Walking through Central London last night, with many buildings in darkness commemorating the lamps going out all over Europe in 1914, I thought about the power of single lines. Consider: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country (Kennedy); I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat (Churchill); I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it (Mandela). Each of these reads like a parable: an example of good, or right.
Then I thought about the power of single paragraphs. One of my all time favourites is the beginning of Nehru’s speech as India opened her arms to embrace independence on 14 August 1947:
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.
Reading it sends a shiver down my spine. I hear Nehru’s crisp enunciation of poetic words resonant with powerful imagery and such promise and hope: life and freedom, from the old to the new, the soul of a nation… Inherent in every line is not just a celebration, but an invocation of what is good, or right.
What followed, of course, was a bloodbath, just as the lamps did not go out for a hundred years as predicted by Sir Edward Grey; but it’s not the aftermath of a great speech that matters so much as its impact at that moment. It’s a parable that contains a call to action.
Great writing is different to great oratory even when the words on the page are redolent with power or poetry. Fiction does not call us to action, but it is driven by parables. It calls us to attention. Most importantly, the voice that delivers the great lines on the page, is our own. It is the reader who blows meaning through the text, navigating identifying marks left by the writer. We hear a speech through the prism of the speaker. We read books through our own prisms.
Here’s a passage I’ve savoured in Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch. It speaks very powerfully to me because I know the context, the character’s frame of mind, and the way he thinks. Years ago, I was on Park Avenue. I saw those people. What does it say to you?
Sometimes, in the evenings, a damp, gritty wind blew in the windows from Park Avenue, just as the rush hour traffic was thinning and the city was emptying for the night; it was rainy, trees leafing out, spring deepening into summer; and the forlorn cry of horns on the street, the dank smell of the wet pavement had an electricity about it, a sense of crowds and static, lonely secretaries and fat guys with bags of cary-out, everywhere the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.
Your thoughts? At Tricycle Readers we’ll all hear (and follow on individual printouts) the same, complete, story. I anticipate lively debate around meaning. Maybe we’ll even have stirring oratory from members either as single lines or whole paragraphs… Our lamps, I hope, will burn bright.
Do drop me a line if you’re interested in joining!