Thursday, January 4, 2018

Close Reading 5

Zestful Blog Post #245

My friend Jay, who is a change ringer, turned me on to Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, which features change ringing. (Change ringing is a form of church-bell ringing, where an array of tuned tower bells is rung by a team of pullers, or ringers, in precise mathematical sequences. The effect can be hypnotic and possibly even transcendent, as prolonged, repetitive chanting can be in many religious cultures.)

I’m just getting going on this read, and am ashamed that I haven’t devoured anything by Sayers before now, in spite of recommendations from knowledgeable friends. Almost as soon as I started this one, I knew I had to do a Close Reading on it. I’m only on page 49 out of 397, and I haven’t read any plot summaries, so I’m still a virgin reader to the story. OK, we’re going to discuss one little word in the following excerpt, from page 7:

[excerpt begins]
“My dear sir, pray don’t think twice about it. Not but what I am sure Mrs. Tebbutt here would be delighted to take you in and would make you very comfortable—very comfortable indeed; but her husband is laid up with this dreadful influenza—we are suffering from quite an epidemic of it, I am sorry to say—and I fear it would not be altogether convenient, would it, Mrs. Tebbutt?”
“Well, sir, I don’t know as how we could manage very well, under the circumstances, and the Red Cow has only one room—”
“Oh, no,” said the clergyman, quickly, “not the Red Cow; Mrs. Donnington has visitors already. Indeed, I will take no denial. You must positively come along to the Rectory. We have ample accommodation—too much, indeed, too much. My name, by the way, is Venables—I should have mentioned it earlier. I am, as you will have gathered, rector of the parish.”
[excerpt ends] 

The key word here is ‘quickly’. Did you note that? A tiny granule of the story—but instantly telling. Many readers would skip right over that inconsequential little word, buried as it is among all the verbiage being spewed by the clergyman. Careless philistines, such readers would be, but perceptive ones will pause and think.

Hm, OK. There’s a reason the rector doesn’t want the visitor—as it happens, Sayers’s serial character Lord Peter Wimsey—to go to the Red Cow inn. Further reflection yields the possibility that perhaps the Red Cow is of no significance, but that perhaps the rector wants the stranger to come with him instead of anywhere else. We don’t know which possibility is right, and we don’t know what the reason is, but we know there is one. So we are on a little bit of alert with this rector. We shall watch him, and we shall attempt to discern his motive for keeping the stranger either away from the Red Cow, or with him in his rectory, on this evening.

[I might note that Sayers is as much a stylist as she is a technician. Some gorgeous prose to be enjoyed in this book, besides the more workaday passage we’re discussing here…]

We know that the author might have thrown that little adjective in as a false clue, so we must withhold judging the rector as treacherous right away, and on that basis alone. And it’s also possible that the rector has a secret yet benevolent reason to steer Lord Peter one way or another tonight. We do not wish to be made fools of!

But do you see how goddamned entertaining and enjoyable it is to read closely? We are really matching wits twice over: with the characters, and with the author. Because we wonder what the author’s motive is here: To clarify or obfuscate? To enlighten or temporarily confuse? To reward or to trick? Whatever the case, we know the author is thinking about us as well as her story. And so, engaged, we read on, our intellectual senses whetted, knowing we’re being considered equals.

The takeaway for readers is that attentiveness is always rewarded, when the author is a trusted professional. And for authors—the power of a word! One word, to color a moment, to intrigue the reader, to direct your story, if only a tiny bit! O, let us luxuriate in the gorgeous utility of the English language, even when we are so moved that we must swear!

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Liz, good point re: adjectives. We should generally eschew them, but I think most agents & eds are savvy enough to tell if the -lys are used 1) to excess and/or 2) lazily. Sayers could have used 'in a flash' to avoid the -ly construction, but that would have changed the meaning somewhat, and called more attention to it than she probably wanted. As always, thanks for swinging by with your insights.

  2. An excellent point! Writers are often advised to avoid adverbs, but this is a great example of one that could matter quite a bit. I devoured Sayers when I was in my teens-- perhaps it is time for a re-read, and a close one at that!

    1. Would love to compare notes on them with you, Neil. XO

  3. Hey Elizabeth,

    I am impressed how fast and easily people, we, can get in contact these days! Thank you for your answer to my subscribtion to your blog and newsletter. And thank you very much for the article above. I will pay attantion to the tiny words and explore what's in them:-)

    I got to know that older sister, you wrote about in "You have've got a book in you", in London, summer-vacation 2016.

    Thank you for letting her speak to me - she really knows me - and I adore her.

    My best greetings from Germany to the US!


    1. Judith, thanks for checking in here. That's wonderful that the book resonated with you!! Stay tuned here for more...

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I'm so glad you've found Dorothy L. Sayers and Peter Wimsey. I'm rereading Strong Poison for the umpteenth time. It doesn't grow stale. Here's a quote. I don't think writing gets much better than this. "That was the second time Wimsey had been asked not to alter himself; the first time, the request had exalted him; this time, it terrified him. As the taxi lurched along the rainy Embankment, he felt for the first time the dull and angry helplessness which is the first warning stroke of the triumph of mutability . . . Whether his present enterprise failed or succeeded, things would never be the same again. It was not that his heart would be broken by a disastrous love--he had outlived the luxurious agonies of youthful blood, and in this very freedom from illusion he recognized the loss of something. From now on, every hour of light-heartedness would be, not a prerogative but an achievement--one more axe or case-bottle or fowling-piece, rescued, Crusoe-fashion, from a sinking ship."


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