A week ago I visited the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg (Fl.) using an audio guide system.
This self portrait was painted when Dali was seventeen. The audio guide informed me that Dali had emulated the great artists Rembrandt and Velasquez before he found his own surrealistic style. According to Dali, an artist must first copy the greats of the past before finding his/her own style into the future.
Of course, Dali’s style changed tremendously from that of this portrait but it made me think how in my own writing I have often been influenced by great writers, from Virginia Woolf to Alice Munro to James M. Cain to name just a few.
I am still being influenced. These days I lean on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Is it coincidental or serendipity that The Goldfinch is based on a painting by Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt?
There is much good to be said about this almost flawless 700+ page novel. There’s the compelling, rich plot; scenes written in such sparkling, poetic prose that I reread them for their pure joy. Then there’s the mix of characters (drug addicts, abusive fathers, gamblers, eccentrics, gangsters – Theo, the protagonist’s tender relationship with his mother).
There are the intimate details that bring you up close right into the scene. It was in reading Tartt’s descriptions of rooms that made me go back to one of my novels and use her as model to add more details.
What struck me was her odd, almost rebellious usage of punctuation. A clue to this in-congruent punctuation can be found in her main character, Theo, when talking about his literature classes:
“English is going to be really boring for the next six weeks – we stopped doing literature and went back to the grammar book and now we’re diagramming sentences.”
Is this Donna Tartt’s wink on the rigorousness of punctuation? Take for example her usage of the question mark:
“…he had this whole set of friends we didn’t know about and they sent him postcards when they went on vacation to places like the Virgin Islands? to our home address? which was how we found out about it?
Or her usage of dashes:
“Look that’s different and you know it. Mommy,” she said talking over me –
“-Oh yeah? Different? Raising my voice over hers. How is it different? How?”
“-Mommy, I swear – listen to me, Theo –Mommy loves you so much. S0 much…
In conversation with her editor Michael Pietsch at Slate, Tartt had this to say about literary stylistics:
I am terribly troubled by the ever-growing tendency to standardized and prescriptive usage, and I think that the Twentieth century, American-invented conventions of House Rules and House Style, to say nothing of automatic computer functions like Spellcheck and AutoCorrect, have exacted an abrasive, narrowing, and destructive effect on the way writers use language and ultimately on the language itself. Journalism and newspaper writing are one thing; House Style indubitably very valuable there; but as a literary novelist who writes by hand, in a notebook, I want to be able to use language for texture and I’ve intentionally employed a looser, pre-twentieth century model rather than running my work through any one House Style mill.
Lexical variety, eccentric constructions and punctuation, variant spellings, archaisms, the ability to pile clause on clause, the effortless incorporation of words from other languages: flexibility, and inclusiveness, is what makes English great; and diversity is what keeps it healthy and growing, exuberantly regenerating itself with rich new forms and usages.
Lately, I’ve been coming across articles on setting as character (material for further posts?) but after reading The Goldfinch I am more relaxed around punctuation and wonder if perhaps creative punctuation could not also contribute to the personality, voice and tone of the novel, just as setting does?
On the other hand, I was anxious to get to the mystery of the painting and found myself skimming over the long paragraphs regarding the restoration of furniture.
I have not finished writing about The Goldfinch for, in a future post, I particularly want to talk about its powerful ending. This is where Donna Tartt truly glows. After reading her exposition on The Goldfinch as painting I will never again see a work of art in the same way. As for her honest and raw elucidation on life and death…well, it is absolutely riveting and that alone is well worth reading this book.