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Shadowboxing: Style and Time

by Askold Melnyczuk

in memory of Susan Sontag
for Tamara Denisova

The week we began bombing Iraq, Puppetry of the Penis opened in
Boston. Horrified as we were by the President’s decision to attack
the cradle of Western civilization, we needed at the same time to find a
way to live in our skins, in our homes. Washington made sure we were
unable to watch the consequences of our assault—we had to rely on
selectively released photographs. Only Europe, Africa, and the Arab
world knew what was being done to Baghdad in our name. Since the
powers that be had made sure the left hand couldn’t possibly know what
the right was doing, what could the left do but play with itself? Thus,
even as Patriots and bombers pounded the hell out of the desert and its
cities, Bostonians sat in a darkened theater in Boston’s South End and
watched, applauding, touched by the obvious artistry, while two grown
men twisted their penises into various configurations, like clowns shaping
balloons. Then the audience went home, wrote letters of protest to
the White House, prepared classes, read, and went to sleep. The sorties
went on. Every so often a friend would email a photograph from a
European newspaper of a child rendered limbless by another day’s precision
bombing and we would wince and tear up and write a letter to
the President. Tens of thousands of civilians slaughtered, thousands of
children maimed for life, and who knows how many military casualties?
Several years seemed to pass this way, and no matter what we did—however
many calls we made, however many fundraisers we held or attended,
or marches we fueled with our rusted bodies—the net effect was no
different than if we had gone out to a theater and watched, over and
over, night after night, two Australians wrenching their penises into pretzels.
          So I began thinking about style. Probably I’d never stopped thinking
about it, even as the bombs fell.


In his The Universe in a Nutshell, physicist Stephen Hawking talks
about two different kinds of time: conventional and imaginary.
Conventional time is basically what the clock says. You will need at
least seven minutes to read through this essay. Imaginary time is a
well-defined mathematical concept that allows scientists to create a
mathematical model of numbers corresponding to moments in real
time—intersecting with them as a vertical line crossing a horizontal
one—which helps cosmologists generate mathematical models of the
universe. Far from being a mere numbers game, it turns out that this
has allowed physicists to discover demonstrable phenomena in the universe,
as well as helped them to imagine solutions for problems still
unsolved, such as the question of how many dimensions there are.
          Please don’t dream of asking me any questions about this, as I will
only be able to answer them in imaginary time. But do allow me my
metaphor: the relationship between fiction and life is like that between
imaginary time and real time. Imaginary characters give us language for
sensations and ideas we would otherwise never have known could be
          The depth of these experiences—and I mean temporal as well as
spatial depth—depends on a writer’s stylistic mastery. When we read,we
let a writer determine how we experience time. Either we’re bored and
time crawls, or we’re enthralled and time flies. We slow down to unpack
a metaphor, fall into revery over the implications of an image, or ruthlessly
flip the page, hoping for better around the bend.
          I’m interested in thinking about how writers control our sense of
time through their prose style. In a way this is much more mundane
than it sounds: I’m curious about why certain sentences read quickly,
why others force us to slow down, and how context, by which I mean
all the other elements of fiction—plot, point of view, setting, creation of
character, and so on—contributes to controlling the way we read.
          One of the reasons this interests me is because I am, to my not infrequent
dismay, not the sort of writer who sits down to tell a story but
rather the sort who goes to his desk because he is impelled to find one,
as though he were searching for something lost long ago, before birth
perhaps, and is it any wonder then that in the hunt, in the chase, in the
delerium that is the writer’s daily ration, I look up now and then and
wonder what the hell it is I am about?


