A Soldier of the Great War

It’s not the most inspiring of titles, especially for someone who isn’t typically interested in books about war. Had I not read it praised effusively, I wouldn’t have bought it.

But I did, so I bought it. And now I’ve finished. The journey took about a month, as A Soldier has almost 800 pages.

The novel begins with an elderly Alessandro Giuliani before going back in time to his life as a handsome, carefree Italian youth, a life that was shattered after the First World War began. It then follows Alessandro’s experiences in the war—as a soldier in the trenches, as a soldier hunting deserters, as a deserter himself, as a prisoner, as a soldier again, and as a prisoner again—before recounting his attempts to put his broken life back together after the war and ending, as it began, with an old man.

For me, the most striking thing about A Soldier of the Great War is Helprin’s writing style. I am not sure if I have ever read a writer who describes nature so exquisitely. With some writers, I find descriptions of nature to be boring—a detraction from the actual story. In A Soldier, such descriptions are central to the story—a way for Alessandro, and the rest of us, to cling to the beauty that is still there in the midst of unspeakable horror. It might seem strange that a book about the First World War could be a beautiful book, but it is.

And that’s not because Helprin shies away from the ugliness, or because he somehow glorifies it. I read some things that I’d rather not think about. They’re too awful.

There is blood, shattered bodies, and sadistic cruelty. There is bad language and coarse language and a generous handful of sexual encounters. There is great sadness.

Yet for all that, there is somehow a restraint in much of what Helprin writes. In what was, for me, one of the most horrific scenes in the novel, the focus is less on what is happening to Alessandro and more on Alessandro’s response, which is one of complete self-control, and (believe it or not) singing. As the reader, you know what’s happening, but Helprin doesn’t hammer it into your consciousness.

The grief, too, is strikingly underwritten. It’s a book laced with grief, yet I was only in tears once, because Helprin seems to refuse to play on his reader’s emotions to the extent that he could. In fact, if you want to know how to write about great sorrow in your character’s life without either denying his grief or making it over-dramatic, you would do well to take Helprin as your model.

What is not restrained—where Helprin turns up the volume, breaks out the champagne, and throws open the windows—is the beauty.

The most memorable example for me was his description of Stella Maris, the prison for deserters. It’s a prison where men went knowing they would die, a prison where, if their cells faced the courtyard, they could watch men like them taken out ten at a time and shot, perhaps simply because after two years away from their families, they couldn’t bear the separation any more. But listen to how Helprin introduces Stella Maris:

On all documents, notices, and orders, the vast concrete and stone fortress on a cliff above the sea south of Anzio was called Military Prison Four, or M. P. 4, but never did anyone who had been inside ever call it anything but Stella Maris. It seemed to float above the sea like the plain of stars that on a clear night rides above the waters and the wind. In conversation mysterious and deep, in the crackling, hissing, seemingly inconsequential sounds of the foam, waves, and wind, the stars were talking to the enraptured sea, and, as with many of its greatest secrets, nature entrusted knowledge of this to whoever would not be believed or who could not speak. Staggering volumes of wondrous information were exchanged between the waves and the stars, in traffic so think, fast, and full as to be beyond understanding, in sounds that rose up in fumes and clouds, in musical dialogues, and in uncountable voices speaking to uncountable lights. The condemned soldiers of Stella Maris, with neither reputation to uphold, nor gain to desire, not hope to sustain, knew the soul of the sea at night. It was their compensation and their reward.

And so, there is beauty. The beauty of the world, the beauty in the face of a child, the beauty of a father’s love, the beauty of self-sacrifice. There is hope that comes alive when it seemed as dead as it’s possible for hope to be.

There are, too, questions raised and questions left unanswered—at least for me—of the meaning in the midst of pointless loss of life and unspeakable horror. It’s too much for me.

Listen to the old Alessandro:

“Look up at the Perseids. You can see them flashing many times a second. They reach the end of their long and silent journeys almost more quickly than you can note, but if you watch them for hours you will not see the casualties of even one group of divisions.

