novel vs. novel

I’m a fiction writer, so I pay close attention to the fiction I read. I’m always looking to learn how other practitioners have done things. What worked for them—and what didn’t?

The two novels I’ve read most recently are Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (translated from the German by Basil Creighton, with revisions by Margot Bettauer Dembo) and Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman. While I was happy to finish reading Grand Hotel, while I found that I couldn’t get into Falls the Shadow and wound up abandoning it after chapter 1, at page 29. Why did I finish one but not the other?

Weimar Germany vs. medieval Wales–who wins?

Grand Hotel is considerably shorter—maybe only 40% as long as Falls the Shadow—but that was no part of the reason, for I am happy to read long books if I’m enjoying them. Grand Hotel is also more of a “literary” novel, one that is more self-consciously inventive in its idea and design and not so easily placed in a familiar genre. Falls the Shadow is a work of historical fiction, and even, as I learned belatedly, the second in a series of novels that Goodreads identifies as Welsh Princes (this designation does not appear in the book itself). Here again, though, this does not place Grand Hotel at a special advantage in my eyes, since I hold storytelling in high regard and “genre” works are typically more interested in this than are “literary” works.

No, if I had to summarize what I think the decisive difference is between these books, I would say that it lies in the author’s view of the world and how that view is expressed. Let’s look at a couple actual passages. I’ve tried to select the first significant block of description in each work. Grand Hotel begins with an exchange of dialogue, and the first significant descriptive passage begins at the bottom of the first page. We are inside the Grand Hotel in Berlin in the early 1920s. Here it is:

The music from the Tearoom in the new building beat in syncopation from mirror to mirror along the walls. It was dinnertime and a smell of cooking was in the air, but behind the closed doors the large dining room was still silent and empty. The Chef, Mattoni, was setting out his cold buffet in the small white room. The porter felt a strange weakness in his knees and he stopped a moment in the doorway, arrested by the bright gleam of the colored lights behind the blocks of ice. In the corridor an electrician was kneeling on the floor, busy over some repair to the wires. Ever since they’d installed those powerful lights to illuminate the front of the hotel there was always something wrong with the overworked electrical system. The porter pulled himself together and went back to his post. Little Georgi meanwhile had taken charge. Georgi was the son of the proprietor of a large hotel business who wanted to see his son work his way up through the ranks. Senf, feeling somewhat oppressed, made his way straight across the Lounge, where there was now a good deal of movement. There the music of the jazz band from the Tearoom encountered that of the violins from the Winter Garden, and mingled with the thin murmur of the illuminated fountain as it fell into its imitation Venetian basin, the ring of glasses on tables, the creaking of wicker chairs and, lastly, the soft rustle of the furs and silks in which women were moving to and fro. The cool March air came in gusts through the revolving doors whenever the pageboy passed guests in or out.

There. Not fabulous, but interesting and well observed. The writing itself is prosaic, with no figurative language—metaphors, similes, metonyms, and the like—to make it vivid, but it is precise and presents unusual and telling details. The opening image of music reverberating along mirrors is unexpected and something we might not notice without this narrator’s help. She is cool and detached, but very observant and interested in this world.

Now let’s look at the opening two paragraphs of Falls the Shadow. We’re in northern France in February 1231:

They crossed the border into Brittany at noon, soon afterward they found themselves in an eerily silent landscape, shrouded in dense, spectral fog. Simon showed neither unease nor surprise, merely commented that they must be nearing the sea. But his squire was not so sanguine. Geoffrey fumbled within his mantle, seeking his crucifix. Bretagne, he whispered, as if the ancient name of this ominous realm might prove a talisman, protecting him and his young lord. It was a land steeped in dark legend, a land in which the people spun firelit tales of Merlin and the Celtic King, Arthur, a land with its own myths, its own arcane tongue, not a land to welcome strangers—Bretagne.

