Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sentences that sing


It all starts with rhythm for me. I love Nabokov’s work, and I love his style. But I always thought there was something odd about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I read an interview in which he admitted he was tone deaf. And I thought, that’s it—there’s no music in Nabokov, it’s all pictorial, it’s all image-based. It’s not any worse for that, but the prose doesn’t sing. For me, a line has to sing before it does anything else. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above itself and above any expectation I might have had for it. That’s what keeps me going on those dark December days when I think about how I could be living instead of writing.

John Banville - Irish author of Booker-winning The Sea, and The Book of Evidence and others - is the latest author interviewed in the Paris Review about the act of of writing. Banville doesn't write draft after draft but is driven, it seems, to polish each sentence as he goes to achieve prose that has been described by De Lillo as 'dangerous and clear-running'. Banville says that when he finishes a sentence, it's finished. More of that interview here.

John Banville's method is mine. It is painstaking and painful - obsessional really - but I cannot change it. And I think that's because building a novel for me is like building a house: each piece of wood needs to be measured and sawn and sanded and nailed or bolted into place in exactly the right way so the next length of wood can be put in place beside it ... and so it goes. Of course, for a building there are exact plans, which is where the analogy falls down. I build not knowing exactly what it is I am building.


Bookman Beattie said...

Mary, you and Rachael King write so beautifully about the writing could both be teaching creative writing, if you had the time!

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Bookman. Getting it down on the blog is all part of struggling with the process for me. I do tutor at Massey University in Wellington but I find I learn as much there as I teach!

Rachael King said...

Thanks Graham!

Mary, I doesn't surprise me that this is Banville's method. I have only read one book of his but I was mesmerized by the first page and read it over and over again. i read it out loud to myself and i read it out loud to my father as he drove me somewhere. The cadence was extraordinary. I was starting TSOB at the time - I think it had a huge influence on me. To me a sentence isn't just about delivering information. Even if the language is sparse or straightforward, it needs to have rhythm and musicality.

Mary McCallum said...

That's interesting, Rachael, that Banville influenced you so much - and not surprising either given your love of music and rhythm. Interesting isn't it that Nabokov was tone deaf!? I always think of a novel as having two 'narratives' - the story and the language. It's a belief, which Nabokov expresses, about a novel being an aesthetic experience beyond story which style and structure contribute to. Banville is a style-king. said...

I have to join this thread because Banville may well be a style-king Mary, but much as I loved 'The Sea' I don't necessarily think that it came through entirely on the narrative half...although I marked out beautiful moments such as..."Light of summer thick as honey fell from the tall windows..."
and "water-beads break and fall in a silver string from the tip of an oar"... simply luscious, and like Seamus Heaney (whom I adore), almost edible (the words, I mean).
I'm intrigued with the idea of rythmn in writing and the idea of not compacting too much to squeeze the air out of something - but then if it's too light, it's mere froth. It's interesting to think about how long is too long to finish a sentence...

Having said that Mary, I salute your control of language and your terrific story-telling, and I think I struggle with the containment of my "airy-frothy-thoughts"... and need to learn to wrestle more with the control and containment.

I like your analogy with building as both my Dad and my son are builders and I love the idea that a writer is building with no idea of what they are building.