I recently, at last, took the book off my shelf and began to read it. Whoa! My first thought was that I was losing my mind. The writing seemed, well, not incomprehensible, but bumpy (that’s the best word I can think of right now), unnecessarily complicated (as opposed to complex, which I happen to love), all in fits and starts. But it had won a Pulitzer. So the problem must be mine, not de Grazia’s.
I soldiered on through the second and third chapters, but the more I read, the more I realized that it wasn’t my problem. First of all, de Grazia made two stylistic choices which immediately put me off. It is a biography written in the present tense (well, largely; he switches back and forth, using the past tense to refer to events that occurred before the events he is recounting in the present tense), which is patently absurd. The present tense is fine in fiction. It’s a tool which can give a sense of immediacy or whatever. But in biography?
Second of all, de Grazia refers to Machiavelli throughout as Niccoló. This liberty is acceptable only in biographies of saints, monarchs and domestic animals. Granted, de Grazia does go to the trouble of explaining why he does so, unlike other biographers who seem to have no other purpose than to cater to some sort of modern taste for confessional intimacy. “Niccoló” is how contemporary writers referred to Machiavelli, according to de Grazia. Still, personally, I do not like it. Something that a Niccoló does, anyone can do; something that happens to a Niccoló can happen to anyone. What Machiavelli does and what happens to Machiavelli is unique.
But beyond those two easily identifiable stylistic problems, there is another, not so easy to explain. The book simply seems to be badly written. Again, though, I am not sure of myself here. Am I stuck somewhere in the 19th century?
I have just opened the book at random. Here. What do you think about this? It is toward the middle of the book and de Grazia has gotten into a exposition of The Prince, which must be a major element in any biography of Machiavelli.
Niccoló attaches fortune and occasion to the philosophic matter-and-form proposition mentioned in the preceding chapter above. For fortune gives the occasion in which a readied matter (the people) presents itself to a leader. If he is a virtuous leader, he will seize the opportunity, win imperium or rightful command over them, and introduce form into them, as did “Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and other similar.”
Or take this, which deals with biographical details:
No longer Secretary, Niccoló has time of his own. No meetings to attend, no letters and documents to draft, no horsebacking to foreign courts. He hates the very thought of such inactivity. Forced out of politics, Niccoló writes about politics; unsuccessful in writing about politics, he turns to writing of a less serious kind. Gradually, he grows to like getting away from the city, it seems, though he never admits it, and goes back to the villa to write.
Besides being badly composed, de Grazia uses novelistic touches, and generic ones at that, such as “he hates the very thought of.” And then, if Machiavelli “never admits to it,” how can de Grazia claim “gradually, he grows to like getting away from the city.” If Machiavelli himself never expressed this change of heart, a biographer must explain why he thinks it occurred, either by referencing a contemporary of Machiavelli’s who thought so, or citing passages from which the author was able to infer that Machiavelli’s attitude had changed.
Now, I’m not proposing the following as a masterpiece of biographical prose – not by any means. But if the above paragraph (and hundreds of other similar ones) had been written like this, I may not have given up on the book:
No longer Secretary, with no meetings to attend, no letters and documents to write, no embassies to foreign courts, Machiavelli faced inactivity. For relief, he began to write about politics; then, dissatisfied with that, he turned to less serious literary pursuits. It appears that gradually he may have begun to enjoy his enforced leisure, and life outside the city [since his visits to the villa in Sant'Andrea became more frequent (or for some other reason)]. Much of his writing at this time was done at the estate in Sant’Andrea. [If de Grazia names the place where the villa is located, I couldn’t find it. I found its locale on Wikipedia, which refers to Machiavelli’s rural retreat as an estate rather than a villa.]
I have nothing against writing that is difficult to read. One of the pleasures of Proust is re-reading, again and again, some long, complex sentence, with each re-reading the meaning becoming clearer and deeper and wiser and cleverer and funnier and more touching.
And even writing which is difficult in the way that de Grazia’s is can be satisfying if eventually what seems at first to be hard, gravely prose, as one gets used to it, gives to the shape and mood of a story its own unique texture.
That is the case with a story by Kipling, The Disturber of Traffic, which I think is one of the masterpieces of the English short story.
Here is the first paragraph:
The Brothers of the Trinity order that none unconnected with their service shall be found in or on one of the Lights during the hours of darkness; but their servants can be made to think otherwise. If you are fair-spoken and take an interest in their duties, they will allow you to sit with them through the long night and help to scare the ships into mid-channel.
Hmm, not very promising, although by the end Kipling does make clear that lighthouses is his subject. And, God bless him, the idea of a lighthouse “scaring” ships into mid-channel is Kipling to a T. Perfect.
I just re-read The Disturber of Traffic for, perhaps, the sixth time. It made me chuckle, once or twice, but by the end I had tears in my eyes – not only for the protagonist’s strange descent into madness and his mundane emergence from it, in which the human condition is presented so poignantly, but also because of the Stendhal effect: the story is so perfectly told, with its matter-of-fact tone and its profound insight, that I wept for the sheer beauty of it.