Thursday, May 3, 2012

Jack London's Way with Words

Please note that I only had one commenter brave enough or interested enough to try to guess the source of the literary excerpt I posted yesterday. Congratulations to Amy who correctly guessed that the author was Jack London. The work from which the quote is taken is White Fang.

You read yesterday's excerpt as a whole. Today I am highlighting various elements of the writing that give it depth and feeling. Jack London is an expert at drawing the reading into his stories in a very emotive fashion. Whether it is the Arctic wilderness as in this example from White Fang, or the raging seas upon which a reader sails in The Sea Wolf, London's readers feel the very circumstances that he paints with his words. When I read this snippet, I am in the very Arctic wilderness, even if it's only in my mind. London's talent in this aspect of writing stands apart from most, even among the many writers considered great.
Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness - a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild. ...

...They travelled on without speech, saving their breath for the work of their bodies. On every side was the silence, pressing upon them with a tangible presence. It affected their minds as the many atmospheres of deep water affect the body of the diver. It crushed them with the weight of unending vastness and unalterable decree. It crushed them into the remotest recesses of their own minds, pressing out of them, like juices from the grape, all the false ardours and exaltations and undue self-values of the human soul, until they perceived themselves finite and small, specks and motes, moving with weak cunning and little wisdom amidst the play and inter-play of the great blind elements and forces.
Because I hope to one day write stories I often examine the works of those authors I admire. In Jack London's writing, I very often find myself in awe of that power I described above, of taking a reader into a setting. So I examine such writing for specifics in vocabulary and use of literary devices that lend the writing such sway.

In this excerpt, for instance, I noticed the verbs that were particularly interesting. They lend depth and character to the narrative. The forest frowned; silence reigned and crushed.

The unusual nouns, too, I marked. Waterway, instead of river; desolation, recesses, ardours, exaltations, specks, motes.

Colorful adjectives. dark, frozen, white, fading, vast, lifeless, lone, cold,terrible, mirthless, masterful, incommunicable, savage, frozen-hearted. Doesn't that list make you shiver with cold, and infinite and oppressive loneliness?

What about emotive use of prepositional phrases combined with those richly flavored nouns? Wisdom of eternity, futility of life, effort of life; weight of unending vastness and unalterable decree. Then that last sentence and it's run of powerful prepositional phrases: moving with weak cunning and little wisdom amidst the play and interplay of the great blind elements and forces.

Notice London use of simile. Mirthless as the smile of the sphinx; cold as the frost; affected their minds as deep water affects a diver's body; pressing like juices from the grape.

Pairs of words: black and ominous; lone and cold; ardours and exaltations; finite and small; specks and motes.

I periodically practice this art, for fun and to develop my skill, but I know I will never be the master that London was.

I have blogged about some of my favorite books and authors, and I've included many excerpts highlighting one or another or several skills I enjoy. If this subject interests you, you can find more such analysis within my books or writing index tabs. One of my very favorite snippets is featured in one of my first blog posts way back in 2007. Wow, time flies, doesn't it?

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