Archive for the 'Books' Category

“You think I know f*** nothing?”

Toward the end of Nicholas Monsarrat’s World War II novel The Cruel Sea we find the frigate Saltash in charge of a convoy delivering supplies to the Soviet port of Murmansk, far above the Arctic Circle. The Russians are suspicious and resentful of their British allies who, as they see it, have been shirking their fair share of the war effort – hunkering down behind the Channel, postponing their promised invasion of France, while the Red Army fights a desperate defensive war.

These resentments bubble over in a shouting match between First Lieutenant Lockhart and a Russian interpreter. The fight ends on a farcical note:

At the head of the gangway [the interpreter] turned, for a final blistering farewell.

“You English,” he said, in thunderous accents and with extraordinary venom, “think we know damn nothing – but I tell you we know damn all.”

For a novel published in 1951, The Cruel Sea is rather more forthright than I was expecting. Death and mutilation are unflinchingly described, and prostitution, abortion, and venereal disease come up for discussion – albeit in language much less salty than real-life seamen were likely to have used.

While overall this linguistic propriety scarcely handicaps the novel, it struck me that the scene with the Russian would have been more effective if Monsarrat had been permitted fuller access to the vernacular – as David Niven enjoyed, a quarter century later, when he used the exact same gag in his Hollywood memoir Bring On The Empty Horses. The title derives from a supposed incident on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade:

Mike Curtiz was the director of The Charge and his Hungarian-oriented English was a source of joy to us all.

High on a rostrum he decided that the right moment had come to order the arrival on the scene of a hundred head of riderless chargers. “Okay!” he yelled into a megaphone. “Bring on the empty horses!”

[Errol] Flynn and I doubled up with laughter. “You lousy bums,” Curtiz shouted, “you and your stinking language…you think I know fuck nothing…well, let me tell you – I know FUCK ALL!”

It’s possible that Niven – who had no compunctions about rustling a stray anecdote and passing it off as his own – swiped this line from Monsarrat’s novel. It’s somewhat less likely (but still in the realm of possibility) that Michael Curtiz really was the originator of the “I know fuck all” gaffe, on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936, and the punchline made its way across the Atlantic to Monsarrat’s ears.

Far likelier, the tale was floating around the British military during the war, and Monsarrat (Lt. Cdr., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) and Niven (Lt. Col., British Army) independently heard it and stored it away for later use.

***

I shouldn’t single David Niven out for scorn; he just happens to be associated with the most famous version of the anecdote. A Google search reveals that it’s been recycled any number of times, and the verbal flub attributed to any number of funny-talking foreigners.

(By the way, I mistakenly assumed that “fuck nothing / fuck all” was the “authentic” version, and “damn nothing / damn all” a weak-tea substitute; but the latter seems to be the one more commonly reported by speakers of British English.)

In this biography of Sidney Poitier, the quote is put in the mouth of Hungarian director Zoltan Korda.

In a British humour book called Funny Shaped Balls the setting is a football match between England and Scotland, overseen by an exasperated Hungarian referee.

In this article credit is given to yet another Hungarian, conductor Georg Solti

…However, the Rough Guide to Classical Music assigns it to conductor Ernest Ansermet, a French-speaking Swiss.

The line is spoken by an Arab officer in a 1967 British theatrical farce called Bang Bang Beirut (…which it somehow pleases me to see was being performed as recently as 2017, at a high school in Austin, Texas).

This old British sailor claims to have heard it in the sixties from a Calcutta dock supervisor with a “sing song Indian accent”.

In a recent memoir by an American Air Force veteran, it’s delivered by a German guard in a WWII POW camp…

…But that Yank airman was beaten to it by a one-legged RAF POW who got his version of the story into print way back in 1957.

…The “unnamed German POW camp guard” attribution seems to be the most frequent; I can’t link to them all. I will single out the commenter on this blog who mistakenly remembers the line occurring somewhere in The Great Escape.

Who knows where the anecdote originated. Its appearance in The Cruel Sea is the earliest I’ve found; however, that may simply be because much before 1951, “damn all” (let alone “fuck all”) would’ve been considered pretty racy. The joke may have circulated for many years, without leaving a trace on the printed language, before Monsarrat seized on it.

M.

PS. Here’s a discussion of the origins of the expression “fuck all” and its variants, claiming that the horrific murder of the English girl Fanny Adams in 1867 inspired a morbid sailor’s joke comparing their unappetizing meat rations to the girl’s remains – later abbreviated to “sweet F.A.” – later misunderstood to denote “sweet fuck all”.

The Phrase Finder, however, claims that “fuck all” predates “Fanny Adams” and that the two phrases were conflated sometime between Fanny’s murder and World War I.

In a post last year that attempted to answer the question “Why read?” I quoted some other dubious David Niven anecdotes from Bring On The Empty Horses. On a related note, here’s Nevil Shute being told by the publishers of his first novel, in 1926, to replace every instance of the word “bloody” with “ruddy”.

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Sergeant, erect that flagpole.

