Hypocorism revisited: aptronyms, euonyms and caconyms

February was a busy month for me at work; my intended post on Alfred Döblin is still on its way.

Last week I visited friends in London and thoroughly enjoyed the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I took particular pleasure in seeing his painting of Henry James that I used in a recent post on his story ‘The Author of Beltraffio’.

Back in Nov. 2013 I posted on ‘hypocorism’ - people’s names as diminutive or pet forms like Billy for William. I went on to consider mononyms, anthroponyms, endonyms, exonyms, and so on.

Just now I encountered a tweet from the OED with a similar term that I’d not previously known: APTRONYM: A name regarded as (humorously) appropriate to a person’s profession or personal characteristics.

Among the citations in the OED online are these:

1986   Los Angeles Times 16 Feb. vi. 1/1   According to the American Name Society, they’re called aptonyms, that is, surnames which..have turned out to be incredibly apt. A brief search for local aptonyms produced Tommy Trotter, the new director of racing at Hollywood Park.
2002   Winnipeg Free Press 19 Jan. a14/2   He began collecting aptronyms 30 years ago, when he saw an ad in his local paper for a flower shop operated by Flora Gardner.
I knew a kid at school with the unusual family name Soldier. His parents, with more wit than sympathy, named him Roman. As in Polanski – which is itself a kind of aptronym; here’s the etymology of the surname at the website Ancestry
Polish (Polanski): ethnic name for a Pole, or more specifically for a descendant of the Polanie, one of the original Polish tribes.Polish, Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic), Ukrainian, and Belorussian: topographic name for someone who lived in a clearing, from polana ‘glade’, ‘clearing’ (a derivative of pole ‘field’), or a habitational name for someone from placed called Polana, Polanka, Polany, or any of various other places named with polana.
The OED compares aptronym with EUONYM – also new to me: it derives from the Greek element ‘eu-‘ meaning ‘good’ or ‘well’. OED online defines it as  ‘An appropriate or well-chosen name; (formerly in technical use) a name that conforms to the requirements of a particular system of nomenclature.The term was popularized by its appearance as the winning word in the 1997 U.S. National Spelling Bee competition.’
Its first citation is from 1889, which states that it’s the opposite of CACONYM (‘An example of bad nomenclature or terminology, esp. in biology and botany.’), in which the prefix derives from the Greek for, not surprisingly, ‘bad, evil’. Hence ‘cacophony’ (opposite of ‘euphony’). I rather like OED’s most recent citation:
1956   Nat. Cactus & Succulent Jrnl. 2 3/1   A name may qualify as a caconym in different ways. First, from sheer length… Second, from the clash of consonants making it difficult (for a European at least) to articulate.
Euonymus europaeus. Image from Wikipedia in public domain

Euonymus europaeus. Image from Wikipedia in public domain

Which reminded me of the plant EUONYMUS, defined by OED online thus:

A genus of shrubs (family Celastraceæ), of which many species are now cultivated as ornamental plants. The only British species is the Spindle-tree, otherwise known as the peg-, prick-, skewerwood from the uses to which its wood is applied.

Etymology:  < Latin euōnymos (Pliny xiii. xxxviii. §118), subst. use of Greek εὐώνυμος   of good name, lucky, < εὐ-   (see eu- comb. form) + ὄνομα, in Aeolic ὄνυμα name.

Pliny says that the flowering of the euonymus was a presage of pestilence; hence it seems probable that the name ‘lucky’ was given with euphemistic intention.

 

I love the way one word leads to another. A linguistic derive…

Mayhem, maiming, ravens and rapine: some etymology

When I began this blog nearly two years ago it was with a notion of writing about the world of words and literature in general. Subsequently my early posts were on a range of topics, from reviews of Javier Marías’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy to unusual vocabulary in Eliot and Byron (orioles, becaficas) to strange engravings in obscure nineteenth-century Portuguese travel books about west Africa. In the last year, though, most of my posts have been book reviews.

I never intended this blog to become just another book-review site – though such matter will always dominate what I write, in keeping with what I’m reading at the time – but I’d like to maintain an element of novelty and surprise.

Today then I came across an entry in an old notebook – which is where several of my early posts originated – about Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I felt inspired, and looked out a couple of reviews I’d saved. From there I returned to Burton’s book-length Preface, and an hour later had still not written a word. A little ironic, really: it’s a book that arises from what its author ruefully describes as ‘an unconstant unsettled mind’, liable to ‘rove abroad’, ‘taste of every dish and sip of every cup’ —  it’s a ramble, in other words, through everything to be found in an early seventeenth-century library – and I find myself no nearer to a line of critical approach than I was when I set out.

