Books are often accused these days of being “over-written”, but rarely, if ever, “under-written”. Brevity and concision, even to the point of sparseness, seem to be valued for their own sake, and, if my forays around the net are anything to go by, “could have done with an editor” is a frequent criticism – as if the author’s task were merely to say as quickly and as tersely as possible whatever it is they have to say before vanishing discreetly from the scene. Enjoying words, luxuriating in language, expanding to take in vast vistas, seem often to be looked down upon.
This criticism – “could have done with a good editor” – is frequently made of books where expansion is the very point. One could, no doubt, edit Moby-Dick down to the point where it becomes a thrilling adventure yarn and nothing more; or cut Bleak House down such that it becomes merely an intriguing Victorian mystery. But those of us who love these books even to the point where they become central to our understanding of the world may well feel that such projected operations would reduce these massive novels merely to what is incidental in them, while discarding that which is essential. For the artistic purpose of certain works requires expansion.
When Mahler and Sibelius – arguably the two greatest symphonists of their generation, unless anyone out there wants to make a case for Elgar – met, Sibelius argued in favour of tightness of structure, of concision, of formal logic; while Mahler declared that the symphony should encompass everything: it should indeed, he argued, be like the universe itself.
These two very different composers remained true to their respective ideals: the symphonies of Sibelius became increasingly concise, and his output culminated in the single movement 7th symphony, and in the symphonic poem Tapiola (the latter built upon one single theme), each about only twenty or so minutes long, and yet in its extreme concentration packing the kind of punch one might expect from works many times that length. (Some would argue that in the 30 or so years that followed Tapiola, Sibelius took the concept of concision to its ultimate and logical end by producing absolutely nothing.) Mahler, on the other hand, continued to compose symphonies that attempted to encompass “the entire universe”. And for many admirers, he succeeded in doing just that.
These Sibelian and Mahlerian extremes of the spectrum have their counterparts in literature also, I think – particularly when it comes to the novel. There are certain novels – Moby-Dick, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov – that attempt, with a Mahlerian megalomania, to encompass the entire universe; and there are others – Emma, Madame Bovary, The Portrait of a Lady – that focus more intently on a more limited scope, and aim for a perfection of form that the Mahlerian attempt to encompass everything must, perhaps necessarily, forgo.
None of his means, of course, that there isn’t dead wood in Moby-Dick, or in Bleak House. Or in War and Peace, or in The Brothers Karamazov, or in Ulysses. Or in Mahler’s symphonies. Or even, for that matter, in King Lear. But it is, perhaps, the very nature of the beast that works such as these –works that attempt to encompass the entire universe – should contain dead wood. Ishmael, Melville’s alter-ego in Moby-Dick, says at one point that he tries all things, and achieves what he can. And, yes, it can be argued that he tries far more than he achieves, that most of his trials end up as failures. But even the failed attempts are important: even these depict the author’s heroic endeavours to approach the unapproachable. A novel such as Moby-Dick is, and has to be, a record of those failed trials as well as of those that succeeded. We are placed in the laboratory of the author’s mind, and, unless one is looking merely for an adventure yarn, we must accept the flaws, for they are integral pieces of the whole. In works such as these, removal of flaws, instead of enhancing, paradoxically diminishes the whole.
Of course, if one personally prefers the Sibelian ideal of concision and perfection of form, then that is fine: there are sufficient masterpieces at that end of the spectrum to keep one busy for an entire lifetime. But, speaking for myself, while I can and do admire many works of that type, it is those massive, over-reaching works that are closer to my heart. Flawed, yes, no doubt: but even the flaws I find I value, as the whole would become shrunken without them.