The Challenge of Saying

As the impeachment inquiry makes clear—again—it is difficult to say that which is so. To say true things colorfully or poetically is harder; comically may be even harder; and directly or briefly the hardest of all.

“Simplicity is the final achievement,” Chopin is said to have said. “After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Reality is a library of encyclopedias; describing it a haiku.

I have been browsing older books lately that I saved from the dustbins of “deselected” public or college libraries. There is a straightforwardness in the prose of many that I find admirable. That they lingered on shelves or in cardboard boxes long enough for me to pick them up, decades after publication, says something about the durability of what and how things were said.

In Views From Abroad: The Spectator Book of Travel Writing (1988), which includes pieces by Peter Ackroyd, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Jan Morris, and V.S. Naipaul, Gavin Stamp wrote:

It is, no doubt, wrong to attribute the remarkable architectural integrity of Leningrad to communist government: indeed, most of the good things in Russia seem to survive in spite of it. Of course, as the city was created by a ruthless autocracy, so, perhaps, it needs a dictatorship to maintain it just as it needs one to maintain vast public expenditures on the armed forces. But the preservation of old buildings must be truly popular in Leningrad: certainly it is not done just for tourists (the chief argument used for preservation in Britain); ironically, the only modern buildings which spoil the city centre are two hotels for Western tourists.

(It is not au courant to criticize the Russians, unless you are Fiona Hill and David Holmes, but there are interesting ideas in his judgements.)

The Anchor Review (1955) contains essays by Arthur Koestler, Alfred Kazin, W.H. Auden, and David Riesman, who says awful (and contemporary-sounding) things in “Thoughts on Teachers and Schools”:

It is hard to think of a public schoolroom in America in which the old Tocqueville issues of democracy and equality are not being fought over, sometimes rowdily and openly, more often covertly and disingenuously, as the curriculum and the career-choices of teachers are shaped to the inconsistent demands of competing pressure groups, among whom the children themselves are not to be thought the least effective. Oppressed from without, and conscience-stricken from within, in the face of broadening responsibilities (often without equally broadening budgets) teachers, like most of us, become bogged down in immediacies and become defensive toward criticism. While preparing children for lives of presumptively increasing abundance and leisure, they lack freedom and leeway to grasp what the long-term trends are which victimize them as individuals and minimize their effectiveness.

Finally, for a third example picked at random, there is Brave Men (1944), Ernie Pyle’s collected dispatches for Scripps-Howard from the invasion of Sicily to the liberation of Paris. Pyle was loved by the troops, and his sympathies were always with them. But he wrote one piece, shortly after D-Day, about men in a 90mm gun crew living in pup tents under trees in France:

Their life was rugged, but they didn’t see the seamiest side of the war. They stayed quite a while in one place, which makes for comfort, and they were beyond enemy artillery range. Their only danger was from bombing or strafing, and that was not too great. They were so new at war they still tried to keep themselves clean. They shaved and washed their clothes regularly…and said they would be glad when the service boys and the field kitchens caught up with them.

This contains a complexity about service I rarely see today.

Judgements that stick, language that is more than competent, and significant human details are, I think, part of what readers still long for, in the age of hurt and suspicion. (And may account in part for creative nonfiction tracks in MFA programs.)

Don DeLillo says, “Maybe the challenge for the novelist is to stretch his art and his language, to the point where it can finally describe what’s happening around him.” Actually it is the problem for all of us.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.