Writing...
All the blog posts I mentioned at York 2012, and a big Thank You

An education in writing

One of my favourite authors of all is Elizabeth Bowen. And the other day I went back to my favourite of her novels, The Heat of the Day, which I can't recommend highly enough. Her characters and settings are so memorable that in between times I forget how much of a modernist she was: the writing has the kind of density which is born of a precise attention to physicality but also to thought and sensation, and it can be quite elliptical. It's like looking at a photograph so full of texture and form that your eye feels it powerfully, even when your mind isn't yet quite sure what, exactly, it's seeing. 

And one of a novel's-worth of wonderful paragraphs caught my eye, and even if it's not the kind of prose you aspire to write yourself, it seemed to me an education in how to evoke an intensely physical, even terrifying, event so that not only do we feel it strongly, but there's real action, real drama. It's actually a flashback to when the main character, Stella, first met the man who was to become her lover, Robert, in a bar during the London Blitz. (in my Penguin edition it's page 95). Many of the usual ways of making sure the reader feels events and settings vividly aren't used in this paragraph: it's not rooted in a character's viewpoint - there's no mention of the characters at all - and at no point does it describe how anyone feels. There's no emotion here, in other words, except what's evoked in the reader by how it's written. Try reading it aloud. 

Overhead, an enemy plane had been dragging, drumming slowly round in the pool of night, drawing up bursts of gunfire - nosing, pausing, turning, fascinated by the point for its intent. The barrage banged, coughed, retched; in here the lights in the mirrors rocked. Now down a shaft of anticipating silence the bomb swung whistling. With the shock of detonation, still to be heard, four walls of in here yawped in then bellied out; bottles danced on glass; a distortion ran through the view. The detonation dulled off into the caracting roar of a split building: direct hit, somewhere else.

The answer to the question "Why do you think this is so good?" is "Because it makes the hairs rise on the back of my neck". But the more interesting question is "How do you think Bowen makes it so good?"  So these are a few suggestions about How:

Overhead, an enemy plane had been dragging, "had been" because the characters aren't conscious of the aeroplane, even though they could hear it, until it begins to matter to them personally. In technical point-of-view term the characters didn't know it was an enemy plane at the time, but they did later, and the narrator obviously does, so we can. It's all much more economical than some laboured moment when one character has to say to another, "That must be an enemy plane. Funny I didn't notice it before". And perhaps "dragging" implies "searching", as well as its own slow movement.

drumming slowly round in the pool of night,  the "drumming" of the engine is relentless, even threatening, but in a lethargic way. "slowly round in the pool" evokes the plane as some water-creature moving without much purpose;  but "pool of night" makes the darkness a substance for the creature to swim in: a physicality of itself beyond the mere absence of light. And, of course, the plane has been dragging the pool, which connects to:

drawing up bursts of gunfire - the alliteration and half-rhyme of dragging/drumming/drawing links the first three phrases together: they're all part of the "had been" - the continuous background to the long, immediate moments of Stella and Robert's absorption in each other. "drawing up" links the plane in the sky to the ground, but keeps us in the air, because the "bursts of gunfire" which punctuate that continuous background noise are still abstracted, not linked to humans.

nosing, pausing, turning, The past perfect continous of "had been dragging" has, tacitly, become the past continuous: "was nosing". And whereas the first three continuous verbs headed a phrase each time, here they've closed up tight, one after the other. But the plane's actions are still continuous: they're yet to resolve. They're on-going, to use a phrase Bowen wouldn't have used, not finite, so there are no finite verbs... yet. 

fascinated by the point for its intent. "fascinated" is the first non-continuous verb we've been given, and it's still not a finite verb, but a participle being used to describe the plane: it's found where it's going, but it hasn't ... yet ... acted on having done so. And what a curiously elliptical way of describing a target or goal: "the point for its intent". The plane has its own intent, as an animal does, so our experience stays inside the plane-animal's will, rather than divided out to some inanimate/impersonal military "target" on the ground.

The barrage banged, coughed, retched; For the first time something on the ground is present and active (in the verbs, as well as the action) in three brilliant verbs which echo but change the three continuous nosing/pausing/turning verbs. They're all onomatopoeic (only one syllable each, but look how many consonants all jammed in!)  but there's also a structure to the sequence of action: "banged" is straightforwardly loud, but in some ways reductive: banging is what doors and small guns do. "Coughed" is a decidedly weaker kind of action, noisy but also more human or, again, animal, as the plane is animal. It also suggest sickness, and "retched" does so even more strongly: a cough may be deliberate or even therapeutic, but retching is always unwilling and debilitating. After the continuous verbs, these are finite: something that happened, and stopped; it's the plane which keeps going.

in here the lights in the mirrors rocked. We're back in the bar at last and implicitly in Stella and Robert's viewpoint, since an external narrator/reader would think "in there": it's the characters of the story who'd think of it as "in here", and so we're drawn into feeling it as our place too. But their first physical perception of violence is several removes from the guns outside, and with a verb which can be romantic or cosy, and which implies that equilibrium will return: "the lights in the mirrors rocked". It's also perhaps Stella and Robert's absorption in each other which narrows their perceptions: they see what's happening only in reflections of what's in the room with them.

