Good Writing #3: Imagined Space and the Page

I greatly enjoy when a description makes use of the shape of its paragraph or the space of the page. This does not exactly mean positioning words on the page, but rather thinking about how the eye passes over a scene while shaping the sentence. What would the eye linger on? One should put that detail at the end of the sentence or paragraph. This isn’t a technique that is always appropriate, but when it works it creates a special kind of pleasure.

Below is an example from Nabokov. He, being Nabokov, goes one step further and tells you what he is doing as he does it.

The wide lovely lake lay in dreamy serenity, fretted with green undulations, rugged with blue, patched with glades of lucid smoothness between the ackers; and in the lower right corner of the picture, as if the artist had wished to include a very special example of light, the dazzling wake of the westering sun pulsated through a lakeside lombardy poplar that seemed both liquified and on fire.

The sun does not appear until near the end of the paragraph, but, when it does, it is bright and dazzling.  Only after it has been burned into our retina do we notice the tree’s silhouette in the foreground, ‘both liquefied and on fire.’ This last beat brings back the sun, wraps it around the tree and holds the entire image in our mind.  Nabokov could have written: “pulsating through a lakeside poplar that seemed both liquified and on fire, the dazzling wake of the westering sun hung in the lower right corner of the picture, as if the artist had wished to include a very special example of light.”  But he did not, because this would have been an inferior sentence.  One does not have the sensation of blazing light lingering in the mind’s eye in this version.  This alternate structure is easier to follow conceptually, but it is visually awkward; it would be the correct choice if one were detailing a philosophical point, but it fails to paint a picture.

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The quotation is from Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov. I don’t know what ackers are — perhaps an obscure, lost word for a type of wave? The dictionary suggests it is 1930s British slang for ‘money’ — so perhaps it is an allusion to the sparkling of coins.

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About Matthew Lie - Paehlke

Matthew Lie-Paehlke is a PhD student in Urban Planning at the University of Toronto.
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