Friday, November 20, 2009

First Words (11)

"He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler's water-clerk he was very popular."

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1899)

Conrad's buddy Ford Maddox Ford wrote that the author of the above paragraph was "never really satisfied that he had got his characters in, he was never convinced that he had convinced the reader; this accounting for the great lengths of some of his books."

Both men apparently fancied a sentence from, La Reine Hortense, a Maupassant short story:

"He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway."

I detect an echo of it in this first paragraph of Lord Jim — one of his shorter novels — which unusually goes about getting the lead character in from the get-go, artfully combining a concise physical description with a certain dynamism plus a therapist's eye for human disposition. For the worst thing a writer can do really is describe each new character entering a story as if trying to verbalise a photographic image. As Harvard Professor James Woods puts it:

"The unpractised novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile."

I have a particular soft spot for Lord Jim as I first read it here in Antigua when I came across a reasonably well-preserved 1964 New American Library paperback edition on the book-swap shelves of a now-defunct Spanish school back in 1989. I stll treasure it.

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