So I’m going to plunder another entry in the same notebook. I hope to return to Burton some time soon. This enables me to do something I’ve not done on this blog for a long time: look at some words and anatomise them.

Before I start, a word about other forthcoming projects. I’m reading Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, and making pretty slow progress in an intriguing novel that’s clearly influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, and therefore can’t be read quickly. I also received in the post the other day my copy of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Laughing Monsters. So those two should keep me occupied here for a while.

The first word that I want to examine is MAYHEM. The OED’s first entry for it as a noun is:

  1. ‘Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence; an instance of this. Also fig. Now hist.‘ Its first citation is from the Rolls of Parliament in 1447. I was surprised to see that its more familiar use

‘Orig. U.S. Violent behaviour, esp. physical assault’, is first cited here:

  1. ‘1870   ‘M. Twain’ in Territorial Enterprise 20 Jan. 1/1   This same man..pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.’ Its next citation is from a report in the Times from 1930 of ‘brigandage…mayhem and murder’ in New York ‘and its vicinity’. Plus ça change…Next is
  2. ‘Rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder. Freq. in to cause (also make) mayhem . Also fig.’ First cited:

1976   Daily Mirror 15 Mar. 24/4 (caption)    Without wishin’ to cast nasturtiums on your worm—I feel he’s not goin’ to make much mayhem today.

 

It derives from Middle English maheym ‘maim’, from French legal usage maihem, itself derived from Anglo-French mahain or mahaim, originally signifying a ‘lasting wound or bodily injury’; and ‘Subsequently: an injury to the body which causes the loss of a limb, or of the use of it; a… mutilating wound’. Its ultimate etymology is ‘uncertain’:  ‘Compare post-classical Latin mahemium, maamium… mayhem, maiming (from late 12th cent. in British sources), Italian magagna defect, infirmity (late 13th cent.).’ Other sources claim it’s akin to Germanic meidem, gelding, ON meitha, to injure.

 

Corvus corax: the raven (Wikimedia Commons)

Next is RAVENOUS. This apparently derives from OF ravineus, equivalent to ‘raviner’ – to RAVEN, ie take by force; this derives from vulgar Latin rapinare, from earlier Latin rapina, plunder. OED has this: ‘Compare Old French ravineux, ravinos, rabinos rapid, impetuous (late 12th cent.)….’ This produced English ravin, an act of rapine or robbery, plunder, pillaging (first cited c. 1325).

 

How did it come to mean what it does now? Here’s the OED again:

 

  1. ‘a) Originally: (of an animal) given to seizing other animals as prey; predatory; ferocious. Later: (of an animal or person; also of the appetite, hunger, etc.) voracious, gluttonous.’ (First cited ?1387). Here are the first two citations of its now customary primary meaning:
  2. ‘Exceedingly hungry; famished.’ Citations:

‘1648   T. Stephens tr. Statius  Thebais v. 131   Hircanian tygers so the herds inclose, In Scythian plaines, whom morning hunger does Rouse up, and th’ ravenous whelps roare for their paps.

1719   D. Defoe Farther Adventures Robinson Crusoe 201,   I got up ravenous.’

 

The name of the large corvine bird ‘raven’ appears to come via a different, Scandinavian-Germanic route; in its various forms it was spelt hrafn (OI), hraben (OHG), etc., maybe reflecting an imitation of its guttural call.

And that’s it for today. Probably more than enough etymology for one post.

 Picture credit: “Corvus corax ad berlin 090516″ by Accipiter (R. Altenkamp, Berlin) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg

Henry James, ‘The Pension Beaurepas’

This is a version of the piece to be posted next week on the Mookse and Gripes website

‘The Pension Beaurepas’ was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1879. In this story, James satirises two types of American abroad in the guise of two families staying at the Geneva pension run by the redoubtable Mme Beaurepas: the Ruck family from New York City, who represent the rich, uncultivated ‘new money’ families like Daisy Miller’s (Trevor Berrett wrote about her story at the Mookse and Gripes website here) – who show little enthusiasm for the history, culture or scenery of Europe, while demonstrating the principles of liberty, innocence and democracy. The other family are polar opposites to the Rucks: the Europeanised American Mrs Church and her daughter Aurora (and, incidentally, our narrator). Mrs Church had brought Aurora to Europe from their American home sixteen years earlier when the girl was only five.

