What is it that elevates a piece of writing from good to excellent? There are graspable signs, I know. Here’s a loose litoverlap to explore the question:
From The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss (2007, Pan):
On Sunday, late in the afternoon … A cold fog had settled over the valley, and the trees on the surrounding slopes were soft gray shapes against a white remoteness; so when a horse and rider came off the hill, they seemed to take their form out of the ground, and only slowly became something he recognized. (p 122)
From The Brothers of Gwynned quartet – Afterglow and Nightfall by Edith Pargeter (1989, Headline):
But it was no more than deep of dusk, … when I saw a small knot of horsemen galloping towards me in purposeful haste, and made out one who led, and three who followed. It was then twilight but with that gleam about it that draws light from every outline, so that flowers shine like faint lamps,* and faces have the pure pallor of saints, and though the foremost rider showed under his blown cap of black hair only such an oval of light for a countenance, yet by his seat in the saddle, and the set of his shoulders and head, I knew him … (p 692)
I admire Gloss’s writing, and this example is not intended at all to serve as a comment on the two authors’ bodies of work, nor as a proposition that only one thing, or just a few things, makes for great writing. But here I think Gloss is good and Pargeter is even better at evoking the image of a horse and rider coming into focus in the observer’s view. Why is that?
Gloss, like many writers, brings the weather into the scene to help the reader feel and picture what the narrator is describing. More importantly, and skilfully, she adds depth to the description by using the weather to support her idea that the horse and rider seem to have been created by the earth because of the chilly fog. ‘Out of’ is the signpost for the first notion, and ‘so’ indicates the second.
The link between the horse-and-rider and the trees is strong, as confirmed by the semi-colon – Gloss doesn’t need to add ‘too’, as in ‘they too seemed to take their form out of the ground’, in order to align the indistinct, mobile shapes with the stationary ‘soft gray shapes’. And thus the implication is made: Trees grow from the ground; in ‘cold fog’ horse and rider grow from ground. Figuratively, she’s suggesting that trees and horse-and-rider are intrinsic to the earth. This implication supports Gloss’s presentation of Martha Lessen, the book’s protagonist and the rider in this passage, as an authentic cowgirl whose life story is rooted in the austere American West of the first half of the 20th century.
To a lesser extent, Gloss also seems to link the horse and rider with the fog itself. The fog has ‘settled’ – we get the impression of sinking, of descent. So, too, is the horse and rider’s direction of movement. They don’t crest the hill; they’re not seen silhouetted however indistinctly against its top. They ‘came off’ it, which in my view means that they have been descending it and are at the bottom, or have perhaps even left it behind, by the time the man recognises them. ‘He’ is Tom Kandel, as we learn from the start of the paragraph from which this extract is taken. He’s more of a secondary character, but no less finely portrayed for it.
In their ground-form, horse and rider are as yet unrecognisable to Tom the observer. Gloss uses the word ‘something’ not ‘someone’, so she is not simply saying that Tom doesn’t (yet) know who the horse and rider are. For a while he doesn’t know what they are. Are they trees, which appear to be moving? Are they some alien, unknown form? Only slowly, as they come closer to him, do they shed the impression that they are ground-forms and are they revealed in their true form. In themselves they have always been what they are: an obliging horse and a tough but gentle-handed, likeable young woman, as we learn from the rest of the story. But in those chill, foggy moments they are something else, something unknown, because Tom sees them as such. The observer and the image or form he sees are thus linked. Gloss could have failed to put him into the scene. Then it would be just us observing the horse and rider’s approach. But who would slowly recognise them? Not us, we know already what they are. If Gloss had ended the sentence: ‘... out of the ground, and only slowly became something recognisable.’, the image would be less powerful.
In the next sentence Tom recognises who the horse and rider are. And it becomes clear why Gloss put him into the scene: The horse that Martha is riding is the horse he bought for his young son (for whom Martha is breaking the horse in), and he, not Martha, is the scene’s focal point. Three pages earlier the omniscient narrator has begun introducing him, and now his connection with Martha is quietly, subtly established.
