Friday, October 24, 2014

One startling adjective

I hadn't expected to return to the subject of adjectives so soon after my discussion a week ago (see "Generically kind," Oct. 17), but then I happened across the following quotation from novelist Anne Bernays:

"Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the reader with the unexpected verb or adjective. Use one startling adjective per page."

That got me to thinking: Do our best writers in their best books have one startling adjective per page? So I opened some classic novels to a page at random and went in search of startling adjectives.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Most of the adjectives Conrad uses on page 217 of the Signet Classics paperback I used for a college class seem ordinary, even cliched. We find "a single thought," "some inexplicable emotion," "stealthy footsteps," "an abrupt movement" and "a broken bannister." Yet we also find some more surprising choices such as "worm-eaten rail" and "faint shriek." For me, the most startling adjective comes when the narrator says a character "called him some pretty names, -- swindler, liar, sorry rascal," although that use of the word pretty would have been less startling at the time Lord Jim was published (1899). Pretty can be a synonym for terrible, as in "pretty predicament," but we don't seem to hear that usage much these days.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Hardy uses a few startling adjectives on page 173. We see "highly starched cambric morning-gown," "the impassioned, summer-steeped heathens," and "rosy faces court-patched with cow-droppings." Even if you don't even know what those descriptive words mean, they still sound pretty good, don't they?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Bronte writes of a dog's "pendent lips." That's an interesting choice of adjectives, simple yet descriptive.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

You would expect Twain to find creative adjectives, and he does. "He was the innocentest, best old soul I ever see," Huck says. Yet Twain's most startling word on this particular page is a verb, when he has Huck say of his friend Tom Sawyer, "He warn't a boy to meeky along up that yard like a sheep."

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Heller doesn't invent words in the way Twain does, but he uses familiar adjectives in inventive ways in my sample page from his best novel. We find "puzzled disapproval," "ancient eminence and authority" and, my favorite, "his enormous old corrugated face darkening in mountainous wrath." Wow.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I was a bit startled to find any adjectives at all in Hemingway's spare prose, yet toward the bottom of page 26 in my old Scribners paperback I found this line, "her eyes had different depths." I think Anne Bernays would approve of that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The private lives of artists

When it comes to literature for adults, we've mostly stopped judging a work by its author's personal morality. Why should we hold children's writers to a stricter standard?
Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2005

Margaret Talbot wrote the above lines in an article about the late British writer Roald Dahl. Dahl is best known for his children's books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, etc.), although I first learned his name from the delicious short stories he wrote for adults found in the collections Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You.

The gist of Talbot's article is that while children love Dahl's stories, their parents tend to be less enthralled. This has something to do with the fact that adults in general and parents in particular often look foolish in these stories, but it may also be because Dahl was something less than a saint. He was, she writes, "a complicated, domineering, and sometimes disagreeable man." Worse, he was known to be abusive to his staff and to have made anti-Semitic comments on more than one occasion. Talbot's conclusion: We should judge the stories using a different standard than we judge the man.

Separating someone's work and private behavior has always been a challenge for employers. Now the NFL has decided a player's record of domestic violence should be cause for league discipline, even though for years abuse of wives, girlfriends and children was kept separate from players' business on the playing field. Many employers must make decisions like this from time to time.

In the case of writers and other artists, the matter becomes a little trickier. In one sense, the publishers, recording companies, movie studios, art galleries or whatever might be considered the "employer," yet it more often comes down to the consumer. Do you refuse to pay to see a Mel Gibson movie because you object to his racists rants when he's drunk or refuse to buy one of Barbra Streisand's albums because you object to her political rants when she's sober? It's up to you, but most of us don't worry much about it. I happen to admire both Gibson's acting and Streisand's singing, whatever I may think of their personal behavior or beliefs.

Unfortunately people in the creative arts often seem to believe the moral standards that apply to others do not apply to them. Perhaps it's because they can get away with it, while most people working ordinary jobs cannot. The public even expects rock stars to be rowdy and to do illegal drugs and movie stars to have serial marriages, with lots of affairs on the side.

I watched a rerun of a Gunsmoke episode the other evening in which a photographer comes to Dodge City to capture the authentic West on film, even if that means staging holdups and gunfights for his camera. After he arranges to have an old saddle tramp murdered and scalped to look like a victim of an Indian raid, he tells Marshal Dillion his art is worth far more than the life of one worthless old man. Matt Dillion, of course, thinks differently.

