by Stephen Parrish
I’ve elected to inaugurate Ritten Werds with a novel I recently finished, one that’s been on my reading list since the 1970s. War and Remembrance is a sequel to The Winds of War, which I read back when it was on the NYT bestseller list. Both are tomes, the kind of multiple-perspective panoramic novels that authors like Wouk and Leon Uris could get away with in the 1970s. Those were the days.
Funny thing is, I think readers still like long, expansive novels. I think they like micro-novels too, like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach, and The Shepherd, by Frederick Forsyth. I think readers still like everything they’ve ever liked. Unfortunately industry pundits know better.
The set-up: WWII is coming to a close. Navy captain “Pug” Henry’s marriage to Rhoda is at an end following infidelities and the turmoils of war. Yet one tiny window of opportunity remains open.
“. . . I declare, I am STONE drunk. You may have to help me up the stairs.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
“Just fooling.” She patted his arm. “Finish your brandy, dear, and enjoy the gorgeous moon. I can navigate.”
“Sure. Night, love.”
A cool gentle kiss on the mouth, and Rhoda walked unsteadily inside.
When Pug came upstairs almost an hour later, Rhoda’s door was wide open. The bedroom was dark. The door had not been open since his return from Tehran.
“Pug, is that you?”
“Well, good-night again, darling.”
It was all in the tone. Rhoda was a signaller, not a talker, and Pug read the signal, loud and clear. Clearly she had weighted her chances again, in the light of Peters’s suspicions, Pam’s refusal, and the family glow of Madeline’s happiness. Here was his old marriage, asking him back in. It was Rhoda’s last try. “They play a desperate game,” Peters had said. True enough. It was a powerful game, too. He had only to step through the doorway, into the remembered sweet odors of that dark room.
He walked by the door, his eyes moistening. “Good-night, Rhoda.”
I chose this passage not because it’s a sample of great writing in and of itself, rather because it does exactly what it’s supposed to do at this point in the novel. Pug turning Rhoda down is momentous in the story line. It’s matter-of-fact treatment here, where a lesser writer might have blown trumpets, allows understatement to herald the event more effectively than trumpets could.
That’s because the music is created in the reader’s mind, not on the writer’s page.
You’ll see this a lot in my analyses of good writing: let the reader figure it out. Let the reader decide what to feel.
Although you won’t know what “Peters’s suspicions, Pam’s refusal, and the family glow of Madeline’s happiness” mean out of context, these are themes that took much of the book to develop, and their roundup here is a crescendo.
When Wouk describes Pug’s eyes moistening he’s showing us Pug’s grief, not telling us about it. After two long novels—some 2000 pages—spent with this cool-headed naval officer, seeing his eyes water up informs us better than could any expository description that his (underspoken) decision is one of the most difficult he’s ever made.
Read the last paragraph one more time. Notice how the sentence lengths vary, how a sequence of short, punchy sentences appear in the heart of the paragraph. We’ll return to this theme again and again. Good writing tends to be characterized by quiet yet conscientious rhythm. Notice also how Wouk employs the age-old rule-of-three: Peters’s suspicions, Pam’s refusal, Madeline’s happiness. It’s a good rule.
Sometimes great writing is so stirring, you almost hear accompanying music. Sometimes, as in this case, it unobtrusively yet effectively gets the job done.
What do you think?
Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.
Bonus video: me reading William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Sit back and enjoy some of the most passionate words ever written: