Kevin Mulqueen: Le Mot juste



Kevin Mulqueen was born in Reading, UK, but his blood is pure Irish. He has been teaching English for 48 years – in England, Egypt, Tanzania, Argentina, Venezuela, Ghana and now Vietnam. At 70, He’s still going strong. He is married to a Vietnamese woman and lives in Ho Chi Minh City. He is a chess fanatic (Tanzanian National Champion in 1991), devotee of blues and jazz music, bibliophile (Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Brian Moore, Philip Larkin, Dick Francis, M.R. James and Jonathan Raban are among his favourites), vulcanophile (He’s climbed Tambora and Mt Mayon), traveller, writer (mainly of travel and nostalgia essays) and armchair sportsman (He loves football, cricket, tennis and boxing).



I first came across the phrase le mot juste at secondary school, when our French teacher, Mr Evans, used it in class. He said something along the lines of: ‘Il faut chercher le mot juste’ (one must look for the right / perfect / exact word). The phrase is attributed to nineteenth century author, Gustave Flaubert, who wrote: ‘Si je mets bleues après pierres, c’est que bleues est le mot juste, croyez-moi’ (If I put ‘blue’ after ‘stones,’ that’s because blue is the right word, believe me). He also wrote: ‘Tout le talent d’écrire ne consiste après tout que dans le choix des mots. C’est la précision qui fait la force’ (All talent for writing consists, after all, of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power).

This latter quotation is highly debatable. What about ideas and structure? Methinks a great literary work is surely a coming together of excellent ideas with the right words in the right order. This opinion echoes what Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about poetry: ‘Poetry consists of the best words in the best order.’

Anyway, it’s pretty obvious that choosing le mot juste is an essential part of good writing. Now let’s look at the process of writing and the speed at which different writers compose their works.

At one extreme we have Gustave Flaubert, at the other William Shakespeare. Flaubert agonized for more than five years over the composition of his masterpiece Madame Bovary. He rose late each day and worked from 1 pm to 1 am. Sentences were laid as carefully as fuses. Progress was excruciatingly slow. In six weeks, he wrote to Louise Colet, he had produced only 25 pages. Madame Bovary is 156,160 words long. By contrast, Charles Dickens wrote his longest novel, Bleak House (360,947 words), in twenty serialized instalments between March 1852 and September 1853.

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, 2 longer poems and 39 plays (two of them – Cardenio and Love’s Labours Won – have disappeared) at breakneck speed. The legend goes that he never blotted a line. Like Dickens, who had to meet magazine deadlines, Shakespeare wrote to make money – his theatre company relied on him to write plays to bring in paying customers. His friend and admirer Ben Jonson said: ‘I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penn’d) hee never blotted out line.’ My answer hath beene, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.’ Jonson is surely insinuating that if Shakespeare had written more carefully, his plays would have been even better. Perhaps true, perhaps not.

Shakespeare’s achievement is staggering both in terms of quality and quantity. It is impossible to believe, though, that he never blotted a line – especially since he was writing in blank verse (iambic pentameters ten syllables to a line) with the occasional rhyme thrown in. Poetry, because of its stricter parameters – rhyme, metre and so on – is a more exacting mistress than prose. A poet cannot get away with a badly chosen word or phrase, because in a short poem it will stand out; whereas in a long novel a poor sentence may go unnoticed. Which leads me on to one of my favourite literary quotes. The French poet, Paul Valery, wrote: ‘Un poème n’est jamais fini, seulement abandonné’ (A poem is never finished, only abandoned). What he means is that a poem, which consists of very few words compared to a novel, lends itself to constant revision and improvement. Only a hyper-perfectionist like Flaubert will dedicate himself to getting every single little thing in a novel exactly right. The sheer size and scope of a novel mitigates against perfection.

It is interesting to compare the writing practices and routines of various novelists. Most of them have a daily quota of words that they aim to reach. Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway set themselves a modest daily target of 500 words. Somerset Maugham aimed for 1000. Stephen King aims for 2000. Anthony Trollope aimed for 3000 (‘I write with my watch before me, to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour’). R. F. Delderfield (author of To Serve Them All My Days) aimed for 10,000. There is general agreement among novelists that a daily routine is essential; you cannot just wait for inspiration to strike. Jack London expresses this beautifully: ‘You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.’ J. G. Ballard speaks for the majority when he writes: ‘All through my career I’ve written 1000 words a day – even if I’ve got a hangover. You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re professional. There’s no other way.’ And, of course, after the first draft of a novel is finished, it is redrafted over and over again. Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park, says: ‘Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.’

It’s more difficult to find information on the routines of famous poets. Because a poem is usually short, one little spear-point of emotion, it is tempting to believe it was written spontaneously and quickly. This is not necessarily so, because poets, like novelists, agonize over details and are constantly redrafting. Wordsworth famously wrote: ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.’ The impulse to write down his feelings may have been spontaneous, but the actual writing was often hard labour for him – a series of drafts and revisions stretching over many years. Ditto for W. B. Yeats, who was happy to hammer out two lines of poetry a day. Philip Larkin, too, wrote sparingly – his reputation rests on three slim volumes of verse. Unlike the aforementioned professional novelists, Larkin had a day job, so wrote poetry during the evenings, weekends and holidays. If I had to choose one poet whose work exemplifies Flaubert’s pronouncement that ‘Tout le talent d’écrire ne consiste après tout que dans le choix des mots. C’est la précision qui fait la force’, it would be Larkin.

