Wednesday, March 19, 2014


I've been thinking about texture in all kinds of ways for the past couple of weeks.  Even during that brutally cold weekend last week, I could see that the texture of the ends of tree branches had changed:  while we were huddled against the cold, the trees were reaching out hopefully in tentative buds.  I've also had to watch the texture of Sheba's skin to see whether the new food we're feeding her is helping to deal with her itchiness.  She probably wonders why I keep rubbing the inside of her back thigh--the place where the bumpiness showed up most recently--but she doesn't mind if she can just go on rubbing my face with hers. 

I'm also working on a mainly blue quilt for our bedroom.  When you're working in a single colour, the textures of the prints are one of the main ways you can add visual interest.  Thirteen blocks in, I'm not sure yet whether it's working, but I've got principles to go on.  In a single-colour quilt, interpret the word "blue" widely.  If a shade of blue looks out of place, add more of it.  (Though in my case, it's a shade of background:  I'm not sure the blue and tan blocks are working well.  I'll need to add some shades of off-white that stretch between the white and the tan before I know.)  Intriguingly, this works on quilts.  I'm not sure this is a rule I would apply to life:  if something isn't working well or isn't working right, add more of it?

But my thoughts about texture have mainly been about prose.  They started over reading week, when I began to read Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child.  I couldn't fathom how Hollinghurst could tell us so much about a character's reactions or consciousness without stopping the flow of the narrative.  Further in, I could see that the novel did indeed stop for those moments and that Hollinghurst was counting on his reader's patience;  he was also counting on his reader understanding that characters' consciousness was the point of the novel.  It's where things happened in the particular word world he had made for us:

"Hubert woke early, with a sharp ache above his left eye, where a number of oppressive thoughts seemed to have gathered and knotted.  His pyjamas were twisted and damp with sweat.  Social life, though it had its importance, often left him confused and even physically out of sorts.  The rain on the roof had got him off to sleep, and then woken him again to his own heat.  He had a muddled apprehension of people moving about:  his mother had restless nights, and now, as he dozed and woke again, his worries about her wove their way through his uneasy recall of moments at dinner and afterwards.  Then the sun rose with merciless brilliance....He decided he must go to early Communion, and leave the rest of the party to go to Matins without him.  Twenty minutes later he closed the front gate and set off down the hill with an air of sulky rectitude.  It had turned into a fresh, still morning; the great vale of northern Middlesex lay before him, with the answering heights of Muswell Hill rising mistily beyond, but he searched in vain for his usual sober pleasure in belonging here."

There's a certain fussiness about Hubert's thoughts about his own experience, a way in which everything--from the rain to the landscape to the decision to go to early Communion--refers back to his rather unreflective consciousness.  (Keep in mind that I've chosen one of the simpler passages, since many of these moments deal with characters' thoughts about other characters, and so would be confusing out of context.)  But inside this description of Hubert's reaction to the small party the night before, there's a lot of other, incidental information:  about his mother's difficulty sleeping, about the weather and the landscape, even about the services the small church offers on a summer Sunday morning.  Contrast Hubert's thoughts to this passage from Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses

"Early November.  It's nine o'clock.  The titmice are banging against the window.  Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again.  I don't know what they want that I have.  I look out the window at the forest.  There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake.  It is starting to blow.  I can see the shape of the wind on the water.  I live here now, in a small house in the far east of Norway.  A river flows into the lake.  It is not much of a river, and it gets shallow in the summer, but in the spring and autumn it runs briskly, and there are trout in it.  I have caught some myself.  The mouth of the river is only a hundred metres from here.  I can just see it from my kitchen window once the birch leaves have fallen.  As now in November.  There is a cottage down by the river that I can see when its lights are on if I go out onto my doorstep.  A man lives there.  He is older than I am, I think.  Or he seems to be.  But perhaps that's because I do not realise what I look like myself, or life has been tougher for  him than it has been for me.  I cannot rule that out."

Of course, the first thing one notices is the style.  The simplicity of Petterson's prose is partly the creation of simple sentences, partly the fact that each sentence tries to do a single thing, to nail down one idea or observation.  Some of these observations, like that about the man living down by the river or the narrator's isolation, will resonate throughout the rest of the novel; but at this point, these are simple observations.  In contrast, Hollingshurst is attempting to do two things at once, so that we're not just looking at style, but at texture or layering.  There's exposition in this passage, information about the family, the landscape, the weather; but we are also tuned into Hubert's frame of mind, his anxiety about 'the social life," his decision to mount that anxiety by going alone to an early church service that will establish his early rising Protestant ethic and his independence from the young aristocrat who is staying with his family.  Petterson's passage seems simple, though there are threads that reach far into Out Stealing Horses.  Hollingshurst creates a complex fabric, a weft of straightforward observations about the day that is complicated by a nubby, almost tweedy warp of Hubert's anxieties and observations.

