REPETITION AS LITERARY MISCHIEF
I read something a while back on the use of repetition: that is the use of a word or a sentence too many times for emphasis. The rule seems to be “no more than twice”, especially with a sentence. Rules can be frustrating. They can be inhibiting for a writer. So, one way to get a bit of gratification out of rules can be to break them, which I do often. I’ve written this to demonstrate how practical, gratifying even, it can be to break a rule.
All the great painters broke rules to introduce the next period of painting style, and since I’m a painter as well, it rubs off into my writing (and, of course, other things). Nothing ever happens at only one level.
Here are four examples by which I’ve repeated a sentence. My reason for breaking this “no more than twice” rule is to set the reader up for the last time the sentence is used. It’s a bit of literary, rule-breaking mischief.
The following excerpt from the book, “Kirsche” introduces Mitchell’s relationship with Burns. The reader will recognize the sentence.
He was sitting on my bed with his feet up, a bottle of wine on the side table, again with one glass. He had a fresh haircut. He stood and walked across the room to show me his suit. “How do I look?”
I sat in his place on my bed. “Why are you here, Burns? How did you know we’d land in Lausanne?”
“Well, I’ll tell ya. I’m here to brief you on the next step.”
My mind closed and exploded open again. “The next step? What step? There is no step. I got her to Switzerland, and now you have her. I’m done. That was our deal, Burns.”
“I know. I know, but that wasn’t all the deal. We got you out of France and we’ll get you out of Switzerland.”
“When. When God damn it, Burns.”
But it’s going to be via Singapore.”
“Burns, you son of a bitch. That’s why she chose me. Of course, to get me to Switzerland, too. To deliver me to you.”
“Now, don’t get riled up, Mitchel. It was the safest way out. She didn’t know why. She was following orders.
“No. I’m not going to Singapore. Are you out of your mind? I’m not going to Singapore. You son of a bitch, Burns. Tell me why. Why by way of Singapore? It had better be good. Burns.”
Burns relaxed in a chair and proceeded to tell me in detail everything I didn’t want to hear. I was glad to see him.
In the preceding passage I’ve used the sentence twice, once with a slight variation. It may or may not have gone unnoticed. In the proceeding passage I use the same sentence once more for emphasis. The reader is now “set up” for the last time I intend to use it. This last time is the bit of literary mischief I referred to. The rule is broken. Again, the reader may or may not notice.
“Of course. We have to know how it works if we want to defeat it. It’s a secret weapon, Mitchel. It flies to its target and it doesn’t need a pilot. There’s never been a weapon like that before. The first to have critical information are the first to bargain with it.”
“You son of a bitch, Burns.”
“Mitchel, it’s not the same back home in Wisconsin. Most of the men are gone. They’re fightin’ or bein’ trained to fight. Most of the women are workin’ in factories day and night. The entire might of America’s armed forces is in the hands of our women.”
Burns scratched his head. “Kinda like the wives who loaded their husband’s rifles when the Indians were circlin’ the wagons.”
“How do we leave here, plane, car, dog sled?”
“You’ll be driven to the airport and flown to an airstrip where you catch a Lib out of Switzerland.
“A B-24 Liberator, long-distance bomber. Ford makes’m. Makes’m one an hour, twenty-four hours a day. It’s a hell of a piece of work. You’ll only touchdown for a few refueling stops, so you can figure on bein’ on a plane for a good while. You’ll land in Singapore at Changi. It ain’t much, but it’ll land a B-24. We’ll have a man there to meet you and put you up. He’ll give you a weapon and all the papers you’ll need. And the appropriate clothes. That’s the last you’ll see of’m.”
“A weapon? God damn it, Burns… ”
“You hang on to it. Might do you some good. Get used to wearin’ it in your pant waist in back. Always keep it on you. Y’got that? Always keep it on you.”
“Look, Burns, I-”
“Alright, I’ll always keep it on me, for Christ sake.”
Now the reader is set up. He’s read the sentence three times. That’s enough to make it repetitive, and as I said, the rule is broken. In this last passage the sentence is used again. By now it is understood the sentence is used to reveal how Mitchell is manipulated by Burns, and how Burns is an irritation to Mitchell. In the following passage the repeated sentence is the pay off in which Mitchell is faced with the grand frustration brought upon him by Burns. Mitchell’s escape to England and Kirsche’s life are at stake.
I walked the streets for hours, sweating, cursing Burns and the doctor. I searched for his bent figure plodding in the heat. I checked every sidewalk table, every restaurant. My anxiety became a dripping desperation.
When I had no other option, my only hope was he would be back in my room, waiting for me. It was my only hope. I swore I would never leave the United States again.
I ran into Burns on the street on my way back. “Gather up the old man and get out here, fast. We got about fifteen minutes to get out to the airfield. Them flyboys ain’t gonna wait unless they see us comin’.
“He’s not here. I’ve been everywhere to find him. Maybe he’s back by now.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ. Did Ulrich get him?”
“How should I know?”
“Okay. Get your things. If he’s in there, drag his ass out. We’ve got to move, now. They’ll wait if they see us comin’.”
I ran to my room and that’s where I found him. He was cowering on his bed. His nose was bleeding, his hands covering his face. Kirsche stood over him with a pistol aimed at his head.
“You hit him? You hit this old man?”
“Mitchel, Ulrich is dead. I shot him. I’m free, Mitchel. We can be together now. We can go anywhere.”
“Put the gun down, Kirsche.”
“He betrayed the Fuhrer.”
She sneered at him. “Traitorous, Jew pig.”
A car horn sounded. Burns was fired up.
The doctor was shivering with fear, his hands covering his bloody face. I could have shot him myself. “You fool. Why did you leave?”
He could barely speak. “N-no. I w-went to the la-lavatory.”
Burns laid on the horn.
My hand went back and grabbed my gun. I drew a bead on her ear. “Drop it, Kirsche. Please, don’t do this. Let him go.”
“You won’t shoot me, Mitch. How could you hurt me?”
Burns, you son of a bitch.
And that’s that’s the last time I repeat the sentence. The rule is broken, the reader is set up, my literary mischief is done. The practicality is how Mitchell’s frustration is transferred to the reader. I guarantee you’ll feel the frustration.