Each of the flashes is like the life of a man. We’re too weak to feel the full import of such a loss, and so we continue on, or we reduce it to an abstraction, a principle. It would take more than anyone could give to understand the life of one other person—we cannot understand even our own lives—and more energy and compassion than is humanly possible to commemorate even a single life that ends in such a death.

You cannot know anything but the smallest part of the love, regret, excitement, and melancholy of one of those quick flashes. And two? And three? At two you have entered the realm of abstraction….”

I don’t know how to end this. How can I adequately tie up a short piece of writing on a book so beautiful despite its horror, on a story so alive, so raw, so human?

I don’t know.


So do I

Such a commonplace expression. We use it and similar expressions day in, day out.

“I like truffles.”

“So do I.”

“I’m tired.”

“So am I.”

“I don’t like coffee.”

“Neither do I.”

But have you ever thought about what you need to know in order to correctly utter a little response like that?

Probably not. You have better things to do with your time. I can’t remember thinking about it either until the other week, when I had to prepare a language lesson on this very point for students learning English as a foreign language. Allow me, then, to enlighten you about part of what you’re unconsciously doing when you use one of these expressions.

First of all, you’re determining whether what the other person has said is positive (“I like truffles”), or negative (“I don’t like coffee”). If it’s positive, you begin your reply with “so”. If it’s negative, you begin with “neither”.

Secondly, you’re deciding which verb to use. If the other person has used a form of “have” or “be” (e.g. “I’m tired”), you use a form of the same verb in your reply (e.g. “So am I”). If the other person hasn’t used “have” or “be”—ta da! You drop in a form of the verb “do”, instead, like this: “I like truffles” – “So do I!”. Not, you will note, “So like I”.

Thirdly, you’re choosing the correct verb form. If someone refers to a past event and tells you, “I was tired”, you’d reply “So was I”, whereas if they tell you how they’re feeling right now (“I am tired”), you’d respond “So am I”.

Lastly, you’re keeping a firm grip on word order. Although the first person’s statement follows the normal pattern of subject and then verb (I like/I was/I did/etc.), you know you have to switch that order in your reply and say “So am I”, not “So I am”.

And to think that you did all that without even realising. Clever, huh?

It is amazing how children learning their native language pick up so much without having to be explicitly told. They figure out rules and patterns all by themselves. One of the most obvious ways you can see this is when you hear a toddler saying “I goed outside.” The little chap knows that to make the past tense of a verb you add “ed”. What he doesn’t yet know is that that rule, like so many others in the English language, has exceptions—in this case the nefarious little beings known as “irregular verbs”. He’s grasped the rules of the game and he’s doing his best to follow them. You can’t blame him if the verbs don’t play fair. He’ll learn how to deal with them in time.

What linguistic complexities we dance through every day without so much as a thought!

What was that you said? You think it’s fascinating?

So do I.

Writing Like Porridge

” . . . [W]riting and thinking are, if not the same thing, quite inseparable. If you write like porridge you will think like it, and the other way around.”

So says Don Watson in his book Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak are Strangling our Public Language.

I haven’t read the whole book. I intended to, but after a while I resorted to skimming and skipping. The subject of language and its use and misuse fascinates me. This particular treatment of the subject did not fascinate me, at least not all the way through. I tired of the political emphasis and the constant (intentional) interspersing of clichés and management-speak throughout the text. That being said, Gobbledygook did contain some good advice and and also make some extremely important points.

One idea Watson underscores is the connection between language and thought.

“Such wisdom as we have, we express in language, and in language we also seek wisdom. An impoverished languages must perforce accompany impoverished thought. As Orwell said: ‘It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.'”

Watson would say that if we’re not expressing ourselves clearly, either we’re not thinking, we’re unable to express what we are thinking, or we’re intentionally trying to express something other than what we’re actually thinking, Porridge is all very well as porridge, but it’s downright nasty if it’s a description of our writing skills, never mind our thinking ones. Would you like to know what porridge looks like in written form? Here’s a beautiful example Watson cites:

“These pressures include substantially reduced funding, unfavourable demographic trends, and impending initiatives which, along with reform, may present threats. Added to these pressures is the desire for the universities to be more integrated in the overall economic development strategies of the State.”

