Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pared to the Bone
Brief observations on the stylistic development of Jack Vance

Ryan David Jahn linked to a fascinating piece over at Guns and Verbs which hypothesised that Agatha Christie was suffering from Alzheimers in her later years, based on clues from her later published work. In her late 70s, Christie's work showed a marked reduction in vocabulary, use of specific language and sentence complexity. (A similar analysis reached the same conclusions on Iris Murdoch's work).

It occcured to me that Christie was an ideal subject for this kind of exercise. Over the main body of her career she exhibits almost no stylistic development, so any changes to her work are more likely to arise from "organic" variation.

If one were to carry out the same analysis on Jack Vance the results would not be reliable because of his considerable stylistic evolution. For a writer whose reputation is for the baroque, his mature work shows considerable restraint: his language over time becomes, like late Christie, simpler, his syntax more pared.

We can see this by looking at the novella 'Guyal of Sfere,' originally published in 1950 (though probably written in the mid-40s) and then materially revised for anthology publication in 1968. The scope of the revision is enormous.

Detailed comparison of the 1950 and 1968 texts reveals in full contrast the differences between the lush, almost hypnotic early style and the more measured, detached control of the middle period. ‘Revision’ is too restrained a word for the way in which Vance has modified ‘Guyal of Sfere’. The later version is nearly one-sixth shorter, and the emotional tone of the piece markedly cooler.

Some of the changes are simply tightening up on perceived verbosity, as in the first sentence:

Guyal of Sfere had been born one apart from his fellows and early proved a source of vexation for his sire.

…the trivial and useless had been discarded, leaving a residue which was all that was necessary to a sound man. (1950)

…the trivial and useless had been discarded, leaving only that residue necessary to a sound man. (1968)

In other cases, supporting detail judged unnecessary to the story is suppressed. Perhaps most often, metaphorical imagery is judged unnecessary and struck from the record.

The sun, old and red as an autumn pomegranate, wallowed in the south-west; the light across the plain was dim and watery; the mountains presented a curiously artificial aspect, like a tableau planned for the effect of eery desolation. (1950)

The sun wallowed in the southwest; the light across the plain was dim and watery. (1968)

The reader may ask the question: “Have these revisions improved the story?” It’s perhaps not as straightforward as that: the later version of the story is not so much better or worse, as different. The revision is lean, spare, the work of a writer who has ruthlessly pared down his method, leaving behind the excesses of youth. The seasoned reader, who will find the middle period Vance every bit as evocative as his earlier work, will marvel at how he achieves the same effects with so much greater economy.
Enhanced by Zemanta


David Isaak said...

Fascinating. It's always interesting to see what a writer strikes out during immediate revision, but seeing what a writer strikes out from long-published work is more telling.

Though I can't say I ever much objected to Vancian prose overgrowths, which are usually both evocative and just plain fun, he has just as often startled me with something simple and direct. I recall that somewhere in the Lyonesse trilogy he refers to the muddy soil of the countryside somewhere as "sour," and that was all that was needed.

Tim Stretton said...

It's interesting to see how comprehensively Vance reinvented himself. His reputation for the baroque rests entirely on The Dying Earth - from the early 50s you can see him tightening up.

I think the metamorphosis was hastened by the fate of Big Planet, originally 200,000 words at a time when novels of that length didn't sell. He had to throw three-quarters of it away to get it published. By the time of To Live Forever, very soon after, the mature Vance has emerged: cool, poiesed, ironic and surprisingly minimalistic.