Thursday, 31 May 2007

On the Simile and Metaphor

I have just stared to read Victor Pelevin, The Clay Machine Gun, he being someone of whom I have never heard despite the fact that his book was short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize. (Why on earth I should know what books are short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize I have no idea but, nonetheless, I feel qualms of guilt.)

Pelevin, according to the notes, is hugely popular in Russia and, to quote the New York Times Magazine, is ‘a genuinely popular serious writer’.

However, to get to the meat of the matter, the tropes that have suggested this piece are my friend Stuart’s favourite bugbears, the metaphor and simile.

In chapter one, Pelevin writes: ‘there was the same grey sky like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping God’.

A witty description most would agree, even Stuart, but what does it add, I wondered, to my understanding of the state of the heavens? Surely it is sufficient to describe the sky as grey, a state recognisable wherever one lives?
To be fair to Stuart, his objections to the metaphor and simile are not to them as tropes per se but to there misuse either through overuse or their inappropriateness. So, to return to the simile in question, does it fall into either of these categories? For obvious reasons, a single simile cannot be classified as being overused in terms of one of too many, so does it fall into the second category?

While it would have been sufficient to have left the description of the sky as grey, the addition of the simile adds a quality, not necessarily to my understanding of the state of the sky, but to my understanding, if you like, of the climatic conditions of the novel.

I am in a place where an absolute being apparently makes himself comfortable on a lumpy grey mass of water vapour thus threatening to crush the perfection of his creation. This is obviously a place that is subject to a fine precipitation of irreverence and gusts of mockery. (Pelevin is not the only one permitted to indulge in metaphorical whimsy.)

What is the conclusion to these rather trite observations? Only this, that one function of the metaphor or simile in the novel is to create an ambience for the whole, and that, judiciously used, it acts like the music track to a film in helping to underline qualities of the narrative that are best dramatised obliquely than through direct description.


Zinnia Cyclamen said...

And that's the most useful simile of the lot - the one about metaphor/simile being like a music track in helping to underline narrative qualities that are best dramatised obliquely. Thank you, David; that articulation is going to be very helpful for my third draft.

Stuart and Gabrielle said...

I am Stuart
(friend of David). I am like a person who really doesn’t like an inappropriate, misused, overplayed or forced metaphor and even more like a person who dislikes a clich√© when, in my opinion, the writer, with a bit more effort, could have discovered an original way of conveying his/her point, metaphorically that is, to give me a real insight into the thought, the feeling, the emotion they wish to convey.
John Motson is a football commentator who, in my opinion, annoyingly talks too much. Barrie Davies, is another football commentator, now sadly retired, who talked less than Motson. He knew when actions on the pitch spoke louder than words and when a pause, a measured silence even, allowed the action on the pitch to speak for itself. It is sometimes like that when one is reading a book: the description of the scene, the tale unfolding, is, in itself, sufficient to convey to the most introvert and wordly inexperienced of readers the essence of what’s occurring and the nuances of the event … without a bloody unnecessary simile!
When I read some books, I can almost hear the creative writing course instructor’s words, saying something like “describe smells and sounds” and “liken it to something”. The end result is a succession of sentences, each one containing a simile and it becomes, to my taste, quickly wearing and—getting less tolerant as I grow older—has forced me to put down the odd book and thus pronounce it as unreadable. In my estimation, one quickly knows when one is in the presence of writerly genius and one doesn’t notice a simile per se, but remarks on a frisson of excitement bought about by a rare and revealing clarity of understanding.
I do like Pelevin’s simile that David refers to but I find Chocolat by Joanne Harris just the worst example of what I hate about the overuse of unnecessary similes. But, what do I know? she’s a hugely successful writer. And I also agree with Zinnia’s praise (see comment above) of David’s closing simile. And lastly, have a look, listen or read of the latter Blackadder comedies written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton for a complete deconstruction of the simile.

liz fenwick said...

Having lived in Russia all I can say is it is so Russian........