Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Not long ago, as I browsed the shelves of the Goodwill, I found Christina Stead's novel The Little Hotel buried among paperback Harlequins and a large number of pristine Lance Armstrong autobiographies. Stead, as you may know, is one of those twentieth-century novelists admired by other twentieth-century novelists but not so familiar to most other readers. Yet according to critic Clifton Fadiman, "[she was] the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf." Now I realize that I'm not a twentieth-century novelist, but even if I ignore Fadiman's what-the-hell category of English-speaking race (I mean, really, come on, Cliff), his most extraordinary woman novelist . . . since Virginia Woolf makes me itchy and uncomfortable. Yes, Stead's The Little Hotel was an entertaining read; but unless her most famous novel, The Man Who Loved Children, is completely different, I'd compare her style to Muriel Spark rather than Woolf. And Spark, while eminently readable and entertaining, is not a great novelist, though she's very good at being a mean novelist. (I could argue that Ivy Compton-Burnett and Flannery Connor combine great with mean, but now I'm getting off the subject. Still, note the proliferation of women in this digressive chatter. Interesting.)

Let us compare opening gambits. This is the beginning of Stead's The Little Hotel:
If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens. Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law died. The woman stayed here twice. We became very friendly, though I always felt there was something she was keeping to herself.
This is the beginning of Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye:
"Get away from here, you dirty swine," she said. 
"There's a dirty swine in every man," he said. 
"Showing your face round here again," she said. 
"Now, Mavis, now, Mavis," he said. 
She was seen to slam the door in his face, and he to press the bell, and she to open the door.
Now here is the beginning of Woolf's The Years:
It was an uncertain spring. The weather, perpetually changing, sent clouds of blue and of purple flying over the land. In the country farmers, looking at the fields, were apprehensive; in London umbrellas were opened and then shut by people looking up at the sky. But in April such weather was to be expected.
And let's go ahead and absorb my digression into the conversation. Here's the beginning of Compton-Burnett's The Last and the First:
"What an unbecoming light this is !" said Eliza Heriot, looking from the globe above the table to the faces round it. 
"Are we expected to agree?" said her son, as the light fell on her own face. "Or is it a moment for silence?" 
"The effect is worse with every day. I hardly dare look at any of you." 
"You have found the courage," said her daughter, "and it is fair that you should show it. You appointed the breakfast hour yourself." 
Lady Heriot did not suggest that anyone else should appoint it.
Finally, here's the opening of O'Connor's Wise Blood:
Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing,  very red, on the edge of the furthest woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones.
I understand that one ought not to make pronouncements about a writer's entire body of work based on a reaction to a handful of opening sentences, especially when they're spoken in the voice of a created character. Nevertheless, I'm going to make a pronouncement, which you should feel free to tear to pieces. Here it is: Woolf, Compton-Burnett, and O'Connor construct their sentences with more subtlety than Stead and Spark do. Perhaps tomorrow I will talk a bit more about my reasons for thinking this, but I can't now because I have to go feed the goat and hang sheets on the line. In the meantime, you can mull over all your reasons for disagreeing with me.

1 comment:

CMGadapee said...

I am actually intrigued by the advent of a discourse on sentence construction: please elucidate.

In other words, enlighten me, o Guru of Prose. Or is it prosody?