February 2, 2009

A you-mean-everything bagel


"All fictional characters are flat. A writer can give an illusion of depth by giving an apparently stereoscopic view of a character--seeing him from two vantage points; all a writer can do is give more or less information about a character, not information of a different order."
--Evelyn Waugh, Paris Review Interviews, vol. 3
How does a writer reach that next plane or dimension of character development? This author didn't think it was possible. But doesn't it sometimes seem like authors achieve "roundness" in their characters?

Think of this H&H everything bagel. Obviously, it's not flat; it's round. I could have tried to make it look flat if I photographed it from above. But even if I had done that, the closer the lens got to it, the more the seeds would have stuck out as 3-D objects atop its magnificent surface, giving the bagel away as an object with dimension. Similarly, some characters are not just crafted by excess information but by a master hand that brings them to life within the story and within the readers' minds. They are just undeniably round. Like good, chewy, salty bagels, which are undeniably delicious.

At least Georges Simenon agrees that writing can create a third dimension.
A commercial painter paints flat; you can put your finger through. But a painter -- for example, an apple by Cezanne has weight. And it has juice, everything, with just three strokes. I tried to give to my words just the weight that a stroke of Cezanne's gave to an apple. That is why most of the time I use concrete words. I try to avoid abstract words, or poetical words you know, like crepuscule*, for example. It is very nice, but it gives nothing. Do you understand? To avoid every stroke which does not give something to this third dimension.
Now, I agree that concrete words are important, and that whatever is not necessary shouldn't be written at all. But what about those poetic, beautiful passages that you might come across in Shirley Hazzard? Are they concrete, and if not, aren't they just as necessary to the reading experience as the juice, as the weight, or a concrete passage? They make reading a contemplative pleasure, and not just an adventure.

*crepuscule: twilight