Wednesday, September 9, 2015

I hadn't actually meant to post at all tonight, but, oh well ... Conrad, Bulwer-Lytton, and some meditation on storytelling.

I fairly often hang out at the Chronicle of Higher Education, because although I'll probably never teach any more college classes, it was such a big part of my life for so long that the place just feels like home. Anyway, Ben Yagoda, who is quite a good writer, is one of the regular bloggers at Lingua Franca (subject matter of which is supposed to be "Language and writing in academe", and he wrote a little meditation about the real meaning of Will Strunk's famous dictum, "Omit needless words," which I recommend very highly (Yagoda's piece and Strunk's advice). 

Among his examples and connections, he mentioned something that Joel Achenbach (one of my favorite journalists) said that John McPhee (who is a true god of prose) had taught him at Princeton, an exercise in cutting needless words.  One of the sample passages McPhee had them try to cut without sacrificing meaning or style was from Heart of Darkness, so I was all the more into it because I am a self-admitted Conrad freak and tend to think that Conrad is to the modern English-language novel as Shakespeare is to English-language drama.  

This stirred up the Usual Suspects with whom I enjoy hanging out and arguing, and one of them, marcdcyr, quoted an odd, interesting passage from That Conrad Novel Whose Name Is Inexcusably Rude Nowadays (and which is increasingly referred to as Children of the Sea, Conrad's title for the first American publication).  Just at the beginning of the stormy voyage that is going to kill the title character (and reveal a whole lot of interesting things about power relations, empathy, humanity, and the bonds that reach-or-don't between human beings), before anything gets started, the narrator observes a probably-not-very-educated seaman reading Bulwer-Lytton's Pelham*:

"The popularity of Bulwer Lytton in the forecastles of Southern-going ships is a wonderful and bizarre phenomenon. What ideas do his polished and so curiously insincere sentences awaken in the simple minds of the big children who people those dark and wandering places of the earth? What meaning can their rough, inexperienced souls find in the elegant verbiage of his pages? Mystery! Is it the fascination of the incomprehensible? -- is it the charm of the impossible? Or are those beings who exist beyond the pale of life stirred by his tales as by an enigmatical disclosure of a resplendent world that exists within the frontier of infamy and filth, within that border of dirt and hunger, of misery and dissipation, that comes down on all sides to the water's edge of the incorruptible ocean, and is the only thing they know of life, the only thing they see of surrounding land -- those life-long prisoners of the sea? Mystery!"

As marcdcyr very rightly points out, this is verbose writing about the mystery of why a verbose writer might be popular with people who presumably didn't read terribly well. 

But to my surprise, I realized that although I didn't know the answer to Conrad's question my first 2-3 times through Children of the Sea, I did now.  And so I wrote a very long explanation about that, and then realized it was buried in the comments in the mildly obscure blog Lingua Franca in the academically noteworthy but otherwise little-read Chronicle of Higher Education.  

So I decided to rescue it and bring it out here, into my own blog, which is more obscure than all of them put together.  I think there's a writing lesson or two in it somewhere:

A few years ago I decided on the project of reading some Bulwer-Lytton - the ones the Victorian critics thought most highly of, I decided -- because his plays were some of the best of his generation, and I was curious about the gap in reputation. And I found, to my surprise, that I think I did understand what was mystiying Conrad so thoroughly:

My secret to reading Bulwer-Lytton and enjoying him is to forget about sentences. He writes in phrases, mostly noun phrases, some verb phrases, now and then rising to clauses, but mostly phrases. It's an extremely melodramatic (or anachronistically cinematic) style. But forget about remembering what the subject was whenever you finally find your way to the main verb, and don't expect either the subject or the main verb to be the most important thing in the alleged sentence. It's more of a prose poem of phrases, mostly linked by sensual and emotional content -- which is to say, an ornate, rich movie.

Read that way, the infamous beginning of PAUL CLIFFORD reminds me very much of the justly acclaimed beginning of Kasdan's script for BODY HEAT:

Flames in the night sky. Distant SIRENS. PULLING BACK,
we see that the burning building is mostly hidden by dense,
black shapes that define the oceanside skyline of Miranda
Beach, Florida. We're watching from across town. The
sound of a bathroom SHOWER comes to a dripping stop at
about the same time we see the naked back and head of NED
RACINE. We continue to PULL BACK INTO --

Racine, dressed in undershorts, is standing on the small
porch off his apartment on the upper floor of an old house.
Racine lights a cigarette and continues to stare off at
the fire. We've passed him now, into the bedroom of the
apartment, and the shape of a young woman, ANGELA, flashes
by, drying her body with a towel.

It's all about "you see this, then you see this, then you see this." The sentences and words aren't the point; it's image, image, image.

So in the infamous beginning of Paul Clifford (which really is one of Bulwer-Lytton's best), "It was a dark and stormy night" is merely the first of a swarm of images, as Dummie (whose name we don't know yet) desperately charges through the storm, trying to find something for which he eventually accepts an emergency substitute. Break the visual/sensual/action phrases out of the of long clanking sentences, and suddenly it's the start of a pretty cool movie:

It was
a dark and stormy night;
the rain fell in torrents,
except at
occasional intervals, when it was checked by
a violent gust of wind
which swept up the streets

(for it is in London that our scene lies),

rattling along the house-tops, and
fiercely agitating the scanty flame
of the lamps
that struggled against the darkness.
Through one of the
obscurest quarters of London, and
among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police,

evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary way. He
stopped twice or thrice at different shops
and houses

of a description correspondent with the appearance of the
quartier in which they were situated, and
tended inquiry for some article or another
which did not seem easily to be met with. All the
answers he received were couched in the negative; and as he turned from each door
he muttered to himself,
in no very elegant phraseology, his disappointment and discontent.

At length, at one house, the landlord, a sturdy butcher, after rendering the same reply the inquirer had hitherto received, added,
"But if this vill do as vell, Dummie, it is quite at your sarvice!"
Pausing reflectively for a moment,
Dummie responded that
he thought the thing proffered might do as well; and
thrusting it into his ample pocket,
he strode away
with as rapid a motion as the wind and the rain would allow. 

In short, solid storytelling in vivid images can overpower perfectly awful sentences and words -- even as awful as Bulwer-Lytton's. And that, I think, was the reason that sailors on long voyages mystified Conrad by liking Bulwer-Lytton. They expected reading to be hard, and perhaps not to get everything, but they demanded a good story in vivid images -- and he gave it to them.

*Not, in my opinion, his best. And I must be one of fewer than 100 writers/teachers on Earth who actually has an opinion about Bulwer-Lytton's best.