Early in Nicholas Monsarrat’s Second World War novel The Cruel Sea, newly commissioned Sub-Lieutenant Ferraby, serving on his first ship, is given an order he doesn’t understand:

“Single up to the stern-wire,” Bennett had said, and left it at that – though not forgetting to add, by way of farewell: “And if you get a wire round the screw, Christ help you!”

Ferraby wanders aft and looks despairingly at the mooring ropes leading off in various directions, not knowing how to proceed, sweating under the gaze of the old salts under his command. Then he has an inspiration:

He nodded to Tonbridge and said, simply:

“Single up to the stern-wire.”

Tonbridge said: “Aye aye, sir,” and then, to the nearest seamen: “Take off those wrappings,” and then, to the hands waiting on the jetty: “Cast off breast-rope and spring.” Men moved: the wires splashed in the water, and were hauled in: the moorings quickly simplified themselves, to one single rope running aft. It was easy as that.

Although relieved, Ferraby feels that he has “cheated” – disguising his ignorance by fobbing the responsibility onto his men. But perhaps he has actually demonstrated good military leadership. Steve Sailer, in his obit for his friend, the sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, shares a lesson he learned from the Korean War vet:

He once recalled a question from the Army Officer Candidate School test:

Q. You are in charge of a detail of 11 men and a sergeant. There is a 25-foot flagpole lying on the sandy, brush-covered ground. You are to erect the pole. What is your first order?

The right answer is:

A. “Sergeant, erect that flagpole.”

In other words, if the sergeant knows how to do it, then there’s no need for you to risk your dignity as an officer and a gentleman by issuing some potentially ludicrous order about how to erect the flagpole. And if the sergeant doesn’t know either, well, he’ll probably order a corporal to do it, and so forth down the chain of command. But by the time the problem comes back up to you, it will be well established that nobody else has any more idea than you do.

M.

Twelve years ago, in an essay inspired by the premise of Mike Judge’s barely-released movie Idiocracy, I summarized the climax of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s apocalyptic sci-fi classic Lucifer’s Hammer: “Ultimately the army of property rights and technological progress prevails in a bloody battle against the army of cannibalistic former welfare recipients.”

Aspects of the Novel and the limits of readers’ memories.

Midway through his famous discussion of “flat” versus “round” characters in Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster asks us to:

Suppose that Louisa Musgrave had broken her neck on the Cobb.

Forster has been evaluating the roundness of Jane Austen’s characters, so we can deduce that an incident from one of Austen’s books is being referred to; and toward the end of the next sentence, that book is disclosed as Persuasion.

I’ve read maybe a quarter of the books mentioned in Aspects of the Novel, and Persuasion happens to be one of them. Thinking hard, I reconstructed the scene: an excitable girl demands that her gentleman friend “jump her down” from the harbour wall to the pavement below; she miscalculates her jump, the gentleman misses, and (Austen females having the approximate constitution of ninety-year-old rheumatics) she spends the next few chapters on death’s door.

Aspects of the Novel was originally delivered, in 1927, as a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. Forster was confident not only that his hearers would recognize the allusion to Louisa on the Cobb, but that they would process it rapidly enough to give their attention to the fairly involved sentence that follows. Was he realistically gauging his audience’s recall – here, and on the many other occasions in Aspects where he takes for granted what I would consider a remarkable level of intimacy with these books?

Obviously, modern folks would be intimate with a different set of books than a 1927 crowd. Jane Austen remains well-known, though not so well that “Louisa Musgrave on the Cobb” will ring many bells. Henry James is still read; Oliver Goldsmith, less so; George Meredith, not at all.

No-one would today pick Walter Scott as an example of a novelist with “a trivial mind and a heavy style” whose continued fame relies on “happy sentimental memories” of having encountered him before our judgement had matured. Maybe Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs occupy a cultural space today comparable to Walter Scott’s circa 1927 – middlebrow relics evoking a bygone era of freedom and adventure, with enough residual literary cred that teenage readers are willing to pretend they’re not bored to death by them. But I doubt that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are one-tenth as widely known to modern readers as Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood would have been to Forster’s audience.

Perhaps Tolkien is a closer modern parallel to Scott. But before Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations came out, I don’t recall the names Gandalf or Aragorn being known to anyone outside nerd circles. In fact, when I try and think of literary non-title characters famous enough that a modern Forster could confidently drop their names – Tom Joad, Scout Finch, Mr. Rochester – most of them are famous at least in part because of the movies.

The 21st century schmoe remembers as many fictional characters as a 1927 Cambridge lecture-goer, but the memory slots that would once have held the members of Fagin’s gang or the murderers of Julius Caesar have been filled instead with Mos Eisley background freaks and Hogwarts house-elves.

***

The Introduction to my edition of Aspects quotes two esteemed Cantabrigians who in their youth attended the talks upon which the book was based: theatre director George Rylands, who was charmed by Forster’s undogmatic appeal to “the Common Reader”; and the critic and generally acknowledged lemon-sucker F.R. Leavis, who was “astonished at the intellectual nullity” of Forster’s ideas, and dismissed his fawning audience as “sillier dons’ wives and their friends”. Forster himself, in his Author’s Note, all but begs forgiveness for his unrigorous tone.

