Surprise-Graham Greene’s Turn of a Phrase

What stood out to me in Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter was the unique turns of phrase throughout the book. These phrases had an expected twist or comparison that upon closer examination reveal more about the characters or setting.

The first unexpected comparison dealt with Wilson’s secret love of poetry. In the novel, Greene compares Wilson’s reading of poetry to illicit drug use—both are done in secret, with the disclaimer that the poetry is taken in small doses (Greene 4). Drug use has a negative connotation to it; comparing it with poetry reading is unexpected since poetry reading is seen as civilized behavior. Wilson, a government employee, has a reputation no better than a drug user because he’s real job is to spy on his fellow workers.

Prison is another subject of an unexpected comparison. Major Henry Scobie’s (a policeman) assistant Ali has spent time in prison, which Scobie dismisses because “[t]here is no disgrace about prison; it was an obstacle that no one could avoid forever” (14). While that may be the common sentiment at this particular West African coastal town, the attitude expressed by Scobie is unexpected because most people do avoid prison forever and see imprisonment as more than just an obstacle. A prison term here is expected and no one is looked down upon for having done some prison time; one could even surmise that if a local hasn’t done prison time it’s because the authorities aren’t smart enough to catch him in an illegal act. It’s a turn on the common perception of prison, all the more unexpected because it comes from an officer of the law.

A dark sense of humor is also present in these unexpected phrases. At one point in the novel, a group of civilians is rescued after forty days at sea in open boats, after their ship is sunk by the Germans. Some of the survivors, elderly men, are described as “cannon fodder for such occasions: elderly men with the appearance of plumbers who might have been brothers if they had not been called Forbes and Newell” (105). Describing survivors of a deliberate sinking as ‘cannon fodder’ is dark; seeing them as not very different from each other lumps them together and seems to make them less sympathetic; maybe another way to impersonalize the war.

Greene’s use of metaphors and the unique turn of phrase reveal much about his characters and the small, isolated part of the British Empire in which they live. Using unique metaphors and comparisons is a different way to reveal much about the characters in a novel because the reader is forced to really think about the unusual pairing of words. It’s a tricky way to reveal a character—an author must have the ability to pull it off without coming across as trite or trying too hard to be clever. Failure to pull off this type of comparison draws attention to the author and detracts from the story, but not in Greene’s novel.

Greene, Graham. The Heart of the Matter. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Print.

Nomadic Notions

By Liat Faver

One doesn’t need a passport or time machine when one has Patrick Leigh Fermor. With very little effort, we may travel to Eastern Europe in the 1930s, backpack along great rivers, accept the hospitality of families of ancient nobility, and live Between the Woods and the Water. Fermor’s continuation of A Time of Gifts, an earlier journey across Europe, is the kind of book that has us wishing for more pages to turn, more friendly faces, more days and nights of dining, drinking, singing, and dancing.

Fermor devotes much time to watching the rituals of the many creatures he encounters. Flirtatious storks “improvise an odd courting-song by leaning back and opening and shutting their scarlet bills . . . like flat sticks banging together . . . like massed castanets . . . sliding precariously on the thatch” (15). A herd of back-lit fallow deer at sunset “cast their shadows across the slope to enormous lengths: a footfall across the still acres of air lifted all their heads at the same moment and held them at gaze until I was out of sight” (17).

 Fermor travels alone through primeval forests and glens, inhaling the history of his settings, where “I was in the ruins of a huge castle over-grown with trees. The forest dropped steeply for over a thousand feet, and down below, between its leaf-covered mountains, the Danube valley coiled upstream from the east” (20).

Fermor takes us to all-night parties that end in sunrise melodies, when “the end of the Great Plain glimmered into being underneath us and everything except the Gypsies began to grow pale . . . the sound of startled nests and birds waking up and the flapping of a stork from the pediment showed it was too late to go to bed (103).

We join Fermor and his companions for a skinny-dipping romp on “a boiling hot day . . . on the way back from a cheerful feast” when, “overcome by the sight of the cool and limpid flood . . . we took off all our clothes, climbed down through the reeds and watercress and dived in” (136). At bedtime we find ourselves in a nest of hay, “unwrapping the buttered rolls and smoked pork and pears,” and “finishing off the wine I had broached at noon” (83). Does it get any better than this?

I am impressed with the grace and dignity of the “ancient and inbred stock” (244-245) of Middle Europeans who meet strangers by touching “heart, lips and brow with the right hand, then laid it on their breast with an inclination of the head and a murmured formula of welcome . . . An atmosphere of prehistoric survival hung in the air as though the island were the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away.” These customs are endearing, and add to the wonder Fermor paints into his landscapes, of a time long ago, and a culture fondly remembered.

