Tag Archives: Evelyn Waugh

Writing Fiction: Details, Details

Apparently, at the microscopic level it is possible to see that print rests on top of the page.  Similarly, I can read a whole chapter without ever quite getting absorbed by it.  But this is what I hope for: the point when it becomes immaterial whether I am reading a book or a Kindle.

One of the ways in which writers achieve this is in their use of detail.  In the discussion of character I quoted from Lisbeth Salander’s trip to Ikea.  The full list of what she buys is, ‘Two Karlanda sofas with sand coloured upholstery, five Poang armchairs, two round side tables of clear lacquered birch, a Svansbo coffee table, and several Lack occasional tables.’  It would have been easier to tell us that she went to Ikea and bought some furniture, but it doesn’t engage in the same way, the list somehow adds to character and puts you next to her.

In Vile Bodies Evelyn Waugh could have written, ‘There were many choices on offer for breakfast but Adam and Nina ate frugally.’  Instead he writes, ‘Adam and Nina breakfasted alone in the dining-room.  There was a row of silver plates kept hot by spirit lamps which held an omelette and devilled partridges and kedgeree and kidneys and sole and some rolls; there was also a ham and a tongue and some brawn and dish of pickled herrings.’  A bit heavy, but in my pre-vegetarian days I’m sure I could have tackled it.  Not only does this give a clear description of an unnecessarily excessive breakfast in an English country house, but also sets up the bathetic joke at the end. ‘Nina ate an apple and Adam ate some toast.’

Stephen King, when writing about his hero’s alcoholism, could have said, ‘His hangover made him feel nauseous.’  Instead, ‘His stomach gave a liquid lurch.  He burped up a mouthful of sour gunk that tasted of whiskey and swallowed it back.’  Yuk.  And say no more: drinking ain’t fun.

Dickens is a little different.  He often piles on repetitive detail (fog, fog, fog; stone, stone, stone) as a metaphor for some moral condition which surrounds the characters.  But occasionally, he just lets you have the scene.  ‘A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.  It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.’ (Tale of Two Cities) Which really makes you feel that you’re with the characters as they follow their carriage up a muddy hill.

The final example is from a book that is almost totally a description of details.  In Life, A User’s Manual, a Parisian block of flats is described in almost obsessive detail.  The furnishings, the knick-knacks, the works of art and books.  But hidden in them are clues to the characters of the occupants.  This is from the description of the ‘witch’s mirrors’ that the evil Winckler has made, ‘He finicked over each frame for days on end, cutting, fretsawing endlessly until it was an almost immaterial piece of wooden lace, in whose centre the small polished mirror looked like a metallic glance.  An icy eye, wide open, full of irony and malice.’  Which reminds me, winter’s on its way.

I have nothing wise to say about all of this.  Other than the fact that details are part of the art of writing.  Which I would do well to remember.

Lit Crit: Vile Bodies

The trouble with Evelyn Waugh was he could write.  It’s like finding out that Richard Littlejohn wrote Shakespeare.  Because for the rest of the time he seems to have made a point of being unpleasant: openly celebrating his son’s return to boarding school each term; and, in that classic John Freeman interview, answering questions in such a condescending way that once you had started punching his face it would have been hard to know when to stop.

But he wrote this:  Under a great chandelier which scattered with stars of light like stones from a broken necklace.

And:  There was a thin fog drifting in belts before a damp wind.

Not to mention:  (Describing the deaths of colonial ancestors) One had been picked white by fishes as the tides rolled him among the tree-tops of a submarine forest; some had grown black and unfit for consideration under tropical suns; while many of them lay in marble tombs of extravagant design).

I read Vile Bodies after seeing a documentary about the ‘Bright Young Things’ on BBC4.  There, in the photos, was Evelyn Waugh hanging around looking pasty.  I had suffered through Decline and Fall for O level, but enjoyed Brideshead Revisited, so I thought I’d try again.

At the start of VB, a writer-to-be loses his manuscript and the money he would need to marry his fiancé.  Everything is written in a slightly Noel Coward way:

‘Oh, I say, Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be able to marry you after all.’

‘Oh, Adam, you are a bore.  Why not?’

‘They burnt my book.’

‘Beasts.  Who did?’

‘I’ll tell you about it to-night.’

‘Yes, do.  Good-bye, darling.’

‘Goodbye, my sweet.’

Tum-te-tum.  He then wins a £1000 and gives it to a major who promises to place it on a horse with very high odds and little chance of winning.  The horse wins but the major disappears.  Happy-ending-wise you can pretty much see where this is going.  There’s a laboured bit of stuff about children dressed as angels with names like Fortitude and Chastity; and later some political satire that passed me by. 

But halfway through writing the book EW found out that his wife, on whom the fiancé was based, had been having an affair, and suddenly the story becomes a lot more unpredictable.  The hero goes all fatalistic, and there’s even a bleak pre-vision of the Second World War.

It would sound like a platitude to say that EW was better when he was vulnerable, but perhaps it did him good to be knocked off his perch.  And of course, there’s the writing.  All of the quotes above are from the book.  The novel suggests the archetypal satirist-as-injured-romantic.  But I suspect, if you’d told him this, he’d have raised that big cigar to his mouth and eyed you with disdain.

Toward the end of the Social Network, a lawyer says to the owner of Facebook, ‘You’re not an asshole, Mark.  You’re just trying so hard to be.’  And thinking of Evelyn Waugh, I couldn’t have put it better.

By the way, if you want to see the Freeman interview, it’s at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvtjUt0GzKg  This programme includes a clip of John Freeman talking about the interview, and he’s a lot more gracious than I would have been. If you start watching and think how charming Evelyn Waugh is being, just hang in there.