One way of appreciating the style of a writer is to consider what they have not written. Just as we may judge a scene for its content, we may also judge a scene for what has been omitted and the power that comes from the absence of information. For this I have to think of chapter five of The Great Gatsby in which the narrator Nick Carraway hosts the first meeting in five years between Daisy and Jay Gatsby.
The task for Fitzgerald was no easy one. You may try it for yourself if you’d like: two characters–ex-lovers parted on uncertain terms– meet after a five year separation. The arrangement is such that the woman does not know she is going to meet the man. By the end of the scene, their relationship must be rekindled.
What would you write here? Certainly, you can not have the couple meet and immediately going running into their arms. No, there must be a warming by degrees. And those first early movements must be as unsure as the first steps of a child. But let me add another obstruction: It must be written in first person and the narrator must not be one of the lovers. That is, he must bear witness to this rekindling. And by the way, it must happen in one moment of time–an afternoon, an evening, a day–but not over a period of weeks. No pauses!
This task is difficult enough for one to avoid the whole scene altogether. “Just let them fall in love off-stage,” you may say. “Derive the plot so that it is possible that they just become lovers. This is the omission of writing. And writers who avoid the truly difficult scenes are never the good ones. They are the writers who have cleverly figured out how to avoid writing. Likely, you have never read one of these fellows because they are not often published. Their work reads like a dull litany of unimportant situations, punctuated by unreasonable plot shifts.
Gatsby is a much better novel than that.
She turned her head as there was a light dignified knocking at the front door. I went out and opened it. Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes.
With his hands still in his coat pockets he stalked by me into the hall, turned sharply as if he were on a wire, and disappeared into the living-room. It wasn’t a bit funny. Aware of the loud beating of my own heart I pulled the door to against the increasing rain.
For half a minute there wasn’t a sound. Then from the living-room I heard a sort of choking murmur and part of a laugh, followed by Daisy’s voice on a clear artificial note: “I certainly am awfully glad to see you again.”
With a few, well-chosen details the tension is already spun up. But at this rate, to read/write the myriad of silences, facial ticks, pointless dialogue, that would have to take place before Gatsby and Daisy warmed up would be painful. No, this is the writing that should be omitted. And it is:
He raised his hand to stop my words, looked at me with unforgettable reproach, and, opening the door cautiously, went back into the other room.
I walked out the back way — just as Gatsby had when he had made his nervous circuit of the house half an hour before — and ran for a huge black knotted tree, whose massed leaves made a fabric against the rain….
After half an hour, the sun shone again, and the grocer’s automobile rounded Gatsby’s drive with the raw material for his servants’ dinner… It was time I went back. While the rain continued it had seemed like the murmur of their voices, rising and swelling a little now and then with gusts of emotion. But in the new silence I felt that silence had fallen within the house too.
I went in — after making every possible noise in the kitchen, short of pushing over the stove —
This is an abbreviation of the full passage, which appropriately conveys the passage of time. It is followed by a change in the atmosphere. Instead of tension, there is lightness, a swift change of setting to Gatsby’s house, followed by one aside after another. Throughout, Nick is trying to get away. He doesn’t belong there. Finally,
As I watched him he adjusted himself a little, visibly. His hand took hold of hers, and as she said something low in his ear he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn’t be over-dreamed — that voice was a deathless song.
They had forgotten me, but Daisy glanced up and held out her hand; Gatsby didn’t know me now at all. I looked once more at them and they looked back at me, remotely, possessed by intense life. Then I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together.
What is left unwritten, is that which should always remain unseen.
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