Saturday, September 3, 2011
Figurative Language in Nabokov and Fitzgerald.
The Effect of Tropes in Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Both Vladimir Nabokov’s and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories are troves of figurative language. In the opening paragraphs of “Spring in Fialta,” Nabokov writes, “The sea, its salt drowned in a solution of rain, is less glaucous than gray with waves too sluggish to break into foam” (SIF 413). In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes, “Inside, the crimson room bloomed with light” (GG 22). These are not inert descriptions; they leap off the page as alive and vivid as character. By personifying the sea, or employing a flower metaphor to describe the room, both writers create images that are vital to the mood, tone, and sense of their narratives. Their images, far from passive, employ active verbs, specious adjectives, alliteration and metaphor, inter alia, simile, hyperbole, synecdoche to enliven the prose.
One technique they use to animate the inanimate is personification. Defined as “investing inanimate objects or an abstraction with human qualities” (SYL 16), personification achieves the literary goal of making landscape and setting active participant in the story. In Nabokov’s short story “Spring in Fialta,” he uses this technique not just to enliven setting, but to imbue objects with personality. “I had come on the Capparballa express,” the narrator says, “which, with that reckless gusto peculiar to trains in mountainous country, had done its thunderous best to collect throughout the night as many tunnels as possible” (SIF 413-414). The train his narrator arrives on, doesn’t just move through space, it possesses “that reckless gusto, peculiar to trains in mountainous country (SIF 413). His train doesn’t merely enter and exit tunnels, it does “it’s thunderous best to collect...as many tunnels as possible.” Nabokov personifies the train, giving it an agency usually reserved for humans. He defamiliarizes the action of trains to make the image both startling and reflective of the narrator’s personality as well. Who else but a self-obsessed, detail drunk narrator would notice such a thing? The effect surprises and engages readers, making us delight in imaginative leaps we take on behalf of the writer, making us participate in the narrative as opposed to being impersonal spectators.
Like Nabokov, Fitzgerald employs figurative language to awaken readers to his narrative, conflating setting and character. Possessed with a talent to convey not just the beautiful but the sublimely beautiful (the difference a matter of degree and not kind), Fitzgerald’s sentences astonish us by the sheer ability to reveal multiple ideas, sense impressions, and feelings at once. He writes, “The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life” (GG 25). Using the past perfect tense to set up the base clause, then a past participle phrase to set into motion the wind’s effects on the night sky, Fitzgerald sidesteps direct description, leaving the world just slightly askew. Whereas he could have written, “The wind blew away clouds, leaving a clear night full of stars, where birds fluttered in the trees and frogs made noises,” his lyricism dances around, meanders around the object of the sentence, thus defamiliarizing the world, and he does it by doubling up his adjectives and metaphor: the night is “loud bright” like a voice, which also provides the effect of agency where there should be none. Furthermore, it isn’t the frogs that croak and call, it is the earth which “bellows,” animating the frogs.
Like the example of Nabokov’s sea, with its alliteration, fluid sibilant “S’s,” i.e. “sea,” “salt,” “solution,” “sluggish,” and Germanic sounding consonance, with its hard “G’s,” i.e. “glaucous,” “gray,” Fitzgerald’s sentence, quoted above, doesn’t sacrifice euphony for sense. It works in collaboration with sound to make the sentence musical. Thus we have alliteration, “leaving,” “loud.” He gives us assonance, “bright,” “night,” “with,” “wings,” “beat-ing,” “trees.” He gives us consonance “bellows,” “blew,” and “frogs,” “full,” “life.” If I were to refashion Nabokov’s sentence I would have to eliminate every trope, casting it in a realist style. Although the meaning of the sentence would perhaps be conveyed much clearer, all of its playful, musical pleasure would be lost--the result would be prosaic, artless and dull.
Along with left-branching sentences to delay meaning, to alter the emotional resonance, Nabokov employs mid-branching sentences. On page 414, he writes, “Thumb-filling his pipe from a rubber pouch as he walked, a plus-foured Englishman of the solid exportable sort came from under an arch and entered a pharmacy, where large pale sponges in a blue vase were dying a thirsty death behind their glass.” The structure of this sentence surprises us, because it allows the tropes to unravel piece by piece. We receive description of action first, an introductory clause at the beginning with an implied agent with the subject, “a plus-foured Englishman of the solid exportable sort,” coming after the action of “thumb-filling his pipe from a rubber pouch.” By placing the base clause in the middle, Nabokov anchors this long, unwieldy sentence. This allows him to branch off into new territory with a verb “came,” then a prepositional phrase “under an arch, followed by a linking verb, “entered,” making for a compound-verb, thus letting his agent/subject enter a pharmacy. Nabokov abandons our view of him there. Rather than focus on the specifics of the narrator’s actions, showing what he does, he focuses our attention on what the man notices, i.e. sponges in a blue vase. The technique works because of the implication. The man sees things and Nabokov doesn’t need to point out that he sees it: he shows it.
He also personifies the sponges. They aren’t just sitting in a dry vase, they are “dying a thirsty death.” By personifying them, he makes us feel their plight and the narrator’s own; the narrator is a sponge, dying a thirsty death, unable to be sated by the promise of love he feels for Nina. If he had used the static description, “There were sponges in a blue vase without water,” much of the effect of surprise and delight would be lost and along with it the subtext.
Additionally, I enjoyed the compound construction “plus-foured” to indicate the man’s bulk. Whereas Nabokov could have simply used the adjective, “large,” or “heavy,” he chose to focus our attention on the size of his clothing. Such means of description float around the obvious. These devices add variety to description, again, surprising readers, jolting us awake.
