Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter (5)

I can't say I liked this piece much. Sure, there are infelicities in Rowling's prose in places, though I suspect if I analysed it in detail I would find they become fewer as the series progresses: I believe she gets better with practice. I certainly agree that she sometimes shows a tin ear in her choice of proper names for things or her naming of spells: Salazar Slytherin? The Mirror of Erised (which reminds me of something one might find in a Steve Jackson Fighting Fantasy Gamebook)? She gets it right sometimes, though: "Avada Kedavra" is neat, and "Durmstrang" splendid (who says there's nothing in Rowling for the adult? I bet that joke passes most kids by). And even if I wished to do so, I don't think I could find it in myself to be too hard on the coiner of

Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow
Turn this stupid fat rat yellow


which shows a keener appreciation of rhythm than many supposedly better authors could muster. It also demonstrates one of Rowling's great strengths, which is her sense of humour. The collectable card of Albus Dumbledore listing his hobbies as "chamber music and ten-pin bowling". The scene where Professor Moody transforms Malfoy into a ferret. The odd bit of linguistic byplay ("And our Decoy Detonators are just walking off the shelves....") Hermione's dogged attempts to liberate the Hogwarts house-elves whether they want it or not. And the whole business of adolescent males and females which is handled with both sensitivity and humour from Goblet of Fire onwards. The comparison with Jeffrey Archer falls down immediately there: when was the last time Jeffrey Archer made you laugh? For that matter, I didn't find Archer's basic storylines (I have read two of his books - the triumph of hope over experience, indeed) as interesting at the time, or as memorable afterwards, as Rowling's. It's not all about style.

Nicholas Lezard is of course merely part of a long tradition of those arguing for form over content. I don't mean by that that they are saying that content is unimportant, merely that it is of lesser importance than the style in which it is conveyed. As a student, I (and many of my friends in the Durham University Science Fiction Society) had heated arguments with another of our number, a student of English Literature, over the virtues and vices of Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny. She was unable to evaluate it as a story, interesting or otherwise, because she found the (admittedly somewhat pulpish) style so off-putting. Moreover, she was unable to consider the possibility that this was a deliberate stylistic decision rather than an innate defect in Zelazny's writing, and thus could not countenance the fact that he had written other books in a far more serious style (Lord of Light being a prime example). Or to take a more high-flown example, she was unwilling to concede that what lifted Jane Austen's writing above the norm of her contemporaries was not solely her unequalled dexterity with the English language but her unique insight into the provincial society she lived in. While we never exactly saw eye to eye on that issue, or indeed or whether Persuasion was a better novel than Mansfield Park - an opinion she unaccountably held - it didn't stop us being (very!) good friends. I don't know her opinion of the Rowling books, though I would guess she might not care for them much.

Children exposed to this kind of writing aren't learning anything new about words, or being stretched in any way; as Harold Bloom said, they're not going to be inspired to go off and read the Alice books, or any other enduring classic.

Hmm. I grew up on the much more reviled (and it must be said, much less accomplished) Enid Blyton, most of whose works I wouldn't exert myself too hard to defend (though the Adventure series still hold up well, especially with the original and outstanding Stuart Tresilian illustrations, and a good case can be made for the Barney books). Whether one could say that Enid Blyton "inspired me" to go on and read Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, P L Travers and the rest, I don't know. I read them anyway, and in due course progressed to Jane Austen and James Joyce. Blyton undoubtedly inculcated in me the idea that books were a gateway into any number of imaginary worlds. As a child I was probably not too bothered by how competently those worlds were realised, and more concerned with what they were like. Form and content again. (Though in fairness I must say that even as a child I recognised that, say, the Secret Seven books were comparatively poor stuff while the Adventure books were really very good. I also recognised fairly early on that the Five Find-Outers and Dog books were a juvenile version of the Agatha Christie genre of detective story, with all the flaws and foibles of that genre.) An appreciation of the possibilities which reading opens up should precede, both sequentially and in importance, an appreciation of style; at least in my opinion. I entered my teens reading mostly James Bond and Modesty Blaise novels, but that didn't stop me from discovering for myself - and obtaining some appreciation of - Ulysses by the time I was fifteen. (It has only occurred to me at this instant that Ulysses may have been the first work of "literary" fiction - as against thrillers and detective stories - I ever read, unless you count Sherlock Holmes. Which proves, I guess, that progress in literacy need be no more of a linear ascent from darkness to light than is human evolution.) Not everything I read as a child stretched me in any way. Not everything I read as an adult of nearly fifty-two years stretches me in any way. Just because I enjoy reading Andy McNab, I am not ipso facto immune to the delights of Salman Rushdie, or D H Lawrence, or Aristophanes, or Horace. Just because I go to Status Quo gigs, it doesn't make me less appreciative of Wagner or Stockhausen. (Don't get me started....)

