Style and Cleverness

Over the last couple of nights, I’ve learned something about my reading preferences. For a long time, I’ve held that I don’t have much interest in things like character and plot. I’m drawn much more to the way in which the words are put on the page or in there being something innovative about the approach. Even innovation itself isn’t a first concern for me. For example, while I sort of enjoyed House of Leaves, I found it more annoying than likable; innovation of its sort doesn’t appeal to me. Similarly, while I find Cloud Atlas‘s nesting of genre, time, and characters pretty fascinating, it’s really that amazing middle section with its distinctive style that floated my boat about Mitchell’s book.

So primarily, I’ve thought, it comes down to style. Write your book in lovely prose and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll hook me. This may be part of why I’m no great fan of Franzen, for example. His prose tends to be more utilitarian, however well he attends with a comfortable sort of realism (some hold; I don’t) to the sorts of lives midwesterners live and how they endure crisis. I just read The Great Gatsby, and in spite of being prepared for a stinker of a story with dull characters, the style ran away with me and I deemed it a really solid book in spite of any of its other warts.

This week, I started reading The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (more widely known as The Arabian Nights), translated by Richard Burton. The book is sort of double-damned style-wise, since it’s both a translation and is translated in a suitably archaic style. I tend not to trust works in translation too much, figuring that it must be awfully hard to capture style in another language. How can I know that I’m reading anything resembling what the original author wrote? And if I’m looking for lovely or innovative formal things in Burton’s prose, well, it’s just not really there so far. It’s a pleasant translation, but it’s nothing to write home about in terms of pure style. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a 120-year-old translation of an ancient text.

But I’m really loving this book! I think we all probably have a general idea that the book is a series of Arabian tales, but I hadn’t known until I recently read some of John Barth’s glosses of it that it was a set of framed or nested stories in which a doomed concubine cleverly tries to avoid execution by her king by telling stories in which the characters often engage in similar life-saving cleverness of their own. And the heroes of these stories tell nested stories to boot. I think Barth wrote that the level of nesting in the book winds up going six or seven deep at some point.

So, with its fine but unremarkable style, what attraction can this book possibly have for a reader with an acknowledged lack of interest in matters of plot or character? Well, I guess it’s the cleverness, the playfulness. Come to think of it, the sense of play in Barth’s books is what keeps me coming back to them, even when I don’t love the story or his way of putting the words on the page. Well now I’m suffering a minor crisis of understanding: Is it style or cleverness that most drives my interest in a text? Is style perhaps merely a sort of cleverness? Maybe I’m trying to create a relationship here where none exists. At any rate, it’s fun to have discovered a book that confounds my sense of why I like the things I like, that makes me think about why I’m liking what I’m liking rather than just sticking to the pretentious old “blah blah style blah blah” story I’ve been hung up on for a long time now.

3 thoughts on “Style and Cleverness

  1. There are exceptions to every rule. You’re allowed to keep the basic tenet of preferring style while still enjoying a riveting classic, if it strikes the right chords with you.

    What was your reaction to Don Quixote?

    • I liked Don Quixote a lot, I suppose for similar reasons, though you don’t get to the real cleverness of it until halfway through. My feeling was that it’s a landmark book but otherwise not capital-G Great. It’s hard to make the judgment of translated work, though, and probably generally of old work even in English, which for our purposes is often like work in translation.

  2. Melissa says:

    I enjoyed Cloud Atlas for the same reason. I’ll never forget the phrase “rain on the serengeti” or the character’s voice that put it in that middle section that was so skillfully written–such a light touch and so razor sharp.

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