At any rate, it seems he wasn’t trying to be obscure. I wonder whether a modern lecturer would make such breezy assumptions about the Common Reader’s cultural literacy. Or would it be safer to aim at the level of the dull students imagined by Kingsley Amis in a 1967 essay on the consequences of dumbing down the education system:

You will use up less of your allotted time, and thus enable yourself to cover that much more ground, if you can say “As Eliot wrote”, instead of “As Eliot wrote…What’s the trouble? Oh, sorry. As T.S. Eliot – ee ell eye oh tee – the poet, dramatist, playwright, that is, and critic wrote…” While the thicks get what they need, the bright people doodle. [1]

Put aside whether we modern readers are more shoddily educated than our great-grandparents. Even if we’d been equally well-schooled in literature, and spent as much of our recreation time reading, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of additional novels have appeared in the past ninety years. Granting that most of those novels were worthless and quickly forgotten, the pool of “important” novels from which to choose is enormously larger now than it was then.

Picture what it was like at the other end of literary history. Taking Aristotle to task for his comment in the Poetics that “All human happiness or misery takes the form of action”, Forster forgivingly mentions that Aristotle “had read few novels and no modern ones – the Odyssey but not Ulysses“.

(…Which contradicts Forster’s earlier definition of a novel as “a fiction in prose of a certain extent”; but never mind, the Odyssey functions very much like a novel.)

Granting that the Odyssey and Iliad are novels – and that there then existed a handful of other verse epics, now lost – it was ordinary for a Greek gentleman of Aristotle’s time to have read one hundred percent of all the novels ever written in his language; and with a little more effort, that gentleman might familiarize himself with most extant plays, poetry, philosophy, and history as well. Thus it was easy to carry on a literary conversation with a fellow educated gentleman. You could be confident that when you mentioned Nausicaä doing her washing, or Hector’s frightening helmet, he’d get the reference.

By Forster’s day it was no longer possible, let alone desirable, for an educated Englishman to be familiar with every novel in his language. But avid readers had, of necessity, at least peeked into a broad sample of all the ones that mattered: there weren’t that many, and there wasn’t that much else to do. The odds of two people having read any given book were lower than in Aristotle’s day, but still high enough that Forster didn’t have to worry about the sillier dons’ wives losing the thread.

Forster in 1927 is nearer in time to us than he was to Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe; let’s say chronologically he’s at roughly the two-thirds point in the 300-year history of the English novel. But if you imagine him standing alongside a row of all the books ever published, laid end to end in order of publication, he’s surprisingly close to the beginning of the row. Because the earliest books have been around longest, and have had more time to influence the ones that came after, their importance is disproportionate to their small number; and Forster has read most of the books that, even now, matter the most; which is why we can still read him with interest. But with every passing year, the likelihood decreases that a lecturer and his audience – or any two readers of similar taste and educational background – will have peeked into the same books. The Common Reader has less and less in common.

At some point, as the frontiers of the subject recede further and further beyond the horizon, it may become impractical to talk broadly about literature in the way that Forster in 1927 still could. In an empire so vast, a single obscure province – young adult sci-fi by British women authors, say – will be spacious enough that a reader need never leave it; and the critic who presumes to generalize will, like a foreign correspondent who claims familiarity with a place based on a couple days hanging out in the hotel bar, risk exposing the breadth of his ignorance.

M.

1. “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right”, in Amis’s collection What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions.

Just a few weeks ago I built a long, depressing essay around a passage from E.M. Forster’s collection Two Cheers For Democracy and his favourite word, muddle. I shared my embarrassingly belated first impressions of the Odyssey last year. My negative opinion of the critic F.R. Leavis comes mainly from some sarcastic remarks directed at him by Clive James, mentioned in my 2012 discussion of the entangled afterlives of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Updike’s The Coup: Opposite possibilities.

An African official, in the act of organizing the non-violent coup which culminates John Updike’s The Coup, slyly invites the complicity of some visiting Americans:

“The channels of the mind, it may be, like those of our nostrils, have small hairs – cilia, is that the word? If we think always one way, these lie down and grow stiff and cease to perform their cleansing function. The essence of sanity, it has often been my reflection, is the entertainment of opposite possibilities: to think the contrary of what has been customarily thought, and thus to raise these little – cilia, am I wrong? – on end, so they can perform again in unimpeachable fashion their cleansing function. You want examples. If we believe that Allah is almighty, let us suppose that Allah is non-existent. If we have been assured that America is a nasty place, let us consider that it is a happy place.”

The official is advertising to the Americans his ideological flexibility, in contrast to his country’s dictator, the prophet of a macaronic anti-Western creed called “Islamic Marxism”. Putting aside the speaker’s cynical intentions, is there something to be said for entertaining challenging thoughts to activate the cilia in the “channels of the mind”?

