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.

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