Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lushness Revisited

Language is such a weak medium at times. In my last post I spoke about wanting lushness in what I read, but I don’t think I conveyed exactly what I meant. At least one commenter mentioned enjoying the “spare” prose of Hemingway, and Hemingway is actually a favorite of mine. How could I enjoy “lushness” and still enjoy Hemingway? It’s because lushness in my mind has nothing to do with wordiness. Lushness gives me sensory details, gives me emotional intensity, and gives me images.

Consider, from A Farewell to Arms, “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

Or:, from The Short Stories, “They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he lay down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally, the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.”

Though Hemingway is generally considered to write “spare” prose, these scenes of his are “lush” to me. Image piles upon image. I can see these scenes with absolutely clarity. I can feel myself inhabiting them. And though more subtle than in the “tiger” scenes I posted last time, there is an underlying current of powerful emotion singing through these words.

In contrast, here’s a scene from John Cheever that I found in Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power. “We drank in the garden. It was a spring day—one of those green-gold Sundays that excite our incredulity. Everything was blooming, opening, burgeoning. There was more than one could see—prismatic lights, prismatic smells, something that sets one’s teeth on edge with pleasure—but it was the shadow that was most mysterious and exciting, the light one could not define. We sat under a big maple, its leaves not yet fully formed but formed enough to hold the light, and it was astounding in its beauty, and seemed not like a single tree but one of a million, a link in a long train of leafy trees beginning in childhood.”

With the Cheever piece, I’m OK with “garden” and “spring day,” and then I’m lost all the way until “big maple.” Then I’m lost again. What is a “green-gold Sunday?” Why tell us there “was more than one could see.” Of course, there was. There always is. The writer needs to give us enough sensory details to help us create what is there. Cheever doesn’t even try. He confounds us with the overuse and misuse of “prismatic.” I can vaguely picture prismatic lights, but prismatic “smells!” And take “astounding in its beauty?” How much of a lame copout is that? This piece, although wordy, is the opposite of lush. It’s almost lifeless.

So, if lush isn’t the right word for what I want in a scene, that is sensory detail, emotion, and images, what is the right word?
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39 comments:

Lana Gramlich said...

Perhaps the word is "Charles-esque." That's MY word for it, anyway. ;)

David J. West said...

I'll second that one Lana.

Harry Markov said...

I can't honestly say that I found it lifeless. Green-gold to me made perfect sense. What I did not enjoy was the detail in this. Not sure if it made sense to be this detailed, but I am viewing it out of context.

Personally, all respect to Hemingway and his craft, I still don't like his prose. Yes, it does what it's supposed to do and yes, they carry and emotional charge, but I want my prose to deliver a punch.

Example: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Deka Black said...

Well, i never read Hemingway.But i believe the thing you want to say is you like prose what build settings, moods, everything, ... in a way what made you feel in the place, with the characters, smelling what they smell, putting your feet in the same floor, and turn your head at the sound of a doorbell while inthe other end of the house, the wife of the judge is, er... being "very friendly" with a visitor.

I am right?

BTW: Valeria, the judge's wife, is only a woman very needed and lonely due to a idiot husband.

the walking man said...

Loved the Hemingway, right to the point of descriptive narration. The Cheever reads like an 18th century European/Russian author. Very wordy without needing to be. That is an acquired taste these days. where Hemingway will just always be read for the ease of the prose and vividness of that ease.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana Gramlich, you always know just how to flatter me, sweetness.

David, I set myself up for that one, :)

Harry, Green-gold has a nice sound but I don't know what it means in relation to Sunday. The Cheever scene seemed lifeless to me because everything is so vague, so formless, so opposite of solid. Life has flesh but I don't find much in this piece.

Deka, yes, that's what I'm looking for. I want to feel I'm walking through real world rather than a sensory deprivation tank.

Mark, I've actually never read Cheever. I tried once and had to give it up after a page or two. Hemingway is actually very easy to read though, as you say.

Harry Markov said...

