Substance-words

Georges Simenon’s education as a writer was brutal but effective. To master the conventions of narrative, and before he embarked on the work for which he is remembered — the romans durs and the Maigret novels — he wrote 190 pseudonymous adventure novels. In the course of this preliminary labor, he he decided that the poetry of stories lies in diction.

He had two principles. The first was specificity: “He believed he had penetrated the secret of the adventure novel,” writes his biographer Pierre Assouline, “the day he learned to write ‘mangrove’ or ‘baobab’ instead of ‘tree.'” The second principle was to restrict himself to “substance-words”:

I […] try to create the simplest phrases with the simplest words. I write with substance-words, the word wind, the word hot, the word cold. Substance-words are the equivalents of pure colors.

The most legible style relies on a basic palette. Red, green, blue, yellow, orange, purple, white, black, grey. Loud and quiet, high and low. Rough and smooth, hot and cold, hard and soft, wet and dry. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter. We have few sense-words for smell, but one might allude to archetypal smells of which most people carry some sense-memory: smoke, grass, vanilla, almonds. Clearly Simenon thought words for universally recognizable phenomena, like wind, also belonged on this list. The substance-word is not a precise concept, but it is a usable heuristic. I read somewhere that Simenon’s writing vocabulary was just 2000 words, presumably excluding all those “baobabs” and “mangroves” and the like.

Why restrict one’s diction? A writer like Proust, for example, piles up adjectives, trusting the reader’s patient imagining to unify a version of the scene he is painting with so many strokes. Restricting his diction would destroy his effects. His approach to description is capable of subtler representations, but I think Simenon was after something else — efficient immersion. By restricting himself to substance-words, he produced whole atmospheres from small sense-details.

Simenon came from the world of genre fiction, and the prose most consistent with his principles (that I have read) is by writers of noir crime fiction, westerns, and cyberpunk. Consider this famous opening from Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind”:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.

Simenon would have approved of these sentences. The poetic specificity: “Santa Anas.” And the substance-words: “wind,” “hot,” “dry,” “hair,” “skin.”

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