A PROSE SAMPLE.

There’s no point making a quiz of this, because all you have to do is google a phrase to get the answer, but you might want to ponder this short passage by an acknowledged master of English prose and see if you can guess the author; I’ll post the answer in the comments, so don’t read them if you don’t want to know yet.

In the shrubberies birds called sleepily. From somewhere out across the fields there came the faint tinkling of sheep-bells. The lake shone like old silver, and there was a river in the distance, dull grey between the dull green of the trees.
It was a lovely sight, age-old, orderly and English, but it was spoiled by the sky. The sky was overcast and looked bruised. It seemed to be made of dough, and one could fancy it pressing down on the world like a heavy blanket. And it was muttering to itself. A single heavy drop of rain splashed on the stone beside Sue, and there was a low growl far away as if some powerful and unfriendly beast had spied her.
She shivered. She had been gripped by a sudden depression, a strange foreboding that chilled the spirit. That muttering seemed to say that there was no happiness anywhere and never could be any. The air was growing close and clammy.

Comments

  1. It’s from section II of the tenth chapter of Summer Lightning, by P.G. Wodehouse. Not his usual chipper farce.

  2. matti keltanen says:

    damn, would not have thought wodehouse. a nice piece of business though.

  3. I knew it. It’s a different tone from anything that you find in the Jeeves-Wooster stories (which I’ve read a million times), but I knew it. Some of his other stuff has this sentimental sort of lightly serious quality. (And you did mention that you were reading Blandings books to your wife these days. And I did remember that there was a spunky heart-of-gold character named Sue somewhere in the oeuvre.)

  4. “It was a lovely sight, age-old, orderly and English, but it was spoiled by the sky. The sky was overcast and looked bruised.”: this kind of shock transition reminds me a bit of Hardy – not the choice of words, but the descriptive jolt. I’m just now reading The Return of the Native.

  5. Clearly the Master. His style is recognisable even when he’s being a bit more serious than usual.
    Grumbly Stu
    Absolutely. The first page or so of Return of the Native is a masterpiece of expressionist (or sth) descriptive style. Thanks for reminding me.

  6. As someone struggling with my third novel (all as yet unpublished) I have to admit to a jolt of unease when I encountered a sky made of dough, and one could fancy it pressing down on the world like a heavy blanket.
    It is a very awkward mixed metaphot to my ear.
    But in general I bow before a master stylist.

  7. Perhaps the unpublished part is a result of my spelling…metaphor
    of course.

  8. Metaphor

  9. I don’t think it’s a mixed metaphor, because you can blanket things in dough. Dumplings come to mind, or the top of a pie (pastry is just a specialised dough).

  10. bruessel says:

    It certainly made me want to read more. So I’m pleased to find it’s from a book I actually own, but haven’t opened in a long time. I do know where it is though, which can’t be said for all my books.

  11. dearieme says:

    “close and clammy” is clumsy, as if he’s explaining to people who don’t know what is meant by saying that the weather is “close” that it means that it’s clammy. It makes me wonder whether “close” is unfamiliar in the US. Is it?

  12. dearieme says:

    “..by the sky. The sky was..”: also clumsy.

  13. John Emerson says:

    Hardy was my guess too, though it didn’t seem quite right.

  14. Carol Sandstrom says:

    Terry Pratchett has picked up a trick or two from this style.

  15. Carol Sandstrom says:

    As an American, “close” means “stuffy” (as in a poorly-aired room) to me. I don’t think I’d ever say it out loud, though, it’s a literary usage to me.

  16. Seconding to say that I would not have thought close and clammy symonyms. The later evokes the sensation of something lightly coated in a cold sweat; it’s more common for something close to be hot, although perhaps people from damper countries may have a different impression.

  17. When I read it I thought it was from someone trying to imitate D.H. Lawrence.

  18. dearieme says:

    “close” in Britain is used of warm, humid weather in summer – the sort of day that might bring a thunderstorm. When it’s close, you might feel “clammy”, though we’re more likely to say “sweaty”. The use of “close” is vernacular – not at all literary.

  19. “The use of “close” is vernacular – not at all literary.”
    D, it’s vernacular in the UK but it sounds literary in the US. There are lots of examples of this, where what is a perfectly vernacular usage in the UK is quite stilted in the US, and used only for effect, usually ironic or comical.

  20. I thought it was Hardy (The Woodlanders), but, then, I don’t know Wodehouse very well.

  21. I admit I also thought it was Hardy (only place I could recall a character called Sue at short notice). Wodehouse wrote some interesting stuff; his Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court – a comic but rather Lovecraftian story about a couple of gentle poets who are infected with lust for hunting by a malign house – got into The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1952.