A page later we learn that Tom had been experiencing the fog as ‘a shapeless, shadowless vagueness’ (p 123) in which he had felt so terribly alone that when Martha draws near he tries, with some apparently random conversation, to make her stay with him. But she’s busy and must get on, and soon Tom watches ‘the shape of [her] on the horse soften and whiten and sink down again into the formless ground and leave no trace’ (p 124). So she and the horse return from where they had come – up from the ground, down into the ground. An additional element here is that this figurative movement mirrors the more literal movement Tom will shortly be making, because as we have been told a few paragraphs earlier he ‘was forty years old and in a little over two months he would be dead’ (p 123) (of cancer). (My quoting the statement here lends bluntness to it that belies the calm, practical yet poignant manner in which Gloss presents it.) His acute loneliness and sense of dislocation within the fog therefore don’t come as a surprise.
I have one negative criticism: The image weakens a bit, I believe, in Gloss’s phrase ‘a white remoteness’. Before and after that phrase I find the scene easy to imagine. But ‘remote’ is more powerful as an adjective; the use of the word as a noun, along with the indefinite article, is a smudge on an otherwise clearly and finely portrayed picture. Still, Gloss’s is one of the kinds of writing that I like. Each sentence means something. Whichever attribute(s) it has – whether it’s clever or striking or evocative, for example – it is effective not just in itself. One can pick out a few seemingly plain, innocuous lines, and they turn out to be significant to the story as a whole. Which implies that every other line in the novel is equally useful and valuable. Each sentence has a contribution to make, be it palpable or more subtle.
Gloss fictionalises the life of an American cowgirl of the early 20th century. Pargeter fictionalises the life of Llewelyn (‘first and only true Prince of Wales’ (p ix)) and his family, of the early 13th century. Pargeter’s narrator is Samson, son of one of the waiting-women of Lady Senena, Llewelyn’s mother. Samson and Llewelyn are born on the same day of the same year, and they grow up together, separated by their differing social positions, with Samson always willingly serving Llewelyn in one way or another – as ‘clerk, servant and friend life-long’ (p 611). In the extract, Samson has been sent to search the northern Welsh countryside for Llewelyn’s younger brother, David. At this concluding stage of the quartet, Llewelyn and David are fighting their final battle with each other over how Wales should be ruled. Samson’s expectation of having to ride ‘well into the night’ (p 692) on his search is confounded by his finding that at ‘no more than deep of dusk’ David rides towards him. A hint that the man approaching him is David is given in ‘one who led’.
Though the horsemen are coming towards Samson fast, ‘in purposeful haste’ on their way to the same place to which Samson has been sent to bring David, they have not yet reached him. He has time to take in his surroundings, and does so with sensitivity characteristic of the rest of his 820-page narrative. The sun has set, and he notes that one kind of dusk has followed. There are other kinds, his experience of which is indicated by his use of ‘but’ and ‘that’ – ‘It was then twilight but with that gleam about it …’. He acknowledges that a lessening of light may seem always to characterise this time of day, but suggests that in this event the dusk is different, because light is still present. Also, this kind of dusk is not unique or uncommon. He refers to ‘that gleam about it’, not ‘a gleam’ – he’s speaking of something which he’s seen before, with which he’s familiar and perhaps believes his reader to be as well.
It’s not stated outright but we can deduce the scene: Silhouettes are becoming more visible than features. Some of the things Samson sees, the less distinct things further away from him – the broader landscape, the oncoming riders, the horizon – are backlit by the reflection of the sun’s rays through the atmosphere. The slightly more distinct things, those that he would see closer around him if he looked into the foreground, also glow with the reflected rays: Flowers appear to give off a light of their own.