          The startling musicality of English has probably been the single most
influential force in shaping my life. The spell cast by English-language
poetry and prose pitched at the highest possible level, making use of the
full range of its inherent powers—I mean the work of Shakespeare, John
Donne, George Herbert, Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, James Joyce,T.
S. Eliot, Ezra Pound,Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin,Vladimir Nabokov,
Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, Derek Walcott, and Saul Bellow, for
starters—spawned a love for the sound words make, irrespective of their
meanings. What distinguished these writers from the tens of thousands
of their peers was that the spell their words cast seemed to stand apart—
whether above or alongside, I no longer know—from their specific
meanings: the narratives these authors unfolded seemed almost irrelevant,
at least at one crucial level of response. It didn’t matter to me
whether I was reading about London in 1910 or Chicago in 1950 or
Paris in the Twenties. Whoever inside us reads (whatever faculty
responds to imaginative literature) and then orders one’s reading into
some kind of semi-coherent structure or hierarchy representing a personal
set of values seemed in my case to be on holiday. The stories these
writers told had nothing to do with my personal and familial narratives,
and it didn’t matter.
          Or did it?
          Because this passion—like all passions, you might say—existed in
tense relation with its opposite.
          There is in me a voice that says, Fool, you’ve fallen in love with the
envelope before ever reading the letter, or, as Eliot put it, you’ve had the
experience but missed the meaning. After all, each of the writers I’ve
mentioned was grounded in a time and in a place, and each has won a
spot in the pantheon of English letters because she found a form in
which to narrate the singular story of a particular tribe. By giving voice
to that group’s experience, she has helped to create a kind of cultural
consciousness that other members of the group recognize. That is why
so many young (male) Jewish writers will pay homage to ancestors like
Singer, Bellow, and Roth. That is why Russian literature, according to
Dostoevsky, comes out of Gogol’s overcoat and not Jane Austen’s rather
more elegant narrative wrap.
          There are those writers who listen, though a large part of what they
appear to listen for is music—for the cadences of sentences once words
have begun taking shape on the page. The obvious members of this club
include Flaubert,Virginia Woolf, and William Gass, to name just three.
What interests them is not so much the story they’re telling, or the characters
they’re writing about, as the rhythms of their own sentences—
trying to hear and fine-tune them to a pitch coinciding with some elusive
ideal. This observation, however, bears examining, because I don’t
think what they’re doing is quite as superficial as that may imply.
They’re not merely running fingers along the surface of a piece of
wood to make sure it’s been sanded to the smoothness of polished
glass—because immediately a corollary question arises: how would one
know when a sentence has been smoothed enough? It is easy to say we
aspire to put “the right words in the right order,” but I suspect that even
before my generation’s subversion of all canons, writers experienced
serious doubts—hours, days, and years of them—as they tried to understand
just what constituted a right and proper order. To what music,
what pitch, what middle C do you tune your sentences? Where do we
derive a template we can internalize enough to know when a sentence
has fallen into place—clicked shut, to borrow Yeats’s famous metaphor
for the sensation that told him he’d gotten it right?
          As all intemperate revisers know, our sense of what sounds right
seems to change from one day to the next, one sitting to the next. I
can’t count how many times I’ve thought I locked in a sentence only
to discover to my horror the next day that that was not what I meant
to say at all. The whole nature of this process of revision—and this by
the way is something we associate with Flaubert but was equally the
experience of a radically different writer like Tolstoy—the whole
nature of revision suggests the provisional nature of all writing, and it
raises complicated epistemological questions about the essence and
meaning of style: dare the sound of a sentence determine the destiny
of a character? And yet it is never anything else that does. Style cannot
be decorative—it is always revelatory. To quote Sontag: “Style is
the principle of decision in a work of art, the signature of the artist’s


