Friday, September 05, 2008

Live Blogging War and Peace #4: It's All in the Details

To paraphrase Leo himself, every bad book is the same; every good book is good in its own way.
This is because good writing is specific, bad writing is vague. Good writing thrives on details, bad writing generalizes. My Dad once told me the worst possible sentence to write in a novel. He had crafted it carefully, over the years: “Tannhauser was one of the great wits of Europe, and he held the entire table spellbound for hours.” It sounds good, but it tells you absolutely nothing. A friend of mine described an artist’s work-table in his perennially unpublished novel as “A chaotic cosmos of appurtenances”. I knew when I read it that this vague and almost contentless string of words was one of his favorite bits of writing in the whole novel. I’m glad it gave him pleasure as a writer; as a reader it gave me less than nothing. Compare that to this first glimpse of Nikolai Andrevitch Bolkonsky’s study:

The immense study was filled with things obviously in constant use. The big table with books and plans lying on it, the tall bookcases with keys in their glass doors, the tall table for writing in a standing position, on which lay an open notebook, the lathe with tools laid out and wood shavings strewn around it – everything spoke of constant, diverse, orderly activity. By the movements of the small foot shod in a silver-embroidered Tartar boot, by the firm pressure of the sinewy, lean hand, one could see in the Prince the still-persistent and much enduring strength of fresh old age.

The interesting thing here is that this is not some bravura performance piece paragraph – just another example of the workmanlike strong writing that animates every line of the book. In one paragraph he gives us the vivid image of the Prince’s lair, as well as the beast who inhabits it. We see it and more than that, we feel it -- along with the still potent personal magnetism of “le roi de Prusse” in his fresh old age. The small foot in the Tartar boot! That’s the kind of detail you never forget, the sort of small thing that accumulates gradually over a thousand pages, like the individual snowflakes that come together to comprise city-closing epic we end up calling ‘The Great Blizzard of ‘86”.

And it happens one snowflake at a time, every one of them modestly hand-crafted quietly unique, just like Leo’s sentences, every one of them good in its own way.

To paraphrase Leo himself, every bad book is the same; every good book is good in its own way.

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