Human faces in this kind of dusk, though, are pale almost to sickliness. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of ideas that Pargeter gives here, in ‘pure pallor of saints’. ‘Pure’ is most often used positively, to suggest something that is clean and clear, not mixed with anything and not sullied by anything. ‘Pallor’ subverts that suggestion, as it tends to be used pejoratively, to imply ill health. ‘Saints’ returns us to the idea of purity, because people who are pure and saintly are believed to be moral. Samson is not actually saying that David’s face has the pallor of a saint, and therefore David is a saint. Instead I think Pargeter is providing the notion of dedication, of a fixed purpose – the kind of commitment that a saint gives to his or her religious cause. Samson is deeply dedicated to Llewelyn, and to Wales. Samson is acting on the orders of his lord, who is just as devoted, if not more so, to his country. David, though his approach is different, is fully committed to Wales.
Pargeter may also refer to saints to suggest inaccessibility, to imply a person or people who are removed and remote. Saints begin as regular people, but become extra-ordinary, and therefore out of direct reach, once their higher status is proclaimed. At this distance and at this time of day, David’s face shines even softer than flowers, it has enough reflected light simply to show itself as a face (Samson states ‘a countenance’, not ‘his countenance’). It is rather by the way he moves and the shape of his body that Samson recognises him. Here the backlit silhouette is implied as well – the manner in which he sits in his saddle, and the position of his shoulders and head, are revealed by the reflected light. And when David does reach Samson, he stops only momentarily. He is so intent on his purpose that he smiles at Samson ‘distantly, as though [Samson] had come between him and a dream’ and ‘showed but like a shadow’ (p 692), before he gallops onwards. His inaccessibility is emphasised.
Of course there’s more to all of this. The quartet is lengthy and detailed, with another testament to Pargeter’s proficiency being the fact that Samson’s narration never slips, never loses the thread of the tale. There are many reasons behind Llewelyn, Samson and David’s actions, which I don’t want to and could not go into here. Perhaps this hinders my enquiry. But I feel the quoted lines are able to speak for themselves in terms of what I’m concerned with examining.
So what precisely is it that raises Pargeter’s passage above that of Gloss? Gloss’s words are a little plainer – she uses less figurative, more descriptive, language (‘late in the afternoon’, ‘cold’, ‘soft’, ‘gray’, ‘white’). She directs our focus on the effect of the weather on a particular observer and objects of observation, albeit presenting them at first as unrecognisable. She tends to state outright while giving her idea about the horse and rider. That is to say, she uses the word ‘seemed’ (‘the horse and rider … seemed to take their form’) to indicate that she is actually making a suggestion. In less capable hands this would result in poor writing, in telling more than showing. But as we’ve seen, Gloss’s ideas have value and depth, and they can only be conveyed through the words she has chosen to put on the page, which means that those words have value and depth as well.
Pargeter’s language, by contrast, is more figurative, more allusive – her words are a little more adorned (‘deep of dusk’, ‘gleam’, ‘draws’, ‘faint lamps’, ‘pure pallor’, ‘saints’). While providing her ideas about the observer and the horse and rider she doesn’t state anything outright. That is to say, she doesn’t indicate that she’s making suggestions – she just makes them. She does this by presenting flowers in general (not a particular flower, or some flowers, but potentially all flowers), and people’s faces in general (not a particular person’s face, or some faces, but potentially all faces), and by linking them not directly but by association with the observer and the object of observation.
In my more personal view, Pargeter also puts into highly evocative words something that I’d been inarticulately aware of. She makes more accessible, more ‘tangible’, things about twilight that had occurred to me only dimly, non-verbally, and thereby gives me the opportunity to picture and understand them better. Finally, there’s also my purely personal preference for her setting. Gloss encloses her characters in fog, her scene mostly obscures, whereas Pargeter presents her characters in twilight that is presented as lucid, her scene clarifies.
Pargeter’s is another of the kinds of writing that I like. It’s not the same as Gloss’s, evidently, but I admire it for the same reason: Each sentence is significant; each sentence contributes to the story as a whole.
* And here’s another loose litoverlap, the idea of how something can give off light in the very instance of less light: Pargeter mentions flowers shining ‘like faint lamps’ in the dusk. In her poem ‘Words for the Body’ (2001, Knopf), Anne Michaels’s narrator mentions ‘a jar of flowers’ making ‘its own fire’ on a ‘rainy morning’ (p 43).