Not surprisingly, considering my use of Woolf’s novel in the Analogy post, my emblem of quickness is a lighthouse. The lighthouse’s periodic flash of light indicates both inspiration (think of the “aha!” moment many describe as a light bulb turning on in the brain) and direction.
Stream of consciousness literature, such as Ah and To the Lighthouse, is full of these “aha!” moments, but sometimes, we may feel a little lost in the reading. This is where the emblem of the lighthouse comes in: though we see the flash of light at regular intervals, the lighthouse itself does not show us the way home. Rather, it is a tool to help us find our way. Likewise, quickness is a strategy authors use to help their readers find their way through a work of literature. While the text may seem inscrutable at times, every so often we experience a flash of understanding. This instant acts as a touchstone for us to understand what the author is trying to say. Like the lighthouse, we can use quickness (the logical pattern of the story) to navigate through the text and find our way home to the author’s meaning.
When I think of quickness, I think about the stream of consciousness novel, which came into its own at the beginning of the twentieth century. Authors writing in this style wished to craft prose that captured the fragmentation and simultaneity of thought: in essence, consciousness itself. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is my favorite novel in this genre.
On a basic level, it tells the story of the Ramsay family and their activities at a seaside cottage, but it also encompasses World War One, the beginnings of the feminist movement, Lily Briscoe’s struggle to find her voice as an artist, new discoveries in quantum physics, and questions of faith and humanity’s place in the universe.
Woolf’s writing style can be difficult to comprehend at first; sometimes it feels as if she’s moving through the story a little too quickly. She constantly changes narrators and points of view, and she distorts our sense of linear time: the first half of the book covers the events of a single day, while all of World War One merits only a few pages. However, the quickness of the novel comes precisely from Woolf’s relentless drive to continue through the story. We experience one event after the other at lightning speed until all of a sudden, we arrive at the end, when Lily Briscoe fulfills her artistic vision in a sudden frenzy of creation and inspiration.
This novel, which moves along at a brisk clip, exemplifies quickness and efficiency of style in narrative. Woolf is clear and succinct: each paragraph is carefully crafted to evoke vivid images and further Woolf’s goal of emulating consciousness in prose.
I noticed a connection between quickness and layering in graphic design. Just as the words in Ah appeared on the screen in layers, so do artists create layers in space (in a collage, for instance) and time (as in a piece of music). Layers indicate simultaneity and complexity in a composition: a choral work will produce a much richer sound if written in four part harmony instead of unison.
Another good example of layering in everyday life is a city map. A map consists of many different representations of data all superimposed on one another. For instance, this map of London includes graphs of the landscape, highways, railroad tracks, roads, Metro stations, and other buildings of interest. Layering allows cartographers to represent this information simultaneously in a condensed format that is easily accessible to readers.
Ah by K Michel and Dirk Vis illustrates Calvino’s quality of quickness. The piece plays in a stream of consciousness style, with words flowing across the screen like water. Visually, Michel and Vis represent simultaneity of thought by printing several words on top of each other. This makes it difficult to read, but reflects the instantaneous and fleeting nature of thought.
The visual divergence and convergence of the storylines into textual “tributaries,” if you will, adds interest and reflects the mind’s tendency to leap from one though to another. The chance to read each word is gone in an instant, and once it leaves, we have no way to backtrack. The story keeps pushing relentlessly forward. As we read and interpret the work, we begin to decipher its structure and discover the logical patterns of in animation, similar to the way we understand the plot of Paperman. Quickness necessitates learning and growing along with the text, rather than understanding all of it immediately.
Quickness refers to the style and structure of a story. Literature with this quality follows a logical narrative pattern. Calvino says the events “rhyme,” meaning they parallel each other to create a cohesive story, thereby making the narrative more effective. It is the rhythm of narrative time, above all, which determines the quality of the storytelling. Calvino believes that folktales exemplify quickness.
“The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression.The most outlandish adventures are recounted with an eye fixed on the bare essentials.”
Further, quickness is a mode of thought, “a question of quick adjustment, of agility of both thought and expression.” Calvino quotes from the scientist Gallileo, who said, “Good thinking means quickness, agility in reasoning, economy in argument, but also the use of imaginative examples.”
Calvino compares quickness to the Roman god Mercury, who, as messenger of the gods, moves quickly and with alacrity. Literature must do the same; it must “aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and thought.” Calvino’s own personal motto and emblem are taken from the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. Festina Lente, or “hurry slowly,” is Calvino’s touchstone for all his literary works. It is symbolized by the dolphin twined around an anchor.
My example of quickness is the short animated film Paperman. The story moves with alacrity from one scene to the next, all without words, yet none of the meaning is lost. The images speak for themselves and make the narrative smooth and streamlined. Click on the link below to watch.