THE RIGHT WORD (Adventures in Language: Second Journey)

It’s a short journey this time, but I just came across a bit of writing in Geoffrey Household’s Hostage: London (1977 and promising to compete with Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima as the best novel ever written about the inner workings of a terror cell–see Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and Eric Ambler’s pre-war spy novels for the best novels written about innocents caught up in a terror web, which isn’t quite the same thing), that made me smile:

When the patrol had reached the millpond and turned back on their beat, Mick slipped away ahead of them. From where I was I could not see the pool of light flickering over the ground and in and among the tree roots, but its effect on the police was immediate.

Almost any good writer could have written those sentences and conceived the simple actions involved (a member of the cell drawing off the police so the narrator can proceed with his appointed rounds). But I like the clarity and specificity of “tree roots.” Leaving it at “trees” would have been perfectly acceptable to most writers and nearly all readers. But the “pool of light” is in the mind’s eye of the character. If the light were “flickering over the ground and in and among the trees” if would raise a conflict–subconscious in all but the most attentive reader’s mind, but likely to nag all but the least attentive–that the first rate writer would hate himself for accepting. If the light is playing among the trees, how has it remained only in the Narrator’s mind’s eye and not come to his actual vision? Plus, even if the light were shining directly behind him, not only would it flood his vision, it would find him out.

But among the “tree roots?”….All eyes–in the Narrator’s mind, the police patrol’s heads, or the reader’s imagination–are looking down…while the man trying to save London from a nuclear blast by betraying his fellow terrorists slips away.

Conflict resolved. Intensity heightened. Plot moving. All due to a right word, which, if it were not present, would have the best readers wondering what it is that’s….not quite right.

That’s the kind of writing that will put you in competition with Henry James.

And make your fellow writers take a moment to offer a salute.

LITERATURE FROM THE GOOD OLD TWENTIETH CENTURY

[In the further interest of acquainting my loyal readers with my general frame of artistic reference–and just for fun–here are a few notes on “My Favorite English Language novels of the 20th century that I actually read in the 20th century” (and actually compiled at the end of it because, hey, that’s my idea of fun!)…Among books I’ve read for the first time since, I would add Nabakov’s Bend Sinister and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. Among books I’ve re-read since, I would add Charles Portis’ True Grit and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I’ve come to realize is at least as conveniently misunderstood and widely abused by the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate as Gone With the Wind is by the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve. But I’ll stick with the ten I picked at the time. It’s not like anything that’s happened since has made me think any less of them!…These are in no particular order.]

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway 1926)

The book that not only made Hemingway’s reputation but placed in on such a firm foundation that it was able to more or less survive everything that happened after 1939. Which is saying something.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner, 1929)

This sort of made Faulkner’s reputation and certainly justified it. It also put Joycean invention at the service of compelling narrative, the very thing Joyce himself took such pains to avoid. Afterward, Faulkner took considerable pains to avoid such things himself, but once, at least, he was the equal of the old masters.

Old New York (Edith Wharton, 1924)

I felt like I had been there. And that Ms. Wharton was the only person who could ever make me want to go back.

A Mouse Is Born (Anita Loos, 1951)

Is it mere coincidence that the best, funniest and most effectively absurdist novel I’ve read about Hollywood is also among the most ignored? Somehow, I never think so when I’m reading it.

The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler, 1953)

A man solves a murder (in a Hollywoodland not so far removed from Ms. Loos’) using little more than the very same attitude that will refuse to let him pretend the solution–or any solution–ever had the slightest chance of changing anything that might have been worth changing.

Judgment on Deltchev (Eric Ambler, 1952)

The greatest of the world’s seeming endless supply of spy novelists, defining the Twentieth Century, thusly: To participate was to lose.

The Man In the High Castle (Phillip K. Dick, 1962)

When I first read this, I was still young, and I thought Dick’s vision was a touch hyperbolic (though still genuinely unsettling). My subsequent running engagement with reality has long since brought me around to his way of thinking.

Burr (Gore Vidal, 1973)

Most of the reasons America was bound to come up a bit short, winding their dry, anecdotal way through what is likely the best historical novel written by an American.

A High Wind In Jamaica (Richard Hughes, 1924)

Tragicomedy about children and pirates. Its original American publisher insisted on calling it “The Innocent Voyage.” For as long as it stood, that represented the least accurate title in the publishing industry’s long, ignominious history of mislabeling things.

Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936)

The Old South taken apart more thoroughly and savagely than Faulkner, General Sherman or James Baldwin ever could–meaning by a more or less sympathetic insider. Interesting–and subversive–that Scarlett O’Hara, every genteel southerner’s living nightmare, has come to represent their “way of life” in the public imagination so thoroughly. As the century’s most famous English-language literary character by a wide margin (and the only American literary character of any era who is both fully three-dimensional and undeniably iconic), she will probably do so forever. Believe me, they deserved less.