Synonyms to Spare

lee-key https://unsplash.com/search/the-sun?photo=fZv8eSA7gkc

Musing on how to describe the Sun

 

When you’re feeling ill, are you indisposed or infirm? What about lousy, queasy, or woozy? Or are you just a hypochondriac who prefers the word valetudinarian (because it sounds a lot like valedictorian and valerian)?

It matters.

A thesaurus may serve up a whole heap of “synonyms”, words that may be interchangeable in some contexts, but even in off-the-cuff speech you can rarely apply one at random—and if you do, you’re risking rosy cheeks, unintended humour, and hasty corrections.

Luckily, our minds do not work with machine-like precision: only a few more-or-less apt words will present themselves in any given situation. To recall the rest, we have to make a conscious effort, as the writers amongst us do.

But there’s more to synonyms than word-for-word considerations; what about phrase-for-phrase, description-for-description?

The Sun is the golden disk in the sky, the centre of a heliocentric worldview, the star closest to Earth, the giver of light and life, it is the Greek Helios, the Egyptian Ra, it is Romeo’s Juliet,  …  A fun exercise, you might say, but in the end you always need to chose le mot juste.1

Actually, no. Sometimes you can just pile on the synonyms. Here’s Thomas Mann writing about his protagonist Aschenbach in Death in Venice (translation by Michael Henry Heim). How many synonymous descriptions can you count?

Quote:  There he sat, the master, the eminently dignified artist, the author of “A Wretched Figure,” who had rejected bohemian excess and the murky depths in a form of exemplary purity, who had renounced all sympathy for the abyss and reprehended the reprehensible, climbed the heights, and, having transcended his erudition and outgrown all irony, accepted the obligations that come with mass approbation, a man whose fame was official, whose name had been made noble, and whose style schoolboys were exhorted to emulate—there he sat, his eyes closed, with only an occasional, rapidly disappearing sidelong glance, scornful and sheepish, slipping out from under them and a few isolated words issuing from his slack, cosmetically embellished lips, the result of the curious dream logic of his half-slumbering brain.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Gravity of description.

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I Shied Away From the Lyrical: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: A bright star quivered in the sky; another star trembled closer by. The sky was night blue, with strands of day, with threads of day, feminine, seamstressy. The scissors of wind sounded as in a barbershop, and it was difficult to know if one’s own hair or the Chinese silk of the sky was being cut.

— Martín Adán, The Cardboard House (translation by Katherine Silver).

Growing up I shied away from the lyrical. I feared I would not “understand it”, or that “understanding it” was a matter of special education, verbal intelligence, and practiced sensibility. I took long enough to convince myself otherwise. So now I hope to convince others who share even a fraction of this misguided opinion to abandon it forthwith.

Ironically, my conviction stemmed from my own inclination to turn every school assignment into a string of poetic allusions; most of my classmates said they enjoyed my writing, but didn’t understand it. The teachers assigned me top marks for effort and “aether-ic effect” (am I misremembering, was it esoteric?), and asked that next time I write about a concrete event. But my essays were already about concrete events, only those that happened within me!

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Life Without Parenthesis …

… would be impossible.

ricardo-gomez-angel https://unsplash.com/search/blue-sky?photo=jNm43zrIN0Q

Dome of flawless blue

 

Day-to-day dialogue would be unhelpful and dull without parenthetical asides, mid-sentence descriptions, reminders, questions, interjections. Written language would lose commas, dashes, and round brackets. Indeed, the news, already written to be as straightforward and stylistically unadorned as possible, would convey only half of the information, and only to the already informed reader. For example, as I am composing this post, the front page sports article of the BBC is about Venus Williams competing at Wimbledon, and the first time a comma appears in the article it signals a parenthetical insertion (italics are mine).

The American, 37, will overtake sister Serena’s record – set when she was 35 at the Australian Open in January – by winning her sixth SW19 title.

Imagine that those two italicised fragments were missing. The first, telling us Venus’s age, is crucial to the article’s lead sentence: Venus Williams could become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era; the second, answers a natural question that arises while reading about Serena’s record, namely, what is the record? (Added Saturday afternoon: Sorry, Venus!)

The language of literature, though, would suffer even further without parentheses. Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence (introduced in my previous post, The Woman and the Painter). The Irish protagonist reflects on life in America; the we refers to him and two of his Irish girlfriends.

