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It’s a curious question as to why some writing is all “gorgeousness and gorgeosity”, as Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” would have said; while others induce cringing, or worse, some form of nausea.

What do I mean? Writing is subjective and there may be some writing that does not move one person but another is greatly affected. It helps to distinguish between the emotion and the technical abilities present in the writing, though it’s best if they are fused.

To even things up I have two examples: The first is from Waugh’s 1934 novel, “A Handful of Dust” in the scene where Brenda Lost and John Beaver fall into each others arms. It has all intensity and sexual force of a damp cucumber sandwich. The main reason it happens because it has to for the story to work. It’s a plot device.

On the other hand, from Faulkner’s 1939 novel, “The Wild Palms” (If I forget thee, Jerusalem) when Charlotte Rittenmeyer and Harry Wilbourne encounter each other it has the snap of a Warner Bros. movie; the incendiary double meaning to escape the censors and in the words the moment is seared with desire.

Facile jokes apart there are other aspects too which highlight the differences between the language of the two books: Waugh’s is plagued by a everyday language and also displays indifferent technical abilities. His prose is recognizable and dull, witlessly so and afflicted by poor transitions and clumsy dialog. Faulkner is almost too good; not as good as his best books of the 1930s, but the sentences are musical, intense; the language interesting, the pace precise and most of all, the psychology of the leads has the graven understanding of tragedy.

It is true that in both cases the circumstances and thence the language must be different to suit time and character. Both writers achieve that aim with their characters but with one exception: to read a book takes time, the work ought to give a reader something they have not heard or read elsewhere, a quality in language that is contained only in that book.

Guy Cranswick
12 February 2012

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