One of the skills that students of literature have to acquire is that of reading closely. This is, for once, as simple (and as demanding) a concept as it sounds. To some people, the very idea is off putting, but my sense is that to write well, you need to read closely at least some of the time. (I’m not going to go into details about the general process, but I will point you to a really good summary, here.)
Some stories don’t demand a lot of the reader in terms of close reading, and then there are novels that are infamous for the effort needed. Joyce’s Ulysses is the usual example of a challenging text but there are many writers and novels that demand a great deal. Lawrence Norfolk and Richard Powers are two names that come to mind. In the end, every individual has to decide for themselves if a given novel is worth the effort required. Sometimes I am in the mood to tackle writers like this, and sometimes the effort is too much.
Dorothy Dunnett wrote wonderful historical novels, the best kind of storytelling, but the books are not easy. On the occasion that I have run across negative reactions to her work, it has been from people who were clearly impatient with story and didn’t want to have to work so hard to understand. She wrote a number of short mysteries and two series of historical novels. The second series — The House of Niccolò — is, in my opinion, the best historical fiction ever written.
So, to demonstrate.
Here are three paragraphs from Niccolo Rising. The setting is Flanders in 1460, and the occasion is the annual arrival of the Venetian galleys which brought high-end, expensive trade goods.
It was never less than marvellous, every year. To see the sun-glow slide through the silk of the banners, and the blaze as the oars unscrolled every one from the water and stood erect on each side like two combs. To hear the flagship begin to make music: first the drums and pipes with a rattle and chirrup, and then the burping of trumps from the poop. Above the flash of the brass, the fringe would blow and wink on the canopy where you would see, each year different, the thick sprawling embroidery of the commander’s device.
And across the water, you would swear you could sniff it all; the cinnamon and the cloves, the frankincense and the honey and the liquorice, the nutmeg and citrons, the myrrh and the rosewater from Persia in keg upon keg. You would think you could glimpse, heaped and glimmering, the sapphires and the emeralds and the gauzes woven with gold, the ostrich feathers and the elephant tusks, the gums and the ginger and the coral buttons mynheer Goswin the clerk of the Hanse might be wearing on his jacket next week.
It was a trick, that was for sure, like the Duke’s performers at Carnival time. It was no accident that the galleys always downed sails and entered harbour in daylight, with the decks sluiced and the rowers and sailing-masters in livery and the noblemen commanding each ship in a stiffened gown in the crazy Venetian mode, their beards newly trimmed, with perhaps a chained marmoset on one shoulder. ||| Dorothy Dunnett (2010-08-11). Niccolo Rising (The House of Niccolo) (Kindle Locations 1613-1618). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Read the first paragraph out loud, and read it slowly. The first thing you will notice is the rhythm of the sentences. From ‘first the drums’ to from the poop has an almost percussive rhythm. Dunnett may have worked to get this effect or it might have come to her without much effort (she was a musician as well as a writer).
Now here’s the question. The words read with a real musicality, but what the heck do they mean? Unless you are an avid sailor, or familiar with the trade practices of the mid 15th century, the history of sailing vessels and the particular build and use of galleys, some of this has to be unclear. Most readers would just have a vague idea of the images Dunnett is trying to evoke. Most readers would skim on, unconcerned that they don’t know exactly what a poop is (at least, not in the way it’s been used here). What’s a canopy in this context? What’s a commander’s device? What’s a galley, when you come right down to it? (Here’s somebody who can tell you and show you with a lot of very detailed photographs and footnotes, if you’re curious now.)
In the next paragraph Dunnett moves away from the auditory details to visual and olefactory ones and it is at this point that the narrative shifts into second person… you would swear you could sniff it all. This is not an accident, Dunnett uses this as a tool to draw you even further into the scene she’s describing, so you’re in the middle of the crowd.
And then, very subtly, she shifts again so that you are not imagining what’s in the hold of the galley, the riches that are out of sight, but the men who can afford them. Mynheer (mister) Goswin, who is a clerk (a clerk can afford such things?) of the Hanse — whatever that is. And what would coral buttons look like, now that we’re asking questions?
In strict terms, the close reading is nowhere near finished — we haven’t touched on issues of word choice or syntax or symbolism or theme.
While reading, would these questions (or others) occur to you? Would you be able to enjoy the stories if you did not know the answers? Most people haven’t been taught to read closely and have no interest in the process. Many of them will pass on Niccolo Rising. So who is interested in the fine points of social hierarchy among 15th century northern European merchants, and in their buttons, too?
That’s the trick Dunnett pulled off. She means to draw you into the story to the point that you become interested in oars and devices and buttons and a lot more. You might find yourself wondering about things that never crossed your mind before, and if so, she’s done her job as a storyteller.
I confess, this is exactly the kind of thing that makes my mind race and in the best possible way. The mathematician loves those awful cryptic crosswords, and I love annotating historical fiction. Illustrations and footnotes full of detail and explanations and examples. A thorough cyber annotation of Niccolo Rising — now that sounds like a great project to me.