It’s not a fashionable idea at present; witness (to pluck three examples from as many weeks of escalating Social Justice puritanism) the firing of Kevin Williamson by The Atlantic for carrying his anti-abortion beliefs to their logical conclusion, or the conviction of a Scottish YouTuber over a gag about his girlfriend’s Nazi pug dog, or the preposterously overheated responses to Jordan Peterson’s mild conservative nostrums.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Left represented resistance to mob freakouts over sacrilege and indecency; we imagined this was a question of principle, not opportunism. Now it’s obvious that my young adulthood happened to coincide with a period of uncertainty between the collapse of one set of taboos, and the rise of another. For a half century or so, the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities was valued, idealized. Those of us who grew up during that half century assumed that keeping our cilia well-lubricated and flexible was healthy in itself. But maybe rather than the cilia, the fontanelles of the infant skull are a better analogy: they’re soft and yielding during the time of transition – the passage from one state to another, from pre- to post-natality – and then protectively harden. If taboos are a natural condition in human societies, thick-skulled acquiescence may be the healthiest option.

The Coup is a cilia-stimulating exercise in opposite possibilities, asking us to sympathize with the despot who, among other atrocities, burns alive a well-meaning American diplomat on a pyre of food crates intended for famine relief. His overthrow is possible because he takes leave of the capital to tour his country’s remote north, where he discovers an oil refinery, complete with an American-style suburb to house the native workers, has sprung up without his knowledge. He incites the locals to rise up and smash “this evil visitation, this malodorous eruption” of Western greed that is despoiling their pristine desert; his wavering mob is seduced away by the management’s offer of a free beer apiece at the refinery’s canteen.

Deposed, ignored, the ex-dictator winds up working as a short-order cook in a luncheonette, slinging burgers for the refinery workers. “[I]mmersed…relaxed at last” in the homogenizing, bourgeois End of History he had struggled to resist, he discovers subtle virtues in his deracinated countrymen:

There was no longer, with plenty, the need to thrust one’s personality into the face of the person opposite. Eye-contact was hard to make … The little hard-cornered challenges – to honor, courage, manliness, womanliness – by which our lives had been in poverty shaped were melting away, like our clay shambas and mosques, rounded into an inner reserve secret as a bank account; intercourse in Ellelloû moved to a music of disavowals that new arrivals, prickly and hungry from the bush, mistook for weakness but that was in fact the luxurious demur of strength.

I think in 1978 Updike assumed the reflexive anti-Westernism of the newly decolonized Third World was a last gasp, fated to be swept under in the inundation of pop culture and fast food and cheap consumer goods. I used to think so too; now I’m not so sure. Forty years on, Muslim opposition to the soft, seductive, soulless West of their imagination is more widespread, more entrenched than Updike could have foreseen; while in the West itself, impatience with the unevenness of our prosperity gives rise to new fanaticisms.

It remains to be seen whether we inheritors of the bourgeois order will prove to have reserves of unexpected strength on which to call.

M.

Shabby Russians, tidy Prussians.

Early in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel of World War I, August 1914, the Russian army advances into East Prussia, which has been evacuated in expectation of the invasion. Lieutenant Kharitonov and the men of his platoon marvel at the neatness and efficiency of the German farmlands they march through unopposed:

To think that there were farms supplied with electricity and telephones, and that even in this hot weather there were no flies and no stink of manure! Nowhere had anything been abandoned, scattered, or thrown down at random – and the Prussian peasants were hardly likely to have left their farms in such parade-ground order just because the Russian troops were coming! The bearded peasant soldiers were amazed. How, they asked, could the Germans keep their farms so tidy that there were no traces of work to be seen, everything put away in its place, ready for use? How could they live in such inhuman cleanliness, where you couldn’t even throw your coat down?

…And the uncannily spick-and-span towns and villages:

Soldau, like all German country towns, did not sprawl and take up good farmland as Russian towns do; it was not surrounded by a derelict belt of rubbish dumps and waste land; wherever you entered it, you at once found yourself passing neat, closely built rows of tiled, brick houses, some of them even three or four stories high, with roofs pitched to half the height of the house. The streets in these towns, as neat as corridors, were closely paved with flat, smooth setts or flagstones … Then equally suddenly the town would come to an end, the streets would stop, and only a few paces beyond the last house there would be a tree-lined highroad and precise, carefully marked-out fields.

Seeing all this evidence of German prosperity, they wonder:

And with so rich a country as this, what could have induced Kaiser Wilhelm to make a bid to conquer and take filthy, backward Russia?

As a Vancouverite, I’m used to hearing American visitors discussing my city in terms much like Solzhenitsyn’s Russian soldiers would’ve used to describe East Prussia – as a sterile tomorrowland of unlittered sidewalks and rational planning.

But every big city has a few neighbourhoods that seem to have been tidied by anal-retentive Prussians – along with a great many others, rarely shown to tourists, that appear to have been recently occupied by the Russian army.

I’m sure my city has some streets that would be up to Prussian standards. But imagine those Russian invaders transported a hundred years into the future and halfway around the world, and marched up the Fraser Valley into Vancouver. What would they think of the vast tracts of good farmland converted into empty parking lots? The suburban roads lined with used car lots, pawn shops, and run-down motels? The Downtown Eastside with its urine-reeking doorways, tents pitched in empty lots, alleys littered with used hypodermics?

Perhaps the invaders would wonder at the maniacs who, given all the extraordinary wealth and resources at their disposal, had built a metropolis as ugly, sprawling, and unclean as a pre-Revolution Russian peasant village.

