Tag: Stealing from the Classics

Stealing from the Classics: Bleak House

by on Apr.24, 2010, under Books

Say you have a character you want to invest with mystery. You might start by having another character mention him ominously:

But she had made a previous stoppage on the second floor, and had silently pointed at a dark door there.

“The only other lodger,” she now whispered, in explanation; “a law-writer. The children in the lanes here, say he has sold himself to the devil. I don’t know what he can have done with the money. Hush!”

We can learn his name indirectly too, through mail left lying around:

…announcing that a respectable man aged forty-five wanted engrossing or copying to execute with neatness and dispatch: Address to Nemo, care of Mr. Krook within.

Then forget about him for eighty or so pages. When he comes back, have yet a third character remark that “Nemo” is Latin for “no one,” and try to go see the mysterious copyist against more stern warnings:

“You know what they say of my lodger?” whispers Krook, going up a step or two.

“What do they say of him?”

“They say he has sold himself to the Enemy, but you and I know better—he don’t buy. I’ll tell you what, though; my lodger is so black-humoured and gloomy that I believe he’d as soon make that bargain as any other. Don’t put him out sir. That’s my advice!”

Then apply the atmospherics with a trowel.

Mr. Tulkinghorn with a nod goes on his way. He comes to the dark door on the second floor. He knocks, receives no answer, opens it, and accidentally extinguishes his candle in doing so.

Naturally. Time for the pathetic fallacy.

The air of the room is almost bad enough to have extinguished it, if he had not. It is a small room, nearly black with soot, and grease, and dirt. In the rusty skeleton of a grate, pinched at the middle as if Poverty had gripped it, a red coke fire burns low. In the corner by the chimney, stand a deal table and a broken desk: a wilderness marked with a rain of ink. In another corner, a ragged old portmanteau on one of the two chairs, serves for cabinet and wardrobe; no larger one is needed, for it collapses like the cheeks of a starved man. The floor is bare; except that one old mat, trodden to shreds of rope-yarn, lies perishing upon the hearth. No curtain veils the darkness of the night, but the discolored shutters are drawn together; and through the two gaunt holes pierced in them, famine might be staring in—the Banshee of the man upon the bed.

The stage is set. The mystery man revealed at last.

For, on a low bed opposite the fire, a confusion of dirty patchwork, lean-ribbed ticking, and coarse sacking, the lawyer, hesitating just within the doorway, sees a man. He lies there, dressed in shirt and trousers, with bare feet. He has a yellow look, in the spectral darkness of a candle that has guttered down, until the whole length of its wick (still burning) has doubled over, and left a tower of winding-sheet above it. His hair is ragged, mingling with his whiskers and his beard—the latter, ragged too, and grown, like the scum and mist around him, in neglect. Foul and filthy as the room is, foul and filthy as the air, it is not easy to perceive what fumes those are which most oppress the senses in it; but through the general sickliness and faintness, and the odor of stale tobacco, there comes into the lawyer’s mouth the vapid taste of opium.

“Hallo, my friend!” he cries, and strikes his iron candlestick against the door.

He thinks he has awakened his friend. He lies a little turned away, but his eyes are surely open.

“Hallo, my friend!” he cries again. “Hallo! Hallo!”

As he rattles on the door, the candle which has drooped so long, goes out, and leaves him in the dark; with the gaunt eyes in the shutters staring down upon the bed.

Are these tricks crude? You betcha. But they work.

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Stealing from the Classics: The Bell

by on Apr.02, 2010, under Books

Iris Murdoch demonstrates how to write about rationalization:

Another elderly lady, struggling through the crush, reached the door of Dora’s carriage and addressed her neighbour. ‘Ah, there you are, dear, I thought you were nearer the front.’ They looked at each other rather gloomily, the standing lady leaning at an angle through the doorway, her feet trapped in a heap of luggage. They began a conversation about how they had never seen the train so full.

Dora stopped listening because a dreadful thought had struck her. She ought to give up her seat. She rejected the thought, but it came back. There was no doubt about it. The elderly lady who was standing looked very frail indeed, and it was only proper tat Dora, who was young and healthy should give her seat to the lady who could then sit next to her friend. Dora felt the blood rushing to her face. She sat still and considered the matter. There was no point in being hasty. It was possible of course that while clearly admitting that she ought to give up her seat she might nevertheless simply not do so out of pure selfishness. This would in some ways be a better situation than what would have been the case if it had simply not occurred to her at all that she ought to give up her seat. On the other side of the seated lady a man was sitting. He was reading his newspaper and did not seem to be thinking about his duty. Perhaps if Dora waited it would occur to the man to give his seat to the other lady? Unlikely. Dora examined the other inhabitants of the carriage. None of them looked in the least uneasy. Their faces, if not already buried in books, reflected the selfish glee which had probably been on her own a moment since as she watched the crowd in the corridor. There was another aspect to the matter. She had taken the trouble to arrive early, and surely ought to be rewarded for this. Though perhaps the two ladies had arrived as early as they could? There was no knowing. But in any case there was an elementary justice in the first comers having the seats. The old lady would be perfectly all right in the corridor. The corridor was full of old ladies anyway, and no one else seemed bothered by this, least of all the old ladies themselves! Dora hated pointless sacrifices. She was tired after her recent emotions and deserved a rest. Besides, it would never do to arrive at her destination exhausted. She regarded her state of distress as completely neurotic. She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’

Show, don’t tell, can even apply to thought processes.

