AJ’s dad and I pass the fall and winter in the clamor of New York City. In summer we escape the heat of the City by absconding to eastern Pennsylvania to a small, tree-cluttered community clustered on a small rise in the Pocono Mountains. In the City, whether it rains or snows is, of course, important to the functioning of commerce. But aside from checking the temperature, we are not particularly aware of Mother Nature’s activity. It’s in Pennsylvania that we become more attuned to the way the sunrise colors the valley, or how the wind whips up the trees heralding an impending storm. Being naïve, I tried my hand at writing about those sunrise colors and that impending storm. It was really hard work, and I was terrible at it. Then it dawned on me that the authors that I am reading this summer are masters at describing weather and landscape and atmosphere (not to mention character, humor, and dialog). Since my own attempts were so feeble, I thought I’d share some of their mastery instead.
The inestimable Charles Dickens begins. The Pickwick Papers is a joyous celebration of good food, good company, rousing adventures, and enduring friendships, with dark undertones of injustice, poverty and mental illness. In this–one of the merrier passages–we join Mr. Pickwick and his Pickwickian comrades as they prepare to celebrate the holidays:
Now on their way out of London to Dingley Dell for the festivities:
No author that I have read is more in touch with the changing landscape of the seasons than Haldór Laxness, Nobel Prize-winning author of Independent People. The book brings us intimately into the lives of sheep herders–crofters–in Iceland at the turn of the last century. After the long darkness of winter, the arrival of spring is, indeed a momentous event, which Laxness expresses in exquisite detail.
Finally, I come to John Banville’s The Sea. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, this quiet book features the somewhat unremarkable Max Morden, a recent widower who has returned to his boyhood summer community to escape his grief, to renew some memories, and to complete a never-to-be-completed essay on the post-impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. The book, as the title implies, is all sea air and sandy shore coves. His descriptions are not the long paragraphs of Laxness; they appear as introductions to events or emotions. He sometimes appropriates the colors of Bonnard in his descriptions, and the landscape often mirrors Morden’s own feelings…past or present. Here is only a smattering of Banville’s elegance:
I often ask myself what makes a book a work of art. I’ve decided that it’s sort of like pornography: I’ll know it when I see it. I see it in these remarkable authors.