The Case for Lilac Prose

17 Oct

Dear literature lovers, have you grown sick of simple sentences?

Lilacs at the 2007 Lilac Celebration at the RBCDeadened to the doldrums of dry, dusty prose?

Benumbed by the banal?

You’re not alone.

I, and at least one other guy, agree with you.

And after all, don’t we have a right to be upset?

These days American literature has taken on the drab and isolating austerity of an Edward Hopper painting. Once bold and fresh, the pared-back writing style of literary greats like Hemingway and Carver has grown limp and weary—flaccid as a neglected houseplant in the fits of winter.

This Wednesday, The New York Times published another installment of Draft, a series of essays that hone in on the “art and craft of writing.” In this week’s selection, “A Short Defense of Literary Excess,” the 24-year old British author Ben Masters (who’s pretty cute for the literary type, in case you wanted to know) wrote about his love for writers who revel in the musicality of a poetic sentence and the long hours of tinkering that can occur in the process of perfecting the rhythm and diction of phrasing.

In the article, Masters describes a few of the great baroque stylists: Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, and others. For Masters, these authors open the doors to the house of literature, allowing it to breathe and expand.

Writes Masters, “Excess serves very different functions for each of [the authors], whether as an expression of wonder, adaptability, individuality, free will; or as a means of self-fashioning; even as a survival tactic. But whatever it embodies or performs, the sentence in their hands is expansive rather than constrictive.”

So what do you think of this Masters?

Is he pretentious?

Does he waggle his roseate pinky finger as he sips from his china tea cup? Who knows. But I don’t think so. I think I agree with him.

American prose has become unplayful and stiff, like a collared shirt flattened and then doused with too much starch. After all, when was the last time we frontier-forgers won a Nobel? Not since 1993, with Toni Morrison’s gorgeous, sometimes surrealist prose.

Just as this article came out, I was in the middle of reading The Street of Crocodiles, a book by a Polish author, Bruno Schulz, who was Poland’s preeminent writer in the years between World War I and World War II. Schulz, a Jew, was shot in the head by a Nazi in World War II, and we only have his slim oeuvre of fantastical stories and eery drawings to let us know how much we’ve missed by that loss.

Cover of "The Street of Crocodiles (Class...

Take these two sentences, the very first from The Street of Crocodiles.

“In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.”

When was the last time you read something so gorgeous, so wonderfully unexpected and vivid?

Schulz’s book, The Street of Crocodiles, is a collection of short stories that act as a kind of fantastical memoir of his own childhood and the growing mania of his father. Just as his father becomes obsessed with the cockroaches that steal around the house, the exotic birds he raises in the attic, and the inanimate objects he infuses with lungs and breath and evil intentions, Schulz’s narrator uses madness’s close cousin—the fantastic—to describe this childhood from the perspective of a man looking back on his youth through the lens of that same vivid, childish imagination.

Just read how he describes the boredom of being cooped up in winter: “The days hardened with cold and boredom like last year’s loaves of bread. One began to cut them with blunt knives without appetite, with a lazy indifference.”

Translate that into popularized prose and you might get something like: “The winter was cold and he was bored. He looked for something to do. He went into town and walked around the stores.”

Yikes, no!

John Wood, a writer and literary critic, writes in his book How Fiction Works why language is such a tricky thing. The medium too easily lends itself to the common. For Wood, the trouble with writing arises “because language is the ordinary medium of daily communication—unlike music or paint.”

How, then, to create art?

For some, the answer may be found in creating poetry from prose, thereby elevating the way we communicate to a higher plane.

But really, that’s not an answer, because just think of all the writers who have attempted excess in prose and instead been sucked down inside the quagmires of their own pretensions.

The best authors are those who can alternate between the high intricacy of the ornate and the dry marrow of the simplistic to create dynamic, destabilizing prose that truly captures the way humans think, act, and dream their worlds.

What do you call a mix of purple prose and bland, Puritanical austerity?

I, for one, call it Lilac Prose, and I think you should, too.

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One Response to “The Case for Lilac Prose”

  1. Nathan October 17, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    First of all, the Saul Bellow quote about Augie March falling in love with books is perfect. I wish I’d read it years ago.

    I’m interested by the use of “destabilizing” to describe the ideal prose created by combining intricacy and candidness (candidity should probably be a word now). At first I want to disagree and say that the perfect alternation between styles should be seamless, that destabilization suggests some kind of jarring transition. After a second read-through, though, I understand – There’s something disorienting and startling about excellent prose, and not in the sense that some modern American writing startles with its unexpected blandness.

    Making me stop and think about the conclusion (lilac is actually an excellent chromatic choice for the compromise between brevity and bounty) and about not only what makes the perfect prose but also what is required of American authors to leave behind their staleness was the best part. I didn’t feel like I had to wade through a quagmire of paragraphs, and I came away feeling smarter and more literary than when I started reading. Love it!

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