The dumb truth about clever books

November 3rd, 2011 § 0 comments

Some people don’t understand the difference between maths and art.

This thought is one I’ve had for many years, knowing what it means, but without bothering to explain it to myself or others. Until now.

When the thought first came to me, it was in response to some clever story, now long forgotten. I still feel the same way when I read books where the principal subject seems to me to be the virtuosity of the author.

It gives me the same slight distaste I get when listening to a particularly frenetic solo by a virtuoso musician, those screaming guitar pyrotechnics or the frantic sawing at a violin you get in some classical music. It’s all very impressive, like a circus act, but isn’t the rote chugging of some heartfelt blues-derived song more pleasing, not only to the ear but also often to the soul?

Some authors can write brilliant prose. Some can construct stories very cleverly. Some can do both. And yet, to me, that is not enough.

David Mitchell is one of these gifted writers. His Cloud Atlas was hailed by many as some kind of masterpiece. From a technical point of view, it is undeniably impressive. The construction is daring and he manages to write convincingly in different styles. But neither the characters (spread through time, space, story and style), nor the themes (whatever they are) resonated with me. Despite the adept prose, I missed what Nabokov once referred to as “mystery-breathing phrases”.

This book – and I apologise for singling out a book that must be a darling to many, and an author who is probably a wonderfully deserving human being – strikes me as a classic case of technical proficiency and calculated cleverness being confused with art. Art, I believe, must come from the heart. It requires a soulful spark, an animal that bucks under reason.

The comment South African poet Roy Campbell made about novelists of his day is apt:

You praise the firm restraint with which they write –
I’m with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where’s the bloody horse?

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