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Reading Paul West

Anne-Laure Tissut

II. West et le langage/The Aesthetics of Language

Figures of Silence in Paul West’s Works of Fiction

Anne-Laure Tissut

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1Throughout his long literary career, begun in the 1960s, Paul West has been staging dysfunctioning bodies, and increasingly so over the years. Somehow like in Beckett, whom West admires, bodies are confined, condemned, or paralysed. In A Stroke of Genius, the narrator is bed-ridden after a stroke; Doc Holliday, the young hero in OK the Corral, is prematurely condemned by tuberculosis; Father Garnet, in A Fifth of November, for having heard of the gunpowder’s plot in confession, has to remain hidden in a hole to escape police investigations; the various voices heard in Cheops rise from the dead, buried within the pyramids. Many other forms of fixity heralding death may be found throughout West’s—even earlier— work. So-called “action” is restricted to letter-writing or thinking. For the reader, the characters are all but reduced to mere voices, as though West were purposefully laying the emphasis on voice in order to explore the possibilities of language and bring it to its limits, for instance silence.

2Through the study of the different forms of expression which develop while the conventional ways of communication are blocked and bodies are paralysed or their urges denied, we shall try to see which exactly are the functions of silence in the texts in the attempt to shed light on the reasons for such insistence on voice and speech in such an elaborate prose, so obviously more on the side of writing than on that of speaking. How does the tension between oral and written forms intimately relate to the investigations of the material carried out in modern art, as well as to the connected problematics of continuity and permanence? More specifically, what is the nature of West’s “undersong,” the term used by Jerome Charyn to define the specific music of a text?


3As Marie realizes in The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, speech is life-sustaining:

Marie was dreaming of Ireland as she went out, of the way people talked, as if talking were enough, if you were really good at it, and it would feed and clothe you, she knew not how, but it had always seemed that way, […] if you could only capture in one sentence all the intonations of grief and joy that contended in one cry of a seagull, the cry harsh and unappeased, like a vocal scissors […]. (244-245)

4Yet the seagull cannot but remind the reader of the Ripper’s name, “Gull,” hence letting death creep in this crying out for life, also torn by the final “vocal scissors” in the comparison. Speech can kill, and die, as illustrated, for instance, by the prostitutes’ mispronunciations: as Long Liz keeps drinking, the parts in her speech can no longer be identified; her voice turns into a nauseous flow in which the mangled words offer pictures of the lacerated bodies of the prostitutes. The decay of language shown in the novel runs parallel to the use of language as a decoy. Namely the painter Walt Sickert resorts to the language of temptation and seduction to lure the prostitutes up into the carriage where they are to be eviscerated.

5In between life and death, speech may appear to be locked/paralysed in repetition, or in rambling forms of talk constituting ambiguous, sclerotic forms of continuity. George, the old Navaho sculptor in The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, carries out a dialogue with the divine Sotuqnangu, through which he actually is rehearsing his death. Voices seem to be out of time already, somewhat like in Beckett’s works, in which they aspire to their/an end through their ceaseless rambling. In West’s fiction however, do they rather seem to aim at continuity, or lasting, which justifies their transcription into written language.


  • 1 see Roland Barthes’s introduction to Le Grain de la voix, about the evacuation of the body which o (...)