The young, unnamed American narrator of the story explains at the start why he has come to stay at this pension:

I was not rich – on the contrary; and I had been told the Pension Beaurepas was cheap. I had, moreover, been told that a boarding-house is a capital place for the study of human nature. I had a fancy for a literary career.

Already we can see the subtle presentation of the familiarly ambiguous James narrator: an ingenuous, studious, slightly pompous young man very like himself, with his own literary-cultural hypersensitivity, and a propensity for close observation of his fellows, while at the same time demonstrating a reluctance to engage fully in the life he so attentively observes – a timidity seen in Winterbourne, the disengaged narrator of ‘Daisy Miller’ — and which culminates in a singularly unflattering (to him) episode at the end of this story to which I’ll return shortly.

The first strand in the plot reworks the King Lear theme in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot: Sophy and Mrs Ruck relentlessly spend Mr Ruck’s money, unaware that he has become bankrupt. In ‘An International Episode’, about which I wrote in the Mookse and Gripes last time here, also posted on this blog here Kitty Westgate, whose husband (a work-obsessed counterpart to “tragic” Mr Ruck) hardly appears in the narrative, so busy is he in his lucrative law business, says this:

An American woman who respects herself must buy something every day of her life. If she cannot do it herself, she must send out some member of her family for the purpose.

The narrator says of Mrs Ruck and Sophy, near the story’s end:

“Between them they are bleeding him to death.”

I shall focus here though on the second theme in the story: that of the American Girl. In ‘Daisy Miller’ she’s portrayed, through Daisy, as a charming mix of frankness and spontaneity,  brashness and vulgarity, but essentially, like all American girls, according to Winterbourne, “exceedingly innocent”, even when at her most coquettish and immodest.

Sophy is representative of the Daisy Miller type of feisty American girl. She is “a lively brunette” is the narrator’s initial impression, and “very pretty”, “decisive” and opinionated (like Daisy). When she learns that Aurora is “dying to go to America” but “her mother won’t let her”, she says indignantly:

“If I were you my mother would have to take me.”

The narrator is clearly more attracted to Aurora, who is a less dauntingly assertive, more retiring version of the American girl. She and her mother are described by a fellow guest as having “a tournure de princesse”, and it is as a kind of democratic princess that James usually portrays young American women.

Aurora has never been out of the house alone, and sadly describes herself as having been in Europe, with its social constraints for young women, “always”. She is desperately homesick and frustrated by her imperious mother’s control:

“American girls are so wonderfully frank. I can’t be frank, like that. I am always afraid.”

Our narrator perceives, as Sophy does, however, that her native spirit hasn’t been entirely quashed. She tells him, for example, with ingenuous “coquetry”, that her “figure was admired” in France –

But I was an innocent youth, and I only looked back at her, wondering. She was a great deal nicer than Miss Ruck, and yet Miss Ruck would not have said that.

The perceptive Mme Beaurepas tells the narrator that Mrs Church’s restless migration across Europe via its cheap boarding houses is because “She is trying to marry her daughter.” Whereas Daisy Miller and her family lacked the “culture” to catch an aristocratic and wealthy European husband and were “intellectually incapable of that conception”, Aurora simply lacks a “dot”, as she calls her dowry. What adds poignancy to Aurora’s position is that all she really longs for is the freedom she believes her compatriots enjoy. As the narrator says to her mother:

“…in America young girls have an easier lot. They have much more liberty.”

Mrs Church is not convinced that this is a desirable condition:

“We are very crude,” she softly observed…”There are two classes of minds, you know—those that hold back, and those that push forward. My daughter and I are not pushers, we move with little steps. We like the old, trodden paths; we like the old, old world…we like Europe, we prefer it.”

She calls upon Aurora to endorse her “point of view” – a phrase which was to become a key concept in James’s fiction, as we shall see – and the girl dutifully does so —

with a sort of inscrutable submissiveness. I wondered at it; it offered so strange a contrast to the mocking freedom of her tone the night before…

Geneva, Jardin Anglais wikiThis conflict of views comes to a crisis when Aurora and Sophy walk alone in the English Garden in Geneva. The narrator and a fellow boarder encounter them there, and are shocked to see them so “insufficiently chaperoned”.  Aurora’s rebellious spirit flashes out, in a speech very like Daisy’s when found in a similarly compromising situation with her Italian admirer:

“Which is most improper – to walk alone or to walk with gentlemen? I wish to do what is most improper.”

