Joined: 22 Nov 2008
Location: over there somewhere
|Posted: Wed May 20, 2009 6:23 pm Post subject: A new Challenge!
|I thought it was about time we had another Challenge. So you all know the rules: read the following extracts and then grade them for literary quality and then for pleasure, in other words, which one you like best and which one least!
I've taken out the names and any clues to place, but if you do know the book or author, try not to give it away!
Ok, here we go:
On one the first days of May, some six months after old Mr T's death, a small group that might have been described by a painter as composing well was gathered in one of the many rooms of an ancient villa crowning an olive-muffled hill outside of the gate. The villa was a long, rather blank-looking structure, with the far-projecting roof which this country loves and which, on the hills that encircle the city, when considered from a distance, makes so harmonious a rectangle with the straight, dark, definite cypresses that usually rise up in groups of three or four beside it. The house had a front upon a little grassy, empty, rural piazza which occupied a part of the hilltop; and this front, pierced with a few windows in irregular relations and furnished with a stone bench lengthily adjusted to the base of the structure and useful as a lounging-place to one or two persons wearing more or less of that air of undervalued merit which in this country, for some reason or other, always gracefully invests anyone who confidently assumes a perfectly passive attitude - this antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the mask, not the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in reality looked another way - looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of the afternoon light. In that quarter the villa overhung the slope of its hill and the long valley, hazy with colour. It had a narrow garden, in the manner of a terrace, productive cheifly of tangles of wild roses and other old stone benches, mossy and sun-warmed. The parapet of the terrace was just the height to lean upon, and beneath it the ground declined into the vagueness of olive-crops and vineyards. It is not, however, with the outside of the place that we are concerned; on this bright morning of ripened spring its tenants had reason to prefer the shady side of the wall. The windows of the ground-floor, as you saw them from the piazza, were in their noble proportions, extremely architectural; but their function seemed less to offer communication with the world than to defy the world to look in. They were massively cross-barred, and placed at such a height that curiosity, even on tiptoe, expired before it reached them.
His trial had been fixed for the next day. Exactly when, of course, neither N nor anyone else knew. Probably it would be during the afternoon, when the principals concerned - judge, jury and prosecutor - managed to converge on the same courtroom at the same time. With luck his defense attorney might also appear at the right moment, though the case was such an open and shut one that N hardly expected him to bother - besides, transport to and from the old penal complex was notoriously difficult, involved endless waiting in the grimy depot below the prison walls.
N had passed the time usefully. Luckily, his cell faced south and sunlight traversed it for most of the day. He divided its arc into ten equal segments, the effective daylight hours, marking the intervals with a wedge of mortar prised from the window ledge. Each segment he further subdivided into twelve smaller units.
Immediately he had a working timepiece, accurate to within virtually a minute (the final subdivision into fifths he made mentally). The sweep of white notches, curving down one wall, across the floor and metal bedstead, and up the other wall, would have been recognisable to anyone who stood with his back to the window, but no one ever did. Anyway, the guards were too stupid to understand, and the sundial had given N a tremendous advantage over them. Most of the time, when he wasn't recalibrating the dial, he would press against the grille, keeping an eye on the orderly room.
"Brocken!" he would shout at seven-fifteen as the shadow line hit the first interval. "Morning inspection! On your feet, man!" The sergeant would come stumbling out of his bunk in a sweat, rising the other warders as the reveille bell split the air.
Later, N sang out the other events on the daily roster: roll call, cell fatigues, breakfast, exercise, and so on around to the evening roll just before dusk. Brocken regularly won the block merit for the best-run cell deck and relied on N to program the day for him, anticipate the next item on the roster and warn him if anything went on for too long - in some of the other blocks fatigues were usually over in three minutes while breakfast or exercise could go on for hours, none of the warders knowing when to stop, the prisoners insisting that they had only just begun.
Brocken never inquired how N organised everything so exactly; once or twice a week, when it rained or was overcast, N would be strangely silent, and the resulting confusion reminded the sergeant forcefully of the merits of cooperation. N was kept in cell privileges and all the cigarettes he needed. It was a shame that a date for the trial had finally been named.