6In three recent novels, The Tent of Orange Mist, OK, the Corral, the Earps and Doc Holliday, and A Fifth of November, the characters are involved in epistolary “exchanges,” so-called, which rather tend toward solipsistic performances not abiding by the requirements of communication. For instance letters often do not get read before being answered. This mode of expression testifies to a denial of the body and of its desires, as it allows the characters to do without the disturbing presence of the other1. Indeed letter-writing appears as a substitute for hopeless love-relationships with inaccessible women—a nun in OK, the Corral, while the writer is a priest in A Fifth of November. The motivation for such repression is to shed the material nature of things in the hope of doing away with decay and death, each writer “succoring the other with certain knowledge of the power of language over the hereafter” (A Fifth, 285). This power is further described in A Fifth of November: “softening the bleakness of the moment as language has the power to do, converting the worst of situations into an interpreted something.” (219) Such is the power of the symbolizing process, allowing to take distance away from material reality and change it into meaning. It is a deceptive and limited power since its comforting effect is no cure to death. By denying the body—out of their fear of death—, the characters have thwarted any kind of exchange, however helpful it might have proved, and let themselves be absorbed in his/her own confrontation with death in which he/she remains radically alone. They have created a double bind, often ironically denounced through suggestions showing the author’s awareness that the body neither is expandable nor can be evacuated. In A Fifth of November, a long paragraph on cooking smells—a torture to Father Garnet who has kept in hiding for days without food—ends with his decision to resort to “a few chaste words” as a solution—words in his mouth instead of food (218). We shall try to show that West’s prose stages a return of the bodily, partly through a transfer into the materiality of the text, without the bodily itself being fully eradicated. The hypothesis may be emitted that West’s grotesque language offers a compromise, a malleable or plastic though written language of the body.

7The fear of decay also leads the characters to resort to other forms of writing, not relying on voice, namely hieroglyphics in Cheops and Chinese ideograms in The Tent of Orange Mist. As Antonin Artaud explained about his “theatre of cruelty,” what is sought is a visual language, in between body movements and thought. West too is trying to create a total, dramatic language, which far from excluding its addressee further involves him/her, as the Egyptian language is supposed to in Cheops, “as if it was a language unspoken […] requiring work for the undercover mind.”

“Like a code?” I asked […] “More like a sign language,” he said. Requiring an instrument more resonant than the human voice to get it across. (7-8)

8Thus speech seems to rank lower than its recreation through writing, the potentials of which should be considered.


9As a visual form of language, it stimulates both imagination and memory (as much as spoken language for that matter, but the time dimension involved reaches much further and is more complex). Indeed writing has a specific relation to and position in time: it is a lasting form of language, which disturbs George in The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, the old Navaho who belongs to an oral culture; he is intrigued by books and leaves one outdoors to bring it back into cycles of decaying and renewal as mold develops in its pages.

10The metaphor of carving recurs in West’s fiction, indicating an attempt to leave marks on the world; in The Women of Whitechapel, namely, the Ripper cutting through the bodies is often compared to someone writing; in the same novel, several forged letters alert the reader as to the dangers of writing which promotes lethal fixity (while the oral is privileged as the immediate manifestation of life). In A Stroke of Genius, the narrator seems to be trying to take revenge upon “disease as the supreme art form, carved into us with a free and sometimes languid hand, not always successful at first but in the long run a triumph […]. To be born is to be transmutable, for better or for worse, while waiting the worst.” (2) In Master Class too, the idea recurs that we are raw matter to nature’s craft, which “shapes us into grotesque art forms” (6). Thus would the artist stand as a competitor to nature.

11Illuminating also is a much-favored metaphor, perhaps for the capacities of such activity, suspending time while creating beauty. Suspension is a typical feature in West’s prose, namely at the end of chapters. Most of them close with a striking, often sharp sentence, with lasting effects. Suspension combined with silence reflects an aspiration to continuity, in time as well as between image and text in the case of illuminating, or between text and sound in the case of “infinite vocalisation” (Love’s Mansion, 77) The latter is defined as “the art of melisma, which is the accomodation of several notes to one syllable. Perhaps […] this is what human life is like: you settle on one thing and, if you care for it, stretch it out and out, far beyond Allelu-u-u-u-u-u-ia, until you have abolished time in an instant, have defied the entire conception of language in the interests of one sound. It seems plausible, a way of cheating, […].” (A Fifth, 159)—“cheating” is to be understood as cheating with death. In both illuminating and vocalising, the artist is absorbed in the creating act, and a transfer is achieved from the surrounding reality into the artwork. Such is also the case with “Purple Prose.”

