19 December 2012

Well Written Wednesdays: a staff of ten could not have kept pace with her

There are many reasons I have fallen in love with the writing of Mark Helprin. One is simply the knowledge that, indeed, someone is still writing beautiful literature. A more specific reason is his marvelous characterization. To wit:
[Virginia] looked at her mother and was pleased and amazed by the sly, robust intelligence in the old woman's face, by her massive form which was neither fat nor tall nor thick, by the large strong hands, the shapeless velvet and muslin dress with a green yoke, the two sweet little eyes set close together in a glowing cheeky face topped with a haystack of soft white hair, and the purring white rooster (his comb was mandarin red) that she held in her arms and occasionally stroked . . .
Mrs. Gamely had never learned to read or write, and used her daughter as a scribe, and as a researcher among encyclopedias, questioning her at length about everything she found. The old woman's sense of organization was a miracle of randomness as illogical and rich as the branches of a blossoming fruit tree. She could easily discuss 150 subjects in an hour and a half, and Virginia would still finish awed and enlightened by what seemed to be a relentless and perfect plan.
Though Mrs. Gamely was by all measures prescientific and illiterate, she did know words. Where she got them was anyone's guess, but she certainly had them. Virginia speculated that the people on the north side of the lake, steeped in variations of English both tender and precise, had made with their language a tool with which to garden a perfect landscape. Those who are isolated in small settlements may not know of the complexities common to great cities, but their hearts are rich, and so words are generated and retained. Mrs. Gamely's vocabulary was enormous. She knew words no one had every heard of, and she used words every day that had been mainly dead or sleeping for hundreds of years. Virginia checked them in the Oxford dictionary, and found that (almost without exception) Mrs. Gamely's usage was flawlessly accurate. For instance, she spoke of certain kinds of dogs as Leviners. She called the areas near Quebec march-lands. She referred to diclesiums, liripoops, rapparees, dagswains, bronstrops, caroteels, opuntias, and soughs. She might describe something as patibulary, fremescent, pharasaic, Roxburghe, or glockamoid, and words like mormal, jeropigia, endosmic, mage, palmerin, thos, vituline, Turonian, galingale, comprodor, nox, gaskin, secotine, ogdoad, and pintulary fled from her lips in Pierian saltarellos. Their dictionary looked like a sow's ear, because Virginia spent inordinate proportions of her days racing through it, though when Mrs. Gamely was angry a staff of ten could not have kept pace with her, and half a dozen linguaphologists would have collapsed from hypercardia.

"Where did you learn all those words, Mother?" Virginia might ask.

Mrs. Gamely would shrug her shoulders. "We were raised with them, I suppose." She didn't always speak incomprehensibly. In fact, she sometimes went for months at a time strapped down firmly to a strong and worthy matrix of Anglo-Saxon derivatives. Then, Virginia breathed easy, and the rooster was so happy that had he been a chicken he would have laid three eggs a day. Or was he a chicken? Who knows? The point is, he thought he was a cat.

-from Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
 The only words I knew in Mrs. Gameley's list were "soughs" and "pharasaical."

1 comment:

  1. Once I looked up everyone of those words. Some were in the OED. Some were not. And some I could only find cited in Helprin.