I was rereading some Raymond Chandler the other day, for the first time in several years, when I came across the following sentence, in the middle of nowhere:
He put his head on one side and rubbed the back of his left little finger along the lower edge of his chin.
It reminded me of one of my favourite lines from one of my favourite books, Franny & Zooey by J D Salinger:
She released one hand from the phone and placed it, very briefly, on the crown of her head, then went back to holding the phone with both hands.
I love this line, because it occurs when Franny is just beginning to get the point of everything, when she is fully grasping the epiphany that changes her life, and Salinger trusts us to understand the emotion behind the action. The way that he describes such a trivial movement at such a critical junture makes it arresting, and forces us to try to interpret it. And when the reader is allowed to discover something for him or herself, the meaning arrives with much greater impact.
With Chandler, we are seeing the world through the eyes of a detective, and so are always being asked to tease out a meaning from tiny gestures. Chandler does not always tell us what the detective thinks, but leaves us to play detective ourselves.
Many other authors would just tell us what the character is feeling. I love this style, because I am forced to populate the world of the book with my own remembered library of gestures and expressions, and therefore the story seems much more real to me.
I cannot imagine Dickens using this technique. Tolstoy goes halfway, showing us the action, and then interpreting;
He said no more, but expressed his resignation to cruel fate by a gesture.
Anna Pavlovna almost closed her eyes to indicate that neither she nor anyone else had a right to criticize what the Empress desired or was pleased with.
Chandler or Salinger would have stopped the second example above at the fifth word. Where did this confidence come from? I am beginning to think that cinema might be the reason. And especially a style of acting which conveyed a lot with a little. Cinema, with its extreme close-ups, had started producing acting performances which are much more subtle and ‘realistic’ than stage acting.
An actor like Humphrey Bogart could be relied upon to convey a broken heart just by the way he turned up his collar. Perhaps the cinema, which borrowed so many plots from the literature of the day, also gave something back.