Or perhaps they’d wonder how a society to all appearances as feckless and disorganized as tsarist Russia had managed to become so unfathomably wealthy.

Either way, they’d be just as surprised if they were transported back to modern-day Russia, and found its cities and towns looking pretty much like their North American equivalents. The blights afflicting Vancouver are in large part symptoms of modernity – cheap mass-produced goods, auto dependency, ever more potent narcotics, ever fewer opportunities for the non-brainy.

In Solzhenitsyn’s novel, after the Russians move into an abandoned town Lieutenant Kharitonov notices that it’s being “Russianized”:

A few men were rolling a barrel of beer. Others had obviously found poultry in the town, as bloodstained feathers from a plucked chicken were being blown along a pavement by the breeze, mixed with coloured wrapping papers and empty cartons. Spilled sugar and shattered glass crunched underfoot.

Soon looting breaks out, and buildings are set afire. But there’s no real malice to the occupiers’ destructiveness. The town is despoiled through boredom and drunken high spirits and the awareness that someone else will have to clean up the mess…an attitude hardly exclusive to Russian peasants.

M.

2011 vancouver stanley cup riot

Post-Stanley Cup riot, June 2011, Vancouver.
© Arlen Redekop / Pacific News Group.

No harm done: Racism and rape in Nevil Shute’s The Chequer Board.

There’s a small subgenre of mid-20th-century fiction concerned with black or brown men being railroaded by white authorities on charges of sexually assaulting white girls. Or at any rate, there are two famous instances that came easily to my mind, besides the much obscurer novel I came here to discuss – which together should be enough to wring a couple thousand words out of.

Set yourself to guessing which two famous novels I’m thinking of, while I tell you about Nevil Shute’s The Chequer Board, published in 1947. A lower-middle-class Englishman of no great brains or imagination learns that an old war injury will kill him inside of a year. He resolves to get in touch with three fellow soldiers who were kind to him in the hospital while he was recuperating from the wound. At the time all four had been at low points in their lives; the hero wants to see if the other three made it through all right, and if not, to attempt to repay their kindness during the time he has left.

It’s a pretty moving book, by the way. Among Shute’s several tales of stolid, decent, ordinary joes being dragged out of their routines into the wide romantic world, it’s the best I’ve read so far.

One of the men our hero tracks down, and the one whose story concerns us here, is a black ex-GI named Dave Lesurier.

Flashing back to the war years, we find Lesurier stationed near a village in Cornwall. He and his fellow black Americans, used to condescension and scorn from whites in their own country, are surprised to find that the English villagers treat them decently, and even tolerate them “walking out” with their white daughters. When a new white commanding officer arrives, he decides that these coloured boys are getting above themselves, and implements a more exacting regime to keep them in their place. The villagers side with the blacks, grumbling at the unfairness of the new rules.

Meanwhile, shy, tongue-tied Lesurier has developed a crush on a village girl, not quite seventeen, who works in the shop where he buys his cigarettes. Finding her friendly, but never having an opportunity to speak a private word to her, he approaches her on the street one night, intending to ask if she’d like to go for a walk. But when he tries to speak, things go awry…

Reading The Chequer Board, I wonder how the next generation, raised on current feminist orthodoxies, will interpret the scene where Lesurier “assaults” the girl. But before I get to that let’s consider the parallel cases in (did you guess?) Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India.

***

We never receive an objective account of what happened to the accuser, Mayella Ewell, in To Kill A Mockingbird. Our narrator, Scout Finch, can only report what she hears from the balcony overlooking the Maycomb County courtroom where Mayella, her father, and her supposed assailant give their testimony.

Nevertheless, no sane reader is going to come away believing that the accused is anything but perfectly innocent. In the Ewells’ version of events, Mayella hailed a random black man, Tom Robinson, as he passed their yard, offering him a nickel to “bust up this chiffarobe” – chop up an old wooden wardrobe for kindling. Tom entered the yard and, when Mayella stepped inside to retrieve the nickel, followed her in, jumped her, and viciously beat and raped her. Her father arrived home to find a man “ruttin’ on” his daughter, and chased him away.

In Tom’s much more detailed account, he’d been well known to Mayella already, having done various small chores free of charge out of pity for the dirt-poor, lonely white girl. Mayella invited him inside, threw her arms around him, and:

“She reached up an’ kissed me ‘side of th’ face. She says she never kissed a grown man before an’ she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count. She says, ‘Kiss me back, nigger.’ I say Miss Mayella lemme outa here an’ tried to run but she got her back to the door an’ I’da had to push her. I didn’t wanta harm her, Mr. Finch, an’ I say lemme pass, but just when I say it Mr. Ewell yonder hollered through th’ window.”

What Mr. Ewell hollered, according to Tom, was “You goddamn whore, I’ll kill ya.” Tom ran off, leaving his supposed victim completely unharmed. What happened to her after she was left alone with her father, we can infer.

Mayella’s story seems to require her assailant to have been able to seize her by the neck while simultaneously beating her about the right side of her face, which Tom’s attorney Atticus Finch argues Tom, with his shriveled left arm, couldn’t have done. I doubt that a modern jury would disbelieve Mayella just because she was fuzzy on the details of her beating, or be moved by Atticus’s assertion that as a “strong girl” she should have been able to fend off her crippled but much larger attacker.

