Friday, 27 February 2009

Do stop to admire the view sometimes

I am a terrible back seat driver. My right foot tenses every ten seconds and takes at least nine to relax. The instructor who taught me to drive was surely a saint. How he managed to turn my gibbering self into a competent driver is testament to his heavenly status. 
Reading a good book is like going for a smooth drive. An awareness of the author's expertise drops away and there are no emergency stops every few paragraphs or U-turns across central expositions. You feel in safe hands. Plots unfold, characters speak in real voices. But sometimes, something happens which can pull you up short and take you out of the story momentarily because you want to linger. It can be a moment of high drama perhaps or exquisite beauty. I think of these moments as being akin to driving along a high-banked Devonian lane and coming across a five-bar gate through which a marvellous vista unfolds, layer on every deepening layer in to the far, far blueyonder.
Usually it's a paragraph or sentence, but occasionally just using that word in that particular place can be so arresting that I gasp. Obviously the context is overwhelmingly important but an example might serve a small purpose. In Larry's Party by Carol Shields we learn all there is to know about Larry. This is a character led novel. Each chapter is about aspects of Larry's life; his clothes, his folks, his work etc. He is likeable but in many ways unremarkable. In common with a lot of men, his work is important to him. 
This is what she says:
Years later, when his life was going badly, he came to see work as the only consolation for persisting in the world.
This sentence caused me to look up and reflect and indeed still reflect upon from time to time. Its content raises questions. Is life work? For example. But it is its construction that I find so interesting. It lies very early on in the novel but points to the future, a long way in the future, to when Larry's life is going badly. Now, Carol Shields does not say in what way it is going badly, Does he divorce? Get made redundant or in bad health? She is not specific but because we already like Larry, we want to find out. It is a signal: plot ahead. It must be quite bad too, this badness, because it is about his whole life. Carol Shields uses words that have a certain gravitas: consolation implies a lot of grieving, persisting requires effort. Without it perhaps Larry would be in mortal danger. Work saved him. Was it touch and go? Was there nothing and no one else there for Larry? I am hooked, lower my eyes and read on. The sentence could have read: 
Years later, when the going got tough, work was a great comfort.
Not the same, is it?


  1. A brilliant start, beautifully written and thought-provoking. Write on!

  2. No, it's not the same I agree. Like you, those sort of sentences make me stop and ponder, lovely little moments that get forgotten. There's several in Larry's Party that I reread and reread again, yet I can't recall having read any of her other books. Any recommendations?

  3. They're all lovely, Christine. Pick up as many as you can! Mary Swann is one of my favourites in spite of her change of mode at the end. The only one I haven't read is The Stone Diaries. I'm saving it up, deferred gratification or something!