Zestful Blog Post # 203
Welcome to the fourth installment of Close Reading, where I analyze a passage of published writing as to why and how it works or doesn’t.
So much of the war is sitting around and doing nothing, waiting for somebody else. With no guarantee of the amount of time you have left it doesn’t seem worth starting even a train of thought. Doing what they had done so often before, the sentries moved out. Anything that stirred ahead of us now was enemy. The lieutenant marked his map and reported our position over the radio. A noonday hush fell: even the mortars were quiet and the air was empty of planes. One man doodled with a twig in the dirt of the farmyard. After a while it was as if we had been forgotten by war. I hoped that Phuong had sent my suits to the cleaners. A cold wind ruffled the straw of the yard, and a man went modestly behind a barn to relieve himself. I tried to remember whether I had paid the British Consul in Hanoi for the bottle of whisky he had allowed me.
--Graham Greene, from Chapter 2, part 1 of The Quiet American
I chose this paragraph of description because of its mastery. If you’re not familiar with Greene’s novel, it’s about a love triangle and international intrigue during the early stages of what became known to Americans as the Vietnam War. The novel was published in 1955.
[Ah, those reliable orange-spined Penguin editions... Photo by ES]
The narrator, Fowler, talks here of doing nothing, but actually we learn that much—very much—is going on, and we learn what it’s like to be in the middle of it. What is going on is a mission within a war, a war over territory. Fowler, a journalist, is embedded within a fighting unit. Greene demonstrates enviable style and economy in this passage. “Doing what they had done so often before—” He could have explained that this unit had been on countless missions all over the place, how busy they’d been. Not necessary, the way he does it.
“...it doesn’t seem worth starting even a train of thought.” And indeed Fowler does not: he describes what he sees; he wonders if his girlfriend has sent his suits out; half a minute later he tries to remember about the bottle of whisky.
This passages sets mood, and it builds subtly our understanding of Fowler. This last, from what he chooses not to tell us. He does not tell us he’s scared stiff—he’s not. Neither is he excited to be part of this operation. He doesn’t speak of any feelings of admiration for the soldiers of either side—he hasn’t any. Fowler, we are shown, is a dispassionate, probably jaded, observer of the complex multinational conflict the roots of which ran back at least to the 1850s, when France began its colonization of Indochina.
What else do we learn here? We learn the ambient conditions: it’s cold and windy. (How to tell us it’s windy? Show the wind doing something: ruffling the straw in the yard.) We learn what time it is: around noon. We learn that a lieutenant is in charge, thus—if we have any knowledge of military ranking—we can deduce that this fighting unit is fairly small, on the level of a platoon. They’re hiding out on a farm. No one is excited or agitated; these are professional soldiers, and though they’d doubtless rather be smoking cigars and fishing, or banging tail in Saigon, they’re here and they don’t have much choice than to be resigned to it. We learn that Fowler expects to return from this engagement (the suits to the cleaners).
This is the kind of passage I call generous. (See Zestful Blog post March 27, 2014.) The passage is not absolutely necessary, but because Greene was a serious writer—he strove for beauty of style, depth of expression, and economy—he felt it important to give us this paragraph, to help us inhabit the scene and the character. And we are richer for it. As a writer you do these things so that later you can do more things, and the reader is with you beautifully, deeply, and economically.
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