“Sadly, all words seem much the same to many people, like checkers, and they feel about them much as I do about Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: all sound like Winter.”
The English-born novelist Paul West, more youthful Mozart in spirit than aging Vivaldi, died Oct. 18 in Ithaca, N.Y., at age eighty-five. He published twenty-four novels, none since suffering a stroke in 2003 that left him severely aphasiac -- cruelest of fates for a word-drunk man. In the eighties and nineties I read his books as they appeared, enjoying their linguistic exuberance and learning (subjects included Lord Byron, the plot to assassinate Hitler, the O.K. Corral, John Milton and Jack the Ripper), even as I increasingly found them clever but empty. The best may have been Rat Man of Paris (1986). West’s blessing and curse was word-infatuation. He unapologetically wallowed in words to the detriment, on occasion, of sense and human interest. In his review of Guy Davenport’s first story collection, Tatlin! (1974), collected in Sheer Fiction (1987), West says “nothing relevant has gone unimplied, nothing irrelevant hasn’t been suavely shut out.” That’s generally true of Davenport’s work, seldom of West’s.
The passage at the top is from the preface to the only book by West I occasionally return to, The Secret Lives of Words (Harcourt, 2000). He selects five-hundred words, arranges them alphabetically and tells unpedantic stories, fashioning informal, idiosyncratic etymologies. Think of it as a scrapbook. He calls it “a grateful album, a personal sampling of history-laden words.” That’s the point: words for West are personal – the way they look and sound, the images and memories they evoke, the way we use them. Here is part of his entry for the innocent-sounding feisty:
“Middle English for `farting dog,’ going back to the obsolete English fist (fart) and Latin pedere (break wind). The expression `hoist with one’s own petard’ [Hamlet, Act III, Scene IV] has the same origin (in English, petard is a little bomb) . . . Feisty nowadays, of course, means either quarrelsome or vigorous, though one can almost see some kind of link between high energy and the breaking of wind.”
The OED clarifies with its entry for fist: “a breaking wind, a foul smell, stink. Obs.” The dictionary’s most recent citation, from 1664, is by Charles Cotton (Montaigne’s translator) in The Scarronides, or Virgil Travesties: “With that he whistled out most mainly, / You might have heard his Fist / From one side of the Skie to th’ t’ other.” The scatological theme continues in West’s unlikely gloss on lasagna:
“Literally, if you go back to the Athenian Greeks, chamberpot pasta, from their word lasanon, more delicately referred to as a night chair. Ever alert for the chance of crude humor, the Romans latched on to this word and, reserving it for large pots of all kinds, cooking and night relief, finessed it into lasanum, whence lasagna of the flat pasta and sausages and cheese and who knows what.”
Near the conclusion of his 1985 essay “In Defense of Purple Prose,” West writes: “We simply have to heed the presence of all our words and the chance of combining them in unprecedented and luminous ways. Prose is malleable, not ordained.” Not bad advice, but West never quite avoids overdoing things, turning tasteful amethyst to gaudy purple. He even uses “luminous,” a word that outside biology and optics is best avoided. But he’s right. English is admirably malleable, like modeling clay. It’s always changing and yet retains the shape we give it, at least for a moment. West reminds us that every sentence is a small act of sculpture. He writes in his preface to Secret Lives:
“It’s impossible to know enough, but even a smattering alters your response to a kitchen or a garden, not to mention a classic of literature.”