She explains that she is in a “false position”, and here is where she becomes less ingenuous than Daisy:

“I have to pretend to be a jeune fille. I am not a jeune fille; no American girl is a jeune fille; an American girl is an intelligent, responsible creature. I have to pretend to be very innocent, but I am not very innocent.”

“You don’t pretend to be very innocent; you pretend to be – what shall I call it? – very wise.

“That’s no pretence. I am wise.”

“You are not an American girl,” I ventured to observe…

“There’s my false position. I want to be an American girl, and I’m not.”

“Do you want me to tell you?” I went on. “An American girl wouldn’t talk as you are talking now…She wouldn’t reason out her conduct…”

“I see. She would be simpler. To do very simple things that are not at all simple – that is the American girl!”

She tells the young man she anticipates having “the most lovely time” in New York if the Rucks invite her there – because there at last she would have “absolute liberty”. Her mother adores “European society”, and Aurora knows she’ll be punished for the liberties she is taking at that moment with him – and her mother duly arrives and whisks her away in a closed cab.

Later Mrs Church tells the narrator that she disapproves of the Rucks and their uncultivated vulgarity. She intends to remove Aurora from the “pernicious influence” of “this deplorable family”.

The story ends with her doing just that. Before she fulfils her promise, however, Aurora has one final, revealing conversation with the narrator, to tell him that she and her mother leave for Dresden the next day. He suspects she has sought him out in the pension’s garden that evening to break this news, and he feels very sorry for her, and finds her “interesting” and “charming”. He realises this “insidiously mutinous, young creature was looking for a preserver.” For a moment this is a heroic role he finds tempting to play; he tells her he knows she desires the “liberty” taken for granted by other American girls. Her mother, she replies

“…has so perverted my mind that when I try to be natural I am necessarily immodest.”

She has said her piece, and now waits to see what he will do. As she turns to leave he has a momentary impulse to leave with “this yearning, straining young creature” and pass into “mysterious felicity”. But it doesn’t happen:

If I were only a hero of romance, I would offer, myself, to take her to America.

Like Winterbourne, however, he is unwilling to act decisively when faced with the prospect of a romantic relationship.

The story is, then, more of an example of what James later called “portraiture” – a sketch rather than a developed, textured story. But it is an interesting example of his developing portrayal of the consequences of the innocence of the American girl coming into contact with the decadence and hierarchical social rigidities and atrophied morality and customs of the Old World. He shows how both worlds have their attractions and charms, but both are flawed in their own ways.

We meet Aurora again in a story published soon after this one. Its title is the term employed crucially by Mrs Church in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, as noted earlier: it’s called ‘The Point of View’.

 

Javier Marías, ‘The Infatuations’

Javier Marías, The Infatuations. Hamish Hamilton, London, 2013.

…the dead are quite wrong to come back, and yet almost all of them do, they won’t give up, and they strive to become a burden to the living until the living shake them off in order to move on.

The first dilemma facing Margaret Jull Costa, the brilliant translator of The Infatuations, by Javier Marías, was how to render the Spanish title of the original, Los Enamoramientos. There is no direct English equivalent. María, the first-person narrator of the novel, discusses the problem in the text, where she points out that most languages other than Spanish and Italian have the same deficiency; she defines the word thus –

..the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation, I’m referring to the noun, the concept; the adjective, the condition, are admittedly more familiar, at least in French, though not in English, but there are words that approximate that meaning…Some people think that being in love or infatuated is a modern invention that appears only in novels.

Several of Marías’ central concerns appear here: the nature and etiology of love (and, by implication, of the precarious human condition); the modes of narrating this in fiction – which exists in a state of uneasy symbiosis with reality.

The style is typical, too: it has the intricate, baroque complexity, with mixed registers and loping, cadenced rhythms captured unerringly by the translator, but in all of Marías’ novels this is taken to a higher level – slowly accreting clauses, loosely linked by the punctuation – the paratactic, endless commas in lengthy sentences and paragraphs often pages long, take some getting used to, but they drive the narrative relentlessly and hypnotically. There are verbal repetitions at the level of the sentence and the paragraph but also in the longer view.

