[ilds] Fw: ILDS Digest, Vol 38, Issue 1_DURRELL's Diction

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Sun May 2 07:19:17 PDT 2010

Many thanks for posting Steiner's review of Durrell's language, 
Sumantra.  I especially appreciate Steiner's attention to the 
impoverishment of taste and the lack of spontaneity in critical judgment:
> "Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean 
> delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may 
> strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our 
> impoverished sensibility."
I think Steiner's ventriloquism has a point.  He forecasts the routine 
objections to Durrell's prose in the /Quartet/--that the whole thing is 
"mannered" or "precious."  Yes, certainly, many authorities have and 
will continue to dismiss Durrell's style on those grounds.  And that is 
the point of my disagreement with such programmatic and moralizing 
critics.  I would disagree about the terms of judgment, asking them, 
"What, precisely, is wrong about writing in a /mannered/ or /precious/ 
style?  Why, precisely, is there one style correct for writing 
imaginative prose fiction?  How do you know that something else is wrong?" 

That question cuts the ground out from under moralizing critics who 
would insist that Style is Truth, that language somehow conveys the 
Thing Itself rather than an impression or suggestion of things, that 
Durrell should put away his /aquarelle/-technique and his embossed cases 
of male jewels, and that a writer should always roll up his sleeves 
write in terms of a manly, clean, pure, and aerobic style.  Yes, the 
critics of Modernism were every bit as earnest and missionary as the 
critics of the Victorian moment, and in general 20th century critical 
taste was much less forgiving and allowing of what "made the grade."

This quest for a moral style of writing is truly absurd.  Realism is not 
the only mode of understanding the world or entertaining the mind.  If 
so, we would lose a great many strangely mannered and precious things, 
such as /Hamlet/ and /Antony and Cleopatra/ and /The Tempest,/ the 
prophetic works of Blake, Coleridge's "Kublai Khan," Mary Shelley's 
/Frankenstein/, Byron's /Cain/ and /Manfred/, /Wuthering Heights/, 
/Atalanta in Calydon/, the tales of Le Fanu, Poe, Dunsany, Machen, and 
Lovecraft, four or five chapters of /Ulysses/ and the whole of the 
/Wake/, Peake's /Gormenghast/ and Eddison's /Ouroboros/ and Pynchon's 
/Gravity's Rainbow/.  What a holocaust.

Excess can be as delightful as /ascesis/ can be bracing.  It is really 
not so hard to open one's self to enjoying a variety of styles.   The 
important thing to learn is to appreciate each thing in its own terms as 
well as in terms of traditions.  If the question of style is rephrased, 
moving from a discussion of literary styles to a discussion of musical 
styles, the absurdity of the objection becomes more clear.


Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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