Simon Schama: why not be wordy?
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Sometime around the age of five, I stopped talking; for perhaps a month, just long enough to put the wind up my poor parents, who were driven to distraction by the sudden, inexplicable muting of their hitherto garrulous little boy. That, of course, was why I did it: this wicked act of oral retention. I can’t recall the exact moment of up-shutting, but I can certainly remember resenting being shown off as a freakishly precocious verbaliser.
At some point I must have had enough, or sensed that withholding was power, and tied the tongue, good and proper. I was carted round to speech doctors, head doctors and one heavy-set elocutionist. But I shook my head at everything sent my way, nice or nasty, sticking to the silence until some day or other (I remember it was spring because the yellow broom was out on the cliffs), I graciously returned to voice. Don’t even ask me why. Instead of giving me a good hiding, my parents enfolded me in laughing embraces and walked me to the local sweetshop to buy marzipan fruits. I went back to being wordy.
Five or so years after the speech strike, my father would coax me into memorising and reciting passages from favourite books, many of them historical novels — The White Company or The Master of Ballantrae. It was as though these exercises would be vocal lubrication precluding the pipes from seizing up ever again.
In my English classes at school, something odd was happening, or, rather, not happening. Along with Shakespeare and Balzac’s Human Comedy, my father’s cynosure was, unsurprisingly, Dickens. Sunday after tea in the childhood years was Dickens time: readings out loud, either as a family or — more usually — with Dad taking all the parts. Not just the expected items, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, but the tougher reads: Our Mutual Friend, the opening of which scared the daylights out of me even more than Magwitch; Barnaby Rudge and, of course, those Two Cities. But at school, there was no Dickens at all. There was Shakespeare galore; there was Edgar Allan Poe, George Eliot and TS Eliot; Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Gerard Manley Hopkins, for Christ’s sake, but no Smike, no Estella, no Jellabys, no Bumbles.
One day, feeling exactly like Oliver Twist asking for more, I asked why this was. “Oh,” came the raised-eyebrow reply from the English master who had handed me 14 consecutive detentions for talking out of turn (a school record), “he [Dickens] so overdoes it.” If we really wanted that sort of thing, we could at a stretch have a look at Hard Times, the sole novel approved by the high priest of the New Criticism, FR Leavis, as somehow acceptably un-Dickensian.
Naturally, then, Dickens became a secret pleasure. The more the critical priesthood pursed its lips at his word-gaming, the more I delighted in it. In particular, I loved those cartoonish names on which were inscribed whole characters and destinies: Steerforth and Sowerberry; the Pardiggles and Tite Barnacles; Uncle Pumblechook and Herbert Pocket; Bentley Drummle and Vincent Crummles — who all processed before the reader like stage actors bellowing into the darkness or wringing their hands in the limelight. I couldn’t get enough of exactly the qualities the Leavisites thought most vulgar: the gravity-defying word-juggling; the somersaulting syntax; the tumbling diction; the orgies of adjectives, the manic alternations of broad comedy and dismal terror; the whole unembarrassed sense of literature as performance.
Or, to put it another way, what I have always loved is literary abundance. So did Erasmus. The year 1512 saw the publication in Paris of his De duplici copia verborum ac rerum (On the Foundations of the Abundant Style). It had been written during the early months of his stay in Cambridge, where Erasmus taught Greek, worked on his purified New Testament, and complained a lot about the dreadful ale, the “unsatisfactory wine”, the miserable Fenland weather and the loneliness when much of the population fled the town to escape the plague.
Copiousness of any sort was in scant supply. So Erasmus wrote up the manual on rhetoric, both oral and written. Its opening exordium was to think of language as “surging in a golden stream, overflowing with an abundance of words and thoughts”. But this beautiful abundance was not to be confused with “futile and amorphous verbosity”, which — far from embodying richness of imagination — betrayed, paradoxically, the kind of vacuousness that lent itself to tiresome repetition.
The key was variety, which “everywhere has such force that nothing is so brilliant as not to seem dim when not commended by variety”. Nature itself rejoices in variety. And the opening short chapters of the book demonstrate in the most accessible and spirited way what its author has in mind. Just as dress should be neither dirty nor badly fitting or slovenly set on the body, so abundant style ought to suit its object. Variety did not mean incongruousness. And literary furnishings need careful selection.
What gladdened Erasmus was expansiveness; a piling-up of possibilities; the better to land on the bon mot. In the Erasmian universe, whole worlds could burst forth from a single observation; but he also relished the multifarious. With the geographic expansion to parts hitherto unknown, with the unearthing of classical sculpture and ancient texts preserved through Arabic editions, European singularity was left behind, at least for adventurous minds like those of Erasmus and his friends Colet and More.
Renaissance wordiness ensued, the mind going magpie. In due course, the itch for plethora turned literary. The original master of multiplicity was François Rabelais, who in one person had combined many kinds of vocation and thus languages: those of the Benedictine monk he briefly was; those of the lawyer he thought he might be; and especially that of the medicine he practised. It seems inconceivable that Rabelais would not have read Erasmus’s De Copia, and although the one work is schoolmasterly while Gargantua seems anything but, the two share the same marriage of studious teaching with comic uproar along with an insatiable appetite for lists; that device that tries to register the infinite richness of the world and its words by accumulation.
