One reason we read literature is to enjoy writing that’s beautiful, flowing, evocative, and other good things.
Prose doesn’t have to be exceptional for us to like a fictional work. If the plot and/or characters are compelling, an adequate writing style can be perfectly…adequate. But a wonderful way with words sure is a nice bonus, whether those words are used to describe positive or negative scenarios.
So, I will discuss various authors and novels known for high-quality prose — including a beautifully written book I just read that’s not as well known as it should be outside its author’s home country. The Leopard was Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s only novel, and — in yet another example of publisher stupidity — it was rejected while the author was alive. But after The Leopard was posthumously released in 1958, it became Italy’s best-selling novel ever.
The book, set in 19th-century Sicily as Italy’s aristocracy declined and the country’s unification took place, has historical appeal and an engrossing cast headed by a charismatic prince (“The Leopard” of the title) who possesses a mix of admirable and less-admirable traits. But it’s the knockout quality of the prose that’s the chief attribute of the melancholy novel. Paragraph after paragraph of the writing is lovely, rich, deep, elegant, and more. A passage from a ballroom scene:
“They were the most moving sight there, two young people in love dancing together, blind to each other’s defects, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the ballroom floor…”
One might not immediately think of dystopian literature as a place for gorgeous writing, but there’s also plenty of stunning prose in Ray Bradbury’s sobering Fahrenheit 451 — a novel that ironically depicts the burning of books filled with graceful verbiage. A passage about “fireman” Guy Montag when he starts to have doubts about what he does for a living:
“He felt his smile slide away, melt, fold over and down on itself like a tallow skin, like the stuff of a fantastic candle burning too long and now collapsing and now blown out. Darkness. He was not happy. He was not happy.”
I won’t continue to slow down this column with excerpts, but will instead just name more authors and novels with exceptional prose. F. Scott Fitzgerald is an obvious example — in works such as The Great Gatsby (which includes one of the best closing lines in literary history), Tender Is the Night, and the unfinished The Last Tycoon.
There’s also Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose superb prose portrays romance in Love in the Time of Cholera and tackles just about everything in One Hundred Years of Solitude; and Marcel Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time thrills some readers more than others, but contains language most agree is exquisite.
Or how about the often challenging yet lyrical writing of William Faulkner, or the almost biblical prose of Faulkner semi-disciple Cormac McCarthy? The latter, in works such as The Border Trilogy novels and The Road, is almost incapable of writing an average sentence.
Mary Shelley’s writing can also be a bit dense, yet extraordinarily evocative in the novels Frankenstein and The Last Man. The same with A.S. Byatt in her multilayered masterpiece Possession, and with expert wordsmith Henry James — especially in The Portrait of a Lady and many of his other mid- and late-career works. Toni Morrison artfully mixes the colloquial with the highly literary in novels ranging from Sula to Beloved.
Edith Wharton offers very smooth prose in books like The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, while James Hilton casts a writing spell in Lost Horizon and other titles. Erich Maria Remarque’s writing is also off the charts in All Quiet on the Western Front, Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, etc.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Obviously, it’s hard to beat the breathtaking way he crafted books such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
Another 19th-century classic, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, inspired Jean Rhys’ 1966 Wide Sargasso Sea “prequel” that reads like a lush fever dream.
Perhaps the best 19th-century stylist of them all was George Eliot, whose magnificently composed novels included Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Adam Bede.
Then there are authors known for very good prose who, in one novel, got their eloquence into an even higher gear. Examples of that would include Willa Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop and Robert Louis Stevenson in his incomplete last work Weir of Hermiston.
Of course, there are other authors who write brilliantly in a spare way — such as Ernest Hemingway in the literary-fiction realm and Lee Child in the thriller genre (I just read Child’s Jack Reacher novel One Shot, and…wow! Riveting). But terse authors are another subject…
Before ending this piece, I should mention that some gifted authors overdo the florid prose — showing off their writing chops to such an extent that it might distract from a book’s overall appeal.
Which authors and novels do you feel are exceptional in putting words together?
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