David Madore's WebLog: Gratuitous literary fragments

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Gratuitous literary fragments

When creating a novel, a writer often has a relatively small number of “key fragments” in mind which make up the essential structure of the story, and which it is eminently pleasurable to write; then there are parts which it is not so pleasant to write, and others which are positively boring for the writer (and sometimes, also, for the reader). No matter how good the book is, the writer can't be expected to have had fun all the time, to have enjoyed writing every line of it. (Of course, even the favorite parts may be a strain to write, but at least they are rewarding, whereas some parts aren't nearly so.)

Hence the question: why not write just such fragments, without any novel around them? A really well written fragment, perhaps even as short as a single sentence, should convey the impression that it belongs to a novel, that it has been taken out of a context that really existed before it was cut—and ultimately the reader's imagination should provide the context.

Much it is with some paintings, which so vividly rouse the beholder's imagination in creating a whole scene around them. Take Poussin's famous painting Les Bergers d'Arcadie for example: this gathering of shepherds around a tomb suggests that there is a story behind the scene we see, but it is up to us to invent it.

So my idea is to write very short fragments of prose, tableaux of a kind, which suggest that there is more to the story but don't reveal it.

Here's an example which might better explain the idea I have in mind (it's not very well written, my English is as bad as usual, and so on, but at least it should make clear where I'm getting at):

“The sea! The sea!” they exclaimed, rushing down the cliff as fast as the steep path would allow. “The sea!”—joyful as the Greeks led by Xenophon—“at last!”

And when they finally touched the deserted shore of the cove, nobody said a word. The young one cupped his hands, reached down and collected some water, careful not to let a single drop fall, carrying it as though it were liquid diamond—and then throwing it all in the air with a cry of glee.

The sun was beginning to set, coloring the autumn landscape with pinkish hues, and the ocean in front of them was woven with rivulets of molten gold. An overwhelming sensation of peace descended upon the little group. No longer were they running away—no longer were their enemies close on their heels. Now they had reached the end of the world, and the beginning of another journey. Ahead of them lay freedom: a freedom almost tangible, a freedom which they could discern on the horizon, a freedom that was their due after this dreadful flight.

A call sounded behind, drawing them from their rêverie. “Make haste: they are coming! This way, quick!” And they were on the run again.

What does this suggest? I don't know. I can't tell you who these people are who just arrived on the seashore—or who are those that seem to be running after them. I can't tell you how they intend to cross the sea, or whether they do. Nor do I know what holds this promise of a better life. I only have this little scene in mind, very colorful indeed, from which I could make a painting (if I knew how to paint!); you'll have to create the rest.

But my point is, this could be part of a novel. It could even be the beginning of one—or the end, for that matter. And I think I would rather like to read such a novel. Only it doesn't exist, which is sort of too bad.

More interestingly, I think the “gratuitous literary fragment”, as I call it, or perhaps more elegantly, “verbal tableau”, could be a form of art of its own, much like a kind of poetry. Frustrating as it would be, a book of mere fragments such as the above would be an interesting work.

I have written a couple more “gratuitous” fragments (not all in the same spirit, though).

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