The Quiet Style
July 29, 2010
Following up my last post praising Susan Darraj for her “quiet style,” I thought I should develop that idea, so I went searching on my bookshelves for a good example. Now, my shelves haven’t been organized since the room was painted more than a decade ago (and my wife and I still quarrel about whose fault that is), so my choice here is almost random. But when I spotted a novel by William Trevor lying sideways in a heap, I figured that’d be a good source, and I found a likely passage in less than three minutes, early in the book when Trevor describes two servants in a once-grand house:
Favouring black in clothes worn tightly, accentuating plumpness, Zenobia has soft hazel eyes in a soft face, her cheeks streaked like two good apples, her hair flecked with the grey her forty-nine years demand. In contrast, her husband is a hawk-faced man, dark-jowled and lankly made, his servant’s wear—black also—completing the priestly look he cultivates. [His] interest is the turf.
—from Chapter 1 of Death in Summer
It’s a simple paragraph that offers a vivid picture of the two characters, and look how Trevor constructs it: with a dead metaphor, a semi-resurrected one, and a single but homely live one.
The dead one: As you sped over “hawk-faced,” did you even picture a hawk?
The semi-resurrected one: Trevor plays on the dead metaphor “apple-cheeked,” bringing it partly back to life as “cheeks streaked like two good apples.” He gets us to see the healthy redness there and also the variegation, the smudginess of a human complexion. (With the subordinate implication that good apples themselves are streaky, an appetizing thought. We might also explore “good apple” in the sense of good person, but let’s not get too deconstructionist here.)
The live one: Though “priestly look” isn’t quite dead as a phrase, it’s so ordinary and quiet that it scarcely functions as a comparison until it plays off against the man’s predilection for the horses. It’s the implied contrast, not the metaphor itself, that most strikes us.
To me, this is just plain good writing, and few writers practice it. Far too often I pick up a highly praised book only to find that the author bedecks nearly every sentence with gaudy metaphors that dangle like jewels around the plump arm or creamy throat of a Hollywood starlet, shimmering and dancing, demanding such attention that, distracted by the glitter, stumbling like a sleepwalker through this film producer’s lavish party, I forget to notice what, in the midst of such glamor, has in fact been said or implied, leaving my dreaming mind suspended in the bright-speckled, alcohol-fumed air (not to mention the syntax) until I’m as befuddled as the young but wizened man who sits in the corner with a glare malty as the Scotch he nurses in his bone-pale hands.
Some people like that kind of clutter. Some writers, to give them credit, can pull it off, for a while at least. But as a reader I tire after a few pages. What’s the point? Does every clause need decoration? Is this world of ours, or the world of the story, so colorless that it has to be tarted up?
Thank you, Mr. Trevor, and the small class of others who preserve the quiet style.