In fact, the reason we assume she and her father are lying, and that Tom Robinson is telling the truth, is simply that the narrator paints the Ewells as repellent racist cretins, and Tom as a noble victim. The same testimony presented minus the character portraits might lead to a different interpretation.

***

A Passage to India leaves more room for speculation, but not about the guilt of the accused: we’re told exactly what Dr. Aziz is doing at the time of Miss Quested’s ordeal in the Marabar Caves. Embarrassed over a moment of social awkwardness with his new acquaintance – Miss Quested has innocently asked whether Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, has one wife or several – Aziz ducks into the nearest cave to hide his confusion. Meanwhile the young Englishwoman wanders into a different cave, where…

“[T]here was this shadow, or sort of shadow, down the entrance tunnel, bottling me up. It seemed like an age but I suppose the whole thing can’t have lasted thirty seconds really. I hit at him with the glasses, he pulled me round the cave by the strap, it broke, I escaped, that’s all. He never actually touched me once. It all seems such nonsense.”

For all their blustering about this being the sort of thing that comes of mixing socially with the natives, the British authorities have every reason to assume Aziz’s guilt. He attempts to flee the arresting officers in a guilty-seeming way. The victim’s field-glasses, their strap broken, are discovered in his pocket. And he is found to have told his friends several small lies to smooth over the strangeness of Miss Quested abandoning the group without a word, scrambling down a hillside, and flagging down a passing car for a ride back to town.

Luckily for Aziz, the “queer, cautious” Miss Quested doesn’t share the prejudices of the local Anglo-Indians, and almost as soon as she recovers from her panic she begins to doubt her own memories.

I was reminded of Miss Quested while reading in the British press about three recent well-publicized rape cases that fell apart when exonerating evidence turned up. The barrister for one of the defendants commented:

I can’t talk about the psychology of those who make false accusations, but I do know that once a complaint is made and video evidence is recorded it is very difficult for a complainant to withdraw their allegations without facing prosecution. The whole thing snowballs. You can’t just go into a police station and say: “I was in a bit of an emotional mess at the time, I want to take it back.”

Despite her second thoughts, Miss Quested allows the prosecution to go forward: a skeptical observer comments that “[s]he has started the machinery; it will work to its end.” It takes great courage for her to dramatically recant her accusation mid-trial; she is shunned by the white community that had rallied to her so credulously, and exposes herself to the danger of a lawsuit from the outraged Dr. Aziz.

Still, something made the sensible young woman run in terror from the Marabar Caves that day. The question of whether she was in fact assaulted by a third person – perhaps the guide who disappeared immediately afterward, or “one of that gang of Pathans who have been drifting through the district” – or whether she hallucinated the whole thing, is left unanswered, and ultimately dismissed by Miss Quested as unimportant. She wasn’t harmed, after all.

***

One thing the accused have in common in A Passage to India and To Kill A Mockingbird is a complete lack of sexual interest in their supposed victims. Dr. Aziz feels it a disgrace “to have been mentioned in connexion with such a hag” as Miss Quested. Tom Robinson only feels sorry for Mayella Ewell, and is unwise enough to say so in his testimony; the comment doesn’t go over well with the white jurors.

The Chequer Board is a different case. Here’s what happens when Dave Lesurier, after standing around all evening waiting for her to pass by, finally spots the village girl he has a crush on:

He stood in front of her, and said, “Say, Miss Grace…” And then he stopped.

She said, “Oh, it’s you.” She smiled at him, a little nervously.

He said again, “Say, Miss Grace…” And then he stopped again, because it suddenly seemed silly to ask her to take a little walk with him one evening, at ten o’clock at night. And because he was uncertain what to do, and because he had to do something, he put his arms round her and kissed her.

For a moment she yielded, too surprised to do anything else. For a moment he thought that it was going to be all right. Then fear came to her, irrational, stark fear…

She started to struggly madly in Dave’s arms, to free herself. She cried, “Let me go, you beast, let me go.” And she cried quite loud.

Chagrined, and already ashamed, he released her. He said, “Say, I didn’t mean…Miss Grace, I guess I did wrong…” But she was gone, half running, sobbing with emotion and with fright.

When Dave hears the whistles of the American military policemen, he decides that the safest course is to scram – quite sensibly, as the MPs are prepared, in fact eager, to shoot the black rapist on sight. Eventually he’s cornered, and slashes his own throat in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, which is how he ends up in hospital with the hero of The Chequer Board.

The American officers are none-too-secretly pleased to have a black soldier to make an example of, but the locals don’t think much of the ruckus. A village girl brushes off the incident:

“[A] girl what’s got her head screwed on right doesn’t have to get assaulted, not unless she wants to.”

Even Grace’s father thinks it’s a lot of fuss over nothing:

“Be all right if her mother’d stop putting a lot of fool notions in her head. After all, many a girl’s been kissed in a dark corner before now, and will be again.”

***

Maybe it’s tacky to conflate these fictional cases, streamlined for dramatic and moral effect, with ugly real world crimes; but reading these blithe dismissals of Grace’s complaint, I thought of a story told by British Columbia’s then-premier, Christy Clark, a few years back.

