Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dept of florid little squiggles

Orwell, in his essay on Dickens:

Next day, child swallowed two beads; the day after that, he treated himself to three, and so on, till in a week's time he had got through the necklace — five-and-twenty beads in all. The sister, who was an industrious girl and seldom treated herself to a bit of finery, cried her eyes out at the loss of the necklace; looked high and low for it; but I needn't say, didn't find it. A few days afterwards, the family were at dinner — baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it — the child, who wasn't hungry, was playing about the room, when suddenly there was the devil of a noise, like a small hailstorm. [...]
...the unmistakable Dickens touch, the thing that nobody else would have thought of, is the baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it. How does this advance the story? The answer is that it doesn't. It is something totally unnecessary, a florid little squiggle on the edge of the page; only, it is by just these squiggles that the special Dickens atmosphere is created. 
I'm frequently reminded of this insight, as it applies to a lot of things that seem almost inadvertently charming; an example is this bit from today's City Room post on retiring Columbia Japanese prof. Donald Keene (via Light reading / disambiguation):
He [Donald Keene] was born in 1922 in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and attended James Madison High School where, because of alphabetical seating, he became friends with a young man at a nearby desk named Lee, who was Chinese.
“I grew interested in the Orient and one day I bought a translation of the Japanese story ‘Tale of Genji’ in the Hotel Astor bookstore in Times Square, only because it was so cheap — two volumes for 49 cents. And that’s how I got hooked on Japanese literature.” —"Columbia Professor's Retirement Is Big News in Japan," NYT
Though you could argue that it helps the story by stressing the essential arbitrariness of the choice -- which is played off against Keene's 60-odd years at Columbia.

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