Friday, June 24, 2011

What People Look Like

Wow. I thought I'd finished this subject, but look what Balzac can do with what someone looks like. We're introduced, as the story begins, to Michu, who is cleaning is gun, but not casually,
 A huntsman does not take such minute precautions with his weapon to kill small game, neither does he use, in the department of the Aube, a heavy rifled carbine.
No, Michu is not to be taken causally, In fact, as Balzac points out,
There is such a thing as prophetic physiognomy. If it were possible (and such a vital statistic would be of value to society) to obtain exact likenesses of those who perish on the scaffold, the science of Lavatar and also that of Gall would prove unmistakably that the heads of all such persons, even those who are innocent, show prophetic signs. Yes, fate sets its mark on the faces of those who are doomed to die a violent death of any kind.
So he's committed himself, more than a little, to prove his case of prophetic physiognomy. And boy, does he ever.
Now, this sign, this seal, visible to the eye of an observer, was imprinted on the expressive face of the man with the rifled carbine. Short and stout, abrupt and active in his motions as a monkey, though calm in temperament, Michu had a white face injected with blood, and features set close together like those of a Tartar,--a likeness to which his crinkled red hair conveyed a sinister expression. His eyes, clear and yellow as those of a tiger, showed depths behind them in which the glance of whoever examined the man might lose itself and never find either warmth or motion. Fixed, luminous, and rigid, those eyes terrified whoever gazed into them. The singular contrast between the immobility of the eyes and the activity of the body increased the chilling impression conveyed by a first sight of Michu. Action, always prompt in this man, was the outcome of a single thought; just as the life of animals is, without reflection, the outcome of instinct. Since 1793 he had trimmed his red beard to the shape of a fan. Even if he had not been (as he was during the Terror) president of a club of Jacobins, this peculiarity of his head would in itself have made him terrible to behold. His Socratic face with its blunt nose was surmounted by a fine forehead, so projecting, however, that it overhung the rest of the features. The ears, well detached from the head, had the sort of mobility which we find in those of wild animals, which are ever on the qui-vive. The mouth, half-open, as the custom usually is among country-people, showed teeth that were strong and white as almonds, but irregular. Gleaming red whiskers framed this face, which was white and yet mottled in spots. The hair, cropped close in front and allowed to grow long at the sides and on the back of the head, brought into relief, by its savage redness, all the strange and fateful peculiarities of this singular face. The neck which was short and thick, seemed to tempt the axe.
Believe in prophetic physiognomy now?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What people look like

Still with John Dickson Carr, and finally we are introduced to the great man himself, Sir Henry Merrivale. Since this is, I believe, the first book in this series, and we'll certainly be seeing more of HM, you might think we'd get a full description, but no, we only see his face in action, or inaction, since his face rarely changes We're told that expression, No matter what his mood is. We're told that it's big, wrinkled, impassive, and that his rarely-changing expression involves turned- down corners of his broad mouth, making him look as though he has just swallowed a bad breakfast egg.

That's pretty much it for description until, a good deal later in the book, we meet Mrs. Sweeney.

Mrs. Sweeney was a large woman, with a heavy face which seemed to come sailing at us as she got up from her seat by the small round table in this waxy best-parlor. She was not ill-featured; she resembled one of those old ladies who sit and knit in boarding-houses, but larger, harder, and more archly cunning. Her grayish hair was folded into buns over her ears. She wore the black coat “with black feathers”; and a rimless pince-nez attached by a gold chain. This last she twitched off with a gesture which tried to indicate that she had been improving her time by studying the Bible on the center-table.

“So!” said Mrs. Sweeney. Her dark eyebrows went up. She lifted the pince-nez slightly to one side of her eyes, as though she had been removing a mask, and rasped accusingly:

We also learn that she has an ample bust, because she shakes it "rather as though she were dislodging worldly cares; but it was a gesture curiously like that performed by the chorus in a musical comedy."
This is all excellent description, and certainly fixes Mr. Sweeney in one's mind, but why? She's a minor, tangential character, and as I was marking descriptions of faces in my Kindle copy, I asked myself exactly that question.

Of course -- and here comes a three-quarters-of-a-century-later spoiler alert -- if I were a better detective story reader, I would have known the answer instantly-- what if she's not a minor character? What if she is, in reality, the mysterious, shadowy second wife of the murdered Darworth????

She isn't, as it turns out, so even the better detective story reader than me can be fooled.
But there you have it. Why does a novelist use a few broad brushstrokes for his main character, and bring painstaking to bear on a minor character? It ain't just carelessness.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What people look like

The Girl -- you have to describe her, because she's Young Halliday's love interest, and she's in danger, and young Halliday has been telling Blake about her pretty much since the start of the book. We first see her in a moment of high tension -- as Blake and Halliday step into the room,

"Marion Latimer stayed motionless, a tense figure in the candlelight; and the Shadow seemed to tremble at her feet. She had that thin, classic, rather cold type of beauty which makes face and body seem almost angular. Her hair was set in dark-gold waves next to the somewhat long head; her eyes were dark blue, glazed now with a preoccupied and somehow disturbing quality; the nose short, the mouth sensitive and determined."