N, too, was sorry. Most of the research so far had been inconclusive. Primarily his problem was that, given a northward-facing cell for the bulk of his sentence, the task of estimating the time might become impossible. The inclination of the shadows int the exercise yards or across the towers and walls provided too blunt a reading. Calibration would have to be visual; an optical instrument would soon be discovered.
What he needed was an internal timepiece, an unconsciously operating psychic mechanism regulated, say, by his pulse or respiratory rhythms. He tried to train his time sense, running an elaborate series of tests to estimate its minimum in-built error, and this had been disappointingly large. The chance of conditioning an accurate reflex seemed slim.
However, unless he could tell the exact time at any given moment, he knew he would go mad.
Under the palm of one hand the child became aware of the scab of an old cut on his kneecap. He bent forward to examine it closely. A scab was always a fascinating thing; it presented a special challenge he was never able to resist.
Yes, he thought, I will pick it off, even if it isn't ready, even if the middle of it sticks, even if it hurts like anything.
With a fingernail he began to explore cautiously around the edges of the scab. He got a nail underneath it, and when he raised it, but ever so slightly, it suddenly came off, the whole hard brown scab came off beautifully, leaving an interesting little circle of smooth red skin.
Nice. Very nice indeed. He rubbed the circle and it didn't hurt. He picked up the scab, put it on his thigh and flipped it with a finger so that it flew away and landed on the carpet, the enormous red and black and yellow carpet that stretched the whole length of the hall from the stairs on which he sat to the front door in the distance. A tremendous carpet. Bigger than the tennis lawn. Much bigger than that. He regarded it gravely, setting his eyes upon it with mild pleasure. He had never really noticed it before, but now, all of a sudden, the colours seemed to brighten mysteriously and spring out at him in a most dazzling way.
You see, he told himself, I know how it is. The red parts of the carpet are red-hot lumps of coal. What I must do is this: I must walk all the way along it to the front door without touching them. If I touch the red I will be burnt. As a matter of fact, I will be burnt up completely. And the black parts of the carpet ... yes, the black parts are snakes, poisonous snakes, adders mostly, and cobras, thick like tree trunks round the middle, and if I touch one of them, I'll be bitten and I'll die before tea time. And if I get across safely, without being burnt and without being bitten, I will be given a puppy for my birthday tomorrow.
He got to his feet and climbed higher up the stairs to obtain a better view of this vast tapestry of colour and death. Was it possible? Was there enough yellow? Yellow was the only colour he was allowed to walk on. Could it be done? This was not a journey to be undertaken lightly; the risks were far too great for that. The child's face - a fringe of white-gold hair, two large blue eyes, a small pointed chin - peered down anxiously over the banisters. The yellow was bit thin in places and there was one or two wideish gaps, but it did seem to go all the way along to the other end. For someone who had only yesterday triumphantly travelled the whole length of the brick path from the stables to the summer-house without touching the cracks, this carpet thing should not be too difficult. Except for the snakes. The mere thought of snakes sent a fine electricity of fear running like pins down the backs of his legs and under the soles of his feet.
He came slowly down the stairs and advanced to the edge of the carpet. He extended one small sandelled foot and placed it cautiously upon a patch of yellow. Then he brought the other foot up, and there was just enough room for him to stand with the two feet together. There! He had started! His bright, oval face was curiously intent, a shade whiter perhaps than before, and he was holding his arms out sideways to assist his balance. He took another step, lifting his foot high over a patch of black, aiming carefully with his toe for a narrow channel of yellow on the other side. When he had completed the second step he paused to rest, standing very stiff and still. The narrow channel of yellow ran forward for at least five yards and he advanced gingerly along it, bit by bit, as though walking a tightrope. Where it finally curled off sideways, he had to take another long stride, this time over a vicious-looking mixture of black and red. Halfway across he began to wobble. He waved his arms around wildly, windmill fashion, to keep his balance, and he got across safely and rested again on the other side. He was quite breathless now, and so tense he stood high on his toes all the time, arms out sideways, fists clenched. He was on a big safe island of yellow. There was lots of room on it, he couldn't possibly fall off, and he stood there resting, hesitating, waiting, wishing he could stay forever on this big safe yellow island. But the fear of not getting the puppy compelled him to go on.
