Descriptive Writing in the Novel
For years I’ve been trying to figure out what makes certain novels so irresistible. What gives them the power to colonize the imagination so completely that putting them down is like parting with a beloved friend? The ingredients aren’t so hard to isolate: complex, coherent, sympathetic characters; robust narrative energy instilled by way of dramatic tension and conflict; a compelling voice; deeply resonant thematic unities, often conveyed through imagery; and a well-rendered setting that creates the effect of an entire, vibrant world. It’s become apparent to me that the last two elements are essential, and too often neglected by many contemporary authors. There seems to be a theory going around in some literary circles that so-called imagistic prose can accomplish little but slow a story down, like extra weight strapped under the saddle of a racehorse. That may be true in extreme cases, and it’s certainly true in cases of clumsy writing. But in my opinion description — setting, landscape, imagery, a sense of place, whatever you want to call it — is an absolutely critical feature of a profoundly gripping narrative. It is an aspect of craft that novelists ignore to our own detriment.
In part it is a matter of taste, of course. I once heard the poet David Baker say that all poetry can be divided into two camps: the ironic and the ecstatic. The Greek root of the word ecstasy is “Ek-stasis,” meaning to place, or situate, out of. Ecstasy is transcendental, mystical, drawing one away from the body and into a state of trance, vision, or dream. Irony, on the other hand, is social, worldly, involving a dissimulating doubleness of voice or imagination. Now, let’s be clear: irony is essential in fiction as an antidote to sentimentality and melodrama. But in my view the best novels — the ones that stick with you long after you’ve put them down — contain a generous dash of ecstasy as well.
For me, good descriptive writing is what puts the vivid in John Gardner’s “vivid, continuous dream” of fiction. Good description has the power to strike an almost musical chord of emotions, resulting, in the best of cases, in a kind of narrative trance in which the reader’s consciousness is buoyed up and swept along in the current of the story. This kind of transportation effect is achieved by way of concrete sensory detail. You don’t get it with non-imagistic writing. You may get irony, pathos, angst, even sadness or anger, but you don’t get transportation.
I should point out that what I’m discussing here applies more readily to novels than to stories. A great short story is possible without much description, or without any at all, although my personal favorites do manage to evoke a strong sense of place, despite the inherent austerity of the form. But the novel is really the best venue for descriptive writing of the kind I’m referring to.
All of this is by way of an introduction to the central literary concept of this essay, the domaine perdu. The concept finds an archetypal embodiment in a novel called Le Grand Meaulnes, by a Frenchman named Alain-Fournier. Fournier wrote the book at the ripe old age of nineteen, and it was in fact his only published novel; he was killed in action in World War I. In the book, a boy wandering the French countryside stumbles upon a mysterious, decaying manor house, or domaine. He senses something magical about the place. He is overcome by “an extraordinary sense of well-being, an almost intoxicating serenity.” He hears “strains of lost music” that evoke memories both sweet and sad. The residents of the domaine end up taking him in; he stays for the weekend. There is a party attended by charming and eccentric people. He befriends a young man, and becomes infatuated with his new friend’s beautiful sister. To make a long story short, the protagonist goes home filled with longing. He spends the rest of the novel trying unsuccessfully to get back to the lost domaine.
The domaine perdu, therefore, is a deep myth having to do with a compulsion to return to a lost world of sensory completeness, beauty, and perfection; to recreate, in the words of the late novelist John Fowles, the “magical-sensual world of extreme infancy.” It’s the Eden myth; it has a tremendous resonance in every culture. It’s one of the main engines that drives us as writers to describe, and, as readers, to be transfixed by fine descriptive prose.
In the early years of the current decade I had multiple opportunities to visit Hemingway’s house in San Francisco de Paula, about twenty minutes outside Havana. It’s an atmospheric, one might even say a haunted, place. Through the open windows Hemingway’s well-stocked bookshelves are exactly as he left them, for the last time, in the spring of 1960. His spectacles lie open on a side table; several enormous pairs of shoes hang toe-down in a closet rack. The Finca Vigía was the author’s principal home for more than two decades; it is where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, and the unfinished manuscript that was published posthumously as Islands in the Stream. It was the departure point and refueling station for his beloved marlin-fishing trips; the base of operations for his grandiose, romantic, and wholly fruitless U-boat hunting patrols during WWII. On the walls of the house his big game trophies molder, their hides looking a little thin these days, like the hides of the small mongrel-dogs at rest on the cracked sidewalks of Havana Centro, with their swollen nipples and flies buzzing all around.
