Where George Bernard Shaw got his style

January 30, 2014

An anecdote from G.B. Shaw’s Everybody’s Political What’s What (1944), quoted by James Sutherland in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, reveals the Irish author’s early stylistic inspiration:

That I can write as I do without having to think about my style is due to my having been as a child steeped in the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Cassell’s Illustrated Shakespeare. I was taught to hold the Bible in such reverence that when one day, as I was buying a pennyworth of sweets in a little shop in Dublin, the shopkeeper tore a leaf out of a dismembered Bible to wrap them in, I was horrified, and half expected to see him struck by lightning. All the same I took the sweets and ate them; for to my Protestant mind the shopkeeper, as a Roman Catholic, would go to hell as such, Bible or no Bible, and was no gentleman anyhow. Besides, I liked eating sweets.

That the Bible was already dismembered suggests it was a routine source of raw material for the shopkeeper. Had he a secular alternative to hand – old newspapers, for instance – he might have made a tóimhsín for the sweets and allayed his damnation.


The man who spoke with perfect sentences

November 5, 2013

Anyone who has ever transcribed an interview, conversation, or unrehearsed speech of any sort will be very aware of how disfluent this form of language is. We start and stop and stall, repeat ourselves, insert filler phrases and sounds, search for forgotten words, abandon trains of thought, deal with interruptions and distractions, follow tangents, and double back.

It’s a far cry from writing, which gives us the luxury of time to prepare and arrange the translation of our thoughts. Grammar is therefore normally much tighter in writing than in speech. And because we learn about language through writing, significantly later than we develop speech, we cannot help but find speech wanting when we (unfairly) compare the two.

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Raymond Chandler on storytelling and style

August 4, 2013

I’ve begun reading Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, an anthology of 23 Marlowe stories written by different crime/mystery authors plus one by Chandler himself (‘The Pencil’). It was edited by Byron Preiss with the consent of the Chandler estate, to mark the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.

Taking on Marlowe is a tall order, but I expect even the weaker stories will offer much to please and interest. The introduction, by Chandler biographer Frank MacShane, quotes from a letter Chandler wrote in his late fifties in which he muses on writing and style. I found more of the letter elsewhere, and it’s too good not to excerpt at length:

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The celestial aspirate of Mister Lem

March 8, 2013

Stanisław Lem, in The Star Diaries, has an amusing inversion of our custom on Earth of adding more and more letters and titles to our names as we gain academic and other distinctions.

From “The Thirteenth Voyage”:

My object, when I set out from Earth, was to reach an extremely remote planet of the Crab constellation, Fatamiasma, known throughout space as the birthplace of one of the most distinguished individuals in our Universe, Master Oh. This is not the real name of that illustrious sage, but they refer to him thus, for it is impossible otherwise to render his true appellation in any earthly language. Children born on Fatamiasma receive an enormous number of titles and distinctions as well as a name that is, by our standards, inordinately long.

The day Master Oh came into the world he was called Hridipidagnittusuoayomojorfnagrolliskipwikabeccopyxlbepurz. And duly dubbed Golden Buttress of Being, Doctor of Quintessential Benignity, Most Possibilistive Universatilitude, etc., etc. From year to year, as he studied and matured, the titles and syllables of his name were one by one removed, and since he gave evidence of uncommon abilities, by the thirty-third year of his life he was relieved of his last distinction, and two years later carried no title whatever, while his name was designated in the Fatamiasman alphabet by a single and – moreover – voiceless letter, signifying “celestial aspirate” – this is a kind of stifled gasp which one gives from a surfeit of awe and rapture.

Lem’s literature is as much philosophical excursion as it is storytelling (with plenty of playful asides, as above). He has a gift for both, and a wicked sense of humour – some chapters in The Star Diaries are like Borges having a Douglas Adams dream, as I remarked at the time.

He’s probably best known for Solaris, but it’s not one of the handful I’ve read so far, all of them brilliantly entertaining and consistently thought-provoking. It seems appropriate that Mister Lem’s own name is so short: not quite Master Oh’s stifled gasp of awe and rapture, but not a million light-years away either.

*

Edit: Speaking of aspiration and verbal invention, Passive-Aggressive Notes has a note this week from a 6-year-old girl to her mother with what appears to be a sigh of frustration: “hhhh”. I don’t think I’ve seen a sigh spelled so perfectly before.


All the words went down the wires

February 8, 2013

I recently read Deirdre Madden’s novel Remembering Light and Stone (1992), which some of you may remember seeing in a bookmash here a couple of years ago.

Narrated by an troubled, introverted Irishwoman in Italy, the story weaves a strange and intimate spell, though some readers may find it quite gloomy. I hadn’t read Madden’s work before, but I’ll definitely read more of it. Take this short passage:

When I was a child, I couldn’t understand how telegraph poles worked. I thought all the words went down the wires, and if you cut a wire, language would drip out of it like water from a broken pipe.

I remember having similar thoughts myself as a child, struggling to grasp how telephony worked and assuming that with the right equipment you could listen to the jumbled flow of words as they sped along the wires from mouth to distant ear.


James Thurber on writing and rewriting

August 10, 2012

A few lines from James Thurber today: first, on the fun of writing and rewriting:

[T]he act of writing is either something the writer dreads or actually likes, and I actually like it. Even rewriting’s fun. You’re getting somewhere, whether it seems to move or not.

Though I think it’s possible to both dread and enjoy the act of writing: these need not be mutually exclusive. I know writers who are world-class procrastinators because they can’t bear the thought of writing, but who like nothing better once they knuckle down to it.

And I love this description of how Thurber’s act of writing appears to the people around him:

I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, “Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” my wife says, “he’s writing something.”

Both quotations are from ‘The Art of Fiction No. 10’ at the Paris Review.


The smell of spoiled words

July 5, 2012

The Loves of Faustyna is a smart, subversive comic novel about life, romance and activism under Communist rule in 1960s–80s Poland. Written by Nina FitzPatrick, a pseudonym for Nina Witoszek and her late partner Pat Sheeran, Faustyna is packed with sly wit, flights of absurdist fancy, and answers to questions you never thought to ask.

I went to conferences and meetings where garrulous men with glamorous stubble agonized over decades of stupidity and blunder. Our country was short of everything except words. Rising above the fug of cigarette smoke, stale sweat and Dettol was the stench of verbiage.

If you rant for days in a room without doing normal things like cooking dinner or playing with a child or washing your hair, words begin to spoil. The smell is a mixture of lead, liquorice and slaked lime. Opening windows and doors doesn’t get rid of it.

Beneath the breezy, biting style there is satirical substance and historical heft. Much is said with little (“Our country was short of everything except words”).

An earlier book by Witoszek and Sheeran, Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia, apparently won the 1991 Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize for fiction until the book’s unorthodox authorship was revealed. I haven’t read it, but there’s some discussion on the blog Culture Vulture.

In the comments there you’ll find a lovely tribute to Sheeran by Julian Gough, who has also written him into his Jude novels as an enigmatic inventor. My thoughts on Jude in London are here. Both books offer a vivid, anarchic recreation of reality; where Jude‘s is surreal, Faustyna‘s is bittersweet and sometimes troubling.

My impression is that Witoszek was the principal author of The Loves of Faustyna, but that’s just a hunch; I know nothing of how the co-authorship worked. But it worked.


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