To the Editor:
As a reviewer, Robert M. Adams is of course entitled to evaluate my book, A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal [Books in Review, December 1979], in whatever terms he sees fit, and it is hardly my place to question either his conclusions or his motives. The curious allegations, however, that he makes about the style of the book are so misleading that they should not go unchallenged.
I shall leave it to readers to judge for themselves whether even the supposedly damaging examples Mr. Adams has chosen to cite justify his vituperative characterization of the prose as “a thick impasto of academic jargon, blue-jeans American informality, and mixed metaphors.” (The one quoted instance of a mixed metaphor—the switch from living in clover to a lame duck paddling through cold waters—is of course quite deliberate, in order to introduce a wry reversal of worn images that mirrors the reversal of Stendhal’s naive expectations as a newly appointed consul.) Beyond these judgmental generalizations, Mr. Adams’s catalogue of “inexact or uncouth” usages is firmly founded on his own factual errors and odd misconceptions, and these deserve correction.
(1) “Importunacy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been with us since 1548, and none of the dictionaries I consulted indicates that it is obsolete, archaic, or otherwise substandard. (2) A generally available meaning of “tenor,” and precisely the one I intended, is, as the OED has it, “quality, character, nature,” and in that sense it is perfectly valid to speak of the Chartreuse‘s “unique tenor . . . among the novels of the age.” (3) A “residue” is anything left over, whether by design or accidentally, whether to be used or to be discarded. “Distillation,” according to the OED, is “the operation of separating by means of fire, and in closed vessels, the volatile from the fixed parts of any substance.” The result of this process, as I correctly wrote, is a residue. (4) “Boudoir” in the sexual sense is not used repeatedly but three times in 285 pages. In each of these instances, the slightly quaint false elegance of the term is deliberately invoked in order to produce a comic or ironic effect. For example, Stendhal’s Uncle Romain and Cousin Martial, whom he liked to think of as master strategists of seduction, are referred to as “those Clausewitzes of the boudoir.” It is a little perplexing that a writer so sprightly as Mr. Adams should grimly refuse to see the humor in such a phrase. (5) The fact that Mr. Adams presents an obvious typographical error, “roles” for “rolls,” as the author’s mistaken usage, reveals how far he has to reach to draw out his list of supposed faults of style. (6) “Marginalium” is indeed an error, for which I can only plead ignorance, as Dr. Johnson did when caught out in his mistaken definition of “pastern,” and as Mr. Adams must do in the case of “importunacy,” “tenor,” and “distilled residue.”
Robert M. Adams writes:
I am sorry that Robert Alter’s book is so poorly written; indeed I cannot help it. As he surely knows, the presence of a word in the dictionary is no evidence that it has been used accurately or appropriately. To take his three last instances briefly in hand: the residue of purification consists of the dregs and refuse material that one throws away; it is not properly applied to the product of distillation, which is what one wants to keep. “Tenor” does have a tertiary meaning of “quality, character, nature,” but it is far outweighed by other meanings; you would not find Red Smith, for example, writing that “A running back of O.J. Simpson’s tenor rarely comes along.” There is a form “importunacy,” and it was used in 1548, though rarely since; there are also forms “importunance” and “importunateness,” minor and ungainly variations on the common form “importunity,” which reaches us with a clean, straight pedigree through French from Latin. One is never in doubt as to what Mr. Alter means; one is often distressed by his deafness to the overtones of words and the anomalies of his phrasing.