Do Books Need a Plot?: Thoughts on Hills and the Sea

For a while now, I have been reading Hilaire Belloc’s Hills and the Sea.  Some of you might know that Belloc and G. K. Chesterton were very close friends, but Belloc writes very differently from Chesterton.  Their greatest point of similarity comes in their employment of moral digressions.  However, Chesterton prefers using his characters for this, while Belloc directly explains the truth.  Yet, his descriptive language is beautiful: the way Belloc describes places, whether cities or the wilderness, immerses the reader in the setting.

A Frenchman, but I should describe Belloc's face as being particularly Frankish.

A Frenchman, but I should describe Belloc’s face as being particularly Frankish.

His skill in description not only saves this novel but makes it interesting.  You see, Hills and the Sea follows two friends as they travel across Europe.  However, Belloc displays a deficiency in the realm of character development.  He gives us descriptions of the characters, but we don’t see their traits having a particular impact on their actions.  Indeed, in certain cases, their realm of action is limited to things like surviving a hike through the Pyrenees.  (Actions of intelligent people in such circumstances vary but little.)  We are told that these two friends are inseparable (hence their nickname the Two Man) and that one of them is the narrator.  However, I think that we can switch points of view without a change in the tone of narration.

A picture of Belloc around 1950.  He outlived Chesterton by 17 years.

A picture of Belloc around 1950. He outlived Chesterton by 17 years.

The weaknesses of the novel in plot and characterization render Hills and the Sea interesting merely for Belloc’s views and his vast knowledge of European cities and countryside.  He has packaged a travelogue under the guise of a novel.  The travelogue used to be an incredibly popular form of literature, and I am surprised by how much I enjoy his descriptions of places like Delft, Holland and the Pyrenees Mountains.  But, I hope that some plot surfaces soon: I prefer books where the characters’ actions are based on achieving certain goals!

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