Now down a shaft of anticipating silence the bomb swung whistling. "down" reverses the "up" of the gunfire: now it's the ground that's being attacked, and "shaft" works with "anticipating" not just grammatically, but also to double-up the sense of inevitability: the bomb already has a route set out for it, and the listeners listen in silence to what they already know will happen: "the" bomb which will fall, and maybe on them. It now has its own life separate from the drumming plane, the noise of the whistle coming and going in the air... but the phrase "swung whistling" also evokes a carefree human striding down a mid-century road. And what a master-stroke to cut the technically correct comma after the brilliant verb "swung", and instead hurry on to end the sentence with the un-ending "whistling."

With the shock of detonation, still to be heard, The rhyme of shaft/shock, and the rhythm and syntax, link together "shaft of anticipating" with "shock of detonation". But Bowen only evokes the actual blast elliptically. Perhaps the moment is beyond words, and the time it takes up in the consciousness beyond evocation. The deliberate feebleness of "bang", further up, suggests the problem we're up against with this kind of thing (it's one I've encountered myself in writing battles). But "still to be heard" keeps that kind of coolness while bringing us into the moment in a hovering, non-specific way. We're in slow-motion, now, as...

four walls of in here yawped in then bellied out; "four walls" is usually a cosy phrase, but here it's anything but, and it emphasises how surrounded they are: the danger is directionless, all-encompassing, and there's nowhere you could hide. The use of "in here" as a noun, a specific place, brings us into Stella and Robert's and - arguably - the reader's immediate experience. It's a beautifull economical way of doing so: casual, colloquial, un-specific: far more vivid than any careful signposts or descriptions. "Yawped in" is a wonderful phrase, and the way the sentence pivots on "then" and is balanced by  "bellied out": there's a rhythm to the physicality of what's happening. We're in extreme slo-mo here, as fiction can be so easily, and film has only recently tried to evoke. On the other hand, notice how there are no commas at all in this phrase, which make it a little tricky to understand with a quick reading: the words run on un-shaped, because time isn't orderly or patterned, now.

bottles danced on glass; the first time since "whistling" we've heard a noise we can actually imagine, and suddenly the bar is vivid again: a place of dancing, glitter and drink.

a distortion ran through the view. this, again, is curiously elliptical, and not just because this very abstract perception isn't located in a character's viewpoint. I'd suggest that being in the middle of a bomb-blast is genuinely almost impossible to find words for: you can't say what you can see, only that nothing is as it was. In the wider context of the novel, one of the themes is how war distorts people's lives, and therefore distors how they see their lives and how they act.

The detonation dulled off into the cataracting roar of a split building: "dulled off" isn't a phrase you'd expect to be followed by something cataclysmic like "cataracting roar", nor "split" as a frighteningly clean, lethal description. "Dulled" is evoking, I think, how once the noise becomes more specific, even if it's a waterfall of bricks as a building is destroyed, the physicality of fear is less all-consuming. And "off" is a down-grading sort of adverb, isn't it; it's a lessening.

direct hit, somewhere else. A direct hit is what everyone fears: it's finite but there are no verbs in this phrase: it's a full stop. But this time it's not "in here", it's "somewhere else". We're right inside the characters now, in their voice and thoughts, and the human simplicity of these two phrases, after the density and subtlety of the rest of the paragraph, makes both qualities stronger.

And that's it, except that to make the point I've made elsewhere, that so much of writing is in the verbs and verb phrases, have a look at how most of the vividness of the passage, as well as (by definition) the action, is with them. The nouns, by contrast, are relatively ordinary, and there are very few adjectives and adverbs at all:

Overhead, an enemy plane had been dragging, drumming slowly round in the pool of night, drawing up bursts of gunfire - nosing, pausing, turning, fascinated by the point for its intent. The barrage banged, coughed, retched; in here the lights in the mirrors rocked. Now down a shaft of anticipating silence the bomb swung whistling. With the shock of detonation, still to be heard, four walls of in here yawped in then bellied out; bottles danced on glass; a distortion ran through the view. The detonation dulled off into the caracting roar of a split building: direct hit, somewhere else.

But, to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, it seems to me that all this detail adds up to a whole, over-arching purpose. The way the paragraph and sentences are built is part of evoking this dragged-out journey of the characters through a time which is brief in minutes but infinitely long in feeling - and have you noticed how it's virtually all in the verbs? The nouns are few and ordinary, and there's only one adjective - split - and one adverb of the sort the CW fascists and ignoramuses tell you not to use - slowly. And all to bring us to the point where, just for now, we realise that we've survived: it was a direct hit and perhaps people are dead, but that was somewhere else and those people are someone else. Not us. Not this time.

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