Consider the fog in the opening paragraphs of ‘Bleak House’, there is fog and there is the word fog, count them. How many fogs? And yet there is only one undifferentiated fog to which all those fogs refer.
Hemingway’s rhythmic prose is conjured from a series of repetitive riffs, and those riffs express a sort of drunken obsessiveness, or a breathless desire, not so much the content, there is no fog, nor snow, nor any other meteorological event happening everywhere, but there is the phrasing, and there are short sentences, prepositions, conjunctions, one after the other. And there are those tiny childlike words: old, cold, the old cold harbour, the old cold day.
Then there is Thomas Bernhard whose character’s name fall down the page like books thrown from a burning library. On one page of ‘Correction’ Bernhard uses the word ‘Altensam’ thirty two times. Bernhard thumps, Dickens suffocates, Hemingway anaesthetises. Bernhard won’t let you sleep. Bernhard shakes you awake, Bernhard throws cold water over you.
All of this stuff begins, to some extent, with the Old Testament, with the King James translation, with all those begats and thees and thous and the evangelical preachers and with rhetoric, with anaphora, epistrophe, symploce, antanaclasis, antistasis, negative-positive restatement, diacope, palilogia.
Consider Dickens, consider Hemingway, consider Bernhard; each exploits repetition, understands the rhythm of repetition, the music of repetition. Repetition mesmerises the reader, repetition unsettles the reader, repetition infuriates the reader. The reader loses the will to continue, but will plough on, maybe with a flickering hope, that at some point there will be some sort of epiphany, some reason to be found before all reason is lost. The reader has not given all, but she has given up. The words are left unread. Repetition, repetition, repetition.