Friday, March 10, 2017

`Pungent, Bitter and Characteristic'

Pushed to name the writer of English prose who best serves as a model of stylish efficiency -- as a computer scientist of my acquaintance did on Thursday (though not in so many words) – I would fudge a little and name two satirists: Swift and Waugh.  That both are satirists is no coincidence. To be effective, satire demands precision and concision of thought and language. It can’t be approximate. It can’t be purple or otherwise self-indulgent. It has no purpose other than getting the job done.

Here is Swift in Section IX of A Tale of a Tub (1704): “Last Week I saw a Woman flay’d, and you will hardly believe, how much it altered her Person for the worse.” And here is Waugh in Scoop (1938): “He was gifted with the sly, sharp instinct for self-preservation that passes for wisdom among the rich.” Not an ounce of fat, not a syllable’s worth, in either sentence. Satire is more like a stiletto than a battle axe.  Both Swift and Waugh resist easy quotation. Neither tends toward the aphoristic. Their paragraphs and other larger units are too carefully woven to be pulled apart. What Ford Madox Ford writes of Swift in The March of Literature (1938) applies to both writers:

“The content of his paragraphs is always so pungent, bitter and characteristic that the thought almost invariably hides the consideration of the verbiage from your eyes.”

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