I was cleaning my office the other day (it gets so cluttered that eventually I just have to stop and straighten up; in this case, I needed to reclaim some space in the shelved closet and on the desk) … and a dusty page from a notebook fluttered onto the floor.
Wow. It’s a list of words (and the page on which they’re found*) from Irish author John Banville’s 2005 Man Booker Prize–winning novel, The Sea. I knew immediately what it was. I’d been so impressed by Banville’s word use, I started writing the words down. The list is … long. Some of them I knew; some I recognized but wasn’t sure of the meaning; some of them I simply had no clue.
plimsoll 11 ichor 114 boreen 188
apotropaic 13 maja 117 refection 193
losel 19 maenad 125 stodge 193
louring 24 Avrilaceous 129 jeroboam 200
womby 60 rufous 129 bombazine 204
minatory 65 shaly 132 plosive 205
eructation 70 groyne 136 caducous 209
gleet 70 cinereal 137 congeries 216
scurf 70 horrent 138 knobkerrie 245
quotidian supination 153 assegais 245
bathysphere 71 prelapsarian 156 cerement 248
marmoreal 74 glair 159 plangent 251
integument 85 quiff 162 littoral 255
etiolate 96 torsion 168 anabasis 255
revenant 98 lucent 169 crapulent 258
louche 104 cretonne 170 aperçus 260
vertiginous 104 ovine 172 vulgate 260
dyspeptic costive 175 reticent 261
apotheosis 107 Mitteleuropan 179
cicatrice 114 crepitant 184
I have a pretty large vocabulary, and I’m pretty good at grokking unfamiliar words and concepts in context, but as I read and read and read on, I was astonished at the variety of Banville’s verbiage, so casually and aptly dropped into these beautiful sentences.
Now, we’ve talked about voice, and we’ve talked about using simple and elegant prose. We’ve also talked about the overuse of the thesaurus; showing off—or trying to show off—usually outs itself. Best to be yourself.
But Banville is being himself here. His word choice is very precise. (The Paris Review says, “he is committed to language and to rhythm above plot, characterization, or pacing”—and I believe it.) His prose is perfect—and perfectly beautiful: on the beach, watching “the water racing in over the flats swift and shiny as mercury, stopping at nothing.” Can’t you just see that?
The interview in the Paris Review reveals an interesting writing technique:
Occasionally I will leave behind a sentence that I know is missing a word, and I’ll go back to it later. I wrote a sentence like that yesterday. A man is talking about his wife, who’s a singer. She has just woken up in the morning, and he says, “Even half asleep like this, she sounded a true, dark note, a thrilling . . .” I put in “cadence,” but I know it’s not the right word—so the sentence is just sitting there, waiting for me to find the right, the exact, the only word.
I use this method myself. When inspiration is hot, I get the sentence and paragraph down, even if there’s a word amiss; I’ll mark it with an asterisk and come back later to tweak it. Often it reveals itself as I write on; sometimes I have to look for it another time.
Banville has lots of interesting things to say—in this interview, and in The Sea. And you can learn from reading him. Give it a whirl.
Tweet: Vocabulary: best to be yourself. But Banville is being himself here.
Tweet: A dusty page from a notebook … it’s a list of words from a book I read years ago.
Tweet: I was so impressed by Banville’s word use, I started writing the words down.
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