Form or Content

by | Feb 13, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Literature

Sharp-eyed readers of my recent attempts to work out a theory of literature will be excused if they have begun to suspect that I’m more interested in how something is written than what it is about.  Virginia Woolf once responded to a correspondent as follows:

. . . don’t, I beg of you, father on me that doctrine of yours about the way things are written mattering and not the things . . . I don’t see how you can enjoy technique apart from the matter.

I’ve been trying to work out exactly where I stand on this, and as usual find myself supporting a number of contradictory theses.  What I would like to believe is that while it possible to write badly about anything, it is not possible to write well about something that is not ‘true,’ though I would be hard-pressed to explain what ‘true’ means.  Perhaps some examples might help.

Is there any great literature extolling the wonders of soviet-style communism?  Not that I know of.  I’ve read some really bad stuff, and seen one quite awful East German propaganda film.  Repressive governments are notoriously hard on artists, and it’s hard not to think that it’s because artists are addicted to the truth as they see it.

I was in Berlin a year before the Wall came down, and stopped, of course, at a likely-looking bookshop, and asked the man behind the counter if he could recommend something really well-written.  He got very excited, begeistert as they say, at the chance to tout a thing called Kassandra, by Christa Wolf.  She was absolutely one of the best writers in East Germany, he gushed, very highly regarded on both sides of the Wall, and if I were serious about literature I must read the book.  Kassandra remains, after two attempts, one of the few unread volumes on my shelves.  It was with a distinct sense of Schadenfreude that I discovered, several years later, that Christa Wolf, that highly-regarded writer and darling of the East German intelligentsia, turned out to be also a highly-regarded Stasi collaborator.  Stasi; that’s ‘secret police’ to you and me.

How about Nabokov, an extraordinarily talented writer famous or infamous, as you will, for Lolita, a novel about a pederast?  Certainly a distasteful subject, and what is most disturbing is that Humbert Humbert, the pederast and narrator, is presented as a sympathetic character.  He is witty and urbane, and expresses himself beautifully.  He is also a monster.  But we know why he is a monster, and knowing too much about root causes always makes it more difficult to condemn.  And anyway the story does not promote pederasty.  It is a tragedy.  The novel is supposed to be a manuscript left behind by Humbert, who dies in his cell while awaiting trial for murder.

If I agree with Virginia Woolf that you cannot ‘enjoy technique apart from the matter’ it is because I have trouble keeping them separate.  But I’ll take a stab at it.

Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is about getting ready to give a party.  Clarissa Dalloway makes plans, gives instructions to the servants, buys flowers.  She walks around London.  She thinks about the past.  She talks to old friends.

It’s all rather banal, actually, and even Clarissa is aware of it, and yet . . .

It is beautifully told.   Woolf specializes in showing us the shimmering verities hidden within the seeming banality of everyday life.  There is hardly a plot.  It is only interesting because of the way Woolf shows us what we might have missed.