Step by step, he edged further ahead, and between each one he paused to decide exactly where he should put his foot. Once, he had a choice of ways, either to the left or to the right, and he chose the left because although it seemed the more difficult, there was not so much black in that direction. The black was what had made him nervous. He glanced quickly over his shoulder to see how far he had come. Nearly halfway. There could be no turning back now. He was in the middle and he couldn't turn back and he couldn't jump off sideways either because it was too far, and when he looked at all the red and all the black that lay ahead of him, he felt that old sudden sickening surge of panic in his chest - like last Easter time, that afternoon when he got lost all alone in the darkest part of Piper's Wood.
He took another step, placing his foot carefully upon the only llittle piece of yellow within reach, and this time the point of the foot came within a centimetre of some black. It wasn't touching the black, he could see it wasn't touching, he could see the small line of yellow separating the toe of his sandal from the black; but the snake stirred as though sensing his nearness, and raised its head and gazed at the foot with bright beady eyes, watching to see if it was going to touch.
'I'm not touching you! You musn't bite me! You know I'm not touching you!'
Another snake slid up noiselessly beside the first, raised its head, two heads now, two pairs of eyes staring at the foot, gazing at a little naked place just below the sandal strap where the skin showed through. The child went high up on his toes and stayed there, frozen stiff with terror. It was minutes before he dared to move again.
The next step would have to be a really long one. There was this deep curling river of black that ran clear across the width of the carpet, and he was forced by his position to cross it at its widest part. He thought at first of trying to jump it, but decided he couldn't be sure of landing accurately on the narrow band of yellow on the other side. He took a deep breath, lifted one foot, and inch by inch he pushed it out in front of him, far far out, then down and down until at last the tip of his sandal was across and resting safely on the edge of the yellow. He leaned forward, transferring his weight to his front foot. Then he tried to bring the back foot up as well. He strained and jerked and pulled his body, but the legs were too wide apart and he couldn't make it. He tried to get back again. He couldn't do that either. He was doing the splits and he was properly stuck. He glanced down and saw this deep curling river of black underneath him. Parts of it were stirring now, and uncoiling and beginning to shine with a dreadfully oily glister. He wobbled, waved his arms frantically to keep his balance, but that seemed to make it worse. He was starting to go over. He was going over to the right, quite slowly he was going over, then faster and faster, and at the last moment, instinctively he put out a hand to break the fall and the next thing he saw was this bare hand of his going right into the middle of a great glistening mass of black and he gave one piercing cry as it touched.
Outside in the sunshine, far away behind the house, the mother was looking for her son.
I got up at nine, drank three cups of black coffee, bathed the back of my head with ice-water and read the two morning papers that had been thrown against the apartment door. There was a paragraph and a bit about MM, in Part II, but N didn't get his name mentioned. There was nothing about LM, unless it was on the society page.
I dressed and ate two soft-boiled eggs and drank a fourth cup of coffee and looked myself over in the mirror. I still looked a little shadowy under the eyes. I had the door open to leave when the phone rang.
It was N. He sounded mean.
'Yeah, 'did you get him?
'Oh sure. We got him.' He stopped to snarl. 'On the Ventura line, like I said. Boy, did we have fun! Six foot six, built like a coffer dam, on his way to see the Fair. He had five quarts of hooch in the front seat of the rent car, and he was drinking out of another one as he rode along, doing a quiet seventy. All we had to go up against him with was two county cops with guns and blackjacks.'
He paused and I turned over a few witty sayings in my mind, but none of them seemed amusing at the moment.
N went on:
'So he done exercises with the cops and when they was tired enough to go to sleep, he pulled off one side of their car, threw the radio into a ditch, opened a fresh bottle of hooch, and went to sleep hisself. After a while the boys snapped out of it and bounced blackjacks off his head for about ten minutes before he noticed it. When he began to get sore they got handcuffs on him. It was easy. We got him in the icebox now, drunk driving, drunk in auto, assaulting a police officer in performance of duty, two counts, malicious damage to official property, attempted escape from custody, assault less than mayhem, disturbing the peace and parking on a stage highway. Fun, ain't it?'
'What's the gag?' I asked. 'You didn't tell me all that just to gloat.'