Most times the choice is not so clear cut. Writers like Roald Dahl, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound or whomever may not have been among the best people on the planet, but they did good work, and we can admire their work without necessarily admiring the private lives of those who created it. This is not to say, however, that there may be times, as when Marshall Dillion and the NFL drew lines in the sand, when we must simply say, "No, that is simply something I cannot accept."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kael and Greene at the movies

I happened to be rereading Pauline Kael's Taking It All In, a 1984 collection of her film reviews from The New Yorker, at the same time I was working my way through The Graham Greene Film Reader: Reviews, Essays, Interviews & Film Stories. Kael was a professional movie critic, while Greene was a novelist who supported himself by writing about movies on the side.The reviews in these two books appeared nearly 50 years apart. Kael's reviews are longer, better written and more interesting than Greene's, yet I was struck by how often comments written by one sound like they could have been written by the other.

Greene writes that Kay Frances in The White Angel (1936) is "handicapped by her beauty." About Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937) he says, "she toted a breast like a man totes a gun." He writes about the "fragile, pop-eyed acting of Miss Bette Davis" in The Sisters (1938). All these phrases sound, at least to me, like something Kael might have written.

Greene's frank commentary about female stars once got him in serious trouble. Writing about Shirley Temple, then just 8 or 9 years old, in Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Greene said, in part, "Her admirers -- middle-aged men and clergymen -- respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire." His review led to a libel suit again Greene and his publication, Night and Day, which the defendants lost.

One surprise in the two books is that Greene, a novelist himself, has much less to say about the novels from which movies were adapted than does Kael. In most cases Greene gives no clue that he has read the book in question, even when it happens to be a popular book of the day, such as James Hilton's Lost Horizon, while Kael time and again makes it obvious she has read the novel and knows what changes were made to turn it into a movie. She writes, for example, "E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime was already a movie, an extravaganza about the cardboard cutouts in our minds -- figures from the movies, newsreels, the popular press, dreams, and history, all tossed together." Writing about Sophie's Choice in 1982, she says, "(Author William) Styron got his three characters so gummed up with his idea of history that it's hard for us to find them even imaginable." Thus her film reviews become, at times, literary reviews as well. I don't find that kind of literary analysis in Greene's reviews, although to be fair he apparently had much less space to work with in Night and Day and other publications than Kael had in The New Yorker.

By the way, Kael reviewed Sophie's Choice in the same issue she reviewed Tootsie and Gandhi. Guess which one she liked best? Tootsie. She disliked both of the other films. Kael, like Greene, didn't write favorably about films just because they were serious movies that critics were expected to like, even if the general public didn't. The movies they liked and hated can be quite surprising, which is one reason both collections remain worth reading.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Generically kind

On the way home, she varied her route and passed St. Mary's. She had attended once or twice after they moved here, and people were generically kind. Her preferred brand of kindness, truth to tell.
Laura Lippman, I'd Know You Anywhere

Sometimes I think adjectives and adverbs get a bad rap. Beginning writers are urged to go easy on their modifiers and focus instead on precise nouns and strong verbs to carry their sentences. "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White say in The Elements of Style. "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

That seems like good advice for writers,  yet when I read the short passage above from Laura Lippman's novel I'd Know You Anywhere, the two words that jump out at me are "generically kind," an adverb and an adjective. It would take a lot of nouns and verbs to create the image Lippman creates with those two descriptive words.

You need not attend church to know the kind of people Lippman writes about. These are the people who shake your hand without actually looking at your face. They say, "We're glad you could be with us this morning," without giving any evidence they mean it or will remember your name if you return next Sunday. We find generically kind people working in restaurants and shops all the time. They say their polite words and phrases as if they have memorized a script, giving no indication of sincerity.

What Lippman calls generic kindness beats no kindness at all, and is certainly better than rudeness. Yet unlike the character in her novel, most of us would probably prefer a bit more genuine kindness in our daily lives.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mystery in Algonquin Bay

The assumed suicide that turns out not to be a suicide at all has become something of a cliche in murder mysteries, yet there is nothing in By the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt that reads like something you've read before. The suicide in this 2006 novel happens to be that of Catherine, the beloved, manic-depressive wife of Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police Department in Canada. If you have read earlier stories in the series you will know Catherine has been in and out of hospitals because of her severe depression. Yet at other times she is a gifted photographer and a loving wife and mother.