Downhill through shaded gardens a walkway leads to the author’s expansive pool. Drained now, it’s a dangerous-looking pit with a steeply slanting bottom leading into the leaf-littered shadows of the deep end. Examining another author’s domaine perdu is a little like that empty pool: there’s something about it that’s both melancholy and hazardous. Put another way, delving too deeply into this particular aspect of the writing craft is almost like asking the muse to disrobe and then subjecting her to a gynecological exam followed by Freudian analysis. Is it really a good idea to try to plumb the basic motivations of a great and extremely troubled writer like Hemingway? I’ll just leave that question hanging in the air.
Hemingway was many things, some of them admirable, many not, but above all he was a great observer of nature. Those who love his work are generally passionate about it, while those who hate it may be equally so. Whatever your view it is important to consider that the domaine perdu is what makes Hemingway Hemingway. Without it he is merely a craftsman, a skilled and notably economical stylist with a gift for narrative. For a look at what Hemingway is like without the domaine perdu, forget about the novels for a moment and turn to a selection of his short fiction. Stories like “The Hills are White Elephants” and “The Killers” are very, very good — maybe among the best in the language — but there’s little of the bittersweet atmosphere of nostalgia that infuses The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, or A Moveable Feast. The longing for a lost world defines and shapes these latter works.
Consider the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
The domaine perdu is closest to the surface when wistfulness bleeds through into description. When the normally laconic Hemingway dwells lovingly on a landscape, that’s the domaine perdu. In A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises — even in the grittier, grimmer For Whom the Bell Tolls — most of the chapters begin with vivid poetic descriptions like the one we just read. The domaine perdu is often found in beginnings: in the opening pages of a novel, or in the opening paragraphs of a chapter or a story. This is no accident. Description provides an embarkation point, a bridge, or a kind of touchstone that affords both the author and the reader access to the created world. Description also has more practical effects, such as anchoring the reader in the narrative — letting her know in a concrete way exactly where the characters are and what they are seeing –; arresting the reader’s attention with the compelling beauty of the novelistic world; and preparing the emotional ground for the scene to come.
In addition to providing embarkation points, the landscapes in Hemingway’s work are a recurring narrative mode used to tie together scenes of dialogue and action. Description is also the main vehicle for the explicit communication of the bittersweet magic, like lingering perfume or canned time, of the world that has been left behind. Here’s an anecdote of a conversation with F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast:
On this night though he wanted me to know and understand and appreciate what it was that had happened at St.-Raphael and I saw it so clearly that I could see the single-seater seaplane buzzing the diving raft and the color of the sea and the shape of the pontoons and the shadow they cast and Zelda’s tan and Scott’s tan and the dark blonde and the light blond of their hair and the darkly tanned face of the boy that was in love with Zelda.
Note that here the domaine perdu is a secondhand one, having originally belonged to Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is also emphatically a domaine perdu writer; that is, the domaine perdu is a primary source of emotional power in his books. It is also worth noting that the lost world is not always remembered as a happy place; according to its Greek conception ecstasy is just as likely to come through misery as it is through joy. The above passage describes an exquisitely painful memory for Fitzgerald, of the first big breach with Zelda when she had an affair with a young Frenchman.
There’s no need to dwell further on Hemingway and Fitzgerald, other than to point out two doomed writers whose novels radiate the unmistakable essence of the domaine perdu. If a good writer feels strongly about something, it’s infectious. In Hemingway and Fitzgerald, that intensity of feeling speaks for itself.
We can all name other domaine perdu authors; the most obvious is Proust. In terms of more contemporary novelists I personally would throw in Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex), Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain), Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell), and all of Andrea Barrett’s work, including her short stories. There’s no question that any worthy historical fiction owes its very existence to the impulse to recreate lost worlds, as do the best works of literary fantasy, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and Ursula K. Leguin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. Indeed, if we believe John Fowles, the primal urge to return to the domaine perdu by the only means available, by creating it, lurks behind all art, which is precisely why it’s important to recognize and think about.
One of the reason’s Hemingway’s life was so glamorized, and one of the reasons it ultimately became unbearable to him, was that he strove to live his novels before he wrote them. His books are about as autobiographical as well-plotted fiction can get; for example A Farewell to Arms is based on his experience as an ambulance driver in Italy during WWI, For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on his stint as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War, and Islands in the Stream draws heavily from the years he spent in his fishing yacht, the Pilar, cruising the waters north of Cuba for marlin and Nazi U-boats.
