How to Write the Season (guest post from the spouse)

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:

As brisk as bees, if not altogether as light as fairies, did the four Pickwickians assemble on the morning of the twenty-second day of December….Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time, and gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.

Now on their way out of London to Dingley Dell for the festivities:

They have rumbled through the streets, and jolted over the stones, and at length reach the wide and open country. The wheels skim over the hard and frosty ground: and the horses bursting into a canter at a smart crack of the whip, step along the road as if the load behind them…were but a feather at their heels. They have descended a gentle slope, and enter upon a level, as compact and dry as a solid block of marble, two miles long. Another crack of the whip, and on they speed, at a smart gallop: the horses tossing their heads and rattling the harness, as if in exhilaration at the rapidity of the motion: while the coachman, holding whip and reins in one hand, takes off his hat with the other, and resting it on his knees, pulls out his handkerchief, and wipes his forehead: partly because he has a habit of doing it, and partly because it’s as well to show the passengers how cool he is, and what an easy thig it is to drive four-in-hand, when you have had as much practice as he has. Having done this very leisurely (otherwise the effect would be materially impaired), he replaces his handkerchief, pulls on his hat, adjusts his gloves, squares his elbows, cracks the whip again, and on they speed, more merrily than before.

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.

Little by little the snow retreated before the sun, and soon there was in the air the scent of heather and withered grass and the first fresh shoots as they emerged from the drifts on the slopes….Those were the days when the willow twigs were budding on the heath, when the bilberry opened its fragrant flowers in red and white and the wild bee flew humming loudly in and out of the young brushwood. The birds of the moor had laid their first eggs, yet they had not lost the love in their song. Through the heath there ran limpid little streams and round them there were green hollows…, and then there were the rocks where the elves live, and then there was the mountain itself with the green climbing its slopes. There was sunshine for a whole day. Mist came and there was no sunshine for a whole day, for two days. The heather-clad hummocks rose up in the mist, but the mountains were no more. The moss grew brighter in colour, the fragrance stronger and stronger; there was dew in the grass, precious webs of pearls in the heather and on the soil where the ground was bare of turf. The mist was white and airy, overhead one could almost glimpse the sky, but the horizon was only a few yards away there at the top of the dingle. The heath grew into the sky with its fragrance, its verdure, and its song; it was like living in the clouds….One lives for the spring.

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:

It was a sumptuous, oh, truly a sumptuous autumn day, all Byzantine coppers and golds under a Tiepolo sky of enameled blue, the countryside all fixed and glassy, seeming not so much itself as its own reflection in the still surface of a lake.

As steep-slanted flash of sunlight fell along the beach, turning the sand above the waterline bone-white, and a white seabird, dazzling against the wall of cloud, flew up on sickle wings and turned with a soundless snap and plunged itself, a shutting chevron, into the sea’s unruly back.

[After a momentous event], I had expected everything to be changed like the day itself, that had been sombre and wet and hung with big-bellied clouds [in the afternoon] and now at evening was all tawny sunlight and raked shadows, the scrub grass dripping with jewels and a red sail-boat out on the bay turning its prow and setting off toward the horizon’s already dusk-blue distances.

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.