          A great prose style accomplishes three things at once. First, it conveys
information necessary for deepening our understanding of “the
story.” Second, it displays the writer’s attitude toward her material (if
one were speaking in terms of voice, one might call this “tone”)—from
the impersonal narrators of Woolf or Joyce, who grow out of Flaubert,
to the very personal note sounded by Bernhard or Vonnegut, who grow
out of Sterne. Finally, style embodies an idea which cannot be extracted
from it, yet which is palpable to the reader. “Every style,” writes
Sontag, “is a means of insisting on something.”
          On the one hand, style seems a simple matter and its erotics are
aptly delineated in a wonderful formulation by Ford Madox Ford.
Here is Ford:“Carefully examined, a good—an interesting—style will
be found to consist in a succession of tiny, unobservable surprises.” He
goes on: “If you write, ‘His range of subject was very wide and his
conversation very varied and unusual; he could rouse you with his perorations
or lull you with his periods; therefore his conversation met
with great appreciation and he made several fast friends’—you will not
find the world apt to be engrossed by what you have set down.” Ford
then rewrites the sentence: “He had the power to charm or frighten
rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance; he could also fill
the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings: he had one
devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world
that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. . . .” Today
careers would be made by a single such sentence. What we notice is
both a sharpening in the diction and, in the last words, a lengthening
of the vowels, making them more piercing: “he made several fast
friends” becomes “he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered
one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted
with self-seeking.”
          That idea, of heightened sound, an attentiveness to what we may
inexactly term the music of prose as an essential characteristic of an
interesting style, may find its apotheosis in a writer like William Gass,
who has written one of the finest short stories of the past half-century,
“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.”
          In his long 1975 essay “On Being Blue,” which is partly about the
word “blue” and the condition of blueness—and partly about the difficulties
of writing about sex—Gass produced a masterpiece of style that’s
so brilliant you sometimes want to scream. Here’s a snippet of the list
that leads us into this ninety-page meditation:
                    Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings,
                    the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen,
                    that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion,
                    sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue
                    devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or
                    imprisoned breath, the blue they say diamonds have. . . .

Lists are always alternately delectable and detestable. Who will ever forget
the lists in Melville or Whitman? American writers seem singularly
fond of them, perhaps because we are driven to catalogue the abundance
that is our birthright—and just as possibly abundance becomes
our birthright because we care enough about it to make a list.
          Gass never proposes a thesis, and offers no neat conclusion. But that
does not mean he writes without purpose. Some twenty pages in, Gass
tips his hand:

                    Blue postures, attitudes, blue thoughts, blue gestures . . . is it the
                    form or content that turns blue when these are? . . . blue words
                    and pictures: a young girl posed before the door of her family’s
                    trailer, embarrassed breasts and frightened triangle, vacant stare . . . I
                    wonder what her father sold the snapshots for? I remember best
                    the weed which grew between the steps. But they say that sexuality
                    can be dangerously Dionysian. Nowhere do we need order
                    more than at an orgy. What is form, in any case, but a bumbershoot
                    held up against the absence of all clouds? Stringy hair, head out of
                    plumb, smile like a scratch across her face . . . my friends brought
                    her image with them from their camping trip, and I remember best
                    the weed which grew between the steps. My sensations were as
                    amateur as her photo. A red apple among oranges. Very beautiful.
                    O God.

The excesses here are few yet memorable: “What is form, in any case,
but a bumbershoot held up against the absence of all clouds?” And so
it turns out Gass is wondering about the same thing I am: what is the
relationship between form and content? The word “bumbershoot”—
which I had to look up—is meant to take us out of the moment as well
as to offer the comic relief embedded in sound. Yet the image of an
umbrella opened against a cloudless sky suggests something frivolous or
          Can the lust for a loud and rollicking form determine meaning or
redirect the content of a sentence? Is it what’s on Gass’s mind or what
he found after prolonged prodding of words on the page that prompted
the following:
                    Poets who would never meter their stick or brag of their balls, who
                    would never vulgarly vaunt of their lady’s vaginal grip or be publicly
                    proud of her corpulent tits, succumb to the menace of measurement.
                    Rossetti, while he kisses, counts. . . .

