Delicious Prose

Stories are like meals. Some I tear through the way I attack a greasy mountain of chili cheese fries. I slurp them down, satisfying guilty cravings that sometimes leave me regretting the experience.  Others are like expensive sushi, and I let each morsel linger on my tongue, willing it to melt slowly into memory.

I think I’ve always written like a short-order cook. Only recently has it occurred to me that maybe I can learn to craft gourmet prose. I have little formal training, but I can discover verbal delicacies that delight me and try to deconstruct and duplicate them. Here are three, and I hope you will share your own favorites in the comments:

From the opening paragraph of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan:

Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.

When I read this, I find that the structure and rhythm and imagery of this passage reinforce the description of rambling vines and the chaotic, crumbling urban sprawl. The words Peake uses to capture the Tower of Flints hints at the nature and character of the people and events that will rise out of the slowly decaying ruins of the Groan dynasty.

This next excerpt is from Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. This Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Sidewise-award winning novel is set in a world where a temporary Jewish homeland is founded in the Alaskan panhandle. I love the following passage because Chabon manages to convey Landsman’s sister’s unique character while also reinforcing the Jewish yearning for Palestine in combination with features of the Alaskan setting. He makes his words multitask for him:

It was from an early boyfriend that she had caught the itch to fly. Landsman never asked her what the attraction was, why she had worked so long and hard to get her commercial license in the homoidiotic world of male bush pilots. She was not one for pointless speculation, his dashing sister. But as Landsman understands it, the wings of an airplane are engaged in a constant battle with the air that envelopes them, denting and baffling and warping it, bending and staving it off. Fighting it the way a salmon fights the current of a river in which it’s going to die. Like a salmon–that aquatic Zionist, forever dreaming of its fatal home–Naomi used up her strength and energy in the struggle.

The final sample is from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

This prose is perfection. I can’t help but read this out loud; my mouth wants to feel this string of syllables, and my ears envy my eyes if I don’t sound them out. I would like to learn to write with this rhythm.  It’s hard to believe that this man, one of the greatest masters of the English language, wrote his first nine novels in Russian. The narrator is as much in love with his words as he is with the underage Dolores.

It’s your turn now! What passages do you as a writer find the most delectable, and what have you learned (or hope to learn) from them? (Note: please limit any excerpts to no more than a few sentences.Deli)

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  1. Ahimsa Kerp
    16/04/2012 at 8:25 am Permalink

    Though there are probably better (and certainly less obvious) examples, discussions of good prose always think of Tolkien.  The bit in Emyn Muil has some of my favorite writing in the series:
    “The hobbits stood now on the brink of a tall cliff, bare and bleak, its feet wrapped in mist; and behind them rose the broken highlands crowned with drifting cloud. A chill wind blew from the East. Night was gathering over the shapeless lands before them; the sickly green of them was fading to a sullen brown.” 

  2. John Remy
    16/04/2012 at 9:49 am Permalink

    I love Tolkien’s rich descriptions. When I visited Glastonbury and the ruin on the crown of its hill, Tolkien’s description of Weathertop was so vivid and seemed so similar that I’m convinced he used Glastonbury Tor as a model.

  3. Ahimsa Kerp
    16/04/2012 at 7:16 pm Permalink

    I had never really thought about what likely would have been a real-life influence.  I will definitely have to check out Glastonbury Tor sometime then; maybe even try camping on it for the full experience. 

  4. Wendy N Wagner
    16/04/2012 at 9:19 am Permalink

    I first learned words could be delicious when my 8th grade teacher had us read DANDELION WINE. From the first paragraph, I knew there was something special about the words on the page, but I didn’t quite know what it was until I read the phrase ”
    Savory…that’s a swell word. And Basil and Betel. Capsicum. Curry. All great. But Relish, now, Relish with a capital R. No argument, that’s the best.” And then everything I sensed about words made a whole new sense.

    If you get a chance today, read the first two pages of Dandelion Wine. If you don’t own the book, you can cheat and peak inside here:

  5. John Remy
    16/04/2012 at 9:42 am Permalink

    “He exhaled again and again, and the stars began to vanish.” Powerful!

  6. Luna Flesher Lindsey
    16/04/2012 at 9:47 am Permalink

    Yep, I remember that passage about him orchestrating the stars, was on my SAT test, and I remember thinking, “I’ve read this book!”

  7. Luna Flesher Lindsey
    16/04/2012 at 10:04 am Permalink

    The first one I thought of is from Gormenghast, as well.  In fact, as I flip through my copy looking for it, I’m noticing all these other brilliant underlined passages that I would love to quote.  For anyone who wants to study beautiful, clever prose, read Gormenghast.

    “A room was filled with the late sunbeams.  Steerpike stood quite still, a twinge of pleasure running through his body.  He grinned.  A carpet filled the floor with blue pasture.  Thereon were seated in a hundred decorative attitudes, or stood immobile like carvings, or walked superbly across their sapphire setting, inter-weaving with each other like a living arabesque, a swarm of snow-white cats.”

    Peake’s structure of my favorite passages is often that of a joke, leading up to a punchline.  In this example, you have no idea what he’s describing until the last word.  In others, you don’t know what the focus of the paragraph is, until the last word.  Still others, you don’t know or understand the thoughts of the character until the last word.  Nothing short of amazing.

  8. Paul Weimer
    16/04/2012 at 10:32 am Permalink

    From the book I started reading today, Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle:

    “Anywhere but the Bull, I beg you!” he said. “I have no desire to spend another evening listening to your actor friends reciting interminable speeches and slandering their rivals.
     I’m for the Catherine Wheel.” He set off down the street again.
     “And I’ve no wish to spend another evening listening to your old comrades’ tales of death and glory,” Ned shouted after him. “At least at the Bull I might earn a shilling or two on my own account.”
     “Please yourself, but you go alone. I’ll not be your pander.”
     Ned groaned. “All right, all right, you win. But you’re buying.” 
    The Catherine Wheel was as busy as a brothel mattress, and twice as pungent. The only difference was, the fleas here had steel teeth. Tucked away in a courtyard off the high street, the Wheel saw few outsiders venturing through its low door. Even if they did, one look told them to step back outside 

  9. Erika Holt
    16/04/2012 at 3:59 pm Permalink

    From Joseph Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness, (pg. 30):

    “The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

    I also think that Salman Rushdie is brilliant, and have picked this excerpt at random (from The Satanic Verses, pg. 137):

    “One man’s breath was sweetened, while another’s, by an equal and opposite mystery, was soured. What did they expect? Falling like that out of the sky: did they imagine there would be no side-effects? Higher Powers had taken an interest, it should have been obvious to them both, and such Powers (I am, of course, speaking of myself) have a mischievous, almost a wanton attitude to tumbling flies. And another thing, let’s be clear: great falls change people. You think they fell a long way? In the matter of tumbles, I yield pride of place to no personage, whether mortal or im-. From light to hellfire…under the stress of a long plunge, I was saying, mutations are to be expected, not all of them random. Unnatural selections. Not much of a price to pay for survival, for being reborn, for becoming new, and at their age at that.

    What? I should enumerate the changes?

    Good breath/bad breath.”


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