Fermor, Patrick Leigh. Between the Woods and the Water. New York: The New York Review of Books.1986. Print.

Spoilers Ahead: Beginning with the Ending

By Nick Hinton

When major characters die in a story, it is often at the climax of the tale. However, like any other rule in fiction, this too can be broken. Being Dead, by Jim Crace, is a novel about two people who die before the novel begins, yet it is still worth reading. From the first paragraph of the novel the reader knows Joseph and Celice are murdered in the singing salt dunes at Baritone Bay. In most novels, no matter how strongly it was hinted at, the main characters wouldn’t die until the end. Because there is a specific story that Crace aims to tell, one that involves the death of Joseph and Celice but is greater than the two of them, the novel is split into three distinct chronologies. This works well in Being Dead because it allows the reader to make a connection with the dead lovers while also following their daughter as she uncovers their fate. Death lies in the very center of this story, a fact which is never hidden from the reader.

Crace’s challenge in Being Dead is to make the reader interested in and invested in characters that we know will not make it to the end of the story. Not only that, but the regular method of storytelling, following a character through an escalating series of conflicts (be they physical or emotional) until a final climax, gets thrown out the window for Joseph and Celice after they perish. This normal method is used with Syl, the daughter of the deceased, when the narrator follows her around until she finds her parents. But most of the meat of the story is how Joseph and Celice ended up there on that specific day. Crace makes this story tantalizing, something worth reading, by weaving the tale of Joseph and Celice meeting with that of their demise. If Being Dead was only about the death of the two zoologists it would be a snippet on one of the back pages in the local newspaper. Without humanizing the two doctors, showing us their struggles and triumphs, it is impossible to be invested in their characters and therefore touched by their deaths. In order to make the story of two murdered doctors compelling, without making it a murder-mystery, Crace follows them backwards in time starting from their death, forwards from the start of their relationship, and follows their bodies forward in time until they are finally separated. These divisions break the narrative up into three different timelines. To have any fewer would deprive the novel of its humanity, or its scope that stretches beyond a single family. The timeline which follows them backwards from their death to waking up that morning provides a tragic note by showing the reader that any number of different choices would have prevented Joseph and Celice from meeting their demise on the dunes that day. But, as all pieces of good fiction must, it serves another purpose. The backwards-moving segment also connects the couple’s initial meeting to their death through the dunes. Joseph’s determined effort to get them back to where they first made love makes their deaths tragic yet inevitable. And without the addition of the timeline following the lovers posthumously the novel would not have the encompassing commentary on death; how it is an integral part of life, how it unites us with nature (fitting considering the dead were zoologists), and how, despite our best efforts, nothing remains of us after death. “If there was any blood left in the soil from Joseph and Celice’s short stay in the dunes then it could only help to fortify the living murmur of the grass,” (195).

Being Dead is one case where the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. If any one of the three chronologies had been omitted the story would have been weaker for it, because it is how the timelines intersect that imbues the story with a true, human feeling.

Crace, Jim. Being Dead. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

“Separation…Revelation…Isolation”

by Gabrielle Brant Freeman

So I went to see the Edvard Munch exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art yesterday afternoon, and I was struck by a woodcut print called Encounter in Space. Two figures float by each other on a field of black; the female figure is blue and the male is red. It reminded me instantly of a yin-yang symbol, which then reminded me of Clive Barker’s Imagica. Which brings me to the poem “The Soul” by Tracy K. Smith from her Pulitzer Prize winning collection titled Life on Mars. Say what? I know, but just wait, I’ll get there. I promise.

In the woodcut, in the yin-yang, in Imagica, the two halves of the whole are always separated. Munch physically cut his blocks apart, inked them separately, and stuck them back together for the printing. The result is two figures who can never really touch. The yin and the yang are still divided by a line, and the characters in Imagica, if memory serves, are literally cut from each other. One of the purposes of poetry is to express what it means to be human, to show what this human life is, in a way that inspires new thought and reflection. Many of us have felt a sense of isolation, even when amongst friends and loved ones, and we may have wondered if human beings can ever really, truly connect with each other. Are we, ultimately, alone?