What all the most unbuttoned wordies — from Rabelais through Leopardi, whose Zibaldone, or “hodgepodge” book, ran to thousands of pages, from Herman Melville to James Joyce, Salman Rushdie and David Foster Wallace — have in common is gutsiness, in the sense of their shared instinct for carnality, meaning the connection between sensuality and meaty-eatiness. Their imaginative lair is as much the alimentary canal as the cerebellum. You won’t get very far in Boccaccio, Sterne or Hazlitt before you hit the aromatic empire of chow: the hunting and devouring of it; its digestion, indigestion, coagulation, excretion; the re-fertilisation of the earth-matrix from which all this fecundity comes.
It’s natural, almost mandatory, then, for wordies to be foodies, but the kind of foodie who actually plunges into the cooking and lets the roasting aroma fill the kitchen of his pages.
For true wordies life is flooded with gusto. William Hazlitt — one of the wordiest of all English writers and himself a virtuoso of many genres from political reporting to sports writing to art criticism — devoted an entire essay to gusto, which he defined as “power or passion”. In literature, Hazlitt commended Shakespeare and Milton for gusto galore. But “gusto”, of course, derives etymologically from words denoting taste, exactly at the point where “tongue” itself doubles inseparably as both language and the organ of flavour-capture. In his toothsome Dictionnaire de Cuisine, Alexandre Dumas père explicitly brought story and cookery together through the serendipity of the alphabet, so that calape — a turtle stew he cooked and sampled on a voyage between Africa and Sicily — directly precedes a potted romantic biography of the great chef Marie-Antoine Carême.
All the virtuosi of abundance have this Rabelaisian relish for literary mouthfeel, the echoing, sometimes shouty resonance of words way beyond their mechanically assigned function as vessels of description or argument. In the 19th century, practitioners of the abundant style took it to operatic heights, so that the only way to read or even to make sense of Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, or the coloratura passages of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, is out loud. At its most extreme, the grand style of Victorian writing approaches a sonorous equivalent to Gothic Revival buildings; profusely embellished spires shooting through industrial dimness. But at its best, it achieves a kind of intense poetic illumination.
All those works and words build into epic vision. But much (not all) of what follows is journalism, and newspapers and magazines aren’t in the epic business. Long-form isn’t a licence to be long-winded. Deadlines and page layouts are merciless disciplinarians, and we working stiffs ignore those responsibilities at our peril. But many of the pieces that have appeared in the pages of FT Weekend meet the brief to deliver economical hits of pleasure along with argument and provocation. That, in any case, has been the vocation of all the virtuoso essayists I have most admired — Montaigne and Hazlitt; Orwell and EB White; Hunter Thompson and David Foster Wallace — all of whom, even at their wordiest, have made every sentence count, every paragraph convey whole worlds of experience.
All of them, too, were artful practitioners of the double (and indeed contradictory) sense of an essai: on the one hand, licence to take a crack at something without quite knowing where the writing will end up; on the other, a trial proof of material, a rigorous testing of its mettle. So, while not deluding yourself that you’re anything other than a journeyman shuffling along in the footsteps of giants, you get going: a thousand words, a few days, an anxious editor out there, one hand crossing its fingers, the other readying the pruning shears. You write, you file, you wait, all the time knowing, but for the acute kindness, the generosity tipped with salutary brutality, that all you would ever be is not so much dithyrambically wordy as just prolix.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor. His new essay collection ‘Wordy’ is published by Simon & Schuster
Calling all young writers: the Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize is now open
The FTWeekend and The Bodley Head, an imprint of Penguin Random House, are proud to launch our seventh annual essay prize. The prize aims to discover young talent from around the world. Hedley Twidle, winner of the first Bodley Head/FTWeekend Essay Prize, still contributes to the FT. Edward Posnett won in 2014 for his essay “Eiderdown” and has his first book, Harvest, due for publication with The Bodley Head in August. And 2015’s winner, Laurence Blair, has also been signed up by The Bodley Head to write his first book, which expands on his essay, “Dreams of the Sea”, and will be published in 2020.
This competition is open to anyone between 18 and 35 years old. The judges will be looking for a dynamic essay of no more than 3,500 words in English. It can be wide-ranging or minutely focused; journalistic, a memoir or a case study. In keeping with the ethos of both sponsors, it can address any topic — from finance and current affairs to sport, style history or scientific discovery.
- £1,500 and an e-publication with The Bodley Head
- Publication in the FT and on FT.com of their winning essay
- A mentoring session with The Bodley Head and FT
- A year’s subscription to FT.com, and a selection of books from The Bodley Head.
Two runners-up will win:
- £500 each and e-publication with The Bodley Head
- A year’s digital subscription to FTWeekend, and a bag of books from The Bodley Head.
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