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Thread: Best prose stylists in English literature?

  1. #1

    Best prose stylists in English literature?

    I don't mind suggestions like Bertrand Russell, but I'm mainly interested in fiction writers.

  2. #2
    blasphemer DisPater's Avatar
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    Vladimir Nabokov (considering the fact that his primary language was Russian)
    Last edited by DisPater; 06-27-2010 at 06:37 AM.
    the main idea with the books is that there are too many not worthy to be read.

  3. #3
    Thanks!

    Yes, Joyce and Nabokov are among the more obvious choices. Anyone else?

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    Well, Wilde has beautiful prose.

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    Card-carrying Medievalist Lokasenna's Avatar
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    There are also some really good stylists who don't immediately leap to mind - I've always been rather taken with Mary Wollstonecraft. Here is her rather fantastic description of a waterfall:

    "The impetuous dashing of the rebounding torrent from the dark cavities which mocked the exploring eye, produced an equal activity in my mind: my thoughts darted from earth to heaven, and I asked myself why I was chained to life and its misery? Still the tumultuous emotions this sublime object excited, were pleasurable; and, viewing it, my soul rose, with renewed dignity, above its cares - grasping at immortality - it seemed as impossible to stop the current of my thoughts, as of the always varying, still the same, torrent before me - I stretched out my hand to eternity, bounding over the dark speck of life to come."

    From A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
    "I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity- through him all things fall. Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity!" - Nietzsche

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by DisPater View Post
    Vladimir Nabokov (considering the fact that his primary language was Russian)
    Nabokov spoke english practically from birth, not to undercut the achievement, but if it were a starting point for comparison one might be inclined to rank Conrad (who taught himself english ((on a boat)) at 20+) higher. Regardless, i actually think i agree with you.

    my preferences would be something like (sorry, all obvious choices - except joyce, dislike him with a passion)

    nabokov, fitzgerald, conrad, dickens, melville, mccarthy.

  7. #7
    Though his creative vision frequently engendered cliche and gibberish, Joyce can make most everyone seem second-rate. This, for example, from Portrait:

    The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

    I'm also a big fan of Bellow, who, for mine, can lay claim to one of the most singular and compelling styles of post-WWII novelists. Herzog, in particular, is a prose masterpiece. This from more or less at random*:

    I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And then? I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And what next? I get laid, I take a short holiday, but very soon after I fall upon those same thorns with gratification in pain, or suffering in joy - who knows what the mixture is! What good, what lasting good is there in me? Is there nothing else between birth and death but what I can get out of this perversity - only a favorable balance of disorderly emotions? No freedom? Only impulses? And what about all the good I have in my heart - does it mean anything? Is it simply a joke? A false hope that makes a man feel the illusion of worth? And so he goes on with his struggles. But this good is no phony. I know it isn't. I swear it.

    Conrad and Nabokov aren't half bad either.

    *More or less because I've underlined it heavily and repeatedly.
    Last edited by sixsmith; 06-27-2010 at 09:01 AM.
    'Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.' - Groucho Marx

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    I admire Nabokov's brilliant intellect and his endless imagination, but I find him a difficult writer to love. He takes his gifts and uses them to make games, to tease the reader, almost as though he enjoys proving himself more clever than his audience. I get the impression from his prose that he writes, primarily, to show off.

    I prefer Conrad. His prose is wonderful and he uses it to a more noble purpose than Nabokov, I think. Conrad simply tells his stories as well and as truthfully as he can, with no trickery and no vanity - or, if he is guilty of vanity, he covers it well enough that I forgive him.

    I think Kipling, at his best, is brilliant. He didn't revise enough, it seems to me, but he's electrifying just the same. My father used to read his Just So Stories to me when I was very young, and that was the first prose that I ever appreciated just for its sound. I still he my father's voice talking about "the great gray-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees ..."

    Joyce is astonishing. Too bad he was so difficult. Still, I find myself reading some of his passages over and over. There's a description in Ulysses of a drowned man being brought into a boat: "Hauled stark over the gunwale he breathes upward the stench of his green grave, his leprous nosehole snoring to the sun."