Quote: Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia, of homesickness, even? Living there, amid those gentle, paintbox colours, under that dome of flawless blue, was like living in another world, a place out of a story-book. (I used to dream of rain — real, daylong, Irish rain — as if it were something I had been told about but had never seen.) Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It’s true, at times it crossed our minds, or it crossed my mind, at least, that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves.

That is 99 words, of which 54 are parenthetical.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Rich prose: lyrical, colloquial, intimate.

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The Woman and the Painter

Who is she?

Quote: The squalor is what strikes her first of all. Dirt and daubs of paint everywhere, gnawed chicken bones on a smeared plate, a chamber-pot on the floor in the corner. The painter matches the place, with that filthy smock, and those fingernails. He has a drinker’s squashed and pitted nose. She thinks the general smell is bad until she catches a whiff of his breath. She discovers that she is relieved: she had expected someone young, dissolute, threatening, not this pot-bellied old soak. But then he fixes his little wet eyes on her, briefly, with a kind of impersonal intensity, and she flinches, as if caught in a burst of strong light. No one has ever looked at her like this before. So this is what it is to be known! It is almost indecent.

Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, c. 1633–1634

Not the painting in question, but it is the style you should have in mind. This is Rembrandt’s Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, c. 1633–1634.

 

Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidencea fictional book-length confession of a man awaiting trail for bludgeoning a girl to death while attempting to steal a valuable painting. The narrative structure is complex and nonstandard: the protagonist, Freddie, interweaves his recollections of the events leading up to the crime (first person past tense) with his confessional voice addressing you, my lord, the judge (first person present, with second person thrown in occasionally). Or perhaps this is the simplest, most natural narrative structure: that of one person telling another about an event and interjecting commentary with hindsight.

Back to the Quote and the question: who is the woman in Banville’s story?

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Charged With Eternity: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: The car came to a halt by the side of the road. I opened the door and got out. It wasn’t yet completely dark, but it was no longer day. The land all around us and the hills into which the highway went winding were a deep, intense shade of yellow that I have never seen anywhere else. As if the light (though it seemed to me not so much light as pure colour) were charged with something, I didn’t know what, but it could well have been eternity.

— Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)

Such colloquial equivocating in that final sentence of the Quote, such seemingly disinterested prose until the final word, where—of all things that could have charged the light—Bolaño sees eternity. It is as natural in Bolaño’s prose, as it would be in another writer’s poetry.

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In the Eye of the Guinea Pig

 

It’s an old expression.

Before-Christ old.

Lots of people have said it.

Shakespeare has said it: Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye (Love’s Labour’s Lost).

You probably know it as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

I know it as T-shirt slogan and the vision of the credits from the James Bond film, GoldenEye, with Tina Turner singing the soundtrack in the background (speaking of farfetched memory and meaning overlay).

In More Mileage for Your Metaphorical MoneyI gave a few clichés a new polish. Today, I look at Anne Carson‘s version of what is to be found in the eye of the beholder; her Quote isn’t as snazzy, but in some grotesque way it is memorable. Towards the end of Autobiography of Red the protagonist, Geyron, attends a meal where guinea pigs are served … as food. He does not eat the poor cooked beast on his plate (it’s a she, we’re told). Geyron and his friends get up to leave.

Quote: In the cooling left eye of the guinea pig / they all stand reflected / pulling out their chairs and shaking hands. The eye empties.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Unadorned, cinematic detail.

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Earthlings: Quirks and Perks

vivek-krishnakumar https://unsplash.com/search/lava?photo=9UUge-2dWwM

Quote: 

Little rackety wind went by. / Moon gone. Sky shut. Night had delved deep. Somewhere (he thought) beneath / this strip of sleeping pavement / the enormous solid globe is spinning on its way—pistons thumping, lava pouring / from shelf to shelf, / evidence and time lignifying into their traces.

— Anne Carson,  Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse

A reminder that beneath the layer of human activity the planet still does as it pleases—we are mere passengers, to be lignified in time.

Until then, let us find meaning in the passing scenery.

We are part of the passing scenery.

Big Silver Pin

markus-kauppinen https://unsplash.com/search/pin?photo=2W0feTQOor0

If there’s no silver, settle for gold

Quote: 

It happened by accident. Geryon’s grandmother came to visit and fell off the bus. / The doctors put her together again with a big silver pin. / Then she and her pin had to lie still in Geryon’s room / for many months.