Buried in that paragraph is a description that young tad could have written. Dark - gold waves of hair, a short nose, dark blue eye, a mouth.But there's more, isn't there? First of all, this is certainly Blake's dispassionate description, not that of an ardent young swain. More than that, she is at this point still a potential suspect in the murder that has yet to be committed, so we get the suspicious descriptive phrases -- the cold beauty, the disturbing quality to the eyes -- as well as the reassuring ones -- the sensitive and determined mouth. The point is, Carr wants us to fix her -- not so much the blue eyes, gold hair and short nose as her -- so he lingers over her introduction. In fact, he goes on longer --

"She stood there crookedly, almost as though she were lame. One hand was thrust deep into the pocket of The brown tweed coat wrapped around her thin body; as she watched us, the other hand left the window sill and pulled the collar close round her neck. They were fine, thin, wiry hands."

In the same scene, we next meet Halliday's aunt, who, like Marion, has been falling under the spell of the enigmatic charlatan Darworth, and like her, will fall under suspicion For Darworth's murder (I warned you there'd be spoilers). We see the aunt's white hair, her face like a wax flower -- which is wonderfully descriptive but wouldn't help you pick her out a lineup. We learn that her eyes were gentle -- and hard. Again, a description that could suggest her as innocent -- or guilty. Mostly, though, Carr refers us to "people who are supposed to look like eighteenth century marquises by Watteau. Lady Anne Bennington looked like a thoroughly modern, sharp-witted old lady got up to resemble one. Besides, her nose was too large."

You can say someone looks like a Watteau (or like a Dali, but that would be weirder), or that someone looks like John Cusack or Annette Bening, but you can't do it too often, because it's kinda cheating, and it signals to the reader that you're really not very good at this sort of thing. Like Carr, put it in a context, and like Carr, don't do it too much.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What people look like

On my free Kindle reading jag, I've also reconnected with John Dickson Carr, great mystery novelist of an earlier generation and master of the locked room puzzle. But even if the corpse is found in an impregnable room, locked from the inside, there are still people outside the room, and they all have to look some way or other. Or at least some of them do. In The Plague Court Murders, young Halliday, who calls the narrator in to consult on the mystery, has no trace of humor in his low chin, high forehead, and high-muscled jaws. I'm not exactly sure what young Halliday looks like, given that, but at least I know something of his state of mind. And I guess he's sort of handsome and aristocratic--more so than if he had a low forehead. The narrator, Blake, and young Halliday go to see Masters of Scotland Yard, who has a bland, shrewd face, And grizzled hair combed carefully to hide the bald spot.
This is pretty good stuff -- a face that's both bland and shrewd, certainly an asset to a cop. But a little vanity to balance his blandness (and portliness). Blake continues, "His Jaw looked heavier and his expression older since I had last seen him -- but his eyes were young." Carr is now two for two on jaws, or two more jaw descriptions than young Tad would have thought of. And we really are starting to get a sense of Masters. Here's the rest:

Masters suggests the Force, though only slightly: something in the clump of his walk, the way his eyes go sharply from face to face, but there is none of the peering sourness We associate with Public Protectors.

This, of course, is not the Force you get from Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi; Blake merely means that Masters looks sort of, but not overbearingly, like a cop. There are two good description gambits here: describe through action (the eyes that go sharply from face to face), and describe people in terms of what they don't look like -- in this case, a typical cop. But to come with a phrase like "peering sourness" you just have to be really good.

Anyway, Masters looks enough like a cop to inspire confidence, but not so much as to be a stereotype. In fact, Halliday immediately unbends and feels at ease before his practical solidity. But Carr has laid some nice groundwork here -- Masters is enough of a typical cop to be thoroughly baffled by a thoroughly baffling case, which means his clumping practical solidity will have to give way to the unorthodox genius of Sir Henry Merrivale.

But more about Sir Henry later.

As we go on, there may be some spoilers, which may not be a serious issue considering that this is a nearly 80-year-old book, but on the other hand, if you're just getting.a kindle, it's free, and it's good, so why not give it a read? In which case, watch out for spoilers.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011



I'll continue with my blather about what people look like presently, but a small digression to discuss something else about Middlemarch -- a very cool conceit that I haven't exactly seen before: the unreliable omniscient narrator. In Middlemarch, the narrator is constantly misconstruing the motives or reactions of her reader, is unclear or just plain wrong about the motivations of her characters, and is frequently guilty of passing judgments that turn out to be wrong. This is downright masterful, and I'm loving it.