I tend to be a fast reader, getting in the story but not always stopping for the writing. This year, however, I’ve determined to read more slowly and appreciate the craft. Two books, in particular, have helped me keep that resolution.
Charlotte Bronte’s Villette is full of molten prose, thick and flowing across the page. A compelling story lives in the lava as well but I found myself rereading passages to appreciate how effortlessly Bronte made it seem. Here’s a quick example from the early pages when Lucy Snowe comes to the school where she will begin her career as a nanny:
After the “Priere du soir,” Madame herself came to have another look at me. She desired me to follow her upstairs. Through a series of the queerest little dormitories–which, I heard afterwards, had once been nuns’ cells; for the premises were in parts of ancient date–and through the oratory–a long, low, gloomy room, where a crucifix hung, pale, against the wall, and two tapers kept dim vigils–she conducted me to an apartment where three children were asleep in three tiny beds. A heated stove made the air of this room oppressive; and, to mend matters, it was scented with an odour rather strong than delicate, a perfume, indeed, altogether surprising and unexpected under the circumstances, being like the combination of smoke with some spiritous essence–a smell, in short, of whisky. (p. 56)
That “in short” appears other places in the novel, a momentary break to make sure the reader is clear on what she is trying to say. But it also serves as a marker for the reader that what has gone before deserves a review.
I am currently reading Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz. It is a thick book, over 500 pages, but the prose just pulls you along. Spitz is a master of voice, weaving narrative with quotes in a way that makes it seem as though Julia herself is speaking. Not to mention the descriptions of food that have my mouth watering. Here’s just one example from a book where people and food just leap off every page. This is the moment when Julia meets French food in the form of fish:
She smelled it before she saw it. For an instant, there was sweetness of a kind she had never experienced before–butter perhaps, but more full-bodied, like a butter bomb, with a smoky, scorched tang. An instant later, the sea–probably a briny fish fume with a splash of white win. Wait! A faint lemony whiff drifting by…now gone. The ensemble of smeels was impossible to contain. Second later, a waiter set a large oval platter on the table, and all the aromas shot off like Chinese fireworks. But the scents refused to sync with the sight. The presentation was ridiculously simple: a fish on a plate, with a sprinkling of parsley. From the sides, tipped inward at an angle, a stream of molten gold pooled around the fish. Otherwise, there was nothing unusual about it , nothing to suggest the explosion of smells. She leaned over and inhaled with conviction. A delirious rush of pleasure filled her lungs. Wave upon wave: the aromas began to overlap and coalesce. The butter brought a richness to the fresh saltwater fish. By adding some wine to the sauce, the richness took on a honeyed brightness. Each ingredient influencing the aggregate…A meal was about to change Julia Child’s life.
This was the Sole Meuniere–Sole of God–that was Julia’s first meal in France and propelled her into the icon she became. Like Bronte, Spitz has amazing control over language. This is the introduction to the chapter of coming to France and from these opening paragraphs, he moves us backwards to provide an overview to France after the war, the beginnings of the Child’s marriage and the move to France. Only after another 5 pages do we return to that famous lunch.
And, like Bronte, Spitz mediates the way his prose lays out on the page. From those long sentences describing the fish, he provides a door stop similar to Bronte’s “in short.” That sentence: “A meal was about to change Julia Child’s life.”
I’ve been savoring Spitz’s book one chapter at a time, and when I finish, As Always, Julia, the book of letters between Julia and Avis DeVoto that covers her time in France and Germany as she works on what became Mastering the Art of French Cooking.