Geoffrey did not fear Breton bandits, for he’d never seen a better swordsman than Simon. But he wondered how they’d fare against shadows, against the demon spirits that were said to haunt these dark, foreboding forests. Once he broached the subject; Simon only laughed. Geoffrey was very much in awe of his lord, but understanding so far eluded him. How was it that Simon seemed so blessedly free of the fears that plagued other men? How could he believe this mad quest of his might succeed?

It seems reasonable enough, but I found that this prose was putting me off. Why?

To start with, I ran into a miscue in the first sentence:

They crossed the border into Brittany at noon, soon afterward they found themselves in an eerily silent landscape. . . .

At first it’s not easy to tell what grammatical relationship the words soon afterward have to the preceding clause. By the time I hit they found themselves I realized I was in a new clause, and that they had been stitched together with only a comma. The author has made use of a figure called asyndeton, the omission of a conjunction. This can be powerful when wielded skillfully, as by Julius Caesar when he said:

I came, I saw, I conquered.

In Ms. Penman’s case, though, it’s a habitual technique that amounts to being a verbal tic. Because it is habitual it does not add power or variety; it only slows the reader down—this reader, anyway—without compensation. If it’s just a device to reduce word count, there are better ways. I found I’d hit a speed bump in the very first sentence.

Reading on, I found the description to be long without being informative. The phrase “eerily silent landscape, shrouded in dense, spectral fog” for all that it contains 4 adjectives (including the past participle shrouded) and an adverb, is less vivid than it should be. The generic word landscape does not bring any image to mind; we won’t learn until the next paragraph that the travelers are in “forests.” To me it would be more vivid simply to say:

They crossed into Brittany at noon and entered a forest shrouded in fog.

Not excellent, but serviceable and easy to read. It has compressed 22 words down to 13, with no loss of conjunction between clauses and no real loss of meaning, indeed it rather gains in vividness. What might happen if this kind of compression could be done to the whole novel, which runs about 575 dense pages? Forest is still a generic word, and shrouded is a dead metaphor. The writer keen to make a stronger first impression might rethink these. Such rethinking might involve research, though: what kinds of forests are there in Brittany, or were there in 1231? What do they actually look like and feel like? How much work does the writer want to do? On the other hand, it is a first sentence and thus a first impression.

I just did a quick online search and came up with this interesting material from a travel site about visiting France:

The Breton forest distinguishes itself from other forests by the presence of beech and oak groves of holly and yew trees in areas where the atmosphere is very humid. It is composed of both indigenous species, beech trees (in the centre of Brittany), sessile oak trees (in deep soil), pedunculated oaks (in damp soil) and strange species like the Scotch pine tree (introduced during the Renaissance) and Maritime pines (introduced during the Enlightenment) or chestnut trees (whose introduction dates back to the Celtic period).

Interesting! This could turn a generic forest into a forest of, say, holly and yew trees—trees that begin to bring more specific images to the reader’s mind. The mention of holly trees swathed in fog will bring the reader into the story more quickly than any number of adjectives in front of the word landscape.

The rest of the paragraph tries to show a contrast between the two characters presented, and conjure a sense of mystery around Brittany. Here again, saying less would mean more. Let’s take the second sentence:

Simon showed neither unease nor surprise, merely commented that they must be nearing the sea.

The sentence tells us about Simon’s response, and then lets us know what that response was. It would be stronger if it did only the latter. To show contrast with the attitude of his servant, Geoffrey’s response could be combined with it in the same sentence:

Simon merely commented that they must be near the sea, but Geoffrey fumbled for his crucifix.

With the deletion of the intervening sentence, this cuts 30 words down to 16. More liposuction. The reader is being asked to draw some inferences from the text, rather than being told everything, and this too makes a work more involving to read.

I’m sorry if I appear to be picking on this book or its author; I don’t mean to! The book itself may be fairly decent and indeed better than average. Heck, it’s a St. Martin’s Griffin book, and my library copy is from its eighth printing. But I found that I didn’t want to go on reading it, and I am trying to give a sense of why.

On Goodreads I gave Grand Hotel four stars, but found that I could give Falls the Shadow only three on the basis of what I had read. With this reader, these two unlikely authors went head to head with their respective works, and this was the result.

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