The pull that these two figures in the woodcut have towards each other is palpable. In “The Soul,” Smith describes another separation, that of the body and soul, described as  “[t]he voice.” The poem begins this way: “The voice is clean. Has heft. Like stones / Dropped in still water” (23). The voice is separated from the body in the poem, and the body is described as “the silence around [the voice]…A garment / That attests to breasts, the privacy / Between thighs” (23). The voice, or the soul, is what has weight in this poem. This is unexpected. Typically, we think of the body as concrete and the soul as weightless. The unexpected contrast is what makes this poem work. And, because I am a poet, I like the idea of the soul as voice. There are all kinds of associations there, not the least of which is the gods creating life with their very breath. That is what writers do. We breathe life into being through our voices, our souls. Not to get all transcendental or anything.

I often describe myself as an existential-transcendentalist. Well, maybe not often, but I think this way: there is immense absurdity in this world, and there is immense beauty and power in this world. I find that poetry helps me when I try to reconcile the two. I will close with the last beautifully absurd lines of this poem: “But it’s the voice that enters us. Even / Saying nothing. Even saying nothing / Over and over absently to itself” (23).

Smith, Tracy K. “The Soul.” Life on Mars. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011.

The title of this post is from U2’s song “Bad,” which I thought would be a little much to include in the post with everything else. And then there’s Hancock. Just sayin’.

Great Character…

Great Characterization Lives on in Danticat’s, Brother, I’m Dying

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

Brother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat is a dynamic and tragic memoir about the close relationship between two brothers, between fathers and their daughters, and between life and death.  Danticat shares the stories of her father and her uncle who at the time Danticat is pregnant with her first child, are both dying.

Danticat makes great choices about dialogue and has a beautiful writing style. Her strength in this book, however, is her ability to pay close attention to people and their relationships with their world.  All the people in her family make up a big interesting cast of characters with stories that are weaved into the larger story the author presents. This includes, but is not limited to, the chaotic and violent political history of Haiti.  She also makes use of the Shakespearean tendency to present a tragic hero. The difference is this story is true. The reader is invested in Danticat’s family story because it is full of unbelievable strife and interesting people. She keeps a clear narrative distance and lets her family, her characters, act out their dramas on center stage. It is easy to forget you are reading nonfiction.

Lots of people die in Danticat’s story, and the details about how these people die and what they looked like after they were dead seemed a necessary feature in satisfying the author’s curiosity about how and why death appears. Yet, despite the many deaths that she has had to endure or hear about, Danticat reminds herself and the reader that death is unavoidable and like life, must be accepted for what it is.  She relays this message through the telling of Haitian folklore and through conversations she has had with her grandmother and her father.  Her father once told her that if he wasn’t a cab driver he would be a grocer or an undertaker because “we all must eat and we all must die.”

The grief in the book, however, is clearly transferred from the writer to the reader. The reader is invested in the characters presented and in the nameless victims that have fallen due to injustice in Haiti. The reader is moved between sadness and fear and then pushed to frustration and anger before releasing the last pages.

Brother, I’m Dying is a strong and well-constructed story that illustrates the power of characterization in any well-told story. Danticat shares her family, her culture, her fear, her frustration, and her grief, and the reader cares enough to mourn her losses with her.

Danticat, Edwidge. Brother, I’m Dying. New York: Random House, 2007.

Accomplishing More with Setting

Accomplishing More with Setting: Landscape in Close Range: Wyoming Stories

by

Rhonda Browning White 

            Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories is a collection of short stories set in the hardscrabble rancher’s world of often-barren Wyoming, though setting is one of the few threads connecting these stories. Their topics vary from that of ancient folkloric legend to the issue of cattle-produced greenhouse gases. There is much for a writer (as well as a discerning reader) to glean from these stories, whether or not their dark and raw subject matter appeals to you.

            First, the setting description caught my attention. The importance of utilizing landscape, scenery and backdrop in writing becomes clearer when we read this collection. Proulx does more than paint a picture with her words; she uses all senses when describing the surroundings in which any of her stories is set. The first paragraph of “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” provides one such example: “You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country—indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky—provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut” (99). As a reader, I’m immediately drawn into this story, not simply because I’m directly addressed (as “you”), but also because I see the shadows, hear the air hiss, feel the claw in my gut, even receive a sixth-sense spiritual shudder. Despite the fact that the setting for each of these stories is desolate Wyoming land, each description of that land is different; colorful or colorless, fragrant or reeking, arid or muddy. It’s an accomplished writer who can make the reader envision the land as if she has been there, and Proulx achieves that goal.

Proulx, Annie. Close Range: Wyoming Stories. New York: Scribner, 1999. Print.