For Hemingway, the lost world was a real place, or a series of places, but for the next author we’re going to consider, J.R.R. Tolkien, it was almost entirely made up. This is not to say that some or even most of the superb descriptive passages in The Lord of the Rings didn’t flow from the author’s boyhood wanderings through the bucolic meadows and riverside glades around Oxford, or the denuded wastelands of the World War I killing fields, or trips he might have taken to the spectacular landscapes of the Alps. There’s no doubt that Tolkien too was a great observer and writer of nature. But in his case there were additional elements as well.
As a young man Tolkien, like Hemingway, witnessed firsthand the awful slaughter of WWI. Like Hemingway he survived, but by 1918, according to the preface of The Lord of the Rings, all but one of his closest friends were dead. He wrote the trilogy in the period from 1936 – 1949, which may also help to explain the work’s dark, often apocalyptic tone — as well as its “good versus evil” subject matter. The truth is that unlike his other famous book, The Hobbit (first published in 1936), The Lord of the Rings is not really meant for children. Certain children do devour it though, as I did when I was eight or ten. It had a major impact, opening my eyes to the power of literature as no other book had. The Shire and Mordor, Fangorn Forest, Moria, Rivendell and Lothlórien; I regret that the movies have begun to blur the vivid landscapes of Middle Earth in my mind, replacing them with the crisp silver-screen versions filmed on location in New Zealand. New Zealand is highly photogenic and fairly well-suited to Tolkien, but screen images are incapable of evoking the same magic or carrying the same emotional charge as fictional landscapes, especially those you read as a child. The fact is — and this is a powerful counter-argument to the lament that the novel is dead or dying — film simply can’t accomplish the things with landscape that literature can. Well-drawn literary landscapes become rooted in your soul, instead of washing over in blasts of music and awe-inspiring, computer-enhanced cinematography.
I picked up the books again several years back, partly because I had the time (at over a thousand densely-printed pages it’s not the kind of thing you can read in single afternoon), and partly because I wanted to revisit it before Hollywood stole my primeval memories of hobbits, wizards, and the detours and byways of Middle Earth. I was not disappointed. It really is a terrific story, in some ways even better than I had remembered. I was tempted to go on a mission to revive the books’ standing among the MFA set, but then it’s not as if the Tolkien estate really needs my help. Those who love the trilogy will always love it despite the commercial hype, and it will continue to be difficult to explain to those who have avoided it or haven’t been able to get through the first hundred pages (and there are many) what it is that’s so wonderful about it. The uninitiated reader will have to simply take it on faith that The Lord of the Rings provides an unparalleled example of how the domaine perdu can be used in a novel to express an extremely compelling vision of human existence.
I won’t bother to summarize the plot too extensively; it’s a straightforward quest story, with the twist that the quest is not to retrieve the grail but rather to destroy it. Over the course of the book Frodo Baggins and his fellowship make their way ever eastward, from the bucolic backwater of the hobbits’ Shire to the seething darkness of Mordor. On the way the party experiences many setbacks, as the reader gradually becomes aware of a miasma of apocalyptic evil that is settling over the novel’s world. They stop over in some very nice places on the way, however, Eden-like way-stations populated primarily by elves, in which the travelers long to remain but cannot. These way-stations are what concern us, because they stand out in the story like islands of light in a rising sea of darkness. They are, in other words, manifestations of Tolkien’s domaine perdu: outposts of a detailed, magical world that has already been lost.
Rather than quote at length from these chapters I’ve selected a few nearly random passages to give you something of the flavor:
Slowly the hall filled, and Frodo looked with delight upon the many fair faces that were gathered together; the golden firelight played upon them and shimmered in their hair.
The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name.
Tolkien was an Oxford professor, deeply absorbed in his studies. His main areas of focus were early Nordic and Anglo-Saxon literature, and during the course of his writing life he made up an entire world that was inspired by and in many ways based upon, these bodies of myth. There’s a great deal of verse scattered throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, much of it in Elvish, a complex language that Tolkien, a gifted linguist, ambitiously invented out of whole cloth. I have a feeling that most people simply skip over the verse to get on with the story, but that’s a mistake, because the verse is important to the underlying mood of the books — the tip of the iceberg, if you will, exposing the vast and emotionally charged domaine perdu dwelling beneath the story, scaffolding it, and bestowing its unique inner power.