Marías, Infatuations One of these crucial refrains that punctuate the narrative like a repeated musical phrase is the concept of ‘envidia’; María admires but also envies the connubial bliss of the Perfect Couple she observes, in her solitude, in the café. When the Perfect Husband, Miguel Desvern or Deverne, is murdered, the grieving widow admits she can feel hate for the ‘instigators’ of the killing, someone perhaps who resented his success, possibly a close colleague. She’d seen this definition in an early Spanish dictionary and wondered how it compared with the English word ‘envy’ (Marías is always erudite, fascinated by words and their significance, how they translate):

‘Unfortunately, this poison is often engendered in the breasts of those who are and who we believe to be our closest friends, in whom we trust; they are far more dangerous than our declared enemies.’ [Covarrubias, Dictionary of 1611]

Marías delights in slowly uncovering (never fully revealing) this murder mystery’s secrets to demonstrate the ironic accuracy of the widow’s cryptic remark, which recurs several times in the narrative: he explores how passion, love, fidelity and treachery can drive our actions and cloud our judgement. When the brutal murder of Miguel takes place, María becomes involved in the consequences in a way that compromises her integrity, her sense of justice, and her loyalty to the man she is enamoured/infatuated/in love with.

Despite these philosophical investigations and narrative digressions, Marías is still a consummate story-teller, the translator of Stevenson and Conrad (as well as the more playful, metafictional Sterne and Faulkner, and of the sonorous, meandering prose of Sir Thomas Browne).

Another refrain is from Macbeth: ‘she should have died hereafter’. Macbeth is reacting to the news of his wife’s death. What does he mean? This riddle permeates The Infatuations: when is it timely for an event to take place? And what if we aren’t ready or able to process its significance? What part does memory play as we listen to the stories our thoughts narrate internally? – ‘sometimes a memory can be a devouring thing’.

This intertextuality is also found in all of Marías’ (not María’s) novels – but it’s not a postmodern game or ostentatious trick, it’s a fundamental feature of the writer’s serious purpose. Two other characters from texts that illuminate this novel are Balzac’s eponymous Colonel Chabert, a soldier pronounced dead on the Napoleonic battlefield, but who miraculously survives and comes back to confront his less-than-thrilled ‘widow’, and Dumas’ Milady de Winter, who in an earlier guise had survived being hanged by the musketeer Athos and had come back to haunt him in another incarnation. The Infatuations is a similarly haunted and haunting novel: another refrain is ‘the dead should not return’.

A related theme is what we do when telling or listening to stories – which also pervades other novels by Marías – as María thinks what the stories she hears and is implicated in might signify (most of the novel represents her thoughts, free-indirectly or directly narrated). This is her lover’s commentary on these fictitious revenants (Chabert and de Winter), and her reflection on his pronouncement:

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…” That isn’t true, or, rather, it’s sometimes true, one doesn’t always forget what happened…

This musing on the fictive representation of reality (‘It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself’) recurs throughout the novel. This leads María to speculate on the events that take place in the story narrated here in terms that often become highly conditional, with intricate modalities:

I find it hard to believe that what should never have happened while you were alive wouldn’t happen once you were dead. Would you want to die knowing that? More than that, you would be encouraging it, procuring it, propelling us into it.

Desvern would have remained silent for a few seconds, thinking, as if he had not considered that scenario before formulating his request. Then he would have given a rather paternalistic laugh…

Her dilemma, like the translator’s over the noun ‘inamoramiento’,  is the subject of this novel: how can she determine the truth-status of the tangled story she’s involved in? Especially, as we’ve seen, as all novels’ plots are ‘imaginary’ and soon forgotten; here is her response to the story her untrustworthy lover is about to tell her to account for his role in it:

Perhaps he is going to deceive me with the truth…Perhaps he’s telling me the truth now so that it will seem like a lie. An apparent or genuine lie.

Marías is probably the most rewarding and original novelist writing today, and here we see him probing and assessing the nature of narrative and the practice of writing and reading narratives at a high level of philosophical and aesthetic cognition, while at the same time conveying a story – a novel of his own – that is gripping, wittily intelligent and exciting. I wrote several pieces about his ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy a while back; some can be found here, here, here and here.

Marías’ style can be hard work, but if you’ve never read him before I’d recommend you start with The Infatuations, which is perhaps his most accessible novel to date, and then move on to the rest of his back catalogue. There’s so much more to be said about this novel: its wicked humour at the expense of vain, vacuous writers in general, for example (‘Like so many writers, he was a mean, spineless little scrounger’, María thinks of one particularly irritating client), and of Luddites like Marías himself who still tap out their novels on a typewriter, not a computer, much to the annoyance of María, who works in publishing, and would have to scan their typescripts.

 

 

 

Geoff Dyer, ‘Out of Sheer Rage’

Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage starts like this:

Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wanted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D.H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate. Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself.

The grammar is convoluted – he starts with a retrospