An image of a person writing an article is depicted . This serves as a reminder of the work required in creating a written piece.
One day during my time in graduate school, my professor, an acclaimed author whose work I admired greatly and had traveled a great distance to study with, summoned me to his office and spoke to me in a serious manner.
He pointed to a sheet of my project, which was covered in red ink, and said, “No offense, but you need to stop including so many F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque sentences.”
This was the best compliment I ever received. What had originally inspired me to become a novelist was my admiration for Fitzgerald’s sentences.
Bellow once said that every writer is a reader who is motivated to imitate. My advisor didn’t particularly appreciate Bellow’s sentences.
But to be told that I was now writing the very same kind of sentences that drove me to write in the first place, was a very pleasant experience.
My advisor made me realize that my attraction to Daisy Buchananish prose was part of the problem rather than the solution. He was a realist, and in Philip Rahv’s words, a Redskin.
He saw me as a Paleface, a cerebral, overly refined aesthete who spends their time in libraries and coffee shops scribbling in their notebooks. I was humiliated and enraged, although I knew his assessment was unfair, ungracious and oversimplified.
I felt the heat rise to my face and my hands balling into fists as I hastily left his office that day.
It has been a number of years since then, but I have come to a stage in my vocation where I am uncertain about my journey. It is essential to contemplate these issues and to express my thoughts, even if doing so magnifies the self-introspection that I am discussing.
This means a hesitation to continue to utilize the same language, tones and terms that I have previously used to write about these matters.
Most people would rather be someone else, someone with a writing style that is more precise and powerful, unlike their own which is often sloppy and unfocused.
However, it is not as simple as wanting to be like a snake, considering that various factors such as temperament, sensibility and culture shape one’s character.
Jewish writers, for example, have an inclination to be less like a snake and more like its victim.
Despite this, there are exceptions like Isaac Babel who possess an icy resolve and a penchant for violence that is also seen in renowned Catholic authors like Flannery O’Connor, John Hawkes, Robert Stone, and Cormac McCarthy.
Plus, when analyzing one’s personal linguistic patterns, it becomes hard to go beyond the reflection of one’s own head.
No matter what, one cannot resign themselves to inaction; they must continue on.
Thomas McGuane, who has admittedly battled with his addiction to words, explains how the experience of growing older, which includes going to a significant amount of funerals, impacted not only the content of his work, but its mood and cadence.
According to him, “As you get older, [the experience] poses a substantial and stylistic argument of its own, with its own set of moral and aesthetic implications.”
In literature, one should resist the temptation to show off. It is simpler to settle for a flashy style than to search for a more accurate expression. Regardless of whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should help you sift through the unnecessary language.
The truth should become clear. Aim for what you know best…you should strive for an expression that is like a bow, which is a straightforward tool. As life goes on and the writer’s body of work develops, it should become less ornate and more straightforward.
McGuane’s shoulds are considered to be rather unorthodox, especially for those of us who are secular. We are not usually keen to be commanded what is real, what is true, and what we should or shouldn’t do. Nonetheless, his shoulds are worth noting.
He does not agree that concepts such as truth and “the real” are merely antiquated, pre-modern relics that have been tarnished or ruined after all the handling they have received from lawyers, humanities professors, and people with French names.
Rather, he implies that Westerners’ impatience with such dithering and waffling on matters of truth is a statement in itself; if experience, and even death, can teach us what is real and not, then to ignore this in either our words or actions is an avoidance of what is right.
Everything else is a discussion of that.
Zen philosophy states that a novice has a plethora of prospects, whereas a seasoned individual is limited in their choices.
The concept and format of the later writing of Natalia Ginzburg can be seen in a similar fashion to the aforementioned one.
We have reached adulthood under the watchful eye of the departed, seeking their judgement on our behavior and forgiveness for our transgressions.
We have experienced a moment of clarity, in which we appreciated the world and its inhabitants as if for the last time and returned them to the will of God. This epiphany gave us an equilibrium in our unsteady lives, allowing us to discover our purpose.
We detect the same concept of “language for the real” in the writings of Doctor Chekhov.
His use of lyricism, if we can even call it that, is used judiciously and strategically, rather than expressing any “poetic” elements. Rather, his work is characterized by a certain clarity and subtlety, both artistically and (as his letters indicate) behaviorally.
Chekhov’s advice to one correspondent was: “It’s ok to feel empathy for your characters and to suffer along with them, however, it must be done in such a way that the reader does not notice it. The more impartial you are, the more powerful the effect will be.”
It is plain to see that there is no such thing as a wholly “objective” writing; it is just an arrangement of subjective perceptions. However, the technique of achieving this effect is a different story.
According to Nabokov, Chekhov’s writing style is simple, unadorned; it “arrives at the party wearing its everyday suit”.
The critic D. S. Mirsky takes this a step further by saying that Chekhov “has no affinity for words” and that no other Russian writer of his calibre made such an uninspiring use of language.
Whether one takes this as a compliment or an accusation, it appears to be a bit too daring. Chekhov’s vernacular is purposely ordinary, and does not incorporate many grandiose metaphors or similes.
His aversion for lyricism is as cognizant as it is rigid; it is a penchant he always endeavors to make sure he does not regress to.
We can see this when he directs his attention away from the issue of mankind to the subliminal and aloof atmosphere of the landscape, which alludes to, even in his most passionate writing, as found in “Lady With the Pet Dog”.
The style of his writing is not anti-lyrical as much as it is cryptically and evasively lyrical, with a plethora of delicate tonal patterns and cadences, and a recurrent and often quite manipulative use of reiteration, pauses, and omissions. Its loveliness is not derived from its description but due to its lack of enthusiasm in merely the beautiful. Splendid or not, in Chekhov, these easy dichotomies appear almost uncouth and exaggerated, not the primary objective.
Take the instance when Gurov, not the most warm or friendly person, discerns Anna Sergeyevna at the opera and experiences, perhaps for the first time, the direct lines between either/or blurring into the indiscreet and dreamy fog of both/and.
This woman, small and unimpressive in the midst of the provincial throng, with a common lorgnette in her grasp, was the whole of his life now.
She was his misery and pleasure, the only joy he wanted for himself; and to the tunes of the amateur orchestra, to the dismal music of the local violins, he thought of how beautiful she was. He envisioned and fantasized.
Pride of place here is not given to happiness, but sorrow. There is always a lingering reflection that comes with it. For Chekhov, the progression of life can be a trying experience, as it is for his characters.
Each moment is accompanied with memories, regrets, and losses, which is the wisdom that comes with age and may be an unwelcome realization.
Gurov’s surrender to the irrational offers a messy version of McGuane’s “plain winnowed truth”; an understanding that can only be grasped through experience.
The satirical writing of the earlier works is no longer the tool of choice; a more articulated approach is necessary. Chekhov’s own advice of “writing what you like” is now obsolete, a remnant of a past with more confidence.
One can interpret the contrast between facts and lyricism in grammatical terms, like a tussle between nouns and adjectives.
The inclination of the lyrical writer towards the adjective can be disconcerting, hinting at a strong belief in its capacity to describe and to capture the reality of things.
There is a risk that using too many adjectives can obstruct the object of description from view, like a steamed up window. Thus, the challenge for the writer is to find a balance between words and reality.
It is easy to become bored of the habit of emphasizing the rendering of something, rather than the thing itself
. If a novel is overly fine-tuned and lacks a certain lived-in quality, it can leave the reader feeling disgruntled.
There is too much focus on the showmanship and special effects, and it is no wonder people have a negative impression of books – they are comprised of so many words! We have all been taught to appreciate a voice that is eloquent, elegant and symbolic, but when that voice is used to explore something that is not elegant, neat or rational, the result can be disappointing.
In the midst of the numerous buildings that line the East River, a gap had been created, seemingly by some invisible force, against the brilliant sapphire sky. The only smoke present was the trail of sulfur that was being carried off to the sea.
The clarity of the atmosphere was made more evident by the lack of aircraft trails.
When one reads a text such as this, with its inviting words and precise phrasing, it can have a calming effect on the mind, but the emotions remain untouched.
One could speculate that the author purposely created a writing style which reflects the apathetic and materialistic society that is being critiqued.
This could be seen as either a political commentary or a rejection of politics. In either case, it raises suspicion. We long for the “Reality Police” to come in and expose the truth, but it seems to have disappeared. All that is left are the luxurious blankets and pillows.
We are comforted by the concrete presence of nouns. They appear to demand nothing from us and have a tranquil power of their own.
Don DeLillo and Ernest Hemingway provide a good comparison, as both authors capture the same strange blend of being and non-being, of being present and absent. In contrast, adjectives can seem overbearing and vain.
We want something authentic and strong, so that we can come to our own conclusions…
One may be tempted to go to the extreme and cite Robbe-Grillet as an example, where the concept of “thingness” may appear rather radical and mysterious, even fancy.
To illustrate, Hemingway’s reference to a station with five whores and ten other people is an example of this.
Similarly, it is as if we were trying to locate a lake in the dark, relying solely on the lights that surround it.
Thus, we attempt to navigate the “plain-facts” style and venture out into the darkness beyond its borders, only to discover that it is far from being “plain” or “solid”, but instead, filled with gaps, deep mysteries, and strange myths.
Both approaches, in skilled hands, result in the same destination along pathways of paradox and counterpoint
. It is not the words used that are important, but the strength, fervor, and melody of the voice. The concrete and the simple suggest the abstract and complex, and the other way around. Even the frankness and straightforwardness of McGuane’s words, which he would likely be the first to concede is not plain, is a type of rhetorical stance.
Style is a form of argument, and it is inevitable that it will evolve as time passes and culture changes.
However, the question becomes: how do we maintain an ever-changing style? Many artists fail to reach the level of major artists and are unable to keep up with the changing times.
It is not easy to continually alter one’s style, and the market is often dominated by those with a signature style.
Even Mark Rothko, a notoriously uncompromising artist, chose to give the world what it wanted; in this case, his ineffable hovering rectangles of color.
To begin with, one must challenge the conventional frames of the past, but eventually, it is necessary to accept a certain peace, and to accept the frames of one’s own making.
Not that anyone would turn down the chance to be contented. Realizing our boundaries and sticking to what we know best is sensible.
Every so often, we may receive a postcard from a place we have decided to overlook or bypass, and on it, the same words are printed (HE NOT BUSY BEING BORN IS BUSY DYING). That’s fine too. Not everyone is brilliant, after all.
What form of expression, then, might this dynamic, nonsignature style of a bloody fucking genius take? In Edward Said’s incomplete but influential book, On Late Style.
He finds in the later works of Beethoven, Strauss, Lampedusa, Visconti, and Thomas Mann something different than McGuane’s plain “real” thing – an area of “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.
” Said is questioning the idea of maturity, not just in the arts, and supposes that age may not bring the serenity of “ripeness is all,” but instead of harmony and resolution, only “a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness” and a dedication to the truth of the irreconcilable..
If so, then can a new style or language be created, one that is not “plain” or “lyrical,” but rather dissolves the line between these easy dichotomies and forges an odd, yet untidy way of its own?
Theodor Adorno states that the extremes of history and art no longer permit a safe middle ground, and that late works are the disasters.
Mann’s Death in Venice can be seen as a late work since it follows the story of Aschenbach, an artist in a creative rut, traveling to Venice. He hopes to reach a place of unrestrained desires, but ultimately fails to escape the “eastern plagues” of the city. Freud’s theory of civilization pressure comes to mind, as Aschenbach is unable to resist the “hostility to civilization” and succumbs to his mad pursuit of Tadzio. In the end, his latent self is released as he collapses in a heap.
The city of Venice offers a unique setting for this type of drama, being located between land and sea, East and West, and North and South.
This place offers a combination of beauty and decay, where gorgeousness and garbage are intertwined, and the transition between the two is often invisible.
There is an abundance of bad smells and lush art, as well as the crumbling walls, all of which create a sense of over-ripeness. Solid objects appear fragile, as if longing for a way to merge with the sea and be lost, like a runny dye.
Mann’s “magisterial style” stands out amongst the dissipating forms, being a shapely and intellectual aesthetic. This, along with his protagonists and backdrop, is a typical feature of modernist art and appears to yearn for and take delight in its own ruin:
Our ostentatious manner is all mere show, our respectable reputation a sham, the public’s trust in us is nothing more than a joke.
To educate the young, or the common people, through art is a risky venture and should be prohibited.
What use would an artist be as an educator when his life has been directed towards the depths? We may aim for respectability in society; yet, no matter which way we turn, it pulls us in. Therefore, since knowledge might be our downfall, we will have no part in it.
For knowledge, Phaedrus, does not make the one who holds it dignified or stern. Knowledge is wise, insightful, and merciful; it does not take sides, does not privilege appearance. It is sympathetic to the abyss–it is the abyss.
It could be argued that knowledge and beauty do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. An artist’s preoccupation with beauty might not beget wisdom and dignity as they age, but rather, a susceptibility to temptation, passion, and sorrow.
Is our fate to end up like Aschenbach or Governor Mark Sanford – sad and lovesick, talking foolishly about his exploits on the Appalachian Trail? Will we ever be rid of this problem, and put that old beast to rest? Ultimately, it seems that dignity is not a renewable source.
In the conflict between beauty and pride, beauty always emerges the victor.
This may be the real truth: tearing away the artificial self, like Lear. Being exposed to basic elements, ceaseless wants and the shadows below. With a desperate enthusiasm, Aschenbach exclaims, “We can’t put ourselves back together, only fall apart.”
John Cheever, an expert on the topic of stripping down, ruminated in his journal about the late writings of Fitzgerald, while also partaking in heavy drinking. His reflections on the author’s work provided the opportunity for him to consider his own.
The author cultivates, broadens, heightens, and expands his imagination, believing this is his fate, his purpose, his contribution to the comprehension of virtue and sin.…
As his imagination is amplified, his uneasiness also grows, and he eventually finds himself at the mercy of overwhelming anxieties that can only be soothed by ingesting lethal amounts of heroin or alcohol.
Cheever’s anxiety is another example of excessive “beauty”, a flame from the imagination’s never-ending wheel that keeps spinning after work is over.
Writing involves sitting alone in a room for long hours, talking to oneself and creating “plots”. How it relates to mental illness is something people would not want to think about.
But when looking at the complicated late works of authors like Melville, James, Woolf and Joyce, one is forced to consider it.
The development over time is not to make it simpler, but it is a busy, searching and decorative process, like a grand form of muffled laughter in the night.
My friend likened listening to late Mahler to watching someone pour gravy over all the food.
One could assume it would be too much, but what if the only way to express that feeling is with more gravy? Joyce’s response to the question of what he was planning to do after Finnegans Wake was “I think I’ll write something very simple and very short.”
Mann expresses that seclusion can give rise to the creative and beautiful, but also to the twisted, wrong, and absurd.
A more lasting resolution to the twin forces of good and bad may be sought in substances, illicit activities, or an overload of work, as Cheever did. However, these are only temporary solutions.
It is in the heat of contention between opposing forces that the maturity of a style is shaped. Maturity, however, is not conventionally appealing.
It is rugged, with unkempt facial hair, and excessive moles. It is not enticing, it has no patience for it.
The writing of Shakespeare becomes increasingly grand, more diverse, and more difficult to interpret as he ages.
“It is almost as if they have grown older and do not seek to win approval or gratitude,” said writes of his characters. “But none of them deny or avoid death, it is a recurrent motif that both undermines and elevates their language, and thus the aesthetic.”
With regards to the renowned Philip Roth and his late works, Mickey Sabbath’s famous saying, “the unknown about any excess is how excessive it’s been”, could easily be applied
. But, when looking at Roth’s earlier material, one can’t help but notice the charming and poetic writing, as well as the Jamesian subtlety which Roth soon abandoned.
As an example, Goodbye, Columbus features a sentence which, while not extraordinary, is quite pleasant:
Once I drove away from Newark and its railways, crossing points, small sheds, lumberyards, fast-food restaurants, and car dealerships, the air grew cooler
. As I ascended the 180 ft that the suburbs were raised above Newark, the sun grew bigger, lower, and rounder.
I drove past sprawling lawns that sprayed water up into the sky and houses where the inhabitants had all the lights on, but the windows closed; they were controlling the amount of humidity that reached their bodies.
Contrast this to a section from a piece of work that is much more complex:
He was now just a few years from seventy, and what led him to clutch the expanding bottoms was his understanding that the game was nearing its end. Time had decorated them both with its laughable decorations, though this was unavoidable.
This sentence appears to have left poesy and artistry in its wake. It appears to be hostile to the principles of style, and disregards good taste, grammar, writing, and manners.
It is like a unzipping and releasing itself from such limitations. Only in the novel’s final section do we discover the end destination: the graveyard.
The sexual disorder and comedic elements that came before become, in hindsight, more meaningful as they pass away. Here, in the passionate tribute with which the strenuous novel finishes, Sabbath’s sorrow, like Lear’s, and his fever, like Aschenbach’s, illuminate the scenery.
Sabbath was now contemplating the primary element in his life, the part he had fought for the longest time, the unexpected conclusion of his life. He had not been aware of how desperately he yearned for his death.
Roth’s willingness to reduce, quicken, and disfigure his writing is in stark contrast to a scribe like Updike, who, while expressing superbly and perceptively.
Tthe “translucent thinness” of the work of numerous artists, seems to maintain, even in his last few months, much of his earlier painstaking, minute, melodious intensity.
Whether this admirable steadiness denotes a triumph or a defeat of form is an issue we could and should debate. Should there be some tangible shift or disruption, some more intense feeling of grit in the painting? Said would say yes. He states that “Late style is what occurs if art does not concede its authority in the face of reality.”
The capacity to evoke both delight and disillusionment without settling the clash between them lies in the artist’s experienced subjectivity.
This subjectivity is unpretentious and unapologetic for its vulnerabilities, as well as its assurance garnered from experience and displacement. The two emotions remain in equilibrium, pulled in contrary directions by the artist’s evolved attitude.
When strolling through the Musee Picasso in Paris, one is inevitably taken aback by the vibrant and ghastly appearance of his later works.
To illustrate, his 1972 self-portrait, “Self Portrait Facing Death”, is a prime example of this. It’s clear that older, unabashed individuals are abundant in all areas of art.
An image of an individual who is embracing themselves is displayed.
An apt example of “Age masquerading as Juvenility” (as Hardy puts it) can be seen in the work of many artists.
Shakespeare’s verse is a prime example of this, as he manages to both defy and acknowledge the passing of time: “Do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, / My love shall in my verse ever live young.”
This can be seen in the late works of Titian, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Guston. Similarly, the Christmas tunes of Dylan and the late-blooming works of Coltrane, Waits, Cohen, and the Beatles all exhibit this idea.
Adorno’s words, quoted by Said, explain this concept best: “late works do not offer the same ripeness as fruit. They are…not round, but furrowed, even ravaged…bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation.”
Leonard Michaels and Roth both developed a distinctive style in their later works, namely the Nachman Stories.
From his earlier works, Michaels’ tense and tight diction slowly relaxed, resembling an old coat.
The animosity of a young person fleeing from their parents’ heritage and guilt slowly changed into the inquisitive vulnerability of a mathematician who struggles to comprehend the complexities of the world.
He dreamed of his office and the desk that was there, as well as the window that allowed him to view the glimmering Pacific.
Never having taken a dip in the massive and ever-changing ocean, he still found himself captivated with the changing light on its waves and the noises it made in the night.
The strings of a guitar were sounded and a man began to play a bossa nova that resembled a blues, but with a more delicate touch.
His playing took him away, leading him in a loop of exquisite sorrow that seemed to stretch out into eternity. Every time, it was slightly different, yet always the same.
It’s like the homecoming of a prodigal son. His wild, rebellious ways have gradually softened over time, due to the relentless yet anonymous force of life’s experiences. All that is left is a melancholic, Chekhov-like mood.
It is a promising concept that the destination and the initial point could eventually come together under the pressure of ultimate necessity.
The clock is ticking; which direction should we take? Who knows what accomplishments we could be able to make if, just like the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s tale, someone was there to constantly remind us of our purpose?
In conclusion, I’d like to refer to a certain writer whose writing is marked by an eerie simpleness, a stubborn acceptance of paradox, an absence of lyric consolation, and a disregard for a unifying theory or opinion.
This writer’s style is so “late” that it almost seems posthumous.
All limbs fatigued as if a person had been through an exhaustive trial.
The adage that what’s bad should stay bad because it could become even more severe is true.
Could it be that the reason why my larynx has been hurting for such a long time is because I haven’t been using it?
The assistance vanished once more without doing anything to help.
These were the concluding words Kafka wrote before his passing away. They were taken from various notes he wrote to his nurses, doctors and friends when he was at the sanatorium in Kierling, since he was no more able to communicate verbally.
His larynx had closed up like a door. All the distress he had to bear didn’t make him bitter; rather, he expressed his heightened modesty and his tenderness towards the people and living creatures around him, which became more and more valuable to him as they got farther away.
There is nothing more moving, in all his stories, than the note he wrote when a glass fell and broke on the floor of his room – “You’ll have to warn the girl about the glass; she sometimes comes in barefoot.”
Nothing he wrote is more fancy and plain, more simple and complex, more raw and refined, that captures the bliss of awareness, beauty and hunger, than this view of the flowers withering on the windowsill near him.
The beauty of the lilac is astonishing, isn’t it? It continues to take in the liquid, even as it is nearing its end.
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