Would you think for a moment about your favorite novels? What about them do you remember most? My memories are of tense or revelatory scenes that came alive as strongly as if a staged play were in front of me. (For our purpose, let’s define a scene as a a unit of enacted drama that takes place in “real time,” includes dialog and carries emotional weight; the reader is shown rather than told what is going on. Scenes have a beginning, middle and end.) For example, I think of the scene in Toni Morrison’s Beloved in which her main character, Sethe, kills her daughter to save her from slavery. I remember it as so fiercely, unbearably real that I had to close the book to stop the action.
The second thing that stays with me is narration, particularly description that does a second job, so beautifully written that I want to memorize it. In My Antonia, Willa Cather accomplishes this by using a point of view narrator, Jim Burden, to describe the Nebraska plains in language so fresh and simple it has the power of poetry. Here’s an example:
“As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose colour, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world….In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.”
Notice the subtlety of the second job: there’s sexual imagery in that description, but it’s gentle, indirect and unconsummated, further softened by Jim’s wish that he could be a “little boy” again and “end there,” when he and Antonia had an innocent relationship through their coming of age years, before the disappointments of their adult choices.
Another master, Wallace Stegner, uses an omniscient narrator in The Big Rock Candy Mountain to bring landscape as well as the boy Chet’s memory to evocative life when he and his parents, Bo and Elsa, take a day trip into the mountains from their drought-stricken homestead on a Saskatchewan plain.
“The boy wriggled his back against the rock, put his hand down to shift himself, brought it up prickled with spruce needles. He picked them off, still staring down over the canyon gateway. They were far above the world he knew. The air was clearer, thinner. There was cold water running from the rock, and all around there were trees. And over the whole canyon, like a haze in the clear air, was that other thing, that memory or ghost of a memory, a swing he had fallen out of, the feel of his hands sticky with blackberries, his skin drinking cool shade, and his father’s anger—the reflection of ecstasy and the shadow of tears. (…) It was evening in the canyon, but when they reached the mouth again they emerged into full afternoon, with two hours of sun left them. Bo stopped the car before they dipped into the gravelly wash between the foothills, and they all looked back at the steep thrust of the mountains, purpling in the shadows, the rock glowing golden-red far back on the faces of the inner peaks. Elsa still held the bouquet of maples leaves in her hand.”
I’ve now structured my novel-in-progress to the point at which I have brief notes about what has to happen or be revealed in each chapter of the first section. But what should be in scene? What should be in narration? I’ll be posting more on this as I figure out criteria for this book.
Meanwhile, would you share a standout memory of one of your all-time favorite novels? Is it an unforgettable scene, or is it a passage of powerful, thrilling narration? If you were stuck in a waiting room, and a book happened to be on the table, what novel would make you happy the appointment was running late, and what section would you thumb the pages to find and re-read?