Today’s Quote from Anne Carson‘s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse could also have been an excerpt from a prose piece. (I talked about the structure of her novel in verse in Dark Smell of Velvet)

A few observations without knowing any context:

  • Four sentences, four (or more) facts.
  • The tone is emotionless, straightforward.
  • There is an awkward, creepy feeling between the lines.

A bit of context explains some of the above: Geryon is a small boy, who is also a red-winged monster; the close third person narrator is saying why Geryon had to move out of his room and into his brother’s. The Quote is heavily filtered through this unusual boy’s mind, with the purpose of not only providing the back story, but more importantly, providing insight into his worldview.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Figurative language delivered as fact.

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Dark Smell of Velvet

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Imagine you’re reading about two people having an awkward night-time conversation. One of them says: this isn’t a question it’s an accusation. You then read:

Quote:  Something black and heavy dropped between them like a smell of velvet.

My first thoughts: Fine line, weird line, I’m not sure I understand it, but I do actually, it’s neat, it passes.

What are your thoughts?

The Quote is from Anne Carson‘s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998), a mesmerising, modern re-creation of an Ancient Greek myth as a coming-of-age story featuring a red-winged boy called Geryon. Its form is unusual; its content, unforgettable.

An example of a typical verse novel, according to Wikipedia, would be Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is mostly written in the iambic tetrameter of Onegin stanzas that follow the rhyming scheme aBaBccDDeFFeGG, with the lower-upper case letters designating feminine-masculine endings. A restrictive form.

I recently reread Onegin, and the experience is nothing like that of reading the Autobiography of Red. Carson follows no rhyme or stanza scheme, no obvious metre; typographically, her lines alternate regularly between long and short lines. Whereas Onegin is written in corseted language of colloquial register, Autobiography of Red is written in loosely structured narrative verse while balancing poetic metaphor and plainly stated fact.

You’ll have a chance to see what I mean over the next few posts. But today’s poser is: What is black and heavy and can drop like a smell of velvet?

What makes the Quote quiver?

Sense shock.

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Con, Con, Congeries

https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14733168616/in/photolist-orVkJy-otWZaC-orXrW9-otEZaP-ocuuyA-orTUAQ-otYaiz-oygCAv-orWcYS-otWVQp-osNqow-otGvdn-odjCWu-otKkrq-orQ1Dj-otLpgN-ous93c-orX1JW-odruyL-otEVWp-otKWHY-otLuYQ-ovGWj4-otJdP9-owbpMh-otNjBU-ocuqLn-otYyrL-orWESb-ocuBgk-ovGfkX-otREu4-orXPZh-otN8t1-otDGiV-orVviJ-odctZK-oygr3k-otG9Ki-otKr4N-ovByFz-otWDpZ-ocYv7G-orVRZd-ouQhMx-otWu39-oeQCcX-owu9yU-otZ6UP-otFP9e

The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.

And so starts Charles Williams‘s War in HeavenIt’s a murder mystery. It’s a Grail quest. It’s a very British take on … ? Whatever it is, its beginning had me gripped—for about ten pages. The opening line isn’t today’s Quote, although, it has merit: there’s the urgency (the wildly ringing telephone), a conflict and contrast (but without results), and the kicker in the most emphatic position of a sentence (but the corpse).

Moving on. A character called Kennet Mornington is caught in a drizzle as he exits the train station. He takes refuge under a shed.

Quote: 

“Oh, damn and blast!” [Kenneth] cried with a great voice. “Why was this bloody world created?”

“As a sewer for the stars,” a voice in front of him said. “Alternatively, to know God and to glorify Him for ever.”

Kenneth peered into the shed, and found that there was sitting on a heap of stones at the back a young man of about his own age, with a lean, long face, and a blob of white on his knee which turned out in a few minutes to be a writing pad.

“Quite,” Kenneth said. “The two answers are not, of course, necessarily alternative. They might be con-con consanguineous? contemporaneous? consubstantial? What is the word I want?”

“Contemptible, concomitant, conditional, consequential, congruous, connectible, concupiscent, contaminable, considerable,” the stranger offered him. “The last is, I admit, weak.”

“The question was considerable,” Kenneth answered.

What makes the Quote quiver?

A list,

a pile,

a heap,

a stack,

an assemblage,

an accumulation,

an aggregation,

an agglomeration.

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