Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Selection and juxtaposition

I linked to this piece some years ago, but it bears repeating, I think; at the TLS, Alan Hollinghurst on the novels of Ronald Firbank:
where Proust, at just the same time, was expanding the novel to unprecedented length to do justice to his narrator’s complex world and his complex consciousness of it, Firbank had arrived at an aesthetic which required almost everything to be omitted. Where Proust, a fellow observer of upper-class society and sexual ambivalence, worked by the endlessly exploratory and comprehensive sentence, the immense paragraph, the ceaselessly dilated book, Firbank laboured to reduce – not merely to condense but to design by elimination. “I am all design – once I get going”, he wrote. “I think nothing of filing fifty pages down to make a brief, crisp paragraph, or even a row of dots.” He constructed in fragments, juxtaposed without any cushioning or explanatory narrative tissue. Both Proust and Firbank loved describing parties, but where Proust’s parties are occasions for infinitely fine analysis and profound digression, Firbank’s are an abstract mosaic of impressions, in which human intercourse is enacted as a kind of coruscating nonsense. One of his most striking inventions was the depiction of a party as a montage of unrelated fragments, picked up as if by a roving microphone: “Her dull white face seems to have no connection with her chestnut hair!” “ . . . with him to Palestine last spring. Oh, dear me, I thought I should have died in Joppa!” “You mix them with olives and a drop of cognac.” [. . . .] “The only genuine one was Jane.” “. . . poison.” “. . . fuss . . . .” “My husband was always shy. He is shy of everybody. He even runs away from me!”.


Firbank worked in fragments all the way through, amassing phrases in notebooks, and supposedly compiling his early novels on narrow horizontal strips of paper, which could be shuffled and rearranged in a way that sounds prophetic of much later experiments with the cut-up. Everything depended on the instinct for selection and juxtaposition. The Jamesian challenge of “free selection – which is the beautiful, terrible whole of art” has not been abandoned, but the terms that govern that selection have been radically revised. There is a paradoxical feeling, especially in his earlier and more experimental novels, that almost everything on the page is irrelevant and yet that nothing could be omitted. The exclamatory inconsequence of social conversation is deployed as a kind of screen, through which the attentive reader will discern hinted patterns, the intermittent unfolding of an anecdote or a joke. As a means of depicting social life in which any contact is transient and any shared understanding unlikely, the technique is wittily appropriate. Had James read Vainglory, when it came out on his seventy-second birthday, he would have found it to infringe almost every canon of Jamesian law – no centre of consciousness, no unity of effect, no “action” – though he might have hesitated to call it loose and baggy when it was so agile, so indirect, so evidently if so mysteriously “designed”.