An Appreciation Of Words Well Used, And Masters Of The Same

Anthony Lane, film critic for the New Yorker, wrote an appreciation for Elmore Leonard that is now posted on their website.  When important literary figures pass away, that magazine’s editors and writers share personal stories that serve to celebrate the lives of those who will write no more. On this site, we have studiously avoided obituaries but occasionally shared links to celebrate contributions of the recently departed.

Here, a slightly different purpose for linking to Lane. Yes, read this and better appreciate the prolific author’s contributions, which helps ease remorse at his passing because the contributions keep on giving (if you choose to see it that way). But more to the point here, celebrate the critic’s appreciation.  It takes guts, and mastery of words, to pit pulp fiction against high art (this act of critical bravery is after the jump):

…“The Switch” was published in 1978. Leonard (or Dutch, as his friends called him) had been writing about cowboys since the start of the nineteen-fifties, but he moved on to modern gunslingers with “The Big Bounce,” in 1969, and by the late seventies he was in full spate. The fullness required no enrichment of the style, let alone beautification; incapable of primping, Leonard chose to plane and pare until he ended up with folks like Melanie and Frank. As for their conversation, swatted back and forth like Ping-Pong, the phrasing as dry as a scoreline: if you wanted that brand of comic beat, with all the frills torn off, where did you go before Leonard came along? Early Evelyn Waugh.

Once you hear the Dutch accent you can’t get it out of your head, and for innumerable readers it became a siren song. I fell prey to it in the mid-eighties. Leonard had a breakout, with “Glitz” (1985), and it led many of us to raid the back catalogue with glee. Some of the books weren’t easy to get hold of, and the hunt only sharpened our zeal. A friend and I ravened through whatever we could lay hands on; there is a strange, barely sane satisfaction in happening upon an author—or a painter or a band—and making it your mission to consume everything that he, she, or they ever produced. You rarely succeed, yet the urge for completeness is a kind of love, doomed to be outgrown but not forgotten. I have often pursued the dead in that fashion, but Leonard may be the only living writer who spurred me to such a cause.

One problem was that a single page of him made other writers, especially the loftier and more lauded variety, seem about as legible as wallpaper paste. I recall being given a copy of “The Sea, the Sea,” the Iris Murdoch novel that won the Booker Prize in 1978. It came heartily recommended, so I wasted no time in laying it side by side with “The Switch,” which had been published in the same year. A random sample, from Dame Iris:

“Oh, he was slippery, slippery, touchy, proud. I must hold him, I must be tactful, careful, gentle, firm, I must understand how. Everything, everything, I felt, now depended on Titus, he was the centre of the world, he was the KEY. I was filled with painful and joyful emotions and the absolute need to conceal them. I could so easily, here, alarm, offend, disgust.”

Huh? It’s like being swallowed alive by a giant thesaurus. How are we supposed to work out, with any precision, what these fellows actually mean, through veils of verbal blubber such as that? Meanwhile, over in Detroit:

“You notice in the drive?” Ordell said to Louis. “He’s got an AMC Hornet, man, pure black, no shit on the outside at all, your plain unmarked car. But inside—tell him, Richard.”

Richard said, “Well, I got a rollbar. I got heavy-duty Gabriel Striders. I got a shotgun mount in front.”

“He’s got one of those flashers,” Ordell said. “Kojak reaches out, puts up on his roof?”

“Super Fireball with a magnetic bottom. Let’s see,” Richard said, “I got a Federal PA one-seventy electronic siren, you can work it wail, yelp, or hi-lo. Well, in the trunk I keep a Schermuly gas grenade gun, some other equipment. Night-chuk riot baton. An M-17 gas mask.” He thought a moment. “I got a Legster leg holster. You ever see one?”

Be honest, now: Which is better, Dame or Dutch? That is to say, leaving aside both snobbery and its inverse (for no fictional setting, genteel or rough, is intrinsically superior to any other), who is more alert to the life of an English sentence—its rises, failings, falls, and emergency stops? You know the answer. It certainly saved me from spending too much time on Booker Prize novels, whether winners or nominees, then as now. Decades on, I still laugh at the Kojak line, and it’s easy to imagine how a clumsier or less adventurous writer might have handled the same idea: “It’s the kind that Kojak has on TV. He reaches out and puts it up on the roof.” See? Dead on arrival. But technique is not all; more mysterious is what radiates out from such technical command, amid the speeches, and lends dramatic energy to the owners of the mouths. The Murdoch paragraph has a lot to say, but it leaves us utterly clueless as to what either Titus or the narrator is like; they earn no place in our mind’s eye. Whereas Ordell is right there in a couple of deft strokes, egging Richard on, and Richard himself, well, even the words “he thought a moment” put us instantly in the presence of a major blockhead—a wannabe cop, who, it transpires, collects Nazi memorabilia. Character is language in action…

Read the whole appreciation here.

2 thoughts on “An Appreciation Of Words Well Used, And Masters Of The Same

  1. Elmore Leonard will be sorely missed, least of all by me I’m sure. It’s sad, but creative writers will in the future probably feel a lot freer to use words like “asseverate” instead of the simple attributive “said.” Such is the passing of greatness.

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