02 July 2008

There's a Little Black Spot on the Sun Today

I don't think there are many people out there who'd argue that J.K. Rowling, for all her virtues, is one of the great prose stylists of our time. Among other things, I've heard it sneered that she's never met an adverb she didn't like, and there are few more generally acknowledged hallmarks of bad writing than the casual deployment of adverbs. Rather than cluttering our writing by saddling our verbs with adverbs, it tends to be thought and taught, we simply ought to use better verbs. While such literary rules are perhaps best treated as well-meant advice, especially given how Ms Rowling's sales might be said to speak for themselves, there are times when her adverbial addiction can be obscenely obtrusive, especially when you read aloud.

There's a chapter in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, either where Hagrid tells the starring trio about his quest to the Giants, or else where he introduces them to Grawp, and if you read it aloud you'll be staggered at the apparently inability to leave a verb alone. When writing becomes that obvious, it's surely bad writing.

But here's the thing. A few months back I was reading Clive James's marvellous Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time, and was intrigued by his short essay on Evelyn Waugh, of whom he says: 'Nobody ever wrote a more unaffectedly elegant English; he stands at the height of English prose; its hundreds of years of steady development culminate in him.'

A Handful of Dust has been gathering dust on my shelves since 1997, so just last week I finally shoved it in my bag and took it with me to read on the bus; I devoured it in a couple of days, dazzled by what struck me as a cynical, embittered P.G. Wodehouse. How had I never read any Waugh before? And how had I neglected this slight volume for so long?

For all Waugh's brilliance, though, I couldn't help but be struck by this paragraph:
'Muddy sea between Trinidad and Georgetown and the ship lightened of cargo rolled heavily in the swell. Dr Messinger took to his cabin once more. Rain fell continuously and a slight mist enclosed them so that they seemed to move in a small puddle of brown water; the foghorn sounded regularly through the rain. Scarcely a dozen passengers remained on board and Tony prowled disconsolately about the deserted decks or sat alone in the music room, his mind straying back along the path he had forbidden it, to the tall elm avenue at Hetton and the budding copses.'
Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust, 168
It's striking, isn't it? Rolled heavily; fell continuously; sounded regularly; prowled disconsolately. The next paragraph tells us that black stevedores 'grunted rhythmically' and that West Indians 'trotted busily'. Is this bad writing? Or is it just Waugh knowing what he's doing? I can't decide.

1 comment:

Myrto said...

You might find the following of some relevance. It is from the preface to 'Brideshead Revisited' (though he wrote it during World War II, a decade later than 'A Handful of Dust').
'It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster - the period of soya beans and Basic English - and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful. I have modified the grosser passages but have not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the book.' Evelyn Waugh, 1959
To me, this is a writer who knows what he's doing.