Sunday, 7 March 2010

Evil In War

I will get The Unfolding of Language out of the way first. Not only because I read it first, but because I want to concentrate on fiction in this blog as much as possible. That's what I want to write, after all. It's not an entirely worthless exercise, though: as a reader, I don't mark the distinction too heavily.
I read for pleasure, regardless.

Guy Deutscher--The Unfolding of Language

This book is about the mechanisms behind the ongoing evolution of language. First of all, it wasn't the book I hoped it to be: it starts after the interesting stuff has already happened. Deutscher begins from a point where the human mind is developed as it is now, and with a rudimentary language--thing-words and doing-words (not quite the same as nouns and verbs) and some deeply lodged principles already to hand.
It's not the book that looks at how things got to that point, but it is a very good sketch of the next stage along. The three principles of expression, economy and analogy are elegant and all-encompassing, and the whole thing rests on and supports the fact that the human mind seeks patterns. Darwin would be happy.

Deutscher operates the Complete Lack Of Surprise literary principle, and it's a principle I like. It's almost ubiquitous in non-fiction, especially in anything close to evolution.
It goes like this: the reader knows exactly what is going to happen, or what conclusion the author will arrive at, from pretty much the first page. And they know what they will think of it, too. The reason I like this is that it doesn't have to intefere with the enjoyment of the book. It's Suspense vs. Entertainment, and I've always preferred Entertainment.

Part of it is the slowly-revealed but uncontroversial 'how'. But a lot of it is the writing itself: Deutscher, for instance, cannot make a single point that doesn't have a joke, anecdote, or (entertaining) surprise heavily involved in it. Not just tacked on, but as a useful and original way to get from A to B. Everything is approached from a unique angle.
I picked up a few favourite asides along the way. Grot is a new word, for example. Lazy hippies shortened 'grotesque' to 'grotty' in the 60s. And as per, the human mind 'finds' the pattern: as sure as shit is shitty, grotty must be an adjective from grot. It doesn't matter that grot was never a word, symmetry will reign. So now we say grot.
Resent used to mean an emotional recieving of good AND bad things, and it meant them at the same time. I could resent a birthday card as much as a slap. Nice.
Simitic verbs are flipping insane, and hearing how they got that way is honestly like watching a magic trick.

It doesn't matter that I don't know much philology, and already agreed with what this book is meant to convince me of. A succession of excellent details kept me happy.

A minor point: Deutscher buries a great point about literacy vs. word-fusion in the epilogue. It annoys me when people do that! Put it where it matters.

Evelyn Waugh--Put Out More Flags

"But Limbo is the place. In Limbo one has natural happines without the beatific vision; no harps; no communal order; but wine and conversation and inperfect, various humanity."

That's what Ambrose Silk says. Imperfect, various humanity shines through this book, but he's the only one to notice it. Limbo is the place, too.
It starts-- and there's no better place to start a story-- at the start of a war. The first year of the war is a lot of waiting around, a curious in-between that is aware of it's own curiosity. We start on the first day of the war, after days which "cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace," and end as the war "has entered into a new and more glorious phase".
We follow a class of people failing in a range of ways and extents to get to grips with the war. Centrally, cunning loser Basil Seal and clever artist, Ambrose Silk.
Everybody is trying to find their own place in the war. Some people are frustrated in their attempts to lose themselves to it; others are frustrated in their attempts to gain from it; others find it frustratingly easy to get lost in the background.

I always feel the same thing when reading Waugh. Nobody else can evoke the imminent passing of eras, time, people, friends, and entire worlds so effectively. He knows what lasts and what doesn't, and that's what he shows us.
He is completely consistent. Every thing happens at the human scale, rather than the global or the personal. We never get too far into the minds of Basil and Ambrose. We get to like them, but never completely know them, not even by the last page, where we are still learning new things about them.
There's a lot of different human dramas going on here, and Waugh leaves enough room for them all. He never makes more than he needs to of anything: new jobs, joining the army, affairs, scams, alcoholism. They are covered in half-pages and paragraphs, confidently enough to let the implications take care of themselves. Which they do.
Less is more.
He's very clever with dialogue, too. Somehow he only shows what needs to be shown, keeping myriad balls in the air, without a single line being unnatural. It's too clever, in fact, for me to quite see how he does it.

Another minor gripe. I noticed this in a George Orwell novel of a not too dissimilar time the other week, as well: the replacing of certain swear words with -----. It's a product of the time, clearly, but it's really annoying. I don't know how soldiers swore in the 40s, or gypsies in the 30s, so I can't fill in the blank. It's frustrating, especially when Orwell had also gone to a lot of pointless trouble to get the accuracy of speech in the poor people dialogue.


  1. Love the reviews. Especially like the Waugh one, makes me think I will have to get round to going beyond Brideshead.

    Also loving the photo.

  2. Waugh doesn't insult the intelligence of his audience; it makes reading more fun. No Danielle Steel "beach reading" for me. Though I have read on the beach. I just happen to be reading Vonnegut.

    I don't know about gypsies, but swearing for soldiers is almost exactly the same now as it was in the 40s.

  3. i could read Vonnegut anywhere. if i'm on a plane going down, KV would still distract me.

  4. The "------" swearing also appears in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. In the introduction it says that readers were shocked by the language (I'm assuming they mean the language that was kept in) so actual swear words must have been deemed far too shocking for the delicate readers. I just put the foulest words I can think of in the gaps. :-)

  5. I am going to really enjoy these reviews. Any chance of reviewing the new Richard Dawkins book (the greatest show on earth)?

  6. i want to stick mainly to fiction, but i'm a big fan of Dawkins (Selfish Gene especially) so i'll add The Greatest Show to my list.