Now compare it with this revised version:

“The universities are under pressure. They have lost funding and they are losing people. They struggle to keep up with the demands of reforming governments and a modern economy. True, changes have been made: they share resources and research and look for other ways to cooperate. But they must do more than this.”

Which paragraph is easier to understand? If you had to read twenty pages’ worth of one style of paragraph, which one would you choose? Why?

The second paragraph, as Watson admits, is “hardly poetry”, but at least, he says it’s “clearer” and he’s quite right. We know what the writer is trying to say, and if we could stick with him for a while longer if we had to. A couple of pages like the first paragraph would either make your brain hurt with the effort to follow it, or else make your brain and eyes disengage as you sink into an approximation of reading that fails to bring much understanding with it.

Not everyone can write with beauty, humour, or power. We’re not all Austens or Lewises or even Wodehouses and we don’t have to be (kind of a shame, though). But I do think that we should try to communicate our thoughts clearly, to understand the basics of how language works and use those basics well. And if our porridge-writing is caused by porridge-thinking, that will need to be attended to also.

If poor writing and shallow thinking are–I really can’t use a cliché like “vicious circle” in this post, now can I?–if poor writing and shallow thinking both gorge on each other, which does one try to eliminate first? Should I try to think more clearly in the hope of writing more clearly, or the other way around?

For me–and I’ve read others who’ve said the same–writing doesn’t just express my thoughts, but it can actually be a part of my thinking process, and so aiming for clarity in writing makes me have to think harder and (I hope) better. It’s harder than you might think. For me, anyway. I can feel the brain strain when I edit a post like this one!

What does it mean to write with clarity? This isn’t original with me, nor is it rocket science, but it means to write something your reader can easily understand, going on nothing but the words in front of him. It means the writer getting the reader to think what the writer wants him to think. Writers know what they mean when they write because they know all the other thoughts and half thoughts and feelings that never become a written part of the finished product but that helped to shape it all the same. Their readers don’t have that. C S Lewis once said that “[t]he reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.”

So don’t assume your reader knows anything about your thoughts other than as they are expressed in the words you put on paper. And if you think your thoughts make perfect sense, perhaps ask someone else to read them and give you their honest feedback. It can be a humbling experience, but it will help you to write more clearly. Know the basics of grammar and punctuation. Try to choose your words precisely. We generally only chip off bits of the gigantic iceberg that is the English language. What do I mean by a word like “interesting” anyway? Can I be more specific? Probably. If I can’t, do I need to work on improving my vocabulary?

Wow. This is my longest post ever. And there is much more that could be said–not just about writing with clarity, but then about that zing that turns average writing into truly good writing.

I’m hardly writing as an expert here (in case you hadn’t figured that out already!) I could take a red pen to this post–and to all my posts–if I really wanted to, and I have no doubt that others could too. Porridge thinking and porridge writing? I’ll wave my hand and admit my guilt. And if the judge lets me off, I’ll try to work on my culinary skills.

(Not) An Interesting Post

Words. It’s amazing what they can do.  There are many wonderful words in English, but I don’t take advantage of that variety nearly as much as I could. Sloppy speech is one thing.  But even speech without ugly fillers such as “like”, even writing that is grammatically correct, can be so lacking, not just in variety but in shades of meaning that add colour and clarity to what one is trying to say.

I know, because I’m guilty of this sort of writing myself. It was brought to my attention last week when I came across a  book in the library called A Cure for the Common Word: Remedy Your Ailing Vocabulary with 3,000+ Vibrant Alternatives to the Most Overused Words. It takes words that I know I use time and time again–overworked words such as “bad”, “do”, “feel”, “good”, “need”,”new”, and “well”–explains what’s wrong with that particular word, and suggests alternatives, along with a selected amount of definitions and concrete examples. There are so many words that I seldom, if ever, use, while I settle for other words far too much.

