Friday, October 7, 2011

Beautiful Language

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

Last week, I cited a passage from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson. Several pages beyond last week’s sample, a character, the concierge, describes when she discovered reading:

I learned to read. . . . written signs together, the infinite combinations and marvelous sounds. . . . I read as if deranged, . . . .The feeble child had become a hungry soul (45).

The word deranged struck me. It seems incongruous when discussing reason and beauty, yet I can remember passages that struck me, caused me to stowaway aboard the author’s vessel and leave behind all that was real and familiar in favor of worlds unseen, feelings unimagined.

The first book that seemed to unhinge me, to draw me on to a second, third and fourth reading was Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (New York: Random House, 1943).  I was much too young to comprehend the love between Catherine and Heathcliff or Catherine and Edgar, but their inability to choose well and wisely hinted at love’s conquering tyranny and man’s frailties. Both fascinated me as did Bronte’s language on the second page:

Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed; one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun (2).

Since then, I see the slant of trees and know that Frost’s ice storms (from “Birches”) are not responsible. The unrelenting, bracing winds are. Moreover, I see that thorns might be gaunt and crave the blessings of the sun; they are images that paint themselves across the mind, images that endure.

Another book that deranged me is Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag (New York: Harper and Row, 1955). Stories of the Pilgrims and Puritans, including their hardships, never impressed upon me just how soul-shattering and faith-destroying those hardships might be. Rolvaag’s book stamped upon me a clear and vivid perception of hardships insurmountable, triumphs crushed, and life withering under the assaults of Nature. At first, however, the pioneers experience only glory:

Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon[ . . . .] Bright, clear sky, today, tomorrow, and for all time to come.

[. . .] And sun! And still more sun! It set the heavens afire every morning; it grew with the day to quivering golden light—then softened into all the shades of red and purple as evening fell [....] Pure colour everywhere. A gust of wind, sweeping across the plain, threw into life waves of yellow and blue and green. Now and then a dead black wave would race over the scene[....] a cloud’s gliding shadow [. . .]now and then [. . . .] (3)

The plains, as Rolvaag describes them, move in light and shadow, color and warmth, possibilities and promise. They live as characters live within the pages of a novel. And I have never seen Nature as anything less since. Nature is majestic and fantastical; it is also malignant, another truth that Rolvaag unfolds and resolves in the final words of his novel:

One day during the spring . . . , a troop of young boys were ranging the prairies, in search of some yearling cattle that had gone astray. They came upon the haystack, and stood transfixed. On the west side of the stack sat a man, with his back to the mouldering hay. This was in the middle of a warm day in May, yet the man had two pairs of skis along with him; one pair lay beside him on the ground, the other was tied to his back. He had a heavy stocking cap pulled well down over his forehead, and large mittens on his hands; in each hand he clutched a staff [. . . . ] To the boys, it looked as though the man were sitting there resting while he waited for better skiing [. . . .]

[. . .] His face was ashen and drawn. His eyes were set toward the west (452).

In this novel, a woman walks into a pond and allows herself to drown because of the unrelenting sameness of season after season, a cycle of never ending hope and deprivation, promise and betrayal, plenty and want. The man from the passage above, a fine loving man and father, becomes so lost in the swirling snows that he sits down to die against hay that has rotted under its own weight, facing west, seeing only the dying days.

These were unimaginable consequences of forging a new world. These were unimaginable consequences of being human, at the mercy of Nature’s might and majesty. These were heretofore unimaginable consequences in a world that seemed solid and forgiving, but that is, in fact, transient and stern. Yes, this book shook me.

The list of books that have similarly shaken, delighted, and startled me does not exist. I did not write them down, and I would surely fail to include important authors and titles. Shakespeare would be among them—everything I’ve read by Shakespeare, sonnets, histories, tragedies, and comedies. Wordsworth would be there, too. Joy Kogawa’s Obasan. Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree. Lots of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some of Ernest Hemingway. Cormac McCarthy. Toni Morrison. Steinbeck, especially his last, The Winter of Our Discontent. Robert Frost—well, poetry in general. And most everything I’ve read by Annie Dillard who writes in The Writing Life (Dillard, Annie, Annie Dillard, Annie Dillard, and Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek ; An American Childhood ; The Writing Life. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1990. Print.):

The line of words fingers your own heart. It invades arteries, and enters the heart on a flood of breath; it presses the moving rims of thick valves; it palpates the dark muscle strong as horses, feeling for something, it knows now what. A queer picture beds in the muscle like a worm encystedsome film of feeling, some song forgotten, a scene in a dark bedroom, a corner of the woodlot, a terrible dining room, that exalting sidewalk; these fragments are heavy with meaning. The line of words peels them back, dissects them out. Will the bared tissue burn? Do you want to expose these scenes to the light? You may locate them and leave them, or poke the spot hard till the sore bleeds on your finger, and write with that blood. If the sore spot is not fatal, if it does not grow and block something, you can use its power for many years, until the heart resorbs it (20).

Could anyone describe the art of writing by which we become deranged any better?

Reading Challenge:

Read any of the works cited in this post. They are:

o   The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter
o   The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
o   Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag
o   Obasan by Joy Kogawa
o   The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
o   Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Or, read any of the authors listed. In addition to those in the list above, they are:

o   Annie Dillard
o   Robert Frost
o   Cormac McCarthy
o   Toni Morrison
o   William Shakespeare
o   William Wordsworth

Writing Challenge:

From one of the books or poems from the lists above, select a passage that briefly deranged you, then imitate its word order with a fresh line of words of your own creation.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Look back at the passages from Rolvaag. Most of the ellipses are inside brackets. Why?

MLA requires that ellipses used by the original author be wrapped in brackets so that readers will know that nothing has been omitted from the passage by the writer making use of the quotation. Ellipses that stand alone, without brackets, are those of the person quoting, not the author. Here is the rule as it appears for The OWL at Purdue (

"Adding or Omitting Words in Quotations

If you add a word or words in a quotation, you should put brackets around the words to indicate that they are not part of the original text.

Jan Harold Brunvand, in an essay on urban legends, states: "some individuals [who retell urban legends] make a point of learning every rumor or tale" (78).

If you omit a word or words from a quotation, you should indicate the deleted word or words by using ellipsis marks, which are three periods ( . . . ) preceded and followed by a space. For example:

In an essay on urban legends, Jan Harold Brunvand notes that "some individuals make a point of learning every recent rumor or tale . . . and in a short time a lively exchange of details occurs" (78).

Please note that brackets are not needed around ellipses unless adding brackets would clarify your use of ellipses."