Reading Like a Writer: Physical Description and The Man Who Walked Away
Maud Casey's The Man Who Walked Away is about a man who walks across Europe in his sleep, who wakes up in town after town with no idea how he got there. It's about a man who can't stay put, who can't have a home and it's about the people who try to make a home for him.
It's a contemporary novel, published just this year, but it's set in the mid-nineteenth century and exhibits characteristics that I, stereotypically perhaps, attribute to writing from that time.
The gendarme standing in front of Albert is the sum of his parts taking shape in the morning light; crisp uniform, large, loose cheeks quivering over a stiff collar; his mouth moves so emphatically his cheeks cascade and quiver as he comes to the end of a sentence.
It's a beautiful description—those quivering cheeks! But isn't it a bit old fashioned to describe the physical appearance of a character? As soon as the physiognomy starts, I expect to see ringlets.
And Casey includes physical description quite often. Characters are introduced by their "ruddy, mottled face," or their "low forehead and pudgy nose." Are these observations intended to give a flavor of the time? Or is Casey after something more sophisticated? She couldn't have fallen prey to the outdated belief in countenance as character, could she?
Let's look more closely.
I don't, by the way, think there's anything wrong with using physical description to suggest the century. Anything to enhance the atmosphere is worthwhile. And a style that is subtly old fashioned helps to establish it.
But there's more to it, I think. As much as a modern reader might scoff at a passage describing ears and nose and eyes, everyone likes a mental picture. Whether or not the positioning of the lips gives insight to personality, it does give us something to grasp—a better means of seeing the character and entering the imaginary realm of the book.
It's also crucial to recognize that, archaic as they sometimes seem, there is something delightful about Casey's descriptions. Something that goes beyond quaintness. "Inside her suspicious face is a younger face, sweet and inviting—a dimple revealing itself before a tightness around her eyes grabs it away." How wonderful! At first reading this sentence, I gasped aloud.
But Casey's descriptions don't just create a world and a mental picture. And they're more than inventive use of language. They give us real information about the characters.
Whether or not we agree that physical description gives important insight to the person observed, it certainly tell us about the one who does the observing. (In this book, the narration is sometimes aligned with the sleepwalker and sometimes with his doctor—so both characters are revealed.)
What kind of man notices one face inside another? And what kind of person sees an "aquiline" nose? Both observations come from men of past times, I suppose, but they're also distinct to each character. Their worries and preoccupations are revealed through what they notice in others.
But there's more.
Casey, paradoxically, both sidesteps and endorses a belief in physiognomy by allowing her narrator, aligned with a character, to interpret appearances.
"He has the head of Napoleon," Monsieur Eager whispers to his neighbor. The comparison is apt but the Doctor knows, even as the spell is being cast, the close resemblance, that fierce elegance, is carefully cultivated.
A cultivated look, then, is different from an inherited one—at least as interpreted by the Doctor. We're meant to judge the observed based on this conclusion.
However, it's not just the Napoleon look-alike that we get to know. With this passage we're learning about multiple levels of observers—the man who first points out the resemblance—what sort of fellow looks for Napoleon in his contemporaries?—and the Doctor, who both acknowledges the assessment and mistrusts the look. He implicitly agrees with the observation, yet interprets the appearance differently, not as evidence that the man is like Napoleon, but as evidence that the man is trying to appear like Napoleon.
And I think the observation goes further, opens another avenue of inquiry: How does the doctor try to appear? His interpretation makes us wonder. Maybe it takes a man who worries about his appearance to suspect another of altering it.
Still, true as all that is, this book seems to insist that there issomething more direct to be learned through physical observation. Are we to actually believe in finding character in countenance? As a modern reader, I spend most of the book doubting this proposition. I read for personality instead of face—at least I tell myself so.
Then Casey completely astounds me with the description of the photographer.
The photographer's thin legs are indistinguishable from the thin legs of the tripod; from time to time mistaken for the spindly wooden legs of an inanimate object—a piano, for example. His shins are bruised because just the other night, in a restaurant where he'd gone with his wife, someone distractedly and repeatedly swung a foot under a table, mistaking his legs for those of a chair.
"Why you say nothing," his wife said when he showed his bruised shins to her later, "is the bigger question."
There is a clue to character in this man's appearance. And not just a clue, but a key! His character is revealed not just through his appearance but through his unique relationship to that appearance.
If a man happens to have thin legs, they might be mistaken for table legs, they might get kicked. He might get used to it. He might consider himself part of the furniture and might consider being so a good trait for an observer, a photographer. And then he might become one. Conversely, a photographer might consider himself a piece of furniture, might treat his legs as such. (I'm a sucker for wrap-around cause and effect.)
The photographer is a tertiary character—at best—yet through this physical description and its accompanying interpretation, we can understand him as a full, rounded, dynamic human being. It's glorious. And it shows what a deft writer can do with the old-fashioned art of physical description.
Do you enjoy old-fashioned physical descriptions in novels? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Reading Like a Writer: The Best Book Club Ever" and "Flash Fiction: The Power of Brevity in a Multitasking World" this fall at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.