In 1974, fourteen-year-old Christy was walking to her job as a waitress when she was grabbed from the sidewalk by a stranger and pulled into the bushes. She resisted, the stranger lost his footing, and she wriggled free and ran off. Arriving at work she slipped into her apron and went on with her day, never mentioning the attack to anyone. She later wrote:

I suppose I felt that if I hadn’t been physically hurt, people would think I was self-absorbed, overly upset about something that was just part of life for my half of humanity.

I told myself: Get over it. Bad things happen. It was trivial.

If this is really what Christy Clark thought at the time, it’s consistent with the ethos communicated by the authors of A Passage to India and The Chequer Board, who deem it a sign of moral fortitude among women as well as men to suck it up and move on. A kiss and a squeeze from a stranger? A little tug-of-war in a dark cave? No harm done, dearie. Get over it.

Maybe this ethos really did discourage girls like young Christy Clark from reporting “bad things” when they happened, but I’m pretty sure no grown-up even then would have advised her to keep her mouth shut about the attack. No doubt 1970s police were more skeptical when women turned up with unsupported sexual assault allegations, but in no era have cops been okay with strangers dragging young girls off the street. They might have decided that Clark’s story was too vague to pursue (she remembered nothing about her attacker’s appearance), but they might also have received other reports of a pervert skulking in the bushes, and pieced together something about his habits and whereabouts.

I’m not convinced that our modern culture of therapy and oversharing is actually healthier than the old one of swallowed emotions. Maybe Clark would have benefited from the psychological support that a modern police force would have scurried to provide, but the worst consequence of her silence wasn’t her mental trauma; she obviously turned out fine. It’s that a potential rapist was left free to traumatize other girls.

As for Dave Lesurier – we know he meant no harm, but Grace had no way to know. Nor did the military policemen summoned by her screams.

***

After Dave’s suicide attempt, the local innkeeper, concerned about the growing tensions between the black and white soldiers who patronize his pub, is moved to write a letter to General Eisenhower, describing the attempted rape charge as “a bit of humbug”. This results in a level-headed officer from the US Army’s Staff Judge-Advocate’s office being dispatched to investigate the case. He questions Grace about the kiss:

“What happened when you started struggling? Did he let you go, or did he hang on?”

She said, “I was ever so frightened. I don’t really know.” She thought for a minute. “I ran round the corner and bumped right into another man, that fat policeman.”

“That’s not what the lieutenant put in his report. He said that the Negro didn’t let you go until the policeman came. It makes a big difference,” he explained, “whether he let you go at once or not until the policeman came.”

She said, “I think he must have let go. I think he must have done. He wasn’t all that bad.”

With a little bit of time to reflect – and away from the influence of her overbearing mother – Grace decides that it was only a harmless misunderstanding after all. The charge is withdrawn; Dave stays in the army and, when the war is over, remembering the kindness of the villagers, makes his way back to Cornwall. When the hero tracks him down at the end of the novel, he’s living near the scene of the fateful kiss – and married to Grace.

M.

I’ve previously written about Nevil Shute’s autobiography Slide Rule (and evolving linguistic taboos) and his novel In The Wet (and the strange electoral reform scheme described therein).

A discerning elimination.

We’ll begin with Sam Spade sneakily entering a room in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:

He put his hand on the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no farther: the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office-key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office-key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in.

In Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men, the reclusive criminological genius Nero Wolfe answers a criticism from his assistant that he has neglected to follow certain promising leads in their current case:

“In the labyrinth of any problem that confronts us, we must select the most promising paths; if we attempt to follow all at once we shall arrive nowhere. In any art – and I am an artist or nothing – one of the deepest secrets of excellence is a discerning elimination. Of course that is a truism.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes. Take the art of writing. I am, let us say, describing the actions of my hero rushing to greet his beloved, who has just entered the forest. He sprang up from the log on which he had been sitting, with his left foot forward; as he did so, one leg of his trousers fell properly into place but the other remained hitched up at the knee. He began running towards her, first his right foot, then his left, then his right again, then left, right, left, right, left, right…As you see, some of that can surely be left out – indeed must be, if he is to accomplish his welcoming embrace in the same chapter. So the artist must leave out vastly more than he puts in, and one of his chief cares is to leave out nothing vital to his work.”

Wolfe is obviously correct, at least insofar as his observation applies to the art of writing. (How it applies to the art of detection, I couldn’t say.) But I would extend it by adding that the amount of detail the artist elects to put in or leave out is a question of style.

I’m not sure if the theorists of literature have devised a name for this element of a writer’s style, so let’s call it granularity. The fine-grained writer will include more details of his characters’ actions, of their inner thoughts, of their surroundings, while the coarse-grained writer will include fewer. The parodic extreme of the fine-grained technique would be Wolfe’s narration of the hero’s tortured progress toward his lover in the forest: “First his right foot, then his left, then his right again…”

(…Which, as shown by that excerpt from The Maltese Falcon, is not that much of a parody.)

