I read Lolita this week. More on what I thought of it later. For now, it’s one of those books that prompts you to read a lot of things about it and there are a lot of things about it. Lolita, more than most books, spawned an entire cottage industry of intellectual argument and commentary. One of the articles I came across was actually a review of a book about Vladimir Nabokov by John Banville in the New York Review of Books. In his column, he writes of Nabokov:
Indeed, the argument could be made that stylists of the high, Nabokovian variety—of which, it should be observed, there are not many, and almost all of them male—are literary bullies in their insistence that we accept exclusively their highly polished and rigidly fixed accounts of how things are within the little rounds that their fictions create.
It passes unnoticed but for a feeling while I’m reading. Most writers describe a person or a place and give a few of the crucial details but, importantly, not all of them. Of course, giving a reader everything is impossible (even in 900 pages covering only eighteen hours of a single day), but, more to the point, the art of good description is in giving the reader just enough to stimulate his or her imagination into filling the gaps. I often read criticism that praises not just an author’s vividness of detail but her selection of detail. If you’re only giving two or three clues as to what this person looks like, what, of the thousands of visual, sensory, emotional, or environmental clues do you choose?
But there are some writers, as Banville notes, that impose their own imagination on the reader rather than supercharge the reader’s to fill in what’s missing. Nabokov I guess would qualify but, more than anyone else, I think of John Updike.
That sort of writing can be entertaining and fun to read for its own reasons. For example, in Rabbit, Run, Updike writes page after page after page of description like the following:
In waiting for his reply, she contemplates his shoulder; her eyelashes from his angle hide her eyes. Her lips are parted and her tongue, a movement in her jaw tells him, touches the roof of her mouth. In the noon sun her features show sharp and her lipstick looks cracked. He can see the inner lining of her lower lip wet against her teeth.
He holds nothing back. On the one hand, I haven’t read Rabbit, Run in months and immediately remember precisely what Lucy (the ‘she’ in this passage) looks like: short, very pale, pretty though much older than Rabbit, reddish brown hair, lots of freckles, sharp features and lots of coquettish sarcasm, slender but wider at the hips and above the knees (Rabbit likes women who are wider above the knee), wears a green flowy shirt that Rabbit finds attractive (he grabs her ass one time for no apparent reason). There’s something impressive about that but it’s also a little tiresome. It’s like when you watch a movie based on your favorite book. No matter how many times I read Harry Potter, Harry will always be Daniel Radcliffe and Hermione will always be Emma Watson and they’ll each age only the way that the real people age from movie to movie. My imagination is on a loop that won’t be broken.
For example, Updike writes the following of Rabbit’s trip from his mistress’s house to the hospital to see his son born (charming, I know) as follows:
He runs most of the way to the hospital. Up Summer one block, then down Youngquist, a street parallel to Weiser on the north, a street of brick tenements and leftover business places, shoe-repair nooks smelling secretively of leather, darkened candy stores […]
Updike mentions where “Youngquist” crosses the railroad tracks. He mentions Railway Street. It’s as though he’s obliging his patient reader who needs a moment to fill in the blank map of fictional Brewer, Pennsylvania provided in the back of the book with perforated edges to be taken out and unfolded at the table while reading. Who the hell cares which direction the fictional Youngquist runs in his fictional city? North or South, doesn’t matter. What does it matter which other fictional streets run parallel? Even when the description means less than nothing, Updike is unable to let the reader do any of the imagining.
But there’s a parallel inclination that I’ve noticed in, first Virginia Woolf, and, more recently, Mary McCarthy to describe not the physical appearance but the emotional state of a character in excruciating detail. It doesn’t annoy me the way Updike’s alternative does. In fact, I rather like it. In a section of The Company She Keeps entitled “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” McCarthy writes:
He longed to act, he told himself, yet the vague enormity of his situation furnished an apparently permanent excuse for inaction. He believed that he was waiting for an issue big enough to take a stand on, but now all issues seemed flimsy, incapable of supporting his increasing weight. In a curious way, his ego had become both shrunken and enlarged; his sense of inadequacy had made him self-important. He began to talk a good deal about ‘petty’ squabbles, tempests in teapots, molehills and mountains. If he were to resign from the Liberal, he said to himself, he would have to do so for his own reasons. To resign on behalf of some Eighth Street intellectual would be to accept that intellectual as his ally, to step off the high ground of the Liberal into the noisome marsh of sectarian politics. And, above all, Jim feared that terrible quicksand, which would surely, he thought, swallow him up alive, if he so much as set a foot over the edge.
She describes Jim vaguely but only vaguely. I still see him, tall and pompous, with a button down and the sleeves rolled up. I can’t remember if she described him that way but it is what it is (and note that I finished Jim’s section of the book less than an hour ago as I write this, in contrast to the six months since I read Rabbit’s impressions of Lucy Eccles). McCarthy spends infinitely more time spinning Jim’s little twinges of guilt and indignation and conflict out into elaborate metaphors that carry the reader into twist and turn of his mind.
For some reason, McCarthy’s over-description sparks the imagination when Updike’s sometimes stifles it. McCarthy leaves plenty of space for my mind’s eye to do its own thing but, through the elaborate emotional lives of her characters, I understand far better what I’m imagining. Her characters’ emotions are vivid but their physical characteristics can change as the people in my own life change. Her cast of characters can morph subtly as my own cast of characters evolves. Updike just seems to do the imagining for me.