When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, more than sixty years ago, one of the members of the Class of '54 whom I knew casually was Paul Matisse, grandson of the great Henri Matisse. Paul's father, Pierre, was, I think, a quite successful art dealer in New York, and Paul is himself an artist sufficiently well-known to make it into Wikipedia. Paul's grandfather was apparently notoriously reluctant to give away any of his creations, even to members of his own family, but he had given Paul a pen and ink drawing of a young woman's head, on paper, that hung on the wall of Paul's Eliot House room [in a suite of rooms occupied also by Stephen Joyce, James Joyce's grandson, and Sadri (Sadrudin) Khan, son or grandson of the Aga Khan.]
The drawing was scarcely more than a few lines, and must have taken Matisse only a few moments to do, but it was absolutely mesmerizing, capturing in some magical fashion the young woman's beauty. I remember staring at it and wondering how Matisse could accomplish so much with no more than a few pen strokes and dots of ink.
I thought of that painting yesterday as I was sitting on the plane coming back from Massachusetts. I was reading J. K. Rowling's new detective novel, concealed for a brief moment under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. [If there is anyone in the blogosphere who does not know the name "J. K. Rowling," she is the author of the Harry Potter books.] The novel, which I am enjoying enormously, tells a story about a down on his luck private detective Cameron Strike, who is hired to look into the supposed suicide of a supermodel. It is pretty clear that Rowling has created this character with the intention of launching a series of Robert Galbraith novels, in the long and distinguished tradition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham, and Josephine Tey.
Early in the novel, Strike hires a young woman, Robin, from a Temp agency, to handle what little office work his almost non-existent case load generates. Rowling devotes very few words to Robin, concentrating most of her narrative on Strike's doings, and yet by the time I was one hundred pages into the novel, I was totally enraptured with her, rooting as hard as I could for a romance between her and Strike. [I am only halfway through the novel, so hope is still alive.]
I found myself wondering, "How did Rowling do that? Robin is no more than a few words on a page. Unlike Strike, to whom Rowling has given an elaborate back story extending over many pages, we are told almost nothing about her, and yet the possibility of a romance between her and Strike is one of the things driving me through the novel."
It occurred to me that it would be a fascinating exercise to go back with a colored highlighting pen, mark every single passage in which Robin appears, and then read them seriatim in an effort to understand better just exactly what Rowling has done. Since I am naturally lazy, I probably shan't do that, but it would be illuminating. This is one of the many reasons why I am convinced that despite my facility as an expository writer, I could never write fiction.