I was reading, for reasons that escape me now, an old 1980s Craig Raine article about Peter Porter, but actually about the place of subject matter in the assessment of literary merit (this one, in fact
). Is a poorly written story about a really interesting event better than a brilliantly written story about a mundane or humdrum event? It's a no brainer, of course. Raine gives some examples:
Clearly, there is a place for interestingly uninteresting subject-matter. We know this from Miss Bates and the spectacle rivet. We know from Chekhov that the provincial and the defeated have their proper significance. Even Tolstoy, dealing with grand themes in War and Peace, succeeds best, not when he ruminates about History, but when he adds brilliantly mundane footnotes to the illuminated scroll of recorded events: Rostov’s fractional pause and subsequent guilt because his French opponent has a dimple in his chin; ‘one bandy-legged old French officer, wearing Hessian boots, who was getting up the hill with difficulty, taking hold of bushes’. These details are more memorable than the names of the battles in which they occur.
He also, rightly, praises Elizabeth Bishop's extraordinary ability to spin absolutely unremarkable quotidiana into gold. Indeed, true to Raine's broader point, his whole, intelligent article fades in my memory, whilst this one short piece of quoted poetry (like the ascending old French officer grasping his shrubs) gleams in my mind:
I see you all up there
along with Formoso, the donkey,
who brays like a pump gone dry,
then suddenly stops.
– All just standing, staring
off into fog and space.
That's .... extraordinary.
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