Its polar opposite, the quintessence of coarse-grainedness, would be a bare plot outline: “She meets him in the forest. They make love. Afterward…”

This isn’t to say that the fine-grained style is more precise, let alone better. A fine-grained but clumsy writer will include every detail of a character’s action but the one that matters; a talented coarse-grained writer will include that detail and no others, and the reader will be perfectly satisfied.

The famous quip about Henry James, that he “chewed more than he bit off”, could be applied to most fine-grained writing. But while James may too often have tried to stretch a stare, a blush, and a fluttered eyelid into a four-course meal, he was no more fine-grained than hard-boiled, hard-drinking Dashiell Hammett. Fine-grained writers are alike only in their high estimation of their readers’ level of wakefulness. One may be fine-grained on matters of psychology, another on sociology, another on technology. The one who transcribes every flicker of a character’s flow of consciousness won’t say a word about that character’s appearance, while the one who’ll specify which hand the hero uses to pluck his keys from his pocket will expect you to deduce said hero’s emotions from actions alone.

Assuming a work of finite length, the more fine-grained the writer’s treatment of any aspect of the story – internal or external, personal or historical, metaphysical or concrete – the more coarse-grained must be the treatment of all the others. The trick is to choose the degree of magnification, adjusting to the length of readers’ attention spans and to the overall size of the story you want to tell.

By these means, a story of any size can be shrunken or enlarged to fill any number of pages. Nicholson Baker’s intensely fine-grained 1988 debut The Mezzanine describes an office worker returning from lunch, crossing his building’s atrium, and heading up the escalator to the mezzanine floor, reflecting on the mundane events of his morning. Many a science-fiction work has narrated the rise and fall of a galactic civilization in fewer words.

You might quibble with my use of the word “size”; you might say that The Mezzanine‘s visit to the CVS for a new pair of shoelaces is no bigger or smaller, literarily speaking, than Frodo and Sam’s march to Mordor. To me it’s obvious that stories do come in different sizes – that Ulysses’ wanderings around the Mediterranean are bigger than Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin in Ulysses, that To Kill A Mockingbird is bigger than Catcher in the Rye. A “normal-sized” story would involve two or three main characters, take place in an area no smaller than a neighbourhood but no larger than a city, encompass a timespan of between a few days and a few weeks, and have an outcome affecting people besides the characters themselves…but not too many people.

These parameters, you’ll notice, are distantly descended from Aristotle’s three unities, but unlike Aristotle I don’t mean to suggest that stories adhering to these rules are somehow superior. They are, I think, easier to write. To successfully tell a very small or very large story requires special skill as an author; for large stories, Nero Wolfe’s discerning elimination – knowing what to leave out – and for small stories, what I’m calling magnification – the enchanted lens that allows a Nicholson Baker to expand a broken shoelace or a stop at the men’s room to chapter size without losing his readers.

The master of magnification is that proverbial padder of word counts, Charles Dickens. In an old post on Sentimental Education I compared Flaubert unfavourably with Dickens:

[When Flaubert’s hero] fights a duel with a flighty aristocrat, or attends a ludicrous meeting of a radical political club, or serves an evening on duty with the National Guard, one wishes for a bit of Dickens’ comic expansiveness, his eagerness to digress, his concern to endow every character, no matter how minor, with a quirk or a verbal tic or, at the very least, a funny name. The fleas that harass Frédéric while he huddles in the guardhouse would have been good for a couple paragraphs in Dickens; Flaubert mentions them and moves on.

But whether you’re eliminating or magnifying, the key is to do it discerningly. Henry Fielding in Tom Jones compares a good writer to a tourist,

who always proportions his stay at any place to the beauties, elegancies, and curiosities which it affords. […] The woods, the rivers, the lawns of Devon and of Dorset, attract the eye of the ingenious traveller and retard his pace, which delay he afterward compensates by swiftly scouring over the gloomy heath of Bagshot or that pleasant plain which extends itself westward from Stockbridge, where no other object than one single tree only in sixteen miles presents itself to the view[.]

Inappropriately fine-grained writing, then, we might visualize as a slow, rattling buggy-ride across the naked prairie, with an overfamiliar driver directing our attention to every shrub and hillock as it passes.

Fielding is in my view guilty of the opposite impropriety, whipping his horses too briskly through the final chapters of Tom Jones, crammed as they are with revelations and reconciliations which the reader would enjoy the luxury of examining at greater length. Take the reaction of Squire Western upon learning that the penniless bastard Jones, whom he has been damning and blackguarding through the preceding 800 pages, is to be reinstated as Squire Allworthy’s heir. Western’s profane rants against those who would undermine his sacred right to tyrannize his daughter are some of the novel’s most hilarious passages; we chuckle as we wonder how he will step down from his habitual perch of enraged dignity. But Fielding only informs us that

No sooner, then, was Western informed of Mr. Allworthy’s intention to make Jones his heir than he joined heartily with the uncle in every commendation of the nephew, and became as eager for [his daughter’s] marriage with Jones as he had before been to couple her to Blifil.

One sentence! This is the same Fielding who expended four entire chapters on the life story of a random hermit Jones encountered on a hilltop outside Gloucester. Discerningly, my good man, discerningly.

M.