In the book I am currently writing one of my characters imagines having been dead for billions of years; then some random bubble in the tissue of space-time takes him back to the world again, to a village shop. There in front of him is a packet of Tide, a jar of marmite, a box of liquorice allsorts, and suddenly, long after the human race has ceased to exist, our world returns for a moment in all its particularity.
In Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the smell of a madeleine dipped in tea takes the narrator all the way back to the lost time of his childhood, and the very title of the novel means to compare small things with great – or small things with greater small things.
The earth has been photographed turning majestically through space, but it is most poignantly relatable through its tiniest, apparently must mundane, components.
Use details to make fiction come alive
Classical tragedy focused on kings, queens and princes don’t because they gave their audience, who for the most part would not have been kings and princes themselves, access to a simplified world in which experiences could be presented in concentrated form, without anyone needing to go to the shops or the lavatory (kings, queens and princes don’t).
All that changed with the invention of the novel. Tristram Shandy, written by Laurence Sterne in the 18th century, begins with the hero’s conception: at the crucial moment his mother asks his father if he remembered to wind up the clock. Romeo and Juliet it isn’t but, as Tristram claims, the sudden intrusion of the petty can determine the course of much of life (and therefore in turn plays a vital part in making fiction come alive).
All kinds of fiction share elements with detective story, presenting details in the form of clues. For Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
it’s a matter of sniffing out an anomaly, and this is also true in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, in which the anomaly is that the dog did nothing in the night-time, when any self-respecting dog, faced with an intruder, should bark.
In fact, this is more an absent detail, than a true detail.
Simenon’s Maigret takes the opposite tack. He arrives at the scene of a crime and gently pokes around, accumulating details that are typical rather than unusual. When he has checked on the wallpaper, studied the state of the furniture, and ascertained the plat du jour at the brasserie down the road, he can begin to think about pointing the finger.
Use details as descriptions
Talking of absent details, an interesting one occurs in relation to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was very depressed when he finished the book because, as he told his editor, he had never succeeded in visualising his hero’s face during the whole time he was writing.
Most readers (and writers) would agree that faces are hard if not impossible to ‘see’ in a narrative. They can be given blemishes and skin colour, sticking-out ears and big or small noses, but itemised features always fall short of a recognisable individual, and we are reliant instead on body-language, idiomatic speech, clothing and other details to get the sense of a character’s uniqueness.
But Gatsby is a projection of his own idea of himself (as well as those of other people), and therefore his elusiveness is exactly the point, though Fitzgerald didn’t realise that at first.
There is small and small. The picnic at Box Hill in Jane Austen’s Emma is on the face of it a mundane vortex for the concerns of the novel. And within that unheroic environment we encounter an unheroic character actually deprecating herself, as Miss Bates tries to make a joke of her own dullness and looks around for support from her friends. Emma can’t resist a chance to mock, however, and it takes a firm intervention from Mr Knightley to show her the error of her ways.
In putting Emma to rights Knightley is not only talking about decency, kindness and morality but is also saying something about where the magic of that novel, and of many other novels, actually lies: in the way it manages to make the ordinary, in all its unique detail, matter to us.
Allow great themes to arise though tiny details
I have just finished reading Paul Murray’s wonderful Skippy Dies, a novel that devotes nearly 700 pages to the doings of a bunch of 14-year-olds, their doughnut-eating competitions, the songs they listen to, the mess they make of their homework, their gameboys and role-playing, mobile phones and sexual fantasies.
Out of the apparently trivial clutter of teenage lives come the great matters of tragedy and redemption, as well as an analysis of the meaning of the First World War, of Irish mythology, and of the string theory of modern physics.
Indeed one of the most arresting suggestions in contemporary science is that alternative tiny universes. may be tucked just out of sight within this one. It is fiction’s task to bring other worlds to light, and one of the most rewarding ways of doing so is by exploring the paradoxical relationship between the tiny and the universal.