I can argue that perhaps this was the intention. If the novel is in the fleshless, smokey and not really centered in reality pieces, then ok.

But I do see your point. Just don't forget that a description can have more than one purpose. It can create crystal clear images or it can be used to evoke a feeling and a sliver of an image.

Christina said...

lol. Lana. "Charles-esque" You two are such a sweet couple.

I like the word lushness. I think it covers everything you want to convey in what you want to read. I just started reading a book and had to stop because it read too much like a police report than a novel. I like lushness too.

Charles Gramlich said...

Harry Markov, it may well have been on purpose. In my opinion it was a pretty poor purpose but I don't begrudge anyone enjoying it. Again, what I've been trying to do with these posts is show what "I" like, although I do personally think the Cheever stuff is crap. It didn't evoke anything in me, but ultimately it's all a matter of opinion it seems clear.

Christina, thankee. Yeah, lush is good in many things, I think.

Harry Markov said...

Just a friendly discussion on my part. have not read the guy, either of them to have an interest. Just theorizing. :D

Merisi said...

Charles, have you read James Salter?

I reread a few of Hemingway's books a couple of years ago and appreciated his writing more than ever. I have trouble thinking of his prose as "spare" - who thunk that one up? ;-)

Merisi said...

Charles, have you read James Salter?

I reread a few of Hemingway's books a couple of years ago and appreciated his writing more than ever. I have trouble thinking of his prose as "spare" - who thunk that one up? ;-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Harry, I haven't read enough Cheever to know much either, but I've pretty much read all of Hemingway's stuff. I would definitely consider him an influence on my work.

Merisi, I haven't read salter. I'll have to have a look. I do really enjoy my Hemingway though.

Deka Black said...

Then Charles. One very needed thing is, above all, love the story. Sometime sjust happen. And sometimes, you search and find something what make you say: "I love this. period.Bad thing i forgot my camera to take a pic of the city"

BernardL said...

It always comes back to the story. When the story sucks it really doesn't matter how you dress it up. When the story's good the language can be stark or lush. Anyway, I understood what you meant in the first post. :)

jodi said...

Charles, I enjoy lush prose as well and the Hemmingway quote from the only Hemminway I've read! As long as it's very clear, I can imagine it. But if it gets too 'flowery' it loses me!

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka Black, yes, love the story as a reader, and as a writer.


BernardL, I intend to post sometime on the concept of "narrative drive," which is really just that, the story. Someone like ERB can have great narrative drive and not the greatest writing style and you just don't care.

jodi, "flowery." NOw there's a whole nuther discussion. I'd really be interested in what you mean by flowery. I'm going to post on that topic at some point too.

laughingwolf said...

de-lush-ous, mayhap? ;)

but yeah, thoughtless throwing of a lot of words together does not a sensible story make...

Deka Black said...

Charles, maybe you like the work of Cordwainer Smith and his Instrumentality of Mankind series. Some concepts (the sub-people, the Nostrilia planet...) are very well done. And the storytelling makes you feel like every other character in the stories (sometimes this is not so good as it sounds).

Lana Gramlich said...

Flattery gets me everywhere. ;)

Gaston Studio said...

Just goes to show there are truly not enough descriptive words out there!

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, I see some writers who are thought of as literary doing just that. Or to it seems at times.

Deka Black, I've read some of his stuff. Liked it pretty well, although it's been a long time for me to remember much about it.

Lana Gramlich, doesn't take much to get you everywhere my dear.

Gaston Studio, I agree. WE need more words. I love 'em.

Heff said...

I'm with Lana. "Charles-esque" it is !

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, I kind of like that. Lana is pretty creative in keeping me happy.

Steve Malley said...

Granted I'm on my frist cup of coffee, but it seems to me a classic example of 'showing' vs. 'telling'.

Cornwall told you there were a couple of tigers on chains and left it there. Cheever told you it was an awesome morning and told you how it was evocative of youth.