At the other end of the poetic spectrum is Sylvia Plath, who, in the final few months before her tragic death, sometimes wrote two or three poems a day. And these are great poems, not hit-and-miss first drafts needing revision. The exception that proves the rule.

Now let’s go from the sublime to the ridiculous – from Wordsworth, Yeats and Larkin to yours truly, Kevin Mulqueen. I am a writer of sorts. I know all about striving to find le mot juste. Here is an example from my blog.

Years ago, I asked my students to write a 50-word prose poem describing a personal experience or observation. I wanted to give them an example, so I sat down and composed the following:

We’d been motoring for days through parched Moroccan desert dunes. Terrible heat, shortage of water were driving us crazy. We stopped at another garage, expecting nothing. The owner beckoned me to his fridge. Inside, a single orange. Smiling, he put it in my hand. Icy-cold. Desperate unpeeling. Explosion of juice on my taste-buds. Aaah!

As well as being four words over the limit, this somehow did not hit the spot. I decided to make it more immediate by switching to the present tense, to cut out some unnecessary words and to replace terrible with the stronger devilish. My second draft was:

Motoring for days through parched Moroccan desert dunes. Devilish heat, shortage of water driving us crazy. We stop at another garage, expecting nothing. Owner beckons me to his fridge. Inside, a single orange. Smiling, he puts it in my hand. Icy-cold. Desperate unpeeling. Explosion of juice on my taste-buds. Aaah!

I was pretty happy with this, but then, just before the lesson, I reread it and decided the verb ‘puts’ was weak. I replaced it with ‘places’, a more precise verb that suggests the act of carefully positioning the orange. So my final version reads:

Motoring for days through parched Moroccan desert dunes. Devilish heat, shortage of water driving us crazy. We stop at another garage, expecting nothing. Owner beckons me to his fridge. Inside, a single orange. Smiling, he places it in my hand. Icy-cold. Desperate unpeeling. Explosion of juice on my taste-buds. Aaah!

And now let me introduce you to the greatest lexical fiddler of all time, a man who is never satisfied with what he has written, a man who is forever seeking le mot juste. I am referring to a minor character in Camus’s novel La Peste. His name is Joseph Grand. He is writing a novel but is such a perfectionist that he continually rewrites the opening sentence (“One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne”) and can get no further:

“Evenings, whole weeks, spent on one word, just think! Sometimes on a mere conjunction!”
Grand stopped abruptly and seized the doctor by a button of his coat. The words came stumbling out of his almost toothless mouth.

“I’d like you to understand, doctor. I grant you it’s easy enough to choose between a ‘but’ and ‘and.’ It’s a bit more difficult to decide between ‘and’ and ‘then.’ But definitely the hardest thing may be to know whether one should put an ‘and’ or leave it out….”

Then, pitched low but clear, Grand’s voice came to his ears.

“One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.”

Silence returned, and with it the vague murmur of the prostrate town. Grand had put down the sheet and was still staring at it. After a while he looked up.

“What do you think of it?”

Rieux replied that this opening phrase had whetted his curiosity; he’d like to hear what followed. Whereat Grand told him he’d got it all wrong. He seemed excited and slapped the papers on the table with the flat of his hand.

“That’s only a rough draft. Once I’ve succeeded in rendering perfectly the picture in my mind’s eye, once my words have the exact tempo of this ride, the horse is trotting, one-two-three, one-two-three, see what I mean? The rest will come more easily and, what’s even more important, the illusion will be such that from the very first words it will be possible to say: ‘Hats off!’.

But before that, he admitted, there was lots of hard work to be done. He’d never dream of handing that sentence to the printer in its present form. For though it sometimes satisfied him, he was fully aware it didn’t quite hit the mark as yet, and also that to some extent it had a facility of tone approximating, remotely perhaps, but recognizably, to the commonplace. That was more or less what he was saying when they heard the sound of people running in the street below the window.

Rieux stood up. “Just wait and see what I make of it,” Grand said, and, glancing toward the window, added: “When all this is over.”

Joseph Grand is surely Camus’s caricature of the writer, of himself, wrestling with words, seeking literary perfection but never achieving it. A Flaubert manqué.

Ah, le mot juste! Every writer’s dream. In truth it is a chimera, an unattainable ideal. Or is it? Shakespeare comes close. Macbeth is the play where he writes his finest verse, and the finest lines of all are spoken by Macbeth just after he has murdered King Duncan:

What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

These are the lines that Richard Burton scribbled in his notebook the night he died. He was clearly haunted or infatuated by them (as I am). Did Shakespeare write these perfect words, these mots justes, effortlessly without any crossings out? If he did, I am flabbergasted. If he didn’t – if he had to draft and redraft them a dozen times – he has confirmed the Latin dictum: ars est celare artem (art is to hide art). The best writing sounds natural; the writer may have sweated blood to achieve it, but there is no sign of a struggle. And as for me, I will plod on, composing my little blogs, aware of my shortcomings, exulting over nice turns of phrase, forever chasing le mot juste.

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