Now you may well be asking at this point: if this world is entirely made up, how can you call it a domaine perdu? Doesn’t a lost world imply a place and time that exists in actual memory, as with Hemingway and Fitzgerald? The answer, I believe, is not necessarily. The main emotion associated with the domaine perdu is not merely nostalgia but longing, and it’s eminently possible, even likely, that all writers long for a place and time that never existed. In a sense, Hemingway’s Paris is every bit as made up as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
But let’s get back to the story. As Frodo’s party makes its way steadily eastward, between and sometimes even during their sojourns in way-stations of light and Bardic poetry, the evil in the world begins to assert itself with ever greater force. Terrifying ringwraiths assail the party and wound Frodo with a clammy blade; flocks of crows and other flying creatures careen menacingly through the sky above their heads; orcs pursue them through the abandoned mines of Moria, and a powerful monster drags the wizard Gandalf down into the abyss. Meanwhile the dreadful penumbra encroaches upon every quarter of the sky, and it is apparent that even fortresses of light such as Rivendell and Lothlórien must eventually succumb to the rising tide of Evil.
This image of a world gradually drowning in darkness buttresses the dramatic tensions inherent in the quest story; it is at bottom an extremely dark tale. Frodo’s journey is from one pole to another — from the pole of light to the pole of darkness — and it hinges absolutely upon the existence of a domaine perdu. Early in the quest, soon after they’ve left the last outpost of the known hobbit world, Frodo tries to sleep:
He lay tossing and turning and listening fearfully to the stealthy night noises: wind in chinks of rock, water dripping, a crack, the sudden rattling fall of a loosened stone. He felt that black shapes were advancing to smother him . . . He lay down again and passed into an uneasy dream, in which he walked on the grass in his garden in the Shire, but it seemed faint and dim, less clear than the tall black shadows that stood looking over the hedge.
And much later, as he and his faithful servant Sam slog along through the swamps on the outskirts of Mordor:
Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers. As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent. Far above the rot and vapors of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no color and no warmth.
The Lord of the Rings is full of such bleak, frightening images; the prevailing mood is one of fear and dread. What saves it from being merely horrifying or depressing, however, is the potential for redemption inherent in the hidden domaine perdu. It’s always there in the background. Sometimes it bleeds through, like rays of sunlight appearing through a break in a low overcast.
You can’t have true darkness without light to offset it; you need one to comprehend the other. Fear and dread open the possibility for uncomplicated joy; just as the presence of light gives extra power to the encroaching darkness. To put it in more mundane terms, the “reason” for the elegiac passages — the “islands” of festivity and light — is to make the encroaching evil more real and more threatening, and the overwhelmingly dark tone of the story as a whole causes the “islands” to burn that much more brightly. It is a well-known fact that fiction about happiness is untenable; less well-known, perhaps, is the fact that fiction that dwells solely in realms of darkness also comes too easily, and is by nature incomplete. Evil is indisputably a part of life (although perhaps not in the simple-minded terms put forth by neoconservatives and certain heads of state), but so is love. This is the wisdom underlying Tolkien’s work; his novels enact this truth compellingly and on an epic scale.
For a final angle on the domaine perdu, consider the Native American writer James Welch. For those who don’t know his novels you should go out and get them without delay: they are original, beautiful, and vastly under-appreciated. Particularly germane to this discussion is his magnificent book, The Heartsong of Charging Elk. The novel is told from the perspective of a young Lakota Sioux in the 1880’s who travels to Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The prologue shows Charging Elk as a small boy, less than a year after Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn. In just a few pages it draws a remarkably vibrant portrait of the novel’s domaine perdu: the quickly vanishing prairie Eden from which Charging Elk’s people have been expelled, and to which he spends most of the novel trying to return. I hope this sounds familiar.
The story itself begins a decade or so later. Charging Elk lies in a Marseilles hospital, after having become separated from the Wild West Show and fallen deathly ill. In this passage he has just regained consciousness after days in a near-coma:
He thought of sunrise in another place. A place of long views, of pale dust and short grass, of few people and no buildings. He had seen that sunrise over the rolling simple plains, he had been a part of it and it had been a part of him . . . He remembered the villages, the encampments, one place, then another. Women picking berries, men coming back with meat, the dogs and horses, the sudden laughter or tears of children, the quiet ease of lying in a sunny lodge with the skins rolled up to catch the breeze.
Note the elegiac flavor of the prose: the sun-dappled imagery doled out in brief comma-separated clauses, like gently breaking waves of memory. Such emotionally charged description is possible this early in the novel because it emanates from a clearly understandable place within the protagonist, the place described so vividly in the prologue. Even if the reader doesn’t share Charging Elk’s yearning for the lost purity of the Plains Indian lifestyle — though it’s probably fair to assume that most of Welch’s readership does share it — he can relate to that yearning because he’s seen where it comes from. If we accept John Fowles’ earlier-stated premise that we all carry around our own domaines perdus, the emotion behind the description is not only earned, but universally resonant.