Gass’s wit, the voluptuous reveling in language, the implicit celebration
of the things of this world through such consonantal cerebration, the
pleasure he takes in enumerating, suggest another important matter for
the stylist: rediscovering a humility before his own godliness. After all,
the stylist assumes that there are no inherited narratives, only created
ones; that the word of God is whatever word one is listening to at the
moment—a mystic’s insight, surely, which of course offends the conventional
moralist within, the one that those of us raised inside any of
the Western traditions will recognize immediately for the force and
number of the admonitions he has internalized, the innumerable obstats
that would, if enjoined, keep an obeisant Catholic from reading contemporary
fiction at all.
          Gass’s essay even suggests the risks of over-attentiveness to sound.
That way madness lies, surely, yet the line between “On Being Blue,”
“Jabberwocky,” and scat singing, though scanty and wavering, is real.
          Is it possible that my belief in the absoluteness of the relationship
between word and object is an unexamined prejudice I don’t dare leave
for professional philosophers? Have I backslid into that old conundrum,
the argument between form and content? Should fiction writers even
have such debates, whether internally or in public?
          The fact is, they do, and I have.
          Because this isn’t just about the sound of words, as we recognize the
moment we start thinking about style in relation to translation. In a way
this carries us into such deep waters that we dare only dip in long
enough to make the point that while a diamonds-and-rust style like
Gass’s draws on a rootedness in its mother tongue, that’s far from its only
claim on us. The question of style isn’t simply a matter of a heightened
responsiveness to the noise that words make when strung together. In
many cases, poetry is precisely what survives translation: freed from the
ephemera of cultural and sonic resonances, a vision can finally come
into focus. The case of Boris Pasternak’s two versions of his autobiography
is particularly intriguing, because here we have a writer who not
only rejected his own early work for its “unnecessary mannerisms” but
then went ahead to show us (and himself, one supposes) how it should
be done. The older writer revised his younger self until only the lantern
jaw in the passport photo would corroborate that the author of the second
version, I Remember, was the same man who’d written Safe Conduct
twenty-five years earlier. The first version, which is dedicated to Rilke,
is built of sentences like the following: “And so it was winter out of
doors, the street was foreshortened by at least a third with twilight, and
the whole day was in a rush.” A quarter of a century later, Pasternak
opens his story with a rehearsal of facts: “I was born in Moscow on
January 29, 1890. . . .” Sensibility shrinks before clarity—I was reminded
of the differences between late and early Lowell, late and early
Auden—but the tradeoff, I’d argue, leaves us even at best. When one is
young, before one has acquired a storehouse of experiences, what does
one have but mannerisms? Stylists streak onto the scene early and rarely
stay late. Even T. S. Eliot dismissed “The Wasteland” as a kind of rhythmic
          Certainly among the last century’s most influential essays on style
were Susan Sontag’s opening pieces in her great book Against
, which feel as fresh today as they did half a century ago. In
those early essays, Sontag wrote that while most literary critics appeared
to genuflect before the idea that style and content were one, in practice
content remained the center of their attention. Her aim, in that essay,
was to right this wrong by discovering a new language for describing
not the hermeneutics (interpretation) but the erotics of art. I remember
being stuck in an elevator with a professor at Rutgers in the early
Seventies right after reading the essay. Excitedly I explained the dilemma.
Professor J. arched a brow and said to me dryly, “Mr. Melnyczuk,
we are not ready for this.”
          In On Style Sontag observes that the problem of art versus morality
“is a pseudo-problem.” She shrewdly notes that it is used as a rhetorical
trap whose intention is never to question the ethical but to undermine
the aesthetic. She concludes by noting that the “moral pleasure in
art, as well as the moral service that art performs, consists in the intelligent
gratification of consciousness.”*
          That the work of this pioneer remains avant-garde became clear to
me as I was reading an ambitious essay by Julian Evans lamenting the
mid-century experiments of French writers associated with the nouveau
, which he says “arrogated literary gravity, fell into an impoverished
emotional minimalism and produced a generation of ‘novels’ that were
no thicker than a box of restaurant matches.” Thickness is apparently an
aesthetic criterion. Meanwhile, Evans saw in American fiction “an
unbroken vital line stretching from Scott Fitzgerald’s America to
. . . Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. . . . [A] great unbordered expanse of narrative
lay all around. . . .”
          As Sontag noted, such criticism of a writer’s aesthetics often conceals
the critic’s umbrage at an ethical matter. In fact Evans doesn’t conceal
his very well at all. In the paragraph where he disses the nouveau roman,
he describes Robbe-Grillet as “a writer of prodigious skill at publicity
but mediocre judgment (how could he otherwise have consented to
write the text for David Hamilton’s collection of vaselined erotica,
Dream of Young Girls?).”
          It is one of those inescapable synchronicities that I’ve recently been
rereading Robbe-Grillet’s essays (they are indeed short, which is one of
their virtues) and have found them full of provocative observations well
worthy of reconsideration. In them Robbe-Grillet labels as obsolete the
idea of character and story, and even form and content . . . In a typical
diatribe, he cries out: “How much we’ve heard about the ‘character’!
Moreover, I fear we haven’t heard the last. . . . The novel of characters
belongs entirely to the past, it describes a period: that which marked the
apogee of the individual. . . . Perhaps this is not an advance, but it is
evident that the present period is rather one of administrative numbers.
The world’s destiny has ceased, for us, to be identified with the rise or
fall of certain men, of certain families. . . . The exclusive cult of the
‘human’ has given way to a larger consciousness, one that is less
anthropocentric. . . .”
          Now these may sound like fighting words to a generation that has
done a lot to bring “realism” back into fiction, though I’m not sure
putting up our dukes will lead us to wisdom. There seems to be a pointed
and bitter truth to Robbe-Grillet’s observation—I think of those
noble Bostonians applauding the puppetry of the penis while in
Baghdad it was pouring Patriots—and we as novelists ignore this at our
own peril. While realism is likely to continue its aesthetic hegemony—
I mean that honorable tradition whose lineage can be more or less readily
traced backwards from Alice Munro to Anton Chekhov, as though
Virginia Woolf or James Joyce had never written—and I, for one, will
continue feasting on its finest fruits—I propose we take time to consider
alternative strategies that will allow our art to accommodate the
altered landscape in which we find ourselves. Robbe-Grillet’s suggestions
for replacing the foundational elements of fiction are too much for
us to consider here, but let me say at the risk of seeming terribly reductive,
that they involve the creation of a world of shimmering prose surfaces.
Unfortunately, as that aesthetic has already been usurped and perfected
by MTV, there remains a lot of work to be done.
          I have no program to declare, but I do want to remind myself of
alternative aesthetic routes, breached long enough ago that rediscovering
them might usefully open the sluices of inspiration. Moreover, the
democratizing power of art is such that it shelters Flaubert and
Solzhenitsyn, Colette and Gordimer—and one can imagine the twin
pairs in a rare relaxed moment comparing notes on the agonies and joys
of production.


