This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Where I discuss a unique verbal expressiveness (but use a lot of cliches to do it)

I'm reading The Journal of Helene Berr which is, as its name indicates, the diary of a woman named Helene. She is a real person who lived and died and wrote during the second World War and I'm a little over a third of the way through this disturbing personal account of the Holocaust. Helene is very endearing to any lover of words and literature; her life centers around her university community and books, as well as music and, of course, the devastating events of the times in which she lives. It is a quick read, very conversational. Helene has an effective way with language; hard-to-express ideas are conveyed precisely and with deceptive ease. She hits the nail on the head but with a light touch. (I don't know how much of this is due to the fact that the journal has been translated from French - was the writing as expressive in the original? - but the translation factor will be discussed in another post.)

Those times at which we experience an ephemeral feeling or thought, the kind that dissolves in your mind the way a snowflake dissolves on your palm, it can be difficult to find words to express what we have just gone through. It may be harder, though less fanciful, than catching lightning in a bottle. But Helene seems to have the touch for it. I have found at least three instances of phrasing that have the power to make me put my book down, stare off, and think.

Consider these three.

On page 83, Helene talks about the odd way a person's perceptions change from night to day. After describing some of the horrible things that have occurred, Helene writes,

"It grabbed me in the dark, but it never comes to me during the day. In the daytime, life forms a crust on top of thought."

Just a lovely example of the kind of simplicity she employs to convey a complex thought. If it were me writing in my journal I might just say, 'You know how things seems different in the day than in the night? It's like that.' Helene writes abundantly better.

Then there's the example on pages 78-79 in which she describes truly fathoming her current circumstances and then, suddenly, losing the sensation. She writes of realizing what she already knew - that her father was imprisoned - upon reading his correspondence from the internment camp.

"But it hit me when I reread passages from his postcard...I realized how empty his new life was...Yet as I looked at the postcard I still could not grasp the reality....And now I've lost it again. No, I've got it now, suddenly in the dark: between the Papa of home and the one out there who wrote this postcard, a gap is yawning open."

She records her thinking process as it happens and does it in a way that makes you feel you're watching the thoughts in her mind.

Finally, that feeling that you have when things aren't going well and what was friendly and loved by you previously is friendly no longer, she describes in a passage on page 82 about her family's garden.

"...the rest of the garden lived its separate life, as it must do when we are not there. I can no longer manage to commune with it, to feel that it loves me and welcomes me. It has become almost indifferent."

So the garden is unfeeling or, rather, it has only apathy; it grows in bad times as well as good. But also it bears the personality which we imprint onto it, not necessarily one of its own; so what is a lovely and happy thing to us one day, is not lovely or happy the next and what enriches our lives at one moment does nothing for us the following moment.

It can be difficult to read such well-done writing as this. It's hard to get to the end of a book when you put it down every few pages and stop to wonder. But it's worth it in order to have ideas put into words that have always hovered in your thoughts but have not been given shape.

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