New Fiction January/February 2006

A Close Read

What makes good writing good

"And yet characters like Françoise are life-giving: they broaden one's outlook. Even their stratagems and deceits are instructive; one can observe them, marvel at them, even as one disapproves. I could imagine how she would have conducted the evening that had just passed: bold questions, a little mockery, an expectation that money would be spent, a predictable conclusion. She would have formed a more or less accurate assessment of his social position, his income, and treated him accordingly, perhaps in a way that most men would understand. I knew nothing about him beyond what he had told me, or was willing to tell me, choosing to remain discreet about what he was determined to conceal. In comparison I had talked too much, and at the same time said nothing of interest. This was not a useful way to proceed." —from Leaving Home, by Anita Brookner (Random House)

Clarity is Anita Brookner's coin. Brookner doesn't rely on evocative metaphor or unusual phrasing to make her novels compelling, and she's well known for eschewing dramatic action: nearly all the movement in her books occurs in her characters' heads, and even that is more reflection than motion. Her sentences are complex (she makes use of the colon and the semicolon more often than most writers), but this complexity is obviously in service to the explication of complicated, hierarchical ideas—observations that require defining with a general term that must then, for the sake of clarity, be redefined (as in this excerpt's first sentence) or be broken into smaller, illustrative parts (as in its second). The sentences that follow, with the exception of the last, are also built of modifying phrases that add shade upon shade of meaning. Nevertheless, Brookner's measured tone, her precision, and her disregard for obvious poetic devices make her writing strikingly spare. She's wonderfully economical, too, when illustrating character, as in the four neat phrases that sum up Françoise's behavior with men, and in the use of the formal "one," which emphasizes the distance at which the narrator habitually keeps herself from others. Brookner's most effective use of economy in this paragraph, however, may be the final statement: in its very simplicity it undercuts the paragraphs of involved self-reflection that precede it.

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Christina Schwarz is the author of the novels Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity.

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