          Style, fortunately, is not an article of faith in any of the world’s religions.
And yet I can think of no more moving testament to art’s startling
capacity to sustain us at the most extreme moments of our lives
than some of the stories my wife, the writer Alex Johnson, has told me
about accompanying Susan Sontag between various cancer clinics and
her New York apartment this past spring. Even as Sontag absorbed the
news that her cancer was probably terminal, she continued the conversations
she and Alex had been having for years, about the problems of
revision and the endless probings after the ur-sentence that would say it
right for once, if never for all. Even lying in bed, groggy after chemo,
Susan urged Alex to read on, because it mattered, style mattered. Even
in the end.

* She further remarks, “Art performs this ‘moral’ task because the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinterestedness, contemplation, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) and to the aesthetic object (grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, sensuousness) are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life.” Earlier in the essay Sontag writes,“Awareness of style as a problematic and isolable element in a work of art has emerged in the audience for art only at certain historical moments—as a front behind which other issues, ultimately ethical and political, are being debated.” This observation will become particularly relevant when we come to discuss critical reaction to Robbe-Grillet.


Askold Melnyczuk is founding editor of AGNI and author of the novels What is Told (Faber and Faber, 1994), a New York Times Notable Book, and Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001), named one of the Best Books of the Year by The Los Angeles Times. He directs the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts–Boston. (4/2005)

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