The Limits of Subtlety

I had to read Alan Hollinghurst's 2004 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty earlier this semester for my seminar on contemporary novels in English. I didn't really take to it at first—to me, it was full of beautiful sentences, but left me cold. After discussing it in class, though, I started to warm up to it a bit, and I hope to re-read it at some point in the future.

So, to get to the point, there's this one particular passage that struck me. It's towards the end of the novel: the protagonist Nick—a Ph.D. student whose dissertation topic is "style," and whose own style is heavily indebted to Henry James ("plums of periphrasis" comes up at one point)—is writing a letter of condolence to the mother of a lover—his first lover—with whom he lost contact long ago, but recently learned had passed away. As follows:

Then he worried that 'I was so terribly sorry' might sound like gush to her, like calling her wonderful. He knew his own forms of truth could look like insincerity to others...He could see her being impressed by his educated form of words and best handwriting. Then he saw her looking mistrustfully at what he'd written. He felt the limits of his connoisseurship of tone. - 358
"He felt the limits of his connoisseurship of tone." Wow. What a moment. A writer like Nick, who has such mastery over tone and the subtle modulation of tone to suit different contexts, is stopped cold in his tracks. What is a writer to do when the skills of his trade—namely, "connoisseurship of tone"—are inadequate to confronting the most serious of topics?

It's definitely been hugely advantageous to learn how to modulate tone and style according to context—it makes everything, including writing cover letters and birthday cards, easier. It's also a useful skill for social contexts, and I vaguely remember reading an article in the Times about how kids who learn how to talk differently to different people (e.g., peers, parents, teachers, etc.) are those who are bullied least and who are most likely to succeed later down the line (basically, having higher social IQ).

But, it's still important to remember the limits of subtlety and of tonal modulation. In recent months, I've tried to work towards attaining some sort of a default writing tone that would help me get most ideas across as quickly and painlessly as possible. To a large extent, I think I'm doing okay. I recently published this article in the Crimson—a one draft story about my dad and our long drives up Route 22 every Saturday for accordion lesson—and I felt pretty content with what I was trying to get across: what it was like driving up there, why I liked having that time with my dad, and also some of the nostalgia that NJ highways hold for me (the "cheese" factor).

Still, I may never become a good enough writer to get some of the more raw and hard-to-express feelings down on paper without sounding just like that: raw and hardly-expressed, if that makes sense. I think I stand a much better shot of getting there through music, but either way, I'll be content if I get there, somehow.