When her body is found to have fallen from a tall building where she was taking pictures at night and a suicide note in her handwriting is found as well, the conclusion seems obvious. Yet Cardinal, though he is placed on leave, won't let it rest. He discovers the suicide note was written weeks before Catherine's death and bears someone's fingerprints other than her own.

Meanwhile Sgt. Lisa Delorme, one of Cardinal's colleagues on the force, is assigned to a child pornography case. Evidence suggests the photographs were taken in the Algonquin Bay area. Amazingly, the pornography case and Catherine's apparent suicide have a thin connection to one another.

This novel by the Canadian author, whose books are not as readily available in the U.S. as I would like, makes riveting reading from beginning to end, which is somewhat surprising in that Blunt, unlike most mystery writers, gives the surprises away early. Readers know what happened and who's responsible long before Cardinal and Delorme do. Yet revealing the killer at the beginning of each episode never prevented Columbo from becoming one of the most popular TV detectives ever. Perhaps Giles Blunt is a fan.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Where the words came from

That the origins of so many English words can be traced back to the individuals who coined them or, at least propelled them into the English vocabulary, was what I found most interesting about the Henry Hitchings book I wrote about last Friday, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English.

Thanks to Chaucer we have such words as intellect, galaxy, famous, bribe, accident, magic, resolve, moral, refresh and resolve.

John Lydgate gave us opportune and melodious. Bible translator John Wyclif was responsible for chimera, civility, puberty and alleluia. Ben Jonson brought strenuous, retrograde and defunct into the language. Sir Philip Sidney produced hazardous, loneliness and pathology. John Skelton introduced idiocy and contraband.

Robert Burton, the 17th century scholar, gave us electricity, therapeutic and literary. Novelist Fanny Burney is credited with grumpy, shopping and puppyish. Lawrence Sterne brought lackadaisical, muddle-headed and sixth sense into the vocabulary. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized cavern, chasm, tumult and honeydew. Thank Sir Walter Scott for blackmailawesome, gruesome, guffaw, faraway and uncanny.

As I've suggested, these people did not necessarily invent all these words. In many cases, they may have heard words in conversation that they then incorporated into their own writing, or they may have even seen these words used in books that have not survived. In other cases, they borrowed words from other languages and simply made English words out of them. That these people have so many words accredited to them has a lot to do with how prominent and influential the literature produced by them was in their own time and since. Many people create words that die on the vine simply because they are not written down or, if they are, they are written in literature that generates little attention and does not pass the test of time.

Even the words introduced by the above individuals did not always gain acceptance with the public. Skelton, for example, called a clumsy person a knucklybonyard and a fool a boddypoll. Perhaps it's a good thing the influence of him and the others went only so far.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The spread of English

It is a language nobody owns.
Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words

Henry Hitchings makes this comment near the end of his 2008 book The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English. He is speaking about the spread of the English language around the world so that far more people speak English as a second language than as their primary language. Travelers who speak only English can travel just about anywhere in the world and find some native they can communicate with. The language, as its name suggests, may have originated in England, but the English have not actually owned their language for a long time.

Hitchings doesn't say so, but nobody owns the Spanish or French languages either. Just as English spread in previous centuries thanks to conquest and colonization, so Spain and France spread their languages far and wide. Today Spanish is spoken throughout most of South and Central America, and thanks to immigration, legal and otherwise, in many parts of North America. French is the primary language in Quebec and in a few other parts of the world heavily influenced by France.

Most languages tend to be confined almost exclusively to the lands or regions where they originated. As Hitchings observes, if you hear people talking in Polish, chances are they are from Poland.

There were about 6,900 languages spoken in the world at the time Hitchings wrote his book, but hundreds of them have become extinct since then. "Realistically, fifty years from now the world's 'big' languages may be just six: Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Arabic and English," the author writes. Of these, only the last two, Arabic and English, have "significant numbers of non-native speakers," according to Hitchings. Converts to Islam must learn Arabic, while persons around the world are learning English for reasons of business, technology and entertainment.

As English spreads, it continues to gobble up words from other languages, claiming them as its own. The apt word Hitchings uses to describe the language is "omnivorous."