Themes and cadences of writing

I remember once reading an article arguing that every song-writer made recurrent use of a particular series of chord progressions, individual to the writer. They might not be unique – there is, after all, a finite number of chord progressions – but they were distinctive enough to define each song-writer’s work.  

The second part of the argument was that these cadences equally defined the listener: those who liked a writer’s songs and those who didn’t. I suppose it’s not for nothing that the phrase ‘struck a chord’ is a part of everyday speech. It is why some music reaches deep into our inner selves, while other music does not touch us at all. It is why we all have favourite song-writers, even if we don’t always know who they are.

If that is true of music, which I think it is, it must be true of literature also. Writers must also have their own cadences. (They also have their favourite words – mine is ‘brouhaha’, by the way – but that is a different point.) Writers, and not only poets, have their individual rhythms, sequences of sounds and scansion, that resonate in their ears and which are repeated, using different words and in different forms, in more or less everything that they write.

Again, these repeated cadences either resonate or fail to resonate with the individual reader. It is part of the reason, perhaps a large part of the reason, why we all have our favourite novelists or poets or playwrights. It is why, for example, I will never tire of reading Scott Fitzgerald, or Evelyn Waugh, or Julian Barnes, while other equally distinguished novelists leave me cold.

For many years, the only writings of mine that saw the light of day were political speeches. Since these depended for their effect on how they sounded, not on how they looked, I read the words out loud as I was writing them, and declaimed them afterwards, rewriting them until they sounded right. I presume that all speech-writers, and dramatists, do the same thing. It is a habit I have now taken into writing novels. I don’t read out loud as I write, but I read in my head, paying attention to the cadences, changing anything that sounds ugly to my ears.

One reason for doing this is the belief that readers do the same thing. When we read a novel, we may be seeing the words on a page, but we are also hearing them in our heads, even if unconsciously.

However carefully we do this, there is no way that any writer can please every reader. What sounds like perfect pitch to a writer can sound irritating or unconvincing to a particular reader. This relates to the earlier point about song-writers: particular chord sequences will resonate with some listeners, but not with others. There is nothing to be done about this. It doesn’t prove anything. There is usually, and often after a long time, a rough consensus on the quality of a novelist’s writing, which allows a few people to be described as great novelists without too much contradiction. Otherwise, the process is mostly subjective.

But even such a consensus, where it exists, may change. It is dependent, like everything else, upon time. What sounds harmonious to one generation may sound discordant to another. And one may be certain that what is fashionable in one generation will be unfashionable in another. So reputations wax and wane, and only a tiny handful of writers seem able to survive in all weathers. In the late nineteenth century, George Meredith was widely considered to be a greater novelist than Charles Dickens. Who reads Meredith now?

Along with a distinctive cadence, every writer is likely to have recurrent themes: topics that crop up again and again, sometimes as a dominant theme, sometimes as a leitmotif, but ever present in one form or another. I suspect that these themes again stretch deep into the writer’s psyche, and usually far into early consciousness.

The theme that has always obsessed me is time. I don’t know why. In one of the pieces of autobiography that tend to get chucked into any novel, Matthew Oxenhay reflects in Trading Futures: ‘When I was small and I thought about death, it was the for ever part of it I could not comprehend. Death meant nothingness. For ever. For ever and ever. For ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.’

That is indeed one of my own earliest memories, and I still can’t comprehend it. I spent much of my teenage life writing poems and songs about time, despite having experienced so little of it. And I am still doing it now. Time, and more specifically the effect that the passing of time has on us as individuals and on our perceptions of life and the world, is an underlying theme of both The Breaking of Eggs and Trading Futures. It will never go away, and I don’t want it to go away.

Perhaps this is what we all do. We reflect on recurring themes, with roots in an inchoate consciousness. We sing recurring songs to ourselves, using the same chord progressions. We go round in recurring circles until we die. All that writers do differently is to share their cadences with the world, and hope to find an echo.