Meanwhile Fitzgerald’s right-branching sentence, base clause in the beginning and details added to the right, indicates mood with power and concision. On page 27, he writes:
“There is a valley of ashes--a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into
ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses
and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men
who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”
As an extraordinary example of a cumulative sentence, Fitzgerald places the base clause, a declarative, at the beginning, “There is a valley of ashes.” Offset with an end-dash, he qualifies the declarative through a variety of stylistic techniques. First of which is alliteration “fantastic farm,” then simile, “where ashes grow like wheat,” then polysendeton with the repetitive use of “and” to join the nouns “ridges,” “hills,” and alliteration again with “grotesque gardens,” then anaphora, repeating the phrase, “where ashes,” then polysendeton again with the numerous conjunctions, “and” to join additional qualifying nouns, “houses,” “chimneys,” “smoke.” He ends the sentence with an image of men who by their very association with the setting have become ash itself. It’s a miraculous sentence, one that fuses landscape description with the human, a sentence where man and nature coalesce.
Nabokov’s corollary sentence can be found on page 414:
I assimilated everything: the whistling of a thrush in the almond trees beyond the chapel, the peace of the crumbling houses, the pulse of the distant sea, panting in the mist, all this together with the jealous green of bottle glass bristling along the top of a wall and the fast colors of a circus advertisement featuring a feathered Indian on a rearing horse in the act of lassoing a boldly endemic zebra, while some thoroughly fooled elephants sat brooding upon their
Although this sentence lacks Fitzgerald’s economy, a variety of interesting things occur here. First, according to the rules of cumulative sentences, Nabokov places the base clause, also a declarative, at the beginning, “I assimilated everything.” However, rather than use an end dash, he sets up his list of observations by a colon. The effect is one of a shorter pause, and perhaps a tighter connection between his initial statement and his resulting observations. (I contend that the end-dash allows for a longer pause, and thus greater dramatic effect; but this may be due to a personal feeling rather than something objectively measurable. Either way, a pause exists, the degree of its length is debatable, and subject for another essay on punctuation).
Second, personification: Nabokov’s trees “whistle,” his houses feel, “peace,” his sea “pulses,” his mist “pants,” his color green is “jealous,” his glass “bristles.” He uses active verbs to promote nature’s agency, but much more than agency, personality. When the sentence breaks off in the middle with the predeterminer adjectival clause, “all this together,” it reminds me of Fitzgerald’s transitional prepositional phrase, “with a transcendent effort.” Both open into new territory. Whereas in Nabokov’s sentence, the narrator begins describing the circus poster, using copious amounts of alliteration “featuring,” “feathered,” and “star-spangled horses,” the second half of Fitzgerald’s sentence sticks closely to “ashes” as its central metaphor. Both sentences resonate with musicality--a playful musicality in love with its own sound.
Both writers are conscious of the external world to such a degree that their efforts to transform it from an inanimate thing of abstraction to the specific, concrete plays a dual role: first, it forces us to reconsider the object/image, and second it imbues it with an agency--an agency capable of affecting the lives of their stories’ characters and our view of the narrator.
Both writers’ use of figurative language is a key to enervating my own prose. For example, in attempting to incorporate nature into my own work, in the past I have relied only on nouns, adjectives and verbs, with little regard for either musicality, metaphor or personification. I suppose I could take a sentence like the following from Elegy, my novel in progress, and offer it as an example. “Everything was quiet: the farm houses with their steeply pitched roofs, the red barns, the grass, the grain silos looking like mute rockets.” Injecting this with Nabokovian alliteration and his peppery sense of personality, the result is:
“Everything was still: the rugged farm houses rising rigidly from the joyful bottle
green grass, the red barns like mute monoliths, and the grain silos erect as
rockets ready to lift off to some delicious red planet, while a slow stodgy mist
huffed around their bases like the steam from an idling booster.”
Or, invoking Fitzgerald, I could imbue landscape description with a strong central metaphor and personification that both organizes the description and pushes it into new territory. Therefore:
“Once, in a heath surrounded by locusts, I saw a fawn, its caramel hide spotted
with patches of white, chewing grass. With big black eyes it stood watching me,
waiting for me to do something, waiting perhaps for the incredulity of this moment
Would become the following:
“Once, in a blue heath ringed along the far edges by black locusts, I came upon a
fawn, its caramel colored hide peppered with patches of white, its jaws curling
and eyes large and glossy and black as wet granite. It stood bowlegged,
bewildered, as if by watching me I would somehow become something other than
a boy, I would become, in its incredulous dark gaze, a hedge or a bush,
something green and unthreatening, just another emerald fixture in its familiar
It is this their ability to evoke wonder and surprise through language, to defamiliarize the world that holds readers in a sort of suspended bliss, making setting, landscape, objects into something more than just inanimate things, things incapable of moving or affecting the reader, things that are no more than backdrop or window dressing. Tropes help transform things from static background into vivid character, pernicious as any antagonist, helpful as any guardian, supportive as any sidekick and suspicious as any skeptic. They also help transform the visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and kinesthetic details that make for detailed writing. By imbuing inanimate objects with human characteristics tropes make things surrogates of theme.
In conclusion, figurative language is the soul of imaginative writing. Fitzgerald and Nabokov both use copious amounts of it, eschewing muscular, noun, verb, declarative sentence prose, to provide a new kind of sensory density. By yoking sensory imagery to narration and their narratives become more than the perfection of a point of view: by using figurative language they achieve something greater--storytelling magic.