It all started over at the Wuthering Expectations blog. Its estimable writer, Tom, found himself somewhat unimpressed by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and, as I had rather liked the novel when I had read it some fifteen or so years ago, I felt I had to say a few words in its defence. But it is not easy to engage in discussion fn a novel one had last read so many years previously with someone who has read it only recently; and so, instead of engaging on specific points, I decided to make a broad-brush argument.
Oh dear, there I go again, introducing unwarranted imagery drawn from the world of visual arts: it should be a primary rule of writing that one should never draw a metaphor or a simile from an area one knows little about. And, not being by any stretch of the imagination an expert on the visual arts, I should never have claimed, as I did on Tom’s blog, that Buddenbrooks was drawn in firm, clear lines; and neither should I have drawn a parallel with the woodcuts of Dürer.
You may see for yourself how the conversation went. I ended up claiming after a while that woodcuts did not allow for shading, and that its effect had to come from the correctness of line. But Dürer’s woodcuts do have shading, Tom responded, citing as evidence the famous woodcut of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
This was hard to argue against: there certainly was tonal variation in there. And yet, surely a woodcut is restricted only to black and to white, and to no shade in between. I brought down from my shelves a book containing reproductions of Dürer’s woodcuts, and yes, there was an extraordinary variety of tone throughout: while each of the lines was placed to absolute perfection, the effect did not depend on these lines alone. So I found myself looking closely at these areas that appeared to be shaded. The shading was not a consequence of applying shades of grey: black and white were indeed the only tones available. The apparent shades are achieved by the closeness of the lines, and by various types of cross-hatching.
Is this what I had meant when I had brought Dürer into the discussion? It’s hard to say. The human mind is adept at justifying itself in retrospect, and convincing itself that it had intended what, at the time, it hadn’t.
And I did what I should have done earlier – contacted a good friend of mine who just happened, rather conveniently, to be an art historian specialising in the Northern Renaissance. She confirmed to me that the woodcut is restricted to black and white only, but, when apprised of the background to my question, felt that there was indeed shading in Dürer’s woodcuts. Not through different shades that may be obtained through varying the pressure on the brush or on the pencil, but through varying the closeness of the lines, and their thickness. And so on: there were virtually an infinite number of tricks up the old boy’s sleeve. It depends on how one defines “shading”.
Well – that’s an easy get-out clause for me, isn’t it? “It’s a question of how you define it.” No – I decided not to go for that one. I’d stick to my guns: the tonal variation only looks like shading, I insisted, but it can’t really be called shading since there is no shade other than black and white; what tonal variation we see comes from an immensely skillful manipulation of the black and the white, rather than from any actual shading as such.
And that’s what I had meant in the first place. No, really. That’s what I had meant, and no mistake.
And I was hoping Tom wouldn’t ask “If that’s what you’d meant, then why didn’t you say so?”
Fortunately for me, he preferred to talk about literature rather than about art. The depiction with firm clear lines was something he attributed to Flaubert rather than to Mann, although he did agree with me that the smudging together of tones and doing away with anything resembling outlines are best exemplified by Henry James, especially in his later works. Nothing in these works is clear. The vague, ambiguous states of our mind shade with the finest subtlety from one tone into another, barely aware of the passage, and refusing resolutely ever to be pinned down or defined. It can be maddening for the reader, and yet no other author has captured with such painstaking delicacy the infinite fluidity of human consciousness.
So, although my comments on Dürer may have been ill conceived, I wondered if I could be on to something here: could it be reasonable to speak of a Mann-James spectrum? Of clarity and precision at one end of the scale, and of endless smudging and obfuscation on the other?
Sadly, as soon as one starts to consider where on this spectrum various other writers may stand – Austen, say, or Hardy, or Joyce – the metaphor breaks down rather quickly. I suppose it is in the very nature of similes and of metaphors to break down beyond a point, since if X were to be precisely like Y in all respects, then X would equal Y, and not be a mere representation of it. But this metaphor breaks down a bit too quickly to be of much critical use. But while the spectrum between the poles remains unclear, I don’t know that I’d wish to jettison my initial conceit (in all senses, perhaps, of that word): for there is a firmness and clarity of line in Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, rightly or wrongly, recalls to my mind Dürer, who in a single precisely drawn line could express more than most artists could in an entire canvas painted with oils; and there is in James’ The Golden Bowl the subtlest and most delicate of shading from one microtone to another, with never a hint of a containing outline. I find myself unable to go much further beyond this, but at least the whole exercise has made me return to the woodcuts of Dürer with a renewed wonder and awe. And that can’t be a bad thing.
So here, to finish with, is Dürer’s woodcut Melancolia. And yes, however he achieved it, however one defines it, there is shading in here. It’s a miracle booth of technique, and of artistic vision.
[Ps Please note, Melancolia is an engraving, and not a woodcut, as I was careless enough to have stated above. Please see comments below.]