|Reading these two highly associative books on words has evoked two discrete memories for me. Let’s begin with the first: Do you recall the episode of Ally McBeal in which Tracey Ullman, playing Ally’s wacky therapist, advises the strung-out attorney (played by Calista Flockhart) to designate a theme song to help her navigate the tough times? The theme-song notion seems remarkably close to the premise that underlies The Novelist’s Lexicon: Writers on the Words That Define Their Work.|
Now published annually in French as Lexique Nomade, the books in this series collect musings by guest authors who attend each year’s International Forum on the Novel in France. Each author is asked, in the (translated) words of Guy Walter, director of Villa Gillet, the center that organizes the forum, to choose and write about “a key word that opens the door to his work.” The Novelist’s Lexicon presents contributions from 77 authors who attended the conference in 2007 and 2008. Anglophone readers will recognize many names: Rick Moody opens the A-to-Z “lexicon” with the word “adumbrated”; Colum McCann writes about “anonymity.”
For her part, Annie Proulx selects “terroir,” which, she says, “is most often associated with viticulture, a word evoking complexities of place and time, geography, weather and climate. To me it also has meaning in the construction of fiction that connects a story to a particular place, a construction that ties the lives of characters to the natural world around them; the characters bear the same relation to a region as the grapes do to their vineyard.” For Proulx, “[t]he stories fall out of study of the landscape and onto the page.”As a group, the contributors to The Novelist’s Lexicon hail from every continent except Antarctica, and that creates some interesting side issues and questions, especially for readers interested in literary translation. In some cases, the lexicon entries have retained their original-language words even when the accompanying text has been fully translated into English (see, for example, the entries on the French words “faire” and “fille”). But in other instances, we’ve evidently lost the original word that the author supplied. I, for one, would be interested in knowing the Vietnamese word behind the entry translated as “loyalty,” or the German word for “a successful sentence,” which resisted reduction into a single English counterpart.
But let’s turn now to the second book in this review, and, as promised, a second associative memory. This one is more personal. I was something of a precocious reader, and my parents encouraged my interest in books and stories by sending me to a private kindergarten that featured reading groups that did not exist in our local public school. One day, the 5-year-olds in our group were invited to select a word that interested us. Most of us weren’t yet adept at spelling and writing, so as we each said our choice, the teacher wrote the word out in big, bold, Magic Marker letters. (My word, for reasons probably better suited to a therapist’s office than this review, was “soon.”)So you can imagine that I would be intrigued by One Word: Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe, edited by Molly McQuade. This book rests on a premise that differs from The Novelist’s Lexicon, and I’ll address other differences between the two in a moment. But let’s give One Word some individualized attention first.
Also structured to present the chosen words in an A-to-Z format, this book features 66 entries, beginning with poet Joel Brouwer’s paean to the word “a.” (Who knew that “a” could merit eight pages, while other, ostensibly more complicated words—“fact,” for instance—might yield only one?) Elsewhere, novelist Karen Stolz casts a favorable spotlight on “careen,” not only because the word “is like a very cranked-up, jet-setty version of [her own] name.” Rather, she argues: “It’s time we let verbs do more of the descriptive heavy lifting in writing. So, let’s hear it for careen, a word that has been unfairly relegated to detailing vehicular mayhem. Because, sometimes, being in control and moving straight forward is not exciting. Sometimes, to careen is to let go, to be enraptured, to soar.”
I haven’t performed an official count, but it’s safe to say that far more contributors opted to write about “words they love” rather than focusing on “words they loathe.” One exception is novelist Brock Clarke’s entry on “very”: “Is there a weaker, sadder, more futile word in the English language than very? Is there another word as fully guaranteed to prove the opposite of what its speaker or writer intends to prove? Is there another word that so clearly states, on the speaker’s or writer’s behalf, ‘I’m not going to even try to find the right word,’ or ‘No matter how hard I try, I’m not going to find the right word’? Is there a less specific, less helpful, less necessary, less potent word in our vocabulary?” Already, before completing a full page, Clarke has convinced us: “There is not.”A review such as this, covering two books with strong conceptual similarities, is obligated, I think, to highlight other parallels as well as differences:
That last point notwithstanding, I found One Word to be, quite simply, the more accessible book of the two. Reading One Word, I often felt as though I was hearing many of the writers speak, and I wanted to hear more; reading The Novelist’s Lexicon, I found some of the entries alienating.
• Although both books result from requests that authors write about a single word, The Novelist’s Lexicon reminds us of a major difference: “[Contributors] were not asked to comment on their favorite word but on the word that best provides an introduction to their work.”
• The Novelist’s Lexicon comprises novelists’ meditations, whereas One Word’s contributors work in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, translation, criticism and young-adult literature.
• In both books, you’ll discover words from other languages.
• Essayistic pieces dominate both books, yet in each volume you’ll also find poems, as well as more experimental, hybridistic efforts. For me, this meant that, at some moments, both books made me wonder what, precisely, some writers were trying to express.
Consider, for example, the translation of Hélène Cixous’ essay on “aletherature,” a word that I still don’t understand and cannot find in either my English or French dictionaries. The essay suggests some roots in Hamlet, but I’m afraid that one might need to be as erudite as the man whom Cixous cites in her essay as “my friend Derrida” to comprehend anything further.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of these books—especially for readers who are also writers—is the value that each volume places on that small and sometimes overlooked and underappreciated item in any writer’s toolbox: the single, solitary word. How much power a mere word can hold, these books remind us. How much promise.