    Anthony Burgess is also wonderful, though he may be a bit too influenced by Joyce.

    T.C. Boyle is worth checking out, though I find him a bit annoying because he seems to despise his own characters; they're jokes to him, and it's as if he only writes to poke fun at them.

    Martin Amis is good, too, but I think he follows Nabokov the way Burgess follows Joyce.

    Funny that nobody has mentioned Hemingway yet. I guess the twentieth century's most influential stylist isn't ranked very highly these days.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by minstrelbard View Post
    I admire Nabokov's brilliant intellect and his endless imagination, but I find him a difficult writer to love. He takes his gifts and uses them to make games, to tease the reader, almost as though he enjoys proving himself more clever than his audience. I get the impression from his prose that he writes, primarily, to show off.
    I think there is a lot to this, but i think that's also why so many people love him - i know for a fact it is why i admire him.

    What i disagree with is that he did any teasing in a way to show off his superiority. I think it was a testament to the respect and admiration he had for readers. His novels double as games, and the right solutions offer incredible insight to the reader, not only into life, but into the mind of the author. As a writer, and a person - i think he is far more difficult and rewarding than nearly anyone (especially Joyce). He's like the robert frost of literature, so seemingly simple at times, so mystifying in totality.

    Don't forget that he was a pimp-*** chess player who spent a great deal of time creating complexasfuk problems for people to figure out. The key there being, to figure out - not to stump.

    Quote Originally Posted by minstrelbard View Post
    Funny that nobody has mentioned Hemingway yet. I guess the twentieth century's most influential stylist isn't ranked very highly these days.
    Yeah, but this is a thread about prose?

  10. #10
    rat in a strange garret Whifflingpin's Avatar
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    Gibbon
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    Whifflingpin! Why stayest thou here?

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    Registered User Desolation's Avatar
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    James Joyce, definitely.

    Second, for me (and I doubt anyone will agree) is Henry Miller.

    I don't really understand the hype around Hemingway. I've tried reading The Sun Also Rises 3 times and have never made it past page 30. His prose seems incredibly mundane to me. Maybe that's part of the intrigue.

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    Yes, Gibbon... Johnson, Robert Burton, Izaak Walton, Thomas De Quincey, Emerson, William James...
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    Most consistently good prose stylist or best, in sustained bursts? I'd probably nominate Evelyn Waugh for the first and Hardy for the second (I'm trying to avoid a few obvious choices). I'm a pretty serious Christian and bits of Tess of D'urbervilles knock me off my feet. "Inside this exterior, over which the eye might have roved as over a thing scarcely percipient, almost inorganic, there was the record of a pulsing life which had learnt too well, for its years, of the dust and ashes of things, of the cruelty of lust and the fragility of love."
    Or:

    "You will think of us when you be his wife, Tess, and of how we told 'ee that we loved him, and how we tried not to hate you, and did not hate you, and could not hate you, because you were his choice, and we never hoped to be chose by him."
    Or:

    "But, might some say, where was Tess's guardian angel? where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

    Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order."


    Of course, Hardy's tragic sense occasionally leads him to write wordy clunkers, but he's capable of almost unmatched sublimity.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Desolation View Post
    I don't really understand the hype around Hemingway. I've tried reading The Sun Also Rises 3 times and have never made it past page 30. His prose seems incredibly mundane to me. Maybe that's part of the intrigue.
    I actually appreciate Hemingway more for his narrative technique than his style, and by that I mean how he structures scenes, how he uses flashbacks, and so on. He makes fairly complex technical challenges look deceptively simple. When I have a problem figuring something out in my own writing I sometimes look to Hemingway to see how my problems might be solved.

    Personally, I find The Sun Also Rises the most boring of the books of his that I've read, and the only one I've never wanted to re-read. Try his short stories, or A Farewell To Arms, or (my favorite) For Whom The Bell Tolls.

  15. #15
    Nabokov, or maybe Fitzgerald.

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