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Stealing from the Classics: The Tin Drum

by on Jan.09, 2010, under Books

Late in Book Two Günther Grass builds one of his novel’s main climaxes. World War II is ending and Oskar Matzerath, the narrator and protagonist, attends his father’s funeral. There he plays horseshoes with a metal wreath and a cast-iron cross until he finally rings the post and makes a momentous decision: he will put down the tin drum he’s been beating since he was three years old and allow himself to grow for the first time since then.

Two small lessons here. The first is, don’t worry too much about making your symbolism heavy-handed. Oskar’s father literally chokes to death on his Nazi Party pin when the Russians arrive in Danzig, and as a result Oskar stops his incessant toy drumbeat and begins to emerge from an infantile state.  (Though we soon learn he doesn’t make it all the way to normal adulthood but only to a slightly larger but now somewhat deformed midgethood. Presumably so too did Germany.) Not subtle, still satisfying.

The second is, the impact of a climax is heightened if you let the reader relax for a few pages afterward and absorb it. The climactic chapter “Should I or Shouldn’t I?” which ends with “Leo proclaiming to all the world: ‘He’s growing, he’s growing, he’s growing…'” is followed by this flash-forward to the mental institution from which Oskar narrates his life story:

Last night I was beset by hasty dreams. They were like friends on visiting days. One dream after another; one by one they came and went after telling me what dreams find worth telling; preposterous stories full of repetitions, monologues which could not be ignored, because they were declaimed in a voice that demanded attention and with the gestures of incompetent actors. When I tried to tell Bruno the stories at breakfast, I couldn’t get rid of them, because I had forgotten everything; Oskar has no talent for dreaming.

While Bruno cleared away the breakfast, I asked him as though in passing: “My dear Bruno, how tall am I exactly?”

Bruno set the little dish of jam on my coffee cup and said in tones of concern: “Why, Mr. Matzerath, you haven’t touched your jam.”

This goes on for three more pages, in the course of which we learn one or two more things (Oskar’s height at the time of telling the story, for example). For the most part, though, this is dialogue and description meant to be forgotten. Look at how that first paragraph says exactly nothing. It is filler, meant to register as filler and give the reader time to digest what came before it.

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Stealing from the Classics: To the Finland Station

by on Sep.04, 2009, under Books

“Canalized” is a useful synonym for “channeled.”

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Stealing from the Classics: The Fall of the House of Usher

by on Aug.19, 2009, under Books

Edgar Allen Poe says: You can never be too rich, or too thin, or have too much foreshadowing.

…I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinising observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sulilen waters of the tarn.

Old, rotten family, externally appearing sound. Check. Fissure all the way through the house, wonder whether anything will happen with that? Oh yeah. Check.

In other words, use physical metaphors for underlying themes, make them strongly visual, and don’t be afraid to beat your reader over the head with them.

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Stealing from the Classics: The Turn of the Screw

by on Aug.14, 2009, under Books

As it turns out, it is possible, through the injudicious use of commas, among other marks of punctuation, the endless repetition of certain idioms, and the convolution of sentence structure, to so flatten one’s narrative, as to make even a ghost story boring.

Why one would choose to do such a thing, is beyond me.

My charming work was just my life with Miles and Flora, and through nothing could I so like it as through feeling that to throw myself into it was to throw myself out of my trouble.


“The man. He wants to appear to them.” That he might was an awful conception, and yet somehow I could keep it at bay; which, moreover, as we lingered there, was what I succeeded in practically proving. I had an absolute certainly that I should see again what I had already seen, but something within me said that by offering myself bravely as the sole subject of such experience, by accepting, by inviting, by surmounting it all, I should serve as an expiatory victim and guard the tranquility of the household.

When a friend was in graduate school at CUNY, he asked André Aciman if he could study James with him to prepare for his comps. “James!” Aciman said disgustedly. “Henry James wrote as if English were a dead language.”

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Stealing from the Classics: Hawthorne

by on Aug.10, 2009, under Books

When I taught writing, one of the main things I wanted my students to learn was how to steal. If you can’t steal from other writers you’ll never go anywhere. Ask Shakespeare.

This inaugurates what could be a regular series of posts discussing moments, scenes, or turns of phrase worth ripping off. It may or may not be limited to books. Today’s victim: Nathaniel Hawthorne.

They are practised politicians, every man of them, and skilled to adjust those preliminary measures, which steal from the people, without its knowledge, the power of choosing its own rulers. The popular voice, at the next gubernatorial election, though loud as thunder, will be really but an echo of what these gentlemen shall speak, under their breath, at your friend’s festive board.

In case there’s anyone in the world who cares about spoilers for The House of the Seven Gables, I’ll put my brief discussion below the fold.

(continue reading…)

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