how its precocious child Stephen Dedalus grows into a pretentious aesthete.Portrait is an extended exploration of Dedalus’ mirror stage, as he begins to see himself ‘mirrored’ as a literary artist. This can be seen in Dedalus’ emulation of Narcissus, cosying up to his new self-image as a writer.
Anne Enright once said that becoming a writer is to adopt a position of importance. Dedalus’ swollen ego certainly comes across in his preening, gazing and autographing a piece of juvenilia with his whimsical pseudonym “L. D. S.,” as if mindful of future antiquarian Christmas addicts who will come calling for the relic of the author’s manuscripts.
Joyce is ambivalent about his creature, not just in the above quotation, but in this novel in general. Throughout, he leans a bit more heavily than he does inDubliners on the irony dial, giving us plenty of hints that the reader shouldn’t be taking the antics of this aesthete seriously. Far from a budding Joyce, Dedalus may be what Joyce was at risk of becoming, if his self regard and consciousness had overwhelmed his capacity to write anything of note.
The rather ingenious way that Joyce has this come across in this scene is the fact that Dedalus’ mirror stage takes place while he inspects his reflection in his mother’s mirror, after having written what sounds like a horrendous poem.
It is just as likely that Dedalus’ mirror stage marks the futility of his adolescent declaration of “Non serviam!” He pinched the line from Milton anyway.
One of the guilty pleasures/occasions for misery that comes from re-reading a book is the re-inspection of old marginalia. It allows for the momentary solemn reflection on how far you have indeed come since those long gone dearly departed days, while simultaneously and no less solemnly jotting down new observations, truly the best observations that any observer has ever observed while reading James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners on the 130 bus.
However, occasionally a note from the undergraduate days, those long gone dearly departed undergraduate days, when an interpretation will strike one by virtue of its idiocy. I found one such the other day in the short story ‘Clay’ and it merits this public self-flagellation.
The paragraph reads as follows:
“But wasn’t Maria glad when the women had finished their tea and the cook and the dummy had begun to clear away the tea-things! She went into her little bedroom and, remembering that the next morning was a mass morning, changed the hand of the alarm from seven to six. Then she took off her working skirt and her house-boots and laid her best skirt out on the bed and her tiny dress-boots beside the foot of the bed. She changed her blouse too and, as she stood before the mirror, she thought of how she used to dress for mass on Sunday morning when she was a young girl; and she looked with quaint affection at the diminutive body which she had so often adorned. In spite of its years she found it a nice tidy little body.”
At the point in which Maria sets her alarm, I had written: “mastery over time. Derrida?”
Analysing the note, I find it to be indicative of the kind of critics I was into at the time. I wanted to find whatever critical approach, no matter how ostentatiously difficult, that would help me fashion a chart in which I could look up any book and therefore be able to stop worrying about how little I understood in the books I was reading.
I bought a book on metre in poetry and rigidly memorised the definitions of the terms ‘dactyl,’ ‘anapaest’ and ‘pyrrhic’ with the same intention. This all missed the crucial point in the application of a schema. What I didn’t learn until much later was that a character setting an alarm, a pyrrhic emphasis does not always mean the same thing in every situation. What is really at stake in the context in which these tropes are deployed.
Which is why the marginal note above is so fabulously ridiculous. Rather than reflecting a supposed mastery over time, a point at which one could bring in Mr. Derrida’s assault on the sacred cows of Western metaphysics, Maria’s setting of the alarm is intended as an assertion of utmost mundane-ness, just another part of her daily ritual of little, nice and tidy propositions.
Like the proverbial boiling frog (and the metaphor is particularly apposite, bearing in mind Joyce’s malevolence towards his creatures in this sequence of fifteen stories) each of ‘the Dubliners,’ are steeped in mundane details that are the unsung gems of the novel, stacked neatly and with admirable restraint before the apex/nadir of the epiphany. These are the hands of Maria’s clock, the bookshelf of James Duffy and the petit bourgeois existence of Jimmy Doyle’s father. Beyond the book’s famous snow, they deserve attention.
In his review of Beckett’s final novel, How It Is V.S. Pritchett concluded that Beckett had paid “a heavy price in obscurity, pretentiousness and awful boredom.” Evidently Pritchett was not a fan of Beckett’s free-wheeling with punctuation, lack of a plot and experiments with language. Blasphemous as it is, it’s possible to see his point of view, reading about the exploits of someone traversing a barren desert landscape with a bag of tins around their neck, seeking an other to rhythmically mash with a can-opener isn’t everyone’s idea of a good story.
Well now that I think of it, it’s mine and that sounds like a great premise for a novel. Forget what I said about seeing Pritchett’s point of view.
I jest I jest, Pritchett’s perspective on Beckett is one not far from the pulse, as he qualifies his critique with the point that there are ‘lyrical glints’ aplenty that mollify his more righteous instincts in his crusade against all things pretentiously boring and obscure. This can sometimes reflect the experience of reading texts that are in some ways manufactured to be monotonous and alienating, the Pritchetts of the world soldier vainly onward like the quoteunquote protagonist Pim on his face in the dirt, (‘mouth opens the tongue comes out lolls in the mud and no question of thirst either’) tongue lolling outwards, thirsty for some more ‘lyrical glints’ amid the discordant grikes.
The following is one such lyrical glint:
“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”
Pritchett is correct in pinpointing these as one of the stand-out features of the novel, they are indicative of a certain kind of childhood memory that circulate throughout the text and occur compulsively, saturated in the sepia of nostalgia. But what makes them that much more poignant is the contrast with Pim’s reality, the seeming intensity of his inner life at one point, (whether it can be said to be dormant or a remnant of what it once during the narration of How It Is is somewhat moot) makes the degradation of his current state all the more incomprehensible and, though one shouldn’t be prone to making these sort of value judgements on a novel that repudiates the mechanism of characterisation, upsetting.
For example, a section of his monologue rendered below. Words that are capitalised are ones he is communicating to his ‘companion’ Bom, by smacking him with a can-opener.
“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”