Here is another pair.  The first is from Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," the second from David Foster Wallace's "Good People," which I'm sure casts its eyes back at Hemingway's simplicity and attempts to challenge it.  Both deal with an unexpected pregnancy and raise the issue of an abortion.

     "It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig" the man said.  "It's not really an operation at all."
     The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
     "I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig.  It's really not anything.  It's just to let the air in."
     The girl did not say anything.
     "I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time.  They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural."
     "Then what will we do afterward?"
     "We'll be fine afterward.  Just like we were before."
     "What makes you think so?"
     "That's the only thing that bothers us.  It's the only thing that's made us unhappy."
     The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out, and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
     "And you think then we'll be all right and be happy."
     "I know we will.  You don't have to be afraid.  I've known lots of people that have done it."
     "So have I," said the girl.  "And afterward they were all so happy."

"In this moment or time at the lake now just to come, Lane Dean first felt he could take this all in whole:  everything seemed distinctly lit, for the circle of the pin oak's shade had rotated off all the way, and they sat now in the sun with their shadow a two-headed thing in the grass before them.  He was looking or gazing again at where the downed tree's branches seemed to all bend so sharply just under the shallows' surface when he was given to know that through all this frozen silence he'd despised he had, in truth, been praying, or some little part of his heart he could not hear had, for he was answered now with a type of vision, what he would later call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace.  He was not a hypocrite, just broken and split off like all men.  Later on, he believed that what happened was he'd had a moment of almost seeing them both as Jesus saw them--as blind and groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature.  For in that same given moment he saw, quick as light, into Sheri's heart, and was made to know what would occur here as she finished turning to him and the man in the hat watching the fishing and the downed elm shed cells into the water.  This down-to-earth girl that smelled good and wanted to be a nurse would take and hold one of his hands in both of hers to unfreeze him and make him look at her, and she would say that she cannot do it.  That she is sorry she did not know this sooner, that she hadn't meant to lie--she agreed because she'd wanted to believe that she could, but she cannot.  That she will carry this and have it; she has to.  With her gaze clear and steady."

When we read Wallace's story in my creative writing class, students whined "Walls of text! Walls of text!"  Indeed, if we imagine Wallace having Hemingway in his mind as he wrote this story of a very religious couple, we might even imagine Wallace making walls of text in contrast to Hemingway's pared down style.  Yet I think these two distinct textures reflect the distinct assumptions of the men who are hoping their lovers will have an abortion.  The male character in "Hills Like White Elephants" believes that an abortion is natural and that it will return the two of them to their carefree life.  Lane Dean, in contrast, has all kinds of compunctions about the abortion.  He realizes that he and Sheri are in a situation where it is impossible to do the right thing.  If she keeps the baby, she will risk ostracization from her community; if she has an abortion, her conscience will object.  The kind of thinking anyone does when faced with no decent alternatives produces obsessive walls of words. 

Which practice is right:  simplicity or complexity?  That, in part, is up to the aesthetics of the reader.  But it's also a matter of what the writer wants to accomplish.  Art, I believe, offers us an experience that we wouldn't otherwise have without its prompting. When I stand in front of a Mark Rothko, my first experience is of a kind of unified wholeness:  only because I stand there for a while, drinking in the colour and the texture of the paint, do I begin to see the complex interweaving of moments where the colour shifts and changes.  When I stand in front of a Jackson Pollock, I experience the almost obsessive complexity, the weaving of layers upon layers of paint.  Hemingway doubtless wants us to be aware of what is not being said between this couple, of the way Jig in particular is not articulating her feelings about her pregnancy and the abortion her lover suggests she have.  While her partner thinks it is "awfully simple" and "perfectly natural," she doesn't see it that way.  In Wallace's story, there is no dialogue, only Lane Dean's thoughts; here Wallace wants us to be inside the complexity of making such a decision, even for a young man who will not expect or be expected to cope with the consequences. Walls of text echo walls of thought. 

Form and content often seem to represent separate strategies available to the artist.  But they're not really separate.  Denis Donoghue helpfully describes form as "achieved content," as if content only makes its way fully and successfully into a work of art through the forms the artist applies.  Together, they make a whole.  Donoghue goes on to observe that this integral function of form in the  work of art explains "why [literature] cannot be reduced to the journalism of themes or the commonplaces of social practice.  Works of literature are forms of composition rather than forms of designation." Paintings or stories are not simply information about society; the artist concerns herself or himself with texture to recreate an experience for the reader or viewer.  By sharing the very texture of a character's thoughts or experiences, we approach more closely to the wonderful experience of living inside someone else's skin. 

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