Charging Elk wanders the perilous streets of the late 19th century French seaport, lost, cold, and hungry. His memories of the Dakota territory are a continual presence, always in the background and periodically coming into the foreground — a pattern utterly reminiscent of the way Tolkien uses the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. The lost domain is most vivid when the present-time narrative is darkest, as when Charging Elk is sentenced to a life sentence for murder in La Tombe, a grim French high-security prison:
But quite often, at the very moment Charging Elk’s despair was at its apex, the snow would fall. And he would lift his head and feel the downy flakes settle on his face and melt and he would be transported, as if by magic . . . back to the Stronghold and the winters he had spent with Kills Plenty.
The domain perdu provides contrast between memory and current reality, and it provides the only cause for hope in the face of overwhelming evidence for despair. Notice the element of transportation in this passage; the memory of his domaine perdu does for Charging Elk what good fiction can do for a reader, and it’s no accident that the transportation is accomplished by way of vivid sensory description.
To summarize: The domaine perdu in The Heartsong of Charging Elk fulfills a number of key narrative functions. It gives shape to the protagonist’s journey by providing a chronological and emotional starting point from which he gets further and further away. It helps round out the protagonist’s character, defining his principal “dramatic need” (to return to Dakota Territory), while at the same time offering a font of illuminating backstory. In one sense it’s a narrative of the destruction of an entire way of life, the tapering tail-end of more than three centuries of genocide on the North American continent. In another sense it’s a narrative of a stranger trying and repeatedly failing to navigate a strange land, who is exploited, commits murder, spends more than a decade in jail, and does not live to see his people again. This may sound like bleak material, but The Heartsong of Charging Elk is rescued by the domaine perdu, which infuses the story with light. Welch succeeds in blending the joyous with the tragic in a way that rings entirely true. What more can a novelist hope for, or a reader?
There’s a hike I used to take a few times a year as a child. It begins in a tall hardwood forest, which gives way gradually to a mixed forest and then to a dense boreal forest of conifers. Glades of gnarled dwarf-spruce open out onto little mossy lawns of heather spackled with the bright scarlet brushstrokes of summer berries or autumn leaves. Climbing on you come to the edge of a vast cone of broken granite sloping up to the summit: fins and hillocks and thrones of mottled gray stone softened by a patina of multicolored lichen. This is what Tolkien might have called a “fell-field”; his goblins would have been drawn to it because of the fissures, large and small, that shoot through the ancient rock. Most of these are tightly joined, like the unmortared blocks of a Roman aqueduct; others take the form of gaping black abysses that appear to give lightning-bolt access to a hollow mountain underworld. Like the landscapes I once explored in Tolkien’s books, this place is rooted in my dreams. Just by thinking about it I can awaken its magic, like summoning ghosts.
I’ve heard it said that the only proper subject for fiction is humanity. I’ve also heard it stated that the novel is an inherently bourgeois art form, limited in scope to portraying the foibles and intricacies of human society. But this sort of conventional wisdom ignores the fact that humanity is inseparable from nature. To write narratives focused solely upon ourselves, without reference to the greater world that embraces and sustains us, is to reflect the lack of vision, the illusory and damaging presumption of separation that has brought us to the current point of crisis. It is also to ignore the challenge of portraying humankind with reference to our surroundings, as denizens of a larger universe. According to the Irish poet John O’Donohue, “To recognize and celebrate beauty is to recognize the ultimate sacredness of experience.” By describing the landscapes through which our characters move, we engage in a ritual of gratitude and healing. Such rituals are few and far between these days, and we ought to embrace them.
Writers in the so-called literary fiction genre too often hear about the options that are foreclosed to us. Yet there are no hard and fast rules to writing, only conventions. One of the great pleasures of being a writer is that it is our job to constantly challenge these conventions — to stretch them, break them, or simply to ignore them. It is worthwhile to give some thought to where you yourself come down on the question of whether literature exists more to delight or to instruct. Description roots us in a narrative and keeps us there; its capacity to take us back to our species’ primal attachment to the land is powerful medicine that we as writers would be foolish to ignore. Despite what you may be told in certain writing workshops and how-to books, my advice is not to shy away from well-rendered naturalistic description, even when it’s not doing anything explicit to advance character or plot.
Let your work breathe, especially in the early drafts. Tap into the landscapes buried within yourself. Consider the duality of opposites wherein the true nature of existence resides, and remember that transportation is triggered by the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch. The literature of the domaine perdu, which is a literature of loss, is more essential than ever now, when so many actual landscapes have been destroyed and so many others are severely threatened. Whether your own lost worlds are real or imagined, the fact that you’re drawn back to them is a clear sign that you’re heading in the right direction.