12Sonorous “Purple Prose” is also referred to as “symphonic hyperbole” (In Defense of Purple Prose, 53), an expression that includes two main aspects in West’s style, excess or amplification, and music. “Purple prose” is West’s ideal style, even more complete than Barthes’s “rustling of language” (“bruissement de la langue”), standing between words and lusic, meaning and sound. “Purple Prose” is closer to drama, involving as it does all senses, thanks to “its capacity for hitting the mind’s eye—the mind’s ear, the mind’s very membranes—with what isn’t there […].” (In Defense, 54). “Purple Prose” expands in all directions, thus breaking linearity, according to the specificity of poetic language from Goux’s point of view. Networks of echoes and dual devices of extraction/insertion require an active participation from the reader’s memory, as he moves back and forth through the text. Those devices and motifs break linearity and animate the reading process with rhythms and sound patterns which are specific to each text, all making up West’s “undersong.”

13Yet his “undersong” is mainly characterized by amplification. Such amplifying movement partly offers a compensation to the handicap of hampered bodies. Handicap is a recurring concern for West, who wrote Words for a Deaf Daughter as a tribute to his mentally handicapped daughter, whose “compensations” he keeps marveling at. Then he wrote Gala, a fictional sequel to the memoir, in which he resorted to a writing constraint —a handicap of sorts: he began each paragraph with one of the letters taking part in the genetic code. In A Fifth of November, Father Garnet man-ages to cope with imprisonment thanks to “minor compensatory twitches of his physique […] noting them largely” (13): the character’s soaring thought is amplified by writing. In A Stroke of Genius, minor, microscopic happenings in the body are projected upon the screen of fiction:

Dispossessed is what I felt: dispossessed of even that cosy old intimacy with nature. […] Now it was being played out, proven, on my pulses, taken outside me and blown up on big screens and charts. […] you had only a backstage identity […] but the straight truth was all around you as the EKG clamoured when you made the slightest move and an abortive attempt to move your bowels set all the bells ringing at once […]. (36-7)

14The aim of amplifying in “Purple Prose” is to erase the world, even temporarily so, as appears through recurring images testifying to a pervasive aspiration; West’s prose is dense, heavy, rich, thick and resonant. Even though the idea appears that “all art aspires to the condition of music,” that is to immateriality, a desirable condition insofar as it escapes aging, West’s language is matter (“a paste as thick as life itself,” Sheer Fiction, 53), and as such, it is subject to decay. West’s enthusiasm for the mutations of language shows through the systematic studies of etymology to be found in his works. He insistently recalls his wonder for such Latin verb as “fero, tuli, latum,” among other awe-inspiring illustrations of a plasticity acquired by words through their uses. In Sporting With Amaryllis, a fictional account of John Milton’s poetic calling, which awoke when he met Amaryllis in London, the muse is interested in “the way the first words formed in the anatomy of the mouth and throat” (108). One may also evoke the women of Whitechapel’s mispronunciations. It seems that, just like in modern art according to Florence de Mèredieu, West listens to the suggestions coming from his material, that is from spoken language, which themselves are highly deforming. Written prose is an attempt to recreate speech and voice, to appropriate their plasticity in an attempt to overcome the fixity of the written text. This requires to step away from ordinary speech in order to see it as extraordinary, from a new point of view. West trims and transforms speech so that it stands out alone against the background of silence.


15First silence offers a tabula rasa, as a starting point favoring the birth of new perspectives once hierarchies have been turned upside down. An example is to be found in Terrestrials, where in silence appears the equal beauty of things, when looked upon with a “total recognition” that may remind one that “Purple prose” is “the style of extreme awareness.” The writer has to silence the ordinary uses of language—which make West sick, he confesses—as well as the founding fathers’ voices. Or should one rather say his mother’s voice in West’s case? Indeed the pianist had a huge influence upon her son, who paid a tribute to her in the memoir My Mother’s Music, in which he recalls her reading to him aloud, their complicity in playing on words or in going to the movies. In Cheops, the appeal of voice is explained as a longing for one’s mother’s voice. Cheops’ mind is full of women’s voices, that set him musing: “I confess I always responded more to voice than to anything else, always remembering the sounds from above when I was in my mother’s womb” (31). West’s “Mother’s Music” plays on his “vocal mind” as he tries to retrieve it. There seems to be a dual rhythm of life to West’s writing, of absorption, then distantiation and restitution, after transformation. Indeed West said in an interview (Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, nº 1 Spring 1991, 155) that he had perpetual music playing in his head, fragments of melody that sometimes got set down onto paper. One may be reminded here of Rabelais’s frozen words in Tiers Livre, floating around and being heard when the temperature rises.