  22. More food in the sky by Wodehouse:
    “I remember Mrs. Bingo Little once telling me, shortly after their marriage, that Bingo said poetic things to her about sunsets–his best friends being perfectly well aware, of course, that the old egg never noticed a sunset in his life, and that, if he did by a fluke ever happen to do so, the only thing he would say about it would be that it reminded him of a slice of roast beef, cooked just right.”

  23. For those folks who don’t have Hardy to hand, here’s a passage from the second page of The Return of The Native. The subject is Egdon Heath:

    It was a spot which returned upon the memory of those who loved it with an aspect of peculiar and kindly congruity. Smiling champaigns of flowers and fruits hardly do this, for they are permanently harmonious only with an existence of better reputation as to its issues than the present. Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve a thing majestic with severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity. The qualifications which frequently invest the facade of a prison with far more dignity than is found in the facade of a palace double its size lent to this heath a sublimity in which spots renowned for beauty of the accepted kind are utterly wanting. Fair prospects wed happily with fair times; but alas, if times be not fair ! Men have oftener suffered from the mockery of a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of surroundings oversadly tinged. Haggard Egdon appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called charming and fair.

  24. Which displays, I think, how – at least in matters purely of style – Wodehouse is much the greater writer, even when he’s on Hardy’s territory.

  25. …birds called sleepily.
    This I’ve never heard.
    I am quite surprised it’s Wodehouse. He’s using the pathetic fallacy. I like the dough clouds (not so much the blankets) except that dough seems to absorb light while clouds reflect it. Ø’s roast-beef sunset shows Wodehouse’s continued interest in food skies; they’re like Magritte’s baguette clouds, only much heavier.

  26. Wodehouse is much the greater writer
    Oh puh-leeze ! Adolescents worry about which writers have the greatest pens – they haven’t yet learned what technique is, you see. An adult can appreciate Hardy’s technique and Wodehouse’s technique without insidious comparison.

  27. I immediately thought the pathetic fallacy
    until I checked the definitions (one has to be careful in this common room). I had always assumed that it meant that a character’s mood resonated with the weather: as in: It is overcast I am depressed. Or It is sunny I am cheerful.
    However my desktop research tells me that, if we go back to Ruskin, the pathetic fallacy is not concerned with the human response to a natural event but, conversely the apparent expression of human mood or emotion (or motivation) by a natural object (the wicked wind, the sullen sky, the joyful spring).
    I have to say this is a surprise.

  28. I thought the pathetic fallacy only applied to inanimate objects. Surely birds can be sleepy?

  29. The pathetic fallacy is the storm clouds, nothing to do with the birds.
    New paragraph. Birds can be sleepy, but how do you tell when they’re calling sleepily?

  30. dearieme says:

    “how do you tell when they’re calling sleepily?”
    They mutter.

  31. The mutter and child reunion
    Is only emotion away.

  32. Back in adolescence – how very unpleasant!
    Actually it is a valuable and satisfying part of adulthood to be able to distinguish (in ones opinion) the mediocre from the good and the good from the better – so long as that doesn’t lead to being snotty nosed about the mediocre, or overly clever about the better.
    I think there is a range of flavour in Fuller’s London Pride that is missing in John Smith’s Bitter; I seem to remember Players No 3 untipped didn’t take the back of your thoat off like Woodbine Filter Tip; I know no England batsman can match Sachin Tendulkar for his combination of grace and aggression. All a question of technique, and good things to know.

  33. For reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, I want to mention the Wodehouse line:
    “As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps… the clan has a tendency to ignore me.”
    Angry aunts, sleepy birds, …

  34. That reminds me that during the last week I have twice seen the word Architect spelt in the middle of a sentence with a capital A, sort of like God. I think one was in the NY Times, what’s going on? I suppose you’ll want links, but I’ve forgotten.

  35. I wouldn’t have guessed. Thank you for the puzzle!

  36. Back in adolescence – how very unpleasant!
    Ain’t it the truth ! Many people yearn to be young again. They exercise at gyms and get facelifted as a means to that end. I don’t understand it. Once was OK, but twice ? And that desiderated second time as an artefact of taxidermy ??

  37. Perhaps it’s an example of the hedonistic consumerism of Western societies. Slotderdijk says that people in these societies are consumers of themselves – in this case having their past and eating it too.

  38. Sloterdijk

  39. Well, once was OK I suppose, although mostly I remember being almost permanently embarrassed. Imagine the embarrassment of being a faux adolescent. And not only for oneself, but for innocent bystanders. My children find me quite embarrassing enough as it is.

  40. I’m smug enough to say I knew at once from “In the shrubberies birds called sleepily” that it must be Wodehouse – I don’t believe there’s another writer in English capable of writing that line. Summer Lightning is one Wodehouse book I’ve never read, though I’ve drunk the beer named after the story plenty of times – better than John Smith’s, Picky, and at least as good as London Pride.

  41. Well done, Zytho! And you must certainly read Summer Lightning; no Wodehouse fan should be without it.

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