Hemingway shows you the scene. One detail at a time, each one carefully chosen. Those careful choices make his prose spare and lean. His knack for picking the right details, and exactly enough, made him a genius.

Those two passages use concrete, physical details to build the mood. He sticks to the senses, and that makes all the difference.

So yeah, to me it's a case of show, don't tell...

pattinase (abbott) said...

Layers. I like layers of detail, presented over time. Green-gold is autumn to me.

Erik Donald France said...

Had anyone gone with . . .

Vivid
Concrete
Visceral
"Cinematic"?
Verdant
Vivacious
Man, that's a lot of Latin in that lineup, I guess . . .

One of the great lush writers to me is Proust. Hemingway was a lush, but his writing is compelling, too. (EVIL!)

Cloudia said...

Interesting conjecture. Number of syllables tells us nothing about the effect of the language upon us. . .




Aloha from Waikiki

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Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, I think that's it in a nutshell. I didn't really think of it that way until you mentioned it, but I think that must be exactly what I'm saying.

pattinase (abbott), Layers, yes. Details that build on others. I thought he meant green-gold possibly as summer, although green-gold to me is a football uniform color.

Erik Donald France, vivid certainly brings what I mean to mind. Concrete maybe. I'll have to think more about that. But probably.

Cloudia, I've always heard that short syllable words, anglo saxon words, have more impact than more complex words. Most of the time I agree with that.

Jodi MacArthur said...

I agree with yuo on this one, Charles. 100%

(snickering at your wife's "Charles-esque" ;-) You both are great.)

Mary Witzl said...

I'm damned if I can think of the right word there myself, but I know what you mean. 'Lush' makes you think of excessively rich prose bordering on the purple, but I still like it.

I want trim, vivid prose that balances good rhythm with evocative descriptions and isn't over-loaded with 'Aren't I clever?' embellishments. I want feeling that isn't mawkish and I want my sympathies stirred without my being aware of it. I think Hemingway actually does that very well in those examples you've given. I wonder why I don't like Hemingway. Maybe I need to go back and reread him.

Dorothy Parker was a huge Hemingway fan. That one fact alone always makes me feel like giving him another chance.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi Mac, Lana makes me better than I am.

Mary Witzl, Hemingway has been panned so much by critics for a "super macho" attitude but I really don't see it. He wasn't much of a husband to several of his wives but I don't see him ever as having denigrated women. but he's got that reputation. I think he realy had a feel for human relationships, and although he's probably better with men and women, I don't think he's too bad with the other gender either.

Travis Cody said...

I'm tempted to take the cop out and say...I can't really describe it, but I know it when I read it.

I think your word lush is the right word. And I agree that it's not necessarily about the quantity of words, but rather the right selection, combination, and sequence of words to create a lush description.

Michelle's Spell said...

Lush it a beautiful word -- one of my favorite albums is called Lush Life. That pretty much sums it up for me! Happy thanksgiving to you and lovely Lana!

Merisi said...

Charles, here is a link with a few sentences from Salter's "Light Years" (German site, but the Salter text is quoted in the original language).

Happy Thanksgiving to you and Lana,
Merisi

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Cody, yeah, it definitly is in part a know it when I see it issue.

Michelle, You too. Hope your Thanksgiving is fun.

Merisi, thanks. I appreciate that. I'll check it out. Happy thanksgiving to you as well.

sage said...

I agree with you on Hemingway--I feel the lush in his writing. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sage, thanks, I did.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, you frequently use the word sensory or sensual when you speak of lush. I think you are really talking about the sensory experience - you want a vividness of imagery. The image is our direct connection to how me input information - visual (eyes), aural, touch, smell, and taste.

When you think about it, part of ERB's narrative drive is sensory - he is very vivid, imagistically. I remember a library patron who used to say to me that when he read Burroughs he visualized everything in front of him as if happening on a small plain (he would move his hand out flat, and circle it around in front of him, parallel to the ground, off to one side) or like a movie. It is what the Cheever lacks and what the Hemingway (and Burroughs) has. Direct, sensory input.