Study This: The Sea

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.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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6 Comments

  1. Bob Egg says:

    The Italian missus knew 90% of these words. Everything is easy when you studied latin!

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      And the ones she didn’t know were probably the Irish/British localisms that arose from something-not-Latin. How I wish I’d studied Latin when I had the chance! The few I knew before I read them in The Sea I’d learned from previous reading.

  2. Thank you, Jamie, for the asterisk idea. I’m going to give it a try. I will also take a look at John Banville’s writing.

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      That method has worked well for me. :)

      • By the way, John Banville has a free e-book available on Amazon. I downloaded a copy of it (Eclipse). Not that I needed another book. But you can never have too many. ;) Plus I got a sample chapter of The Sea. ❀ This is just in time, as I try my hand at a new WIP. I’m writing out a synopsis beforehand for the first time–curious to see if it helps me relax more when I write so that I’ll include more literary touches in my manuscript. Live, love, laugh & learn.

        • Jamie Chavez says:

          Oh my gosh! The title of the post I’m working on right now is called “A Synopsis Is a Useful Exercise.” :) I think you’ll be glad you did that.

          Thanks for the tip too! :)

  3. Number 18 says:

    […] Margaret Atwood / Oryx and Crake / LF Paul Auster / The Book of Illusions / LF John Banville / The Sea / LF Pattie Boyd / Wonderful Tonight / NF T. C. Boyle / Talk Talk / LF Libba Bray / A Great and […]

  4. […] a list of words and page numbers on which they’re found (I got a blog post out of this one) […]

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Number 18 on 28 December, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    […] Margaret Atwood / Oryx and Crake / LF Paul Auster / The Book of Illusions / LF John Banville / The Sea / LF Pattie Boyd / Wonderful Tonight / NF T. C. Boyle / Talk Talk / LF Libba Bray / A Great and […]

  2. By Personal Archeology: I Remember It Well on 25 April, 2016 at 11:57 am

    […] a list of words and page numbers on which they’re found (I got a blog post out of this one) […]