On asides

Other people’s words about … other people

Some writers describe nature beautifully; some express their characters’ inner lives with great insight and pathos; some describe people pithily. I came across two writers of the latter kind recently.

How’s the following for a description of someone, for example?

He had the countenance of someone who’d weathered a thousand tiny insults; they were etched into the lines of his forehead and cheeks. He had the drawn, inelastic face of either a serious smoker (with no time for the inconvenience of food) or a fastidious vegan whose pursuit of a healthy lifestyle had left him on the verge of sickness.

from ‘A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy
by Colin Grant
(p. 2)

Colin Grant’s book is a memoir about life with a brother who lived with, and ultimately died from, epilepsy. It’s also a history of epilepsy’s treatment (both cultural and medical) over the last two millennia. But it was Grant’s descriptions of people which really held me.

He held disgust in his nose, a magnificent diaphanous beak with thread-like blue veins and tobacco stains on the nostril hair and dividing septum, usually slightly cocked and in a permanent sneer.
(p. 16)

After I’d finished reading A Smell of Burning, I moved on (in a completely non-sequitur fashion) to Angela Carter. I’d never read any of her novels before, though people had told me over and over that I should. I’m still only partway through The Magic Toyshop, but already, I’m relishing Carter’s descriptions of the characters who populate her story.

Here she is on five-year-old Victoria:

Victoria had no sense of guilt. She had no sense at all. She was a round, golden pigeon who cooed. She rolled in the sun and tore butterflies into little pieces when she could catch them.
(p. 6)

And here’s her description of twelve-year-old Jonathan:

Jonathon ate like a blind force of nature, clearing through mounds of food like a tank through the side of a house. He ate until there was no more to eat; then stopped, put knife and fork or spoon and fork together neatly, wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and went away to make model boats.
(p. 4)

Meanwhile, when Melanie, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Carter’s story, first meets Finn, she watches him from afar before he notices her. When she does capture his attention, he fixes his gaze upon her before speaking:

His eyes were a curious grey green. His Atlantic-coloured regard went over Melanie like a wave; she submerged in it. She would have been soaked if it had been water.
(p. 38)

These are snatched phrases, I guess, more than anything. But that’s the thing about the experience of reading: it’s not just about plot, or emotion, or catharsis. It’s about the little things, too: the words and the phrases; the asides and the diversions. The sentences I’ve quoted above aptly capture the essence of the people they’re depicting: they made me smile in recognition (and wry admiration) and then re-read them, just in case I didn’t miss anything. And, like the characters they’re describing, they stayed in my mind long after I’d put the books aside to get on with the business of my day.

They stayed in my mind. I can think of no greater praise for someone’s ability to write — and no greater reason to keep on reading — than that.

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