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On Pattern and Rhythm in the Novel

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Apr. 3rd, 2011 | 12:47 pm

In Aspects of the Novel Forster devotes a lecture to pattern and rhythm. By way of caveat he apologizes in advance for vagueness: "we will borrow from painting first and call it the pattern. Later we will borrow from music and call it rhythm."

His first example of pattern is an hourglass: a shape easily comprehended by the eye and admired for its symmetries, to be found in plots which go neatly from top to bottom and then upend themselves with satisfaction. His second example is a quadrille, a dance made up of chains of cause and effect, where the symmetries are dynamic, rotational, rather than static.

Rhythm is the last aspect of the novel Forster chose to treat, and in this, his eighth lecture, the last before conclusion, I sense that he was growing tired. Again he described two forms. The simple form has a meter that easily comprehended by the ear; it is less a trope than a simple rhetorical device on the order of anaphora, on the order of epistrophe. The more complex form of rhythm is a subtle thing that arises from the action, but can only be understood after the piece has been played and the orchestra silenced, the better for the listener to fit the parts together in his mind and grasp the whole. It is like Pointillism, which also requires the audience to step back.

Unusually, Forster ended his lecture without relating pattern to rhythm. If he were writing today with more time and more energy, I would like to think he would have ended the lecture thus:

If pattern is an hourglass, then rhythm is the sound of sand grains falling. Form follows function: the shape of the hourglass follows the sand. As the sea is in the fish and the fish is in the sea, the hourglass is in the sand and the sand is in the hourglass. Without sand the hourglass is useless; without hourglass the sand is dead. Together they live: they measure out time as a novel measures out story.

Within a tiny seed, goes the saying, lies a mighty oak. And so it is with the second form of rhythm: it provides a motif, an inspiration, a shard of a hologram, from which the whole work can be deduced. Show any competent designer a clepsydra, then say "make it dry, portable, and reusable"; come back in a month and he will necessarily give you an hourglass. It is an obligate consequence of the requirements. Show a novelist a fragment of rhythm; come back in a year and he will necessarily give you the pattern.

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