Words. What I have been dealing with a lot, these last few months. Of course I deal with them all the time anyway, talking, reading, holding conversations in my head (we all do this, don’t we? Not just me?), but there’s something about writing which brings you up close and personal with words. I have to think about which words I use and in which order, what they convey, how they sound. I think about the rhythm they create; on occasion I add or delete a word to make a sentence or a paragraph more euphonious. Even though I’m writing, not speaking, I get to meet and shake hands with some of the great oratorical devices: metaphor and simile, repetition, the rule of three, juxtaposition, trope and litotes, although I don’t have to worry about how the words sound when spoken, thank goodness. Of which more later.
Fortunately for me, and perhaps for you, I love words. I find them endlessly, gloriously fascinating, how we use them, what effects they can convey. I am not a linguist; the only other language I can speak is Italian, very badly; I cannot say I know it. However I believe from what I have read that English is one of the most expressive and varied languages. Centuries ago sword fighters would covet swords of Toledo steel for their strength and flexibility. English is like a Toledo blade; endlessly strong, endlessly flexible, extraordinarily adaptable. Once you have your weapon, the language, all you need to do is to learn how to master it, a trick which can take a lifetime.
Reflect for instance on one of my favourite examples of the writer’s art, Pride and Prejudice, and, particularly, my favourite sentence, perhaps my favourite in all English literature. “Darcy had just determined not to fix his eyes upon Elizabeth.” At this point in the novel we have not seen Darcy for a while. We know that he was unwillingly in love with Elizabeth, but we don’t know what has happened since. Then he suddenly turns up on the streets of Meryton and Jane Austen has to tell us about him, how he is feeling, and most importantly, what he is feeling about Elizabeth and what he is feeling about his feelings for her. And she has to do all this without getting inside his head, since none of her writing is from a male point of view.
She does it magnificently in eleven words, and moreover she doesn’t tell us any of it; she shows us. Darcy is still clearly in love with Elizabeth , since he wants to look at her, and he is trying not to be, since he wants to stop himself from looking at her. Show not tell; Martin Scorsese couldn’t do it better. It’s the novelistic equivalent of “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” She has a sword and she knows how to use it.