In anticipation of the announcement of the winner of The Man Booker International Prize this Wednesday, we're awarding our own prizes to the nominees today. Don't look here for an analysis of literary merit, though. We're considering these writers only in terms of their usefulness to vocabulary learners. (Test your vocabulary against theirs with "The Man Booker Prize Nominee Vocabulary Quiz.")
Top Tier: Dictionaries in Fiction Form
Watch how nimbly these writers string together one high-octane word after another. If you're looking to improve your vocabulary, consider picking up one of their novels and having a read.
From Vladimir Sorokin's Bro, from The Ice Trilogy: The lake was always cold and calm. But our large family was raucous and vociferous, like a flock of spring birds. Our morose, taciturn father seemed the only ominous crow in the flock.
From Marilynne Robinson's Home: "Home to stay, Glory! Yes!" her father said, and her heart sank. He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with commiseration. "To stay for a while this time!" he amended, and took her bag from her, first shifting his cane to his weaker hand. … "Italianate," her father said, but that was a guess, or a rationalization. In any case, [the house] managed to look both austere and pretentious despite the porch her father had had built on the front of it.
From Marie NDiaye's Three Strong Women: She would have liked to say this to him in a flippant, mildly reproachful way, as if all that had been just a rather crude form of humor on his part, and she'd have liked her father to show a little contrition, and for them to have laughed about it together now. But … she realized that he no more would have understood or grasped the most insistent allusion to the nasty comments he used to make than he now cared to scrutinize her appearance and formulate a judgment about it. … He had a rather fixed, vacant, distant look.
Runners-Up: "A Language of the Environment in Which I Grew Up"
With these writers, you'll learn new words, but you won't necessarily be using them on your own. U R Ananthamurthy, who writes in Kannada, the official and administrative language of the state of Karnataka, India, described his work in a recent Guardian interview as "a probe into reality in a language of the environment in which I grew up." Chinese writer Yan Lianke takes this probe to the next level, incorporating local words, many of which he invents, and then explains in footnotes throughout his novel Lenin's Kisses.
From U R Ananthamurthy's Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man: "True … true … quite true," said Lakshmanacharya, rubbing his belly — jerking his face forwards and backwards, batting his eyelids rapidly. The only well-fed part of his body was his belly, swollen with malarial bubo. Sunken cheeks, yellow eyes deep in sockets, ribs protruding, a leg tiwsted — altogether an unbalanced body.
From Yan Lianke's Lenin's Kisses: Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn't liven(1), it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow(3).
1) To Liven. DIALECT (used mostly in western Henan and eastern Nenan's Balous mountains). The term means to experience "enjoyment, happiness, and passion," and also carries connotations of finding pleasure in discomfort, or making pleasure out of discomfort.
3) Hot snow. DIAL. Refers to summer snow. People from this region usually call summer the "hot season," and refer to summer snow as "hot snow." They sometimes also speak of "hot flurries" and "hot blizzards."
Honorable Mentions: Loyalty to a Character's Voice
Convincing a reader that the voice on the page belongs not to an author but exists inside the head of a character requires strict discipline. Writers can use only their characters' vocabularies, not their own. Nevertheless, there are times when they violate their own rules for the sake of energizing and clarifying their prose, and it's a sign of their skill that we, as readers, don't miss a beat.
From Lydia Davis' "The Fears of Mrs. Orlando," Collected Stories of Lydia Davis: Outside her house she knows some of what is dangerous but not all of it, and is frightened by her own ignorance, and avid for information about crime and disaster.
From Aharon Appelfeld's Blooms of Darkness: It is hard for him to imagine that tall, pretty woman dejected or humiliated.
His mother repeats, "Everyone has his own fate."
That sentence, like the one before, is inscrutable.
Also-Rans: "Unshowy" Prose
You won't see many vocabulary pyrotechnics here. Explaining his "unshowy prose" in an interview for The Guardian, Swiss nominee Peter Stamm writes, "There are as many ways of writing as there are writers. I do not want to put myself in the foreground...I want my readers to forget that they are reading a book and dive into the world I'm creating and draw their own conclusions." Nevertheless, even the tonally muted Stamm cannot hold back from the precision-cutting a fine-tuned vocabulary allows.
From Peter Stamm's Seven Years: It was a flip sort of conversation, made up of one-liners, jokes and comebacks, all going nowhere. … From the very outset, Ivona was disagreeable to me. I felt sorry for her, and at the same time I was irritated by her docile and long-suffering manner.
Of course, improving reader vocabulary is not the goal of any of these writers. Rather, as Aharon Appelfeld put it when describing his own plain style in part two of the Guardian round-up, "Biblical prose teaches us that not speaking is as important as speech. Outward description is merely an illusion; one must strive to reach the inner kernel of the soul."
Are there any writers whose vocabularies you particularly admire? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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