'It was the wrong guy,' N said savagely. 'This bird was named Stoyanoffsky and he lives in Hemet and he just got through working as a sandhog on the San Jack tunnel. Got a wife and four kids. Boy, is she sore.'
What goes around comes around.......
Joined: 19 Nov 2008
Location: Staines, Middlesex
|Posted: Fri May 22, 2009 3:00 pm Post subject:
|A) The sentences are not merely long, but meandering. They seem to me often very poorly structured. Take for instance, the following:
“The house had a front upon a little grassy, empty, rural piazza which occupied a part of the hilltop; and this front, pierced with a few windows in irregular relations and furnished with a stone bench lengthily adjusted to the base of the structure and useful as a lounging-place to one or two persons wearing more or less of that air of undervalued merit which in this country, for some reason or other, always gracefully invests anyone who confidently assumes a perfectly passive attitude - this antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character.”
It’s not the length of the sentence that’s the problem here, but the fact that that in the long middle section - “pierced with a few windows … which in this country” – we have 47 words with no punctuation at all: the reader gets no opportunity to pause for breath. And even within that section, we have “one or two” in close proximity to the similarly constructed “more or less”, and it jars. The writer seems to have a poor ear for rhythm. The words merely follow each other monotonously, none of them making any particular impression.
I am a bit puzzled about the intended readership. It’s clearly not intended for the bestseller charts: the publishers would never have passed such long sentences. And yet, I’d expect a more “literary” author to have a better ear for prose rhythms. As to whether I’d want to read this the answer is “no”. It’s not merely that I found this difficult to read: the difficulty was not rewarded, as what the passage communicates is frankly unremarkable.
B) The first paragraph is pretty unremarkable, although I think I’d have joined the first two sentences together, to read: “His trial had been fixed for the next day, though neither N nor anyone else knew the exact time.” But there’s nothing to complain about.
But in the second paragraph, something goes wrong: there is a change of tense that introduces a discontinuity in the narrative. From “N had passed his time usefully”, we move to “he divided its arc…” i.e. we change from the past perfect tense to the past tense. This is sloppy writing, and not something I’d expect from a professional writer.
There’s also a lazy over-use of adverbs. For instance: “He had passed his time usefully.” That’s a clumsy word – “usefully”: surely he could have written “He had made good use of his time”. The next sentence starts with another adverb – “luckily”. It all seems a bit clumsy – the work of a writer who is not really thinking about what he or she is writing, and who seems little concerned with elegance of construction. Maybe I’m biased: I have an irrational aversion to writers who are happy to start a sentence with “Anyway,.…”.
I have a feeling that my heart would sink if anyone were to choose this as the next Book Group read.
C) “…The yellow was bit thin in places and there was one or two wideish gaps…”
That can’t be right, can it? Other than that, the prose seems far more accomplished than in the first two excerpts. The sentences are well-structured with a good ear for rhythm, and the writer can maintain continuity from sentence to sentence without resorting to “Anyway…” What puzzles me, nonetheless, is why the author should spend so much time on this childish fancy. Of course, it’s fascinating to enter the mind of a child, but once we get an idea of what the child is thinking, such extended elaboration does seem a bit superfluous. A child is bored, and, after picking a scab (that bit is nicely described), he makes up a game for himself. Well and good. But I can’t really see what is gained by describing that game in such detail. Maybe it’s clearer in the context.
But judged out of context, I’d guess this is a writer who can write, but doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to write about.
D) This is either a thriller-writer heavily influenced by Chandler, or, possibly, Chandler himself. The rhythms are very Chandleresque:
“I dressed and ate two soft-boiled eggs and drank a fourth cup of coffee and looked myself over in the mirror. I still looked a little shadowy under the eyes. I had the door open to leave when the phone rang. “
Three consecutive sentences all starting with “I”; all those clauses in the first sentences joined together with “and”: it’s all classic Chandler – merely relating the sequence of events, inviting the reader to join them up and make sense of them.
This is far and away the best of the four excerpts. It has a certain quality that the others don’t: an individual character. I’d guess this is Chandler, and that M is Marlowe – but Chandler has had so many imitators, that it’s hard to be sure.
In terms of personal preference: D C A B
In terms of perceived “literariness”: the same as above, I think, as I personally define “literary” as “what I like”!