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Mar 14, 2013

Spender on Eliot

Stephen Spender wrote of Four Quartets:
The language . . . moves on two levels: one is the creative level of poetry in which images and delightful objects are created which give us pleasure, the other is the level of philosophic thought. These two levels are sustained throughout, and thus the language has a kind of transparency
I would suggest something of this transparency is in the mind of Cormac McCarthy when he is writing his fiction. At its best - in Suttree - there is a mysterious flow between registers, with storytelling giving way to philosophising and back again, in the course of a few sentences. In this way McCarthy tells us, simultaneously, the single story of Buddy Suttree and the universal story of all of us. Take this passage, in the cemetery where Suttree has just seen his son buried:
They went on among the tilted stones and rough grass, the wind coming from the woods cold in the sunlight. A stone angel in her weathered marble robes, the downcast eyes. The old people’s voices drift across the lonely space, murmurous above these places of the dead. The lichens on the crumbling stones like a strange green light. The voices fade. Beyond the gentle clash of weeds. He sees them stoop to read some quaint inscription and he pauses by an old vault that a tree has half dismantled with its growing. Inside there is nothing. No bones, no dust. How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.
This is brilliant writing. It moves from the personal, in the past tense, through to the universal, in the present tense, accompanied by a narratorial shift so that the identity of the maker of the last point is ambiguous. This happens throughout the novel, with frequent shifts into the first person so that Suttree becomes the narrator and the narrator becomes Suttree. There is a beautiful and seamless melding of stories at work.

At its worst, of course, it is a very different matter. There are times when McCarthy's obsessions become too great for him to handle and they simply splurge onto the page. Most often, this takes the form of the endless and interchangeable conversations with various (usually blind) prophets who accost all of McCarthy's main characters at some stage.

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