Conjuring the sensations of actually being there in telling about sights, scents, flavours, and the effects of a place on its observer’s mood may interest only the dwindling ranks of magician-scribes — writers’ writers — in the 21st century. For evocation, most people seem content with receiving still and moving images anyone can capture — with no need to struggle with complicated camera-buying decisions because cameras come with go-everywhere telephones the way glove compartments do with cars. Fewer and fewer of us know what we are missing. Many have never known or forgotten how much deeper or how unforgettably a word picture can take a reader into the same scene whose story the most captivating photograph can only tell incompletely. Of course the most inspired literary description lacks what is uniquely in photography’s power to record. We have been taught that a picture is worth a thousand words. But it would be hard to accept a picture in place of those many words without a lot of questions and conditions. Which words, chosen and arranged exactly how? At post-Gutenberg we have been mulling over comparisons between our own records constructed from the alphabet and confections from light and pixels, tackling the same subjects.
If we were to prefer a particular passage of text to a picture, to what degree would our taste coincide with the preferences of those of us brought up entirely on description-lite contemporary prose, in this post-print Age of the Image? A startling fragment of praise in a recent Sunday book review in the New York Times was not encouraging. The critic applauded the author’s …
… keen sense of visceral detail (“The air smelled like bacon from the flies that sizzled in the overhead lights”) that borders on sublime.
We reread that fragment several times in the same browsing session, a few days ago, and have returned to it more than once since. Beyond our bafflement by the reviewer’s bedazzlement, we have been asking practical questions. Do flies, as small as they are, smell strongly enough of where they have been perching lately for human noses to detect that? Or would you need one especially acute nose, like this author’s? Or are flies being cured nowadays, the way pig-parts are? No, that cannot be right — if they were sizzling in overhead lights, they were partially alive and in the process of extinction. But could the passage mean to imply that they were partially cured, like chickens still running around post-decapitation? Fly bacon, for consumption by whom? … Hard to say. We shall return to that review — to which we are not linking, here, because it’s not really the author or book by which we have been mesmerised but the 21st-century reviewer’s taste and conception of what borders on sublime. We are determined to read that snippet over and over again and surely one day, with the right degrees of determination and open-mindedness, will see exactly what the literary critic wanted us to know.
In the meanwhile, mystification sent us running to our bookshelves, and lunging for a text, any text, that we think borders on sublime. We picked a paperback from the George Orwell shelf — a fair comparison, because this writer never accused of being flowery or prolix has long been considered a master of lean, spare, modern prose; is famous for his ‘style of no style’ far closer to contemporary taste than the surpassing descriptions of, say, Dickens.
From Burmese Days (1934):
He acclimatised himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year, from February to May, the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy fields were great wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hopscotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them — honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of peardrops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valley like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmese went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and parched with cold. In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wildernesses, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun.
… What album of photographs could hope to compete with those not quite four hundred Orwellian word-choices?