Sunday, April 8, 2012

Metaphors and other ideas in James Wood's 'How Fiction Works.'

JOHN Banville, on the inside cover of 'How Fiction Works' (2008), says that James Wood  is 'one of the finest critics at work today.' To get the most out of this book it would be essential to have a vast literary  background encompassing works of Flaubert, James, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin, Stendhal, Balzac, Conrad (and in more recent times), Waugh, Nabakov, Naipaul, Pynchon and Roth. All of which I either don't have, or do have, fleetingly, due to too many hours when I was younger watching television and football, and in latter years being married, working, and having children. Still there was plenty to interest me, with my fleeting understanding of works by a number of these authors. And I took solace with the beautiful references to Lawrence, Hardy, Woolf, Forster, Mansfield and others that I could easily grapple with.

My favourite sections of this book were the references to metaphor which Wood identifies as among his favourites in a vast body of reading. This includes reference to a newspaper article in the US in which he discovered NYC garbage collectors call maggots in trash cans 'disco rice.' A metaphor that after three weeks hasn't left me.

In an early discussion of metaphor, Wood makes a well known reference to King Lear- the passage in which the hideous Cornwall rips out Gloucester's eyeball, calling it a 'vile jelly', his way I suppose of dehumanising Gloucester to make the repulsive act easier to perform.

Wood seems mesmerized by a simple phrase Virginia Woolf uses in her novel The Waves: 'The day waves yellow with all its crops.' For him, the unusual phrase 'waves yellow' conveys the sense that 'yellowness has so intensely taken over the day itself that it has taken over our verbs, too...the sunlight is so absolute that it stuns us, makes us sluggish, robs us of our will.' I read- some of- The Waves several years ago and found it a very strange book. I think it's fantastic that eight words strung together in unusual phrasing can move him so much, as it shows what impact great and inventive language can have.

Wood enjoys Lawrence as well and he makes reference to Sea and Sardinia, one of Lawrence's great travel books. Lawrence refers to King Victor Emanuel as having 'little short legs.' As Wood points out, technically there is no sense in having 'little' and 'short' grouped together like this. But together they create an interesting, farcical  effect. 'Little short legs', says Wood is better than 'short little legs' 'because it is jumpier..more absurd, forcing us to stumble slightly...over the unexpected rhythm.' It is absolutely true, though I would never have picked this up on my own.

In a perhaps similar way, Jane Austen is referenced via her novel Emma. Mrs Elton is picking strawberries, and is described as dressed in 'all her appartus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket.' Wood points out that there is a clash between the 'scientific register' of apparatus and the words 'of happiness'- he says it soundsm ore like 'an inverted torture machine than a bonnet or basket'- the point being that it reflects Mrs Elton's character in some way, her 'doggedness' or 'persistence' somehow. Again, a great example of a particular kind of advanced and interesting thinking.

Wood explores metaphors again near the end of his book when he writes ravishingly about Lawrence in Sea and Sardinia one more time - a fire in a grate has become 'that rushing bouquet of new flames in the grate'- so the unusual pairing of fire with flowers (bouquet), flames can rush, flowers cannot, and 'new flames' as Wood suggests, making a sudden third metaphor in the same small grouping of words.

Wood finds further unusual fire metaphors- from Hardy in Far From the Madding Crowd comes 'a scarlet handful of fire'- as opposed to dust, which is much more common- and Saul Bellow has 'The blue flames fluttered like a school of fishes in the coal fire'- the school of fishes perfectly capturing that idea of flickering and moving about.

A final, lovely example of metaphor I liked comes from Virginia Woolf's beautiful story To The Lighthouse. As Mrs Ramsay says goodnight to her children, she carefully closes the bedroom door, and lets 'the tongue of the door slowly lengthen in the lock.' Wood appreciates the effect of the verb 'lengthen' which lengthens the sentence to reinforce the 'slowly' part which reinforces the need to make sure she doesn't awaken the children.

There are many other great things in this book, but as usual I only have to time to reflect on a snapshot as work, family, marriage all serve to take me back to the less imaginary world.

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