Dissecting the Frog

I recently read The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker, which I recommend for any sensible person who loves the English language. It debunks so many of the crumbling rules for writing that drag down our prose, and leaves intact the scaffolding that any writer needs to make herself clear. But the best and most useful things were his examples of beautiful prose, and the scalpel he took to them. Some very pretty passages were dissected to show off their moving parts; something my husband has suggested I do to our library on a few occasions.

With my husband’s encouragement, and Steven Pinker as guide, I’ll try breaking down a few of my favorites. With any luck, the process will train my subconscious to an inert sense of style, and limit my need for eighth, ninth, eleventeenth drafts. More likely, I’ll be just as fussy as I’ve ever been with any draft after the first, but perhaps I’ll know better what to do with it.

This is my favorite book. Ever.

I loved The True Deceiver. It was the winter book to contrast with Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, and while Summer is kindness between a grandmother and little girl, Deciever is a frigged story about two women from the opposite sides of everything finding a mutually beneficial relationship that utterly ruins them come spring. Their polar personalities can’t survive a shift in either direction, and the end leaves them both lost in themselves. It is a very quiet book, hung expertly together in a tiny snow-locked town, and the language is so tight that any excerpt will be wanting the rest of this book. (It was translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal, so I’m super impressed with him as well. This book has no seams, no out of sort passages that might remind the reader that English was not its first language.) That being said, I’ve chosen this one near the beginning of the book as it illustrates the town and Katri Kling’s place in it.

“Inside the snow banks were deep, narrow tunnels where the children had dug hideouts for themselves during thaws. And outside stood their snowmen, snowhorses, formless shapes with teeth and eyes of bits of tin and coal. When the next hard freeze came, they poured water over these sculptures so they’d harden to ice.

One day Katri paused before one of these images and saw that it was a likeness of herself. They had found shards of yellowish glass for eyes and given her an old fur cap, and they’d captured her narrow mouth and her stiff, straight bearing. Attached to this woman of snow was a large snow dog. It wasn’t well done, but she could see that they meant it to be a dog, and a threatening dog at that. And crouched at the hem of her skirt, very small, was a dwarfish figure with a red potholder on its head. Mats usually wore a red wool cap in winter.”*

It may seem counter-intuitive to begin this experiment with a translation that I’ve already declared needs the rest of its parts to be truly beautiful, but I love the simplicity of this. It is very tempting to cloud every part of the story with as much poetry as possible. That can be done well, that can be very pretty, but in this the beauty comes from the story itself, not the lens through which we see it. Katri is a cold woman, this is a cold book; everything is ice. The only spot of true color is in the red cap worn by her brother’s tiny effigy; and in Katri’s frozen heart he is the only person who can not be reduced to numbers and yet he is a very small part of this story. (The yellow eyes do not count. Yellow is the color of sun through ice, and the “-ish” lessens its impact. Yellow in this passage is not a color.)

Dwelling on this small scene so early in the book is more than a bit of passive interest in the scenery. It sets Katri’s place in the story as an icy witch feared by children, and when the thaw comes with spring at the end of the book, we see her whole world crash through the ice.

*Jansson, Tove. The True Deciever (New York Review Books, New York)

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