Writers Talk About Writing
My Favorite Writer: Anthony Trollope
All avid readers have their own favorite writers. Yours may be Daniel Defoe or Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov or Ogden Nash, Agatha Christie or Anton Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway, P. G. Wodehouse or A. A. Milne, Philip Roth or Stephen King; whom you love matters little. What does matter is that something in the style, the subject, or the subtleties of one or another writer so matches your own passions and quirks that you fall in love with that writer, and year after year you keep returning to enjoy his or her cordial company.
My favorite writer is the great English realist, Anthony Trollope, author of fifty-plus novels that include the six Barsetshire novels and the six Paliser novels, which, taken together, create the longest connected narrative in the English language. Perhaps I love Balzac just as much, but Trollope has a slight edge because I read him in my mother tongue but can only read Balzac in translation. Why do I love Trollope—and note that I say "Trollope," not "Trollope's novels"—so much?
For three principal reasons: because he makes a concerted and successful effort to be my friend, because he creates people and places I can see and believe in, and because he writes English prose with extraordinary clarity and grace.
How does Trollope win my friendship? He interlaces his storytelling with a flow of general statements that I agree with about human nature. For example, on page seven of The Eustace Diamonds, which I'm reading for the fifth time, he inserts this thought into his exposition: "Man is never strong enough to take unmixed delight in good." I read that and wonder, is it true that we humans think of something troubling even when we hear good news? Yes, I answer, I agree with you, Mr. Trollope. Three pages later comes another general statement: "There are people who can be wise within a certain margin, but beyond that commit great imprudences." Yes, I think again, I've known timorous souls who suddenly can go whole hog on risky bets. More pages bring more of these wise asides:
But then it is so hard to decide what is fair.
It is seldom that a bad person expects to be accounted good.
Such thought-provoking statements are not unique to Eustace Diamonds; we can find them in every Trollope novel:
It is no doubt very wrong to long after a naughty thing. But nevertheless we all do so....When we confess that we are all sinners, we confess that we all long after naughty things.
Our archdeacon was worldly—who among us is not so?
The overall effect of these writer-to-reader comments is that a heart-to-heart friendship with Trollope begins to stir in me. Yes, he's a much-esteemed writer who specializes in detailing the lives of the nineteenth century English upper classes, but he's no snob, nothing hoity-toity about him. He welcomes me to join him as we hover invisibly at the edge of tea parties, crisp foxhunting mornings, and ballrooms crowded with whirling dancers, and he points out how this titled lady tries, unsuccessfully, to hide her jealousy of a young beauty surrounded by gallant beaux, or how this ambitious politician can't keep his knees from shaking as he stands to make his maiden speech in Parliament. I feel lucky, honored even, that Trollope deems me worthy of his whispered insights, and I find myself wishing that his long novels were even longer and could give me more hours in which to bask in the pleasure of his company.
The first goal in writing fiction, I tell my students every fall is to get a person in a place. The person could be a convicted murderer and the place a gas chamber, or a baby at a birthday party, a teenager at her first dance, or an Eskimo in an igloo, but without a person in a place, we don't have a character, we don't have a world, we don't have a story. No writer I have ever read is better than Trollope in swiftly creating characters whom I can see, hear, and touch, and places that I can see and enter with the same confidence that I can see and enter the two rooms of my New York City apartment.
Trollope's characters look like ordinary people. He will put a little gauze on his lens for a pretty girl, but he paints his men unadorned:
Brooke Burgess...was a good-looking man, with black whiskers and black hair, which, as he said, was beginning to thin on the top of his head, and pleasant small bright eyes...He was rather below the middle height, and somewhat inclined to be stout.
He Knew He Was Right
Only touches in the portrait—his pleasant eyes and self-deprecating humor about going bald—tell us that Brooke Burgess will turn out to be a good fellow. When Trollope introduces us to Ferdinand Lopez in The Prime Minister, he gives him the same neutral treatment:
He was nearly six-feet tall, very dark and very thin, with regular well-cut features indicating little to the physiognomist unless it be the great gift of self-possession. His hair was cut short, and he wore no beard beyond an absolutely black moustache. His teeth were perfect in form and whiteness...
—but Lopez turns out to be a villain.
Trollope paints his places with a similar accuracy, even when the place is boringly unattractive, here Alice Vavasour's house in London:
It was a small house on the south side of the street, squeezed in between two large mansions which seemed to crush it…The stairs were narrow; the dining-room was dark…[the] drawing-room was not pretty: green paper, a green carpet, green curtains, and green damask chairs. There was a green damask sofa, and two green armchairs opposite to each other at the two sides of the fireplace. The room was altogether green, and was not enticing.
With people and places so clearly rendered, Trollope can create the world of his novels with a mapmaker's accuracy. Reading his books we follow his characters, walking along the same streets they do:
Phineas knew that Mr. Kennedy would make his way down Park Street, that being his usual route from Portman Square toward his own home, and knew also that he himself could again come across Mr. Kennedy's track by going down North Audley Street to the corner of Grosvenor Square, and thence by Brook Street into Park Street.
The ease and grace of his prose is the third reason Trollope is my favorite writer. His style is so easy and graceful as to be nearly invisible, and I fear I can't demonstrate its beauty in this short essay. Yet read this sentence silently a few times:
She understood, too, that as Frank had declared his purpose of supporting Lizzie, it might be as well that he should see just at present as little of Lady Fawn as possible.
The Eustace Diamonds
—then read it aloud. A serviceable few words carrying a tidbit of exposition, the sentence does nothing to draw attention to itself, yet if you focus on it for a few moments, you'll notice its relaxed swing. Perhaps you'll also notice its four p sounds—purpose, supporting, present, possible: not quite alliteration but almost.
Quiet sentence after sentence like this one, that's the beauty of English from Trollope's pen. Musicians call the tempo of Trollope's prose andante, Italian for walking, and that's just the feeling it creates: Trollope and I strolling along a winding country lane, noticing this and that, chatting about this and that, enjoying the day and each other's company. Some days I may want tropical storms from Herman Melville, hard-bitten detectives from Raymond Chandler, or crime and punishment from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but year in, year out give me my old friend Anthony and his understated but thoughtful tales told in his understated thoughtful voice.