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These three quite physiognomical and somewhat clichéd metaphors are often invoked while discussing the work of a poet more so than of a prose writer. Here, I’ll try and single out prose works to which these metaphors can be applied.

The first line of Verlaine’s ‘The Art of Poetry’ goes “You must have music first of all.” The ear of a writer can be seen as the first rung in a ladder of maturity. Ear is also the most technically grounded of the metaphors, dealing with the conscious or intuitive arrangement of stress-syllabic patterns to create sound echoes and rhythms.

The fiction writer Steven Millhauser crafts sentences of such a neatness that his language—free of unnecessary elements—is pleasurable to read. For instance, in the evocative vignettes of the story ‘Cat ‘N’ Mouse’:

The cat is chasing the mouse through the kitchen: between the blue chair legs, over the tabletop with its red-and-white checkered tablecloth that is already sliding in great waves, past the sugar bowl falling to the left and the cream jug falling to the right, over the blue chair back, down the chair legs, across the waxed and butter-yellow floor. The cat and the mouse lean backward and try to stop on the slippery wax, which shows their flawless reflections. Sparks shoot from their heels, but it’s much too late: the big door looms. The mouse crashes through, leaving a mouse-shaped hole. The cat crashes through, replacing the mouse-shaped hole with a larger, cat-shaped hole. In the living room, they race over the back of the couch, across the piano keys (delicate mouse tune, crash of cat chords), along the blue rug. The fleeing mouse snatches a glance over his shoulder, and when he looks forward again he sees the floor lamp coming closer and closer. Impossible to stop—at the last moment, he splits in half and rejoins himself on the other side. Behind him the rushing cat fails to split in half and crashes into the lamp: his head and body push the brass pole into the shape of a trombone. For a moment, the cat hangs sideways there, his stiff legs shaking like the clapper of a bell[1].

With voice, the metaphor broadens to include perspective and worldview, which translate into form, syntax, vocabulary and other linguistic elements clubbed under style. The voice of a writer is to be found in the singularity of his expressions and the ability of his language to remain explicable only in its own terms. Voice, in its broadest sense, is “language speaking man” (in Heidegger’s phrase.) Here’s a randomly chosen passage from the singular novel Paradiso, by José Lezama Lima:

That night, without the least surprise, as in his vigil on other occasions, when he woke up he found the rocking chair, the guffaws, and the door opening onto the patio, instruments all well tuned for his trio. Above the patio the moon’s baby goat framed with white the center of loving irrigation of the house, which was the emptiness of a square. The strength of a square was generally absorptive, was a space which, like the mouth of some serpents, drew toward its center the calm development of that family, both the strollers and the visitors. The space of the patio in a house is its most telling part, it is, we might say, its verbal whole. It is a space which can be discreet, stealthy, or terrifying. When the family goes on a trip, lingering abroad or spending a weekend at the beach, its face becomes swarthy and looks as if it hadn’t shaved[2].

Vision in the sense of “visionary” refers to the ability of looking into the future. But if we collapse this metaphor with what physics tells us, that looking far is looking into the past, we derive a richer meaning. A writer or a work that displays vision is able to look, Janus-like, both into the past and the future and takes tradition and experimentation in the same stride. A test of a work’s vision is its ability to preserve its newness, to startle and shock, to provoke and inspire through several generations.

The bizarre work of Lautréamont—which was to inspire the haunting landscapes and visceral collages of Max Ernst’s—is a case in point. Chants de Maldoror is infused with undiluted vision, on which the surrealists thrived for a long time.

There exists an insect which men feed at their own expense. They owe it nothing; but they fear it. This insect, which does not like wine but prefers blood,

from "Une semaine de bonté"

from Max Ernst’s “Une semaine de bonté”

would, if its legitimate needs were not satisfied, be capable, by means of an occult power, of becoming as big as an elephant and of crushing men like ears of corn. And one has to see how respected it is, how it is surrounded with fawning veneration, how it is held in high esteem, above all the other animals of creation. The head is given it as its throne, and it digs its claws solemnly into the roots of the hair. Later, when it is fat and getting on in age, it is killed, following the custom of an ancient race, to prevent it from suffering the hardships of old age. It is given a magnificent hero’s funeral, with prominent citizens bearing the coffin on their shoulders straight to the grave. Above the damp earth which the grave-digger is shrewdly moving with his spade, multicoloured sentences are combined on the immortality of the soul, the emptiness of life, the incomprehensible will of Providence, and the marble closes for ever on this life, filled with such toil, and which is now but a corpse. The crowd disperses, and night soon covers the walls of the cemetery with shadows[3].


[1] http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/04/19/040419fi_fiction

Millhauser’s beautiful novella Enchanted Night is particularly noteworthy for its overall rhythmic quality.

[2] José Lezama Lima, Paradiso, translated by Gregory Rabassa, Dalkey Archive Press, 2000.

[3] Lautréamont, Maldoror and Poems, translated by Paul Knight, Penguin, 1978. A new translation of this work has appeared recently and is published by the eclectic press Exact Change:

http://exactchange.com/shop/lautreamont-maldoror-the-complete-works/

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