Let’s try a word that I certainly overwork– “interesting”. What’s wrong with it? It’s vague, my book explains. It fails to explain why something was interesting. There are lots of alternatives! These are the ones that A Cure for the Common Word particularly highlighted:


– Amusing

– Compelling

– Fascinating

– Intriguing

– Riveting

– Stimulating

Can’t you see difference? I can get across so much better exactly why that book or this event was “interesting”. I can choose just the right word to convey a more precise impression or a subtler shade of meaning. This doesn’t only enrich my hearer or reader, it enlightens him. It adds not only beauty, but truth.

Let’s try another overworked word: “good”. I had a good time. It was a good book. He is a good man.

How could we make that more–I nearly said interesting! How could we make those sentences more informative, as well as more of a delight to read?

Here are what the book calls “powerful remedies”:

– Commendable

– Gratifying

– Honorable

– Satisfying

– Valuable

– Welcome

– Wonderful

Some of those words will be appropriate for one context and with one intended meaning, while others will be more appropriate for different occasions and purposes. And there will of course be times when “good” itself is actually the right word, but that’s certainly not as often as I use it! Just as an artist might choose this particular shade of pink and no other for a petal of his rose, when we write or speak we can, if we choose, select from our array of words the one most fitting for that moment.

I know I could do better in this area. The problem is not only that I’m not familiar enough with many of the words in our language (not to mention their definitions), but also that too often I don’t take the time to really think about what my meaning is or how I can convey it well. Rather than trying to analyse the situation and find a word that actually expresses what I am thinking, I too often use a vague, general word and leave it at that. It can be shallow thinking as well as as a constricted vocabulary.

Life is complicated enough as it is, I know, and we don’t all have to try to become walking thesauruses! But I know that for my part, I can see both laziness and ignorance here, and I do think that it’s a shame that I don’t use language better. There are more important issues at stake in this world, I know. But how we use words isn’t a trivial matter either. In fact, there’s an inter–fascinating book that I’m reading about the importance of language and the words we use, but that might be a topic for another post.

It’s Just that I, Like, Well….

I have a problem. Actually, I have many, but I have no intention of sharing them all here. The problem in question is sloppy speech, or–to put it another way–inelegant and ungrammatical speech. It’s not that I don’t appreciate elegance and grammar. I do. I love to read something striking because of its beauty or power–words used well. And (dangerous as it is to admit when I am writing something myself) I do have an eye for grammatical mistakes. (For the record, I have no problem starting a sentence with “and”.) In fact, I often see mistakes when I’m not even looking. They will jump at me from off the page, wearing high-vis jackets and screeching, “Look at me!” That being the case, what can I do but look? Particularly glaring is the misused (or unused) possessive apostrophe. “Childrens fair”, the sign might proclaim, and unbidden, a little voice inside me can’t resist saying, no doubt smugly, “Whose fair?” The little voice doesn’t even need to be answered. The children’s fair, of course. Possessive. Apostrophe needed.

While I can recognise such things, and while I can, if I wish, make an effort when I write to choose my words carefully and to keep an eye on my grammar and punctuation, it’s a different matter when I speak. Just. Kind of. Sort of. Stuff. Yeah. I guess. Like. That “like”! It has perfectly legitimate uses, my dictionary tells me (preposition and verb being two of them) but why will I–and I know I am not the only one–use it as a filler, or even use it in the place of a perfectly appropriate word such as “said”? It’s a bad habit, I know.

I read Pride and Prejudice last month. Imagine this with me. (Austen will have to forgive my massacring her text.)

“It, well, taught me to, like, hope,” said Darcy, “as I had kind of scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before. I was like ‘I know enough of Miss Bennett’s disposition to be certain that, had she been absolutely, and, well, irrevocably decided against me, she would have acknowledged all that stuff to Lady Catherine, frankly and openly.’”

Elizabeth coloured and laughed as she replied, “Yeah, you know enough of my, like, frankness, to believe me capable of that. After sort of abusing you so abominably to your face, I guess I could have no scruple in abusing you to, like, all your relations.”

Somehow I don’t think that’s an improvement on the original!

But like it or not, I am often guilt of sloppy speech myself.

I’m going to try to change that. I’ll try eliminating one word and then decide whether or not to attack another! “Like”, I have my eye on you. You will be used correctly, or not at all.

I’ll let you know how it goes!