I have much more in common, I think, with this guy. Not least the fact that I adored the Anthony Powell series when I first read it (out of the library, around 25 years ago); equally enjoyed the television series (which I suspect was most people's first encounter with the mighty Simon Russell Beale, who played Widmerpool); and now own a set and intend to re-read them all.

But first I have Harry Potter to deal with.


Addendum: Clare seems to agree with me. Unlike her I didn't much like The Da Vinci Code, but then I not only found the puzzles pretty easy but I found the whole thing highly reminiscent of this (though of course a court case has cleared Dan Brown of direct plagiarism...) Why should one person dictate what another should read, or presume to judge them as being inferior on that basis? Why indeed? Why should people be surprised at my turning up to a rehearsal of the Berg Violin Concerto in an Iron Maiden T-shirt?

8 Comments:

At 21 July, 2007 05:48, Blogger JoeinVegas said...

What - you have the book there and haven't jumped to the last page?

 
At 21 July, 2007 05:48, Blogger JoeinVegas said...

But don't tell us, I too want to reread up through book 6 before I hit the last one.

 
At 22 July, 2007 11:55, Blogger Lisa Rullsenberg said...

I'm probably going to do a marathon run at Xmas: re-read from book one through to seven and watch the films thus far (will the new one be out on DVD by then?? I guess it may be). I like to do things complete!

 
At 23 July, 2007 10:01, Anonymous eddi the seahorse said...

Rob - Salazar is the name of a former Portuguese dictator (JKR wrote most of Philosopher's Stone whilst she was living in Portugal). Joe - Jumping to the last page may tell you who is still alive at the end, but it won't make a great deal of sense without knowing what went before it. Take that from one who has tried!

 
At 24 July, 2007 22:35, Blogger Rob said...

eddi - I know about Salazar the dictator, and assumed he was where she got the name. My point was rather that "Salazar Slytherin" is a rather pantominey bad-guy name, especially for a parselmouth. Most of the other villains (I know SS isn't strictly a bad guy, but his dubious moral influence permeates the books, especially via his most famous descendant) have names that don't telegraph "look, I'm a villain": Fenrir Greyback, Peter Pettigrew, Bellatrix Lestrange, Bartholemew Crouch (Jr.). Even Tom Riddle clearly felt his name was so underwhelming he anagrammatised it to obtain Voldemort. (I'm assuming that those readers who don't understand how that one works fell by the wayside so time ago, probably when I mentioned parselmouths.)

 
At 12 August, 2007 15:52, Anonymous Gill said...

She was unable to evaluate it as a story, interesting or otherwise, because she found the (admittedly somewhat pulpish) style so off-putting. Moreover, she was unable to consider the possibility that this was a deliberate stylistic decision rather than an innate defect in Zelazny's writing, and thus could not countenance the fact that he had written other books in a far more serious style (Lord of Light being a prime example).

Actually she read the entire series, which shows that she was perfectly aware of the narrative drive and effective world-creation. The style was just so rank that it constantly pulled her out of the moment, and that is not a stylistic choice: it is a flaw. Trudi Canavan is a good recent example, as are Garth Nix's Keys of the Kingdom series - excellent world-creation, strong narrative drive, but clunky prose which often draws attention to itself just when it needs to be working with, not against the impetus of the story.

 
At 14 August, 2007 21:40, Blogger Rob said...

The style was just so rank that it constantly pulled her out of the moment, and that is not a stylistic choice: it is a flaw.

Hmm. Perhaps we should neet halfway on "flawed stylistic choice". Glad you read the whole series eventally: I'm pretty sure that when we had all the heat-and-light on the matter in DUSFS that you'd only read the first one.

 
At 14 August, 2007 21:41, Blogger Rob said...

Oh, and BTW, Gill, welcome aboard. (Waves.) I know you posted a comment on another post as well. Make yoruself at home.

 

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