Harry Johnson, our French teacher (Harry J. as we called him), was fond of Balzac. I suspect he may have known him personally, as despite the occasional flash of humour, Harry J. appeared to have been recovered from the morgue, dressed in a suit too large, and tipped into the classroom to lecture us in a creaky Dalek monotone about the tribulations of poor old Cousin Pons.
On March 17th, 1971, however, rather than talk about Pons, Harry J. sat at his desk in silence, a somwhat disturbing gleam in his eyes, until he had our full attention. ‘Whatever is the world coming to?’ he asked. As usual, Richardson Major put up his hand. He rarely knew the correct answer to anything, but that never stopped him giving one, whether about Cousin Pons or what the world was coming to. Harry J. sensibly ignored him. ‘A whole page in The Times,’ he said, ‘with a picture of a naked lady.’ He had a copy of the paper, which he opened to the page in question, but he didn’t display it to the class, leaving it instead to our eager adolescent imagination. After a while, he closed the paper and said, ‘Right. Cousin Pons. Page 84, second paragraph. Hargreaves, start reading, please.’
In a recent May I: The Write post, Izzy asks the excellent question: How much detail is enough to introduce a main character and still entice readers to flip to the next page? When I read that, it immediately made me think of Cousin Pons, described by Balzac in such meticulous detail that none of us had the slightest desire to flip to the next page. The most exciting moment is on page 29, when you get to his ear lobe (the left one – the right is on page 34). Harry J. explained to us that these physical details provided precious insights into Pons’s character, but nincompoops that we were, we didn’t get it.
Description is partly a point of view issue. The more internal the POV, the less likely you are to know the colour of a character’s hair. ‘She ran her hand though her unruly blonde hair.’ That’s OK if the POV is external, but with internal POV, it becomes an inconsistency – not the character’s perceptions anymore, but the author wading in to tell us her hair is blonde. Izzy’s question got me thinking of my own main character in One Green Bottle. Though I have a clear idea of what she looks like, she’s never described in detail and the colour of her hair or eyes is left for the reader to decide. Conversely, in The Mystery Man, a whole paragraph is devoted to describing a woman, because the narrator at that point is observing her and trying to figure out what’s going on.
I’ll never know why Harry J. started his lesson that way. Was he making some subtle comparison between Balzac’s exhaustive description of Pons and our own imagining of the picture in The Times? Or simply saying that, shocking as it was, what the world was coming to rather pleased him?