My Writing

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Coffee / Prose

Rather than write, I'd like to talk with you over coffee.

I associate coffee with pleasure.

I'd like to be a nice small paperback you read on a warm bench in August.



J.D. Salinger

I admire two things, primarily, about Salinger's prose: its understated gestures and its incorporation of spoken verbal styles. A third thing would be its precise images (add to that an effective, enhancing use of adjectives and verbs). A fourth would be its economy, its lack of waste, its exactitude.

The following short paragraph, from "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," consists primarily of action and illuminating detail, aided by some of those aforementioned effective, enhancing adjectives and verbs:

"The young man put on his robe, closed the lapels tight, and jammed his towel into his pocket. He picked up the slimy wet, cumbersome float and put it under his arm. He plodded alone through the soft, hot sand toward the hotel."

To isolate and repeat that last sentence, I love it:

"He plodded alone through the soft, hot sand toward the hotel."

I could go on and on about Salinger and why I like his prose and his fictionalizing, his characters, his dialogue, his sly set-ups and small quiet moments, but instead I'll just point at another type of prose he does, rambling, flamboyant but to me constantly engaging, a voice speaking to the reader (this voice, this time--in Seymour: An Introduction, which if you haven't read, I suggest it--the voice of an "ecstatically happy" writer):

"In this entre-nous spirit, then, old confidant, before we join the others, the grounded everywhere, including, I'm sure, the middle-aged hot-rodders who insist on zooming us to the moon, the Dharma Bums, the makers of cigarette filters for thinking men, the Beat and the Sloppy and the Petulant, the chosen cultists, all the lofty experts who know so well what we should or shouldn't do with our poor little sex organs, all the bearded, proud, unlettered young men and unskilled guitarists and Zen-killers and incorporated aesthetic Teddy boys who look down their thoroughly unenlightened noses at this splendid planet where (please don't shut me up) Kilroy, Christ, and Shakespeare all stopped--before we join these others, I privately say to you, old friend (unto you, really, I'm afraid), please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((())))."

Samuel Beckett

As I've said before, Beckett has the ability to make me want to underline his sentences. His prose seems beautiful, spare, and wry. His lines are sometimes compact and have the feel of one-liners ("Against the charitable gesture there is no defence, that I know of.") or mottoes ("Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong.") The previous lines were from Molloy, one of my favorites.

Beckett also has this impressive ability of writing beautiful sentences that don't seem to be trying too hard. When I say trying too hard I think of prose where the author seems to be saying "here now, a beautiful sentence, the rich cavalcade of images soar and woo you, ah the fine poetry of this verbal confection, ah choppy kewl prose of the avant-garde, ah pageantry of English, ah incorrigible vocabulary of the effete aesthete, ah to see in this age a effervescence of words, you dear, benevolent sister, have witnessed it." Instead something like this, from Watt (which, by the way, is a fucking hilarious book and another of my favorites by Beckett):

"To be together again, after so long, who love the sunny wind, the windy sun, in the sun, in the wind, that is perhaps something, perhaps something."

Rainer Maria Rilke

Though most famous for his poetry, Rilke wrote a novel I love called The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It is another of those what you could call Sad-Ass Bro Gets His Rumination On in Depressing City Novels. This a wonderful genre of novel, in my humble opinion, and includes such books as Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, and Person by Sam Pink.

Rilke's sentences are often short. The longer ones seem to have this great rhythm to them, they swing nicely and speak precisely. They feel good to me.

"Here he stands up from his meditations and walks to his window; his high-ceilinged room is too close to him; he would like to see stars, if that is possible. He has no illusions about himself. He knows that this emotion fills him because among the young girls of the neighborhood there is one who matters to him. He has wishes (not for himself, no, but for her); for her sake he understands, during a passing hour of the night, the exigency of love. He promises himself not to tell her anything about it. It seems to him that the most he can do is to be alone and wakeful and for her sake to think how right that poetess had been: when she knew that sexual union means nothing but increased solitude; when she broke through the temporal aim of sex and reached its infinite purpose. When in the darkness of embracing she delved not for fulfillment but for greater longing."

Another thing I love about his prose in this book is that it includes sentences that make philosophical statements, and it doesn't suck ass when he does this, which is a danger with philosophical statements in novels, I have found. His sentences have passion.

Check this humdinger (keep in mind, this shit dropped in 1910):

"Is it possible that we know nothing about young girls, who are nevertheless living? Is it possible that we say 'women,' 'children,' 'boys,' not suspecting (despite all our culture, not suspecting) that these words have long since had no plural, but only countless singulars?

Yes, it is possible."

Virginia Woolf

I took a course on just Woolf in college and loved it. My favorites of the books I read by her are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves. I think The Waves is my number one favorite. It consists primarily of alternating, interplaying monologues by a group of characters who grow up together in the book. The monologues comment on and imagine their collective and individual lives. To me it enacts most memorably the subjectivity, the personal emotion that is there within all of Virginia's beautiful lines.

"Each time the door opens I am interrupted. I am not yet twenty-one. I am to be broken. I am to be derided all my life. I am to be cast up and down among these men and women, with their twitching faces, with their lying tongues, like a cork on a rough sea. Like a ribbon of weed I am flung far every time the door opens. The wave breaks. I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room."

Clarice Lispector

Clarice is an amazingly brilliant writer, in my opinion. I imagine she was one hell of a person.

From The Hour of the Star:

"She mused in silence and the thought came to her: since I am, the solution is to be. The cockerel I mentioned earlier heralded yet another day. It sang of weariness. Speaking of poultry, the girl sometimes ate a hard-boiled egg in a snack-bar. Her aunt had always insisted that eggs were bad for the liver. That being so, she obediently became ill and suffered pains on the left side opposite the liver. For the girl was most impressionable. She believed in everything that existed and in everything non-existent as well. But she didn't know how to embellish reality. For her, reality was too enormous to grasp. Besides, the word reality meant nothing to her. Nor to me, dear God."


  1. a certain sweetness washed over me while reading; a calm certainty flowed through the halls of my body. i enjoyed reading this and wd definitely be stoked to see you expand this w more authors or specific works that you have liked. good work!

  2. Great list. There's more trippy sad-ass Rilke prose in "The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams," by the way.

  3. Hey, thanks, Damion. And I didn't know about that book. I'll look for it