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?