16Secondly, silence works as a foil, against which to display “the mind’s little infinite” (Don DeLillo, The Names, 278). Thus is the speaking subject allowed to experience the sublime, through the tension between the limits of his mortal condition and the infinite of thought. Silence as defined by Laurent Jenny is woven into speech, and from silence can speech start anew each time (106). Yet West sets Virginia Woolf’s “silent land” as the aim of creation in his essay on the painter James Ensor. This “silent land” seems to be an ideal of perfect expression which, once reached, would leave nothing more to say. It may be understood as the aim of writing only insofar as silence is what lies beyond words, much like cries or music: they make up three alternatives to the language of words. Throughout West’s work, and increasingly so, runs the temptation of “approach[ing] speech as if it were oratorio” (Oxford Days, 68), that is letting oneself be carried away from semantics by the music of words, as part of the continuous flow of sounds rising from the world. What matters to West is continuity, to go on speaking/writing. But the crucial condition is that one should speak/ write “otherwise” (Out of My Depths, 128). West’s prose is in perpetual transformation, true to the fluidity characteristic of a grotesque language, that also contrapuntally is sublime.

17Such association of opposites may be the truest definition of West’s “undersong.” It is typical of West’s works, animated by a tension between a primitive, regressive drive on the one hand and sophistication on the other. His style oscillates between the material and the immaterial, an aspiration to escape fixity and the desire to leave marks upon the world— both sides in the contrasting couples being at work all the time, sketching fragile and shifting limits.

18West’s orchestration of voices reaches toward the pure enjoyment of the music of prose, beyond meaning—which is the unconscious quest of opera lovers according to Poizat. Yet in the same daring move, prose comes closest to Beckett’s “unnamable,” or the mystery of life and death, man’s most intimate reality, setting the condition of his absurd plight. West confronts horror and the unsayable, not by crying out loud but with the elaborate forms of “Purple Prose,” with are brought out against the background of the shapeless and the indefinite.

19The endless reformulation of man’s condition is the writer’s task—or so may be gathered from West’s works—as he deliberately cultivates in the reader Doc Holliday’s feeling of estrangement when faced to a foreign language. The character then feels closer to “the unsayable awful” (OK, the Corral, 105) that West attempts to articulate, relying—to the reader’s greatest enjoyment—on a variety of language uses, ranging from the grotesque to the sublime.



Delillo, Don. The Names. Vintage : New York, 1989.

De Mèredieu, Florence. Histoire matérielle et immatérielle de l’art moderne. Paris : Bordas Cultures, 1994.

Goux, Jean-Paul. La Fabrique du continu. Paris : Champ Vallon, 1999.

Jenny, Laurent. La Parole singulière. Paris : Belin, 1990.

Poizat Michel. L’Opéra ou le cri de l’ange. Paris: Métailié, 2001.

West, Paul. Words for A Deaf Daughter. London: Gollancz, 1969; New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

West, Paul. Gala. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

West, Paul. Out of My Depths: A Swimmer in the Universe. Garden City: Doubleday/Anchor, 1983.

West, Paul. The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

West, Paul. The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper. New York: Random House, 1991.

West, Paul. A Stroke of Genius. New York: Viking, 1995.

West, Paul. The Tent of Orange Mist. New York: Scribner, 1995.

West, Paul. My Mother’s Music. New York: Viking, 1996.

West, Paul. Sporting With Amaryllis. New York: The Overlook Press, 1996.

West, Paul. Terrestrials. New York: Scribner, 1997.

West, Paul. OK the Corral, the Earps and Doc Holliday: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2000.

West, Paul. Cheops. New York: New Directions, 2002.

West, Paul. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, nº 1 Spring 1991 (special issue on Paul West).


1 see Roland Barthes’s introduction to Le Grain de la voix, about the evacuation of the body which occurs especially in interviews.


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