Notes On The Dignified Style
Yiyun Li, Tolstoy, Claire-Louise Bennett and others. // Taking the train with your eyes open. // Long straws first when building a nest.
Yiyun Li And The Dignified Style
A couple of months ago I read Yiyun Li’s 2008 novel The Vagrants and found it easy to assent to Michael Hofmann’s judgement, made in passing in an LRB article about another of her books, that it is ‘one of the first masterpieces of our stumbling century.’ My British paperback edition had review quotes on the inside pages, including this phrase from Ian Thomson in the Independent: ‘a work of great moral poise and dignity.’ Other reviews spoke a similar language of morality, humanity, importance, and made reference to the great Russians, to Tolstoy and Chekhov. My attention snagged on ‘dignity’ which seemed an apt label for the quality of the novel and moreover a feeling it imparted to me as the reader, that I was experiencing a clarity and moral dignity in myself that is perhaps rarely conjured or called upon by contemporary fiction. I want here to put down a few thoughts about this dignified style and what it consists of.
I want to contrast the dignified style in a very broad brush way with another that I might call ‘static-explosive,’ to use a version of André Breton’s phrase that provided the title for the Pierre Boulez piece I discussed a while ago. I’d been reading a lot of static-explosive writing before I read The Vagrants and admiring it enormously. I’d found what I’m calling the static-explosive in the work of Claire-Louise Bennett and Ariana Harwicz and others. Maybe we can say that it is a contemporary style that is often written in the first person and is thinking urgently about experiences and perceptions. It is often richly phenomenological, perhaps in a crisis of perceiving and understanding. It thinks out loud, sometimes essayistically. It is maybe a kind of high-pressure realism of the inner life. The experience of reading The Vagrants was very different to these works; there was, first of all, a sensation of release from inner vexation, an emancipation into three clear dimensions of uncurved space. I want to say that there is of course both loss and gain here, as with any artistic decision: the dignified style forfeits this intense inner richness as it gains in other qualities.
While the static-explosive style feels definitely contemporary, and may be said to be in vogue in recent years, the dignified style of The Vagrants feels old-fashioned. It does resemble, as the reviews suggested, nineteenth-century realist fiction, writing from before Virginia Woolf’s envelope of consciousness demanded attention. If we accept T.J. Clark’s definition that ‘modernity is loss of world,’ The Vagrants is pre-modern. Static-explosive writing rushes to recover the world, to establish what is in danger of being lost. It is the same work as is performed in modern poetry as defined by Wallace Stevens:
The poem of the mind in the act of finding What will suffice. It has not always had To find: the scene was set; it repeated what Was in the script. Then the theatre was changed To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
The dignified style assumes the world is plainly out there and evident and perception of it shared. V. S. Naipaul, another practitioner of the dignified style, provides an epitome of the style’s position in the famous opening words of A Bend In The River, ‘The world is what it is.’ There is a relief procured for the reader here. There is no particular crisis of perception, no crisis of the facts, there will be instead a crisis of action, of choice.
This taking for granted of the world can have a paradoxically intensifying effect on the reader’s perception of character’s inner experiences. We assent to Tolstoy’s blithe narrative authority and so when a character looks up into the night sky at the stars we assent also and see it very vividly. As with Hemingway or other writer’s of minimal but judicious description, the effects can be stronger than with elaborate descriptions that strain to convey in detail.
The dignified style recesses the inner life inside its characters. By doing so, it separates the personal from the political and public. Taking consciousness as normally unproblematic, it clears space for the action of free will. This is a more unusual sensation than perhaps it should be. Our world is currently quite static-explosive. It surrounds the individual, permeates the individual with its messages and interruptions, it presses in, it saturates. The static-explosive style is in part the individual a fighting back against all this - whether this is the explicit subject or not - a hacking back of this thickness of intrusive growth. The static-explosive world is spherical, surrounding each individual. The dignified world is linear, extensive. Living in the static-explosive world of this moment in capitalism, cause and effect are often attenuated by complex systems of manufacture and consumption, personal responsibility is cloudy but burdensome and personal opinions so pervasively and variably vocalised as to seem no longer a personal property. In this context, the dignifies style feels corrective, emancipatory, however harrowing the events it describes. The world maybe horrible but it is navigable and individual moral choice counts for something, it is consequential.
The dignified style is always clear about the existential. In part it borrows from the mode of the chronicle or history in the unruffled way in which it records births and deaths. Death can of course exist in the static-explosive style but perhaps because it is generally written in the first person it must do so in a different, more distanced way. Central characters die in works in the dignified style; sometimes, that is their whole subject, as in Tolstoy’s Death Of Ivan Ilyich. Several major characters die in The Vagrants. The effect is at some level, I think, to remind the reader that they too will die; (we are all major characters who will die during a novel that will continue without us). This is part of what makes the dignified style feel authoritative. I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’: ‘Death is the sanction of everything the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.’
I chose Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation as an illustration because it reminds me of the qualities of the dignified style. It sees equally, equably, the small talk of the dignitaries on the right of the picture and the torture of Jesus in the background, also the architecture and the sky and trees. The world is what it is.
These are some preliminary and insufficient thoughts. Please help me to have some others, if you can.
Chinese Chinese Fiction
The Chinese fiction that we read outside of China - by Yiyun Li, Ma Jian and others - is mostly banned inside China. This led to some awkward talking at cross-purposes when I was in southern China for a few literary events. If you want to know about what is happening in Chinese literary life in China, I highly recommend this fascinating short book by Megan Walsh. It’s a whole other world.
Youtube Treasure #9
A ride on New York’s 3rd Avenue El train in 1955, full of patterns and distortions, layered reflections. The kind of everyday visual gorgeousness we can sometimes pass through without noticing.
6 degrees. Large glassy rain. Wind. The clatter of small broken branches hitting the roof.
10 degrees. Clear sky. Sun. No wind. It’s almost not weather but a pure radiation, fiercely bright. I walk in the park – shocks of dead yellow reads, flaring grackles and red-winged blackbirds flicking their epaulettes - and after a time my eyes are burned with the light. When I close them, I still see colours.
4 degrees. Rain, occasionally solidifying into snow. Of course, all weather is new, spilling out of the present moment, but this feels old, dark, lived-in. Worn like household objects get worn, an old bath flannel, a chipped cup, a faded shirt. Stale and abraded.
7 degrees. More songwork from the goldfinches in the fir trees, hammering out their thin metal filigree of sound.
7 degrees. Thick cloud. Looking up, I have a memory of the weight of paint stirred in its can with a stick. Later, rain becoming snow. Inside the drumming of the rain which becomes the light hiss of snow. Flakes get larger, and race one way then another like starlings in a murmuration.
-5 to 5 degrees. With the swing of the sun, a great swing in temperature. And cold again at night. A quick somersault of the seasons.
4 degrees. Rain, dark and heavy. Rain to make a city slick and grimy, its suburbs sad.
12 degrees. Sun and then a drowsy greyness, stifling, the first crush of summer storm pressure. It breaks in lashing rain.
0 degrees. Cold sun. Fine white diagonals of contrails softening across the blue.
15 degrees. Warm, cloudy, undistinguished.
9 degrees. Overcast. Light rain. Spring industry. Birds flying with long straws in their beaks, beginning the main structures of their nests. All according to unconscious plan.
7 degrees. Woken by loud detonations of thunder and fluttering lightning light. The storms relent and then return, menacing the new nests. Thick rain becomes chattering hail briefly. It all comes to a dripping stop. Afterwards blasted silver and black. Birds singing quietly, recovering.