Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Becoming a Writer: Hiruki Murakami and Leo Tosltoy

Jerusalem PrizeImage via WikipediaIn becoming a writer —particularly, a novelist— one has to be aware of a common sin among writers: excessive abstraction.

Let’s look at an example from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In a much celebrated and often acclaimed scene in which the protagonist, Toru Okada, goes into the dark well, we read:
I needed to calm myself and put my thoughts in order. Fear and panic would solve nothing. When had I last checked the ladder? Yesterday, late at night, just before I fell asleep. I had made certain it was there and only then let myself sleep. No mistake. The ladder had disappeared while I was sleeping. It had been pulled up. Taken away.
I no longer feel either terror of despair. Strangely enough, all I felt at that moment was a kind of resignation.
In my view, the scene lacks concrete objects for the reader to grab and apprehend and so feel the terror the character is experiencing. In the first sentence we find nothing concrete: ‘I needed to calm myself and put my thoughts in order,’ is a total abstraction. In fact, the only object with any physical substance in the entire scene is the ladder. Everything else is rhetorical abstraction.

This excessive abstraction mars the narration. And though the sentences are well stitched together, they don’t convey emotion.

Now let’s look at a passage from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (or Anna Karina):
At Petersburg, as soon as the train stopped and she got out, the first person that attracted her attention was her husband. “Oh, mercy! Why do his ears look like that?’ she thought, looking at his frigid and imposing figure, and especially the ears that struck her at the moment as propping up the brim of his round hat. Catching sight of her, he came to meet her, his lips falling into their habitual sarcastic smile, and his big, tired eyes looking straight at her.
To project the beginning of the deep dissatisfaction that Anna Karenina will develop for her husband, the author focuses not in abstractions, nor in emotional words, but in concrete words. First we find the train, and then the husband (or at least a human shape). Next, we find the ears, the brim of his hat, his lips, his sarcastic smile, ending the recounting with his tired eyes. Details and more details. Within this whirling of visual details, we find the abstraction ‘frigid and imposing figure.’ Everything else is a piling up of objects that the reader sees and through which we begin to see why Anna Karenina will eventually leave him.—her detested husband.

In my judgment it is far better to err on the side of excessive detail than on the side of excessive abstractions.

No comments:

Post a Comment