The Animate Detail

Anton Chekhov

“She knows that what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one, and that novelists are creators, not coroners, of the human case.”  This is James Wood, from the May 7th New Yorker.  He’s talking about the writing of novelist Hilary Mantel.  He’s also echoing Chekhov’s advice.  Here’s Chekhov’s advice on writing:

I think descriptions of nature should be very short and always be à propos. Commonplaces like “The setting sun, sinking into the waves of the darkening sea, cast its purple gold rays, etc,” “Swallows, flitting over the surface of the water, twittered gaily” — eliminate such commonplaces. You have to choose small details in describing nature, grouping them in such a way that if you close your eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing. For example, you’ll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that on the dam of the mill a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star and the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled by like a ball, etc. …

Wood gives example of this active detailing from Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, where Thomas Cromwell reflects on his son:

Gregory is a fine archer, a fine horseman, a shinning star in the tilt yard, and his manners cannot be faulted.  He speaks reverently to his superiors, not scuffling his feet or standing on one leg, and he is mild and polite with those below him.  He knows how to bow to foreign diplomats in the manner of their own countries, sits at table without fidgeting or feeding spaniels, can neatly carve and joint any fowl if requested to serve elders.  He doesn’t slouch around with his jacket off one shoulder, or look in windows to admire himself, or stare around in church, or interrupt old men, or finish their stories for them.  If anyone sneezes, he says, “Christ help you!”

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