Notes on Literature: The Little Details

Great story arcs, intricate plot-lines, and monumental narrative events notwithstanding, it’s the little details in any fictional or non-fictional narrative, that turn out to be most memorable. Here’s a list of some of the most memorable little details, sentences and moments from some of my favourite books, in no specific order:

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

The rent was not high, but my landlady had furnished the place in a tasteful manner that evoked an unhurried Victorian past; the drawing room, which received plenty of sun throughout the first half of the day, contained an ageing sofa as well as two snug armchairs, an antique sideboard and an oak bookcase filled with crumbling encyclopaedias — all of which I was convinced would win the approval of any visitor.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

‘I saw Charade with my niece at an art-house cinema last year. Was that one of Hitchcock’s? She strong-arms me into seeing these things, to prevent me from growing “square”. I rather enjoyed it, but my niece said Audrey Hepburn was a “bubble head”. Delicious word’

Charade‘s the one where the plot swings on the stamps?’

‘A contrived puzzle, yes, but all thrillers would wither without contrivance.’

Possession by A. S. Byatt

The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or, rather, protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow….The book sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper, blue, cream, grey, covered with rusty writing, the brown scratches of a steel nib.

Philip Lopate’s essay on The Charterhouse of Parma in Rereadings

By this time, Stendhal had become one of those writers, like Montaigne or Borges, whose sentences are incurably interesting, regardless of whether the piece they are embedded in comes together.

Glass, Paper, Beans by Leah Hager Cohen

She demonstrates. She stands like the actress she was in her youth and turns her gaze with startling tenderness to a piece of dirty floor. After a moment, language issues from her…When she finishes, some of us have wet eyes, not because we are moved by her performance but because we are furious, shaken: how dare she demand from us this level of intimacy with every word?

Bech Panics in Bech: A Book by John Updike

Puzzled by the intensity of her blush, Bech saw that for this excited convert to liberalism anthropology was as titillating as pornography. He saw that even in an age of science and unbelief our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions, mere animal noises intended to repel or attract.

Leave it to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse

‘In this life, Comrade Cootes,’ said Psmith, ‘we must always distinguish between the Unlikely and the Impossible’

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte

When she’d finished her slice of salmon à la Royale, he was still busy, using only a silver fork, with his sea bass Sabatini. A real gentleman, he explained, with a smile that emphasised that the remark was not to be taken totally seriously, would never use a fish knife.

‘But how do you remove the bones?’ Julia asked.

The auctioneer held her gaze unflinchingly.

‘I never go to restaurants where they serve fish with bones.’

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