Sunday, 12 October 2014

Brushstrokes (a stolen post)

From a brilliant post by Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git

"Some writers paint, as it were, with small brush-strokes. With the most meticulous precision, they delineate the most subtle and seemingly intangible of things with the utmost delicacy. One has to peer at the canvas very closely to see the brush-strokes, and even then they may elude the eye. Writers that come to mind at this end of the spectrum include Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Edith Wharton.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are writers who paint with big, broad brush-strokes. Usually, though not always, these are writers whose works may, though not always, be described as “epic”. They are generally not too interested in pastel colours: they choose big, bright colours, and apply them with broad sweep and panache and vigour. Authors at this end of the spectrum include Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Herman Melville, William Faulkner.
With Leo Tolstoy, I come across a problem. Is he a delicate short-brusher, or an epic broad-brusher? It’s not so much that he lies at some half-way point on the spectrum between these two extremes: rather, he seems almost effortlessly to encompass the entire spectrum. He could be as subtle and delicate as an Austen or a James; he could be as vigorous and epic as a Dickens or a Melville.
I am currently re-reading Anna Karenina for the umpteenth time, and reading it very slowly, savouring every single page. And it seems to me that, as a novelist, there was absolutely nothing he couldn’t do: there’s absolutely nothing beyond his range. Whether depicting the physical exhilaration in the epic mowing scene, or dissecting with infinite delicacy the subtlest shades and nuances of Anna or of Karenin, he never seems out of his element. Whether he is describing the vast panorama of the field of battle at Austerlitz or at Borodino, or describing the feelings of a teenage girl enchanted by a moonlit night, every single aspect of human life appears to be within his range. And he varies the brush-strokes as he sees fit, confident that the is the master of whatever style of brush-stroke may be required.
Precisely what I wanted to say but didn't know how. 


  1. Di,

    I wonder where Himadri would put Hawthorne, Hardy, Conrad, Proust, or Walter van Tilburg Clark (a favorite writer of mine, though with limited output, unfortunately)?

    1. Hello Fred, this is Himadri replying.

      I think in attempting to classify writers in terms of this very simple metaphor may be stretching the metaphor a bit too far, and is no doubt reductive. But having said that, Conrad I see very much in epic terms, with bold and vigorous strokes. And Proust, though he painted on a vast canvas, filled that canvas with strokes of the utmost delicacy and subtlety.

      Beyond that, I'm afraid my simple little metaphor breaks down. Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" tells an intimate story, with three protagonists, but invests that story with symbolic resonance, endowing it with an import that extends way beyond the domestic drama presented. And Hardy's narratives similarly evoke a world vaster than the one that is directly presented: he winds that blow through the West Country of England have about them a sense of something more elemental. Shakespeare was a bit vague about the exact geography of "King Lear", but I like to think that when Lear was out in the hearth, bare-headed in the storm, it was Egdon Heath he was in.

      In other words, in answer to your question, once my metaphor is taken out of the context of the specific point I was trying to make, it doesn't really hold up too well!

      All the best,