Paul Johnson

It’s not what you put in but what you leave out that matters

It’s not what you put in but what you leave out that matters

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In the art of writing, one of the central problems is what to put in and what to leave out. In the past, I have always been one for putting in. I felt myself full of good things I did not want the reader to miss. So my books got longer and longer. This gigantism spent itself, and from the gross satisfaction of putting everything in I turned to the more delicate pleasure of deciding what to leave out. I discovered I could write down everything a reasonable person needed to know about the Renaissance in 40,000 words, and I have since done Napoleon and Washington at the same length. It has proved to be great fun.

It is one thing, however, to leave out material for reasons of space, bulk, balance and other physical causes, quite another to leave out for reasons of art. That is one of the great mysteries and problems — and delights — of creation. One great artist who knows exactly what to leave out and what to put in is Jane Austen. When I went up to Oxford I had read only Pride and Prejudice, and thought it quite good, but had no present plans to move further into her oeuvre. Then, through the good offices of my sister, a don at St Anne’s, I was invited to have tea — I am not sure it was not ‘to take tea’ — with Miss Mary Lascelles at Somerville. Miss Lascelles was from a grand Yorkshire family and most particular about manners, and I went with some trepidation. She was also a woman of remarkable sensibilities and acute intelligence. A few years before, in 1939, she had published a striking work, Jane Austen and Her Art, which more than 60 years later is still the best book written on the subject. One reason for this is that Miss Lascelles, like Jane Austen, was a lady, and therefore perceived certain hesitations, reticences, lacunae and other subtleties which, say, a Bloomsbury or Maida Vale bluestocking, or an American female professor, no matter how clever, will not catch. Over the Lapsang Souchong and Fuller’s walnut cake (which then still existed; its extinction is one of the minor tragedies of my lifetime), Miss Lascelles soon got down to business, and there was only one business in her life. ‘Have you read all the novels, or just some, and if so, which?’ I confessed, only Pride and Prejudice. ‘Ah yes. The funniest, perhaps — the author herself said so, but not by any means the best.’ She then conjured me most earnestly to make myself master of Jane Austen’s entire slender output at the earliest possible opportunity. ‘Because, you know, a thorough familiarity with Jane Austen’s work is the greatest passport to human happiness in the world that I know, and the richest gift of divine providence. And the earlier you acquire it, the longer there will be for enjoyment. Those novels are precious jewels to be carried through life, to sparkle and, unlike mere diamonds, to warm our senses and gladden our hearts, at all seasons but especially in times of trouble and distress, in sickness and in pain, in bereavement and low spirits, on all occasions when the world seems harsh and grim. Oh, Mr Johnson, I beg you to follow my advice!’ Well, in due course I did — not immediately, for there were wine, women and song to be relished first — but when I went into the army. And of course she was right, and everything she said proved to be true, as I have learnt over the past half-century. So I beg readers who have not yet acquired that thorough familiarity to do so with all deliberate speed. On that same occasion, Miss Lascelles quoted to me an observation of Virginia Woolf (which also occurs in her book on p. 134). Mrs Woolf called Jane Austen ‘a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there.’ Miss Lascelles added, ‘It is a mark of a great writer that he or she takes the reader into the magic circle of composition, and gets you to join them in the art of creation. You supply what is not there. And what you supply is to some extent of your own choosing, though to be sure within the parameters of the author’s intentions. The supreme gift of authorship is to make the reader his co-creator. Shakespeare had this gift. So did Jane Austen. And so does that remarkable Mr Eliot who is astonishing us with his “Four Quartets”.’

I recalled this conversation (from 1947) last week, when I was writing an essay on T.S. Eliot for my book-in-progress on creative people. Eliot, whom I once or twice had the thrill of meeting, though he told me nothing — he was costive of his treasures or, as the late John Raymond put it, ‘anally retentive’ — was a great man for leaving things out. Indeed the wonder is that he ever put anything in. His ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), which introduced modern poetry into the English-speaking world just as surely as Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s ‘Lyrical Ballads’ (1798) introduced Romantic poetry, though it seems so massive and formidable and is divided into five parts, is actually only 434 lines. The ‘Four Quartets’ is longer, though not by much. In the Faber edition of The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot, the poetry occupies only 236 pages.

‘The Waste Land’, when it appeared not long after the end of the first world war, the same year as Ulysses, D.H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, to put it in context, was a thunderbolt which left the literary landscape changed for ever, not because it was a literary success, for the notices were mixed, but because the intelligent young took it to their hearts straight away. The reasons they did so were manifold. The poem was pessimistic but smartly and fashionably so. It was post-Einstein and post-Freud. It was subtly and tantalisingly sexual, hinting but giving nothing away (not surprisingly, since Eliot was still a virgin, albeit in his mid-thirties). It had jazz rhythms, hints and more than hints of demotic speech, though it also appealed strongly to the intellectual and academic mind, with its oblique references and quotations and its pretentious footnotes, a con trick of which Eliot was later ashamed. But the real and fundamental reason why it appealed to clever young men and women was that it made them co-creators. He left out things and bade readers fill them in. It ‘stimulated them to supply what is not there’.

For this, I think, Eliot had to thank not only himself and his natural costiveness, but Ezra Pound. Pound was not (in my view) a great poet and he seems to have been a most unpleasant individual. But to Eliot he was a godsend. When they met in London and Eliot showed him his work, Pound immediately recognised a master-poet, and thereafter poured over the difficult and unsure young man the supercharged encomiums he desperately needed, and gave him the self-confidence he conspicuously lacked. Moreover, when presented with the text of ‘The Waste Land’ he edited it, cutting a lot of meretricious and pretentious verbiage and stripping it down to its drumbeat rhythms and pure music, making it tantalisingly spare and increasing the temptation of the reader, whom Eliot himself had already invited to join in the creative act by fleshing out the inferences and innuendos. This collaboration of Eliot and Pound, albeit one-sided, was just as creative as the astonishing alliance between Wordsworth and Coleridge in west Somerset. Eliot became at a stroke the head of the poetic profession, a position he held till his death in 1965. It was omissions, reticence and silence which did the trick.