How lightly and glibly we let the words roll off our tongues. Mindlessly we speak and write, clothed invisibly in miracles.
Language, that refined descendant of the caveman’s grunts and groans, is the most elegant of tools. And how marvellous that we are able to turn it on itself, an ouroboros, the mythical serpent biting its own tail. Using language to talk about language to talk about talking about language. Etcetera ad infinitum.
July’s blue moon ends the month pointedly. Full stop. And finds me reading a collection even more entertaining than a dictionary, an etymological Smarties box of words and their origins (Word Origins by John Ayto, 2005).
Blue dips its roots in a drop of yellow, from Indo-European *bhlewos, then swirls through a white shade of pale (Greek phalós) to the bruised and livid blá of Old Norse. It raises a brief English head, then disappears, to find its blue again from French bleu. Quite a rainbowy show for a bit of true blue.
A month is a measure of moons from the rootstock *menes- (Indo-European) and two full moons in a month make it a (bruised) blue.
So language comes loping slow from the tongue like a wolf at midnight blinking at the moon.
Some time ago I put an excerpt of a manuscript up for critique online, just to find out whether I was heading in the right direction. I got some helpful hints and tips, a few nudges and one or two very dogmatic don’ts. As any artist should know, I took these comments with a pinch of salt and a spoonful of sugar.
One critique that really riled me was the admonition that a sentence “should never ever be more than 50 words long”. I have since often wondered who dreamt up that silly rule. And why fifty?
What if you have written a great sentence, with all the words in the right places like the perfect murder plot, and it just happens to be fifty-one words long? Will the literary police demand that you cut out the extra word? Will it just disappear in the final version, like a subversive form of short messaging that demands you stick to 140 characters or an electronic form that does not allow for the length of double-barrelled surnames?
In her excellent book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose (and isn’t that a surname to die for as a writer!) devotes a whole chapter to sentences and pontificating on length never crosses her pen. Indeed, quoting a 134 word sentence from Samuel Johnson’s The Life of Savage, she comments:
“Despite its length, the sentence is economical. To remove even one word would make it less lucid and less complete.”
There are wonderfully long and wonderfully short sentences. The bias against over-fifties or one-worders is as restrictive for creative thinking as a whalebone corset. Henceforth I shall ignore it. *
Another rule surfacing everywhere like an annoying pop-up advertisement is the one that demands the killing of all things vaguely passive. Advanced grammar programs pick up all sentences written in the passive voice and immediately demand their extermination. Off with their heads!
I certainly understand how passive voice can handicap a good story, but there is a time and place for everything, also for villains and crooks and poor passive victims with their hands tied and their voices silenced with grammatical duct tape. This rule will thus also be ignored.
Do not mistake me for a revolutionary or a rebel. I am generally a decent rule-abiding citizen, dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s and getting upset at sloppy writing, dodgy grammar or careless painting. But I believe that art is bigger than its rule books. Creativity demands the bending of the cage bars. As Pablo Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”.
* I am currently reading The First Man, the posthumously published novel by Nobel Prize-winning Albert Camus, and it is riddled with extra-long sentences. Here is an example, an amazing 360 words:
“And he who had wanted to escape from the country without name, from the crowd and from a family without name, but in whom something had gone on craving darkness and anonymity – he too was a member of the tribe, marching blindly into the night near the old doctor who was panting at his right, listening to the gusts of music coming from the square, seeing once more the hard inscrutable faces of the Arabs around the bandstands, Veillard’s laughter and his stubborn face – also seeing with a sweetness and a sorrow that wrung his heart the deathly look on his mother’s face at the time of the bombing – wandering through the night of the years in the land of oblivion where each one is the first man, where he had to bring himself up, without a father, having never known those moments when a father would call his son, after waiting for him to reach the age of listening, to tell him the family’s secrets, or a sorrow of long ago, or the experience of his life, those moments when even the ridiculous and hateful Polonius all of a sudden becomes great when he is speaking to Laertes; and he was sixteen, then he was twenty, and no one had spoken to him, and he had to learn by himself, to grow alone, in fortitude, in strength, find his own morality and truth, at last to be born as a man and then to be born in a harder childbirth, which consists of being born in relation to others, to women, like all the men born in this country who, one by one, try to learn to live without roots and without faith, and today all of them are threatened with eternal anonymity and the loss of the only consecrated traces of their passage on this earth, the illegible slabs in the cemetery that the night has covered over; they had to learn how to live in relation to others, to the immense host of the conquerors, now dispossessed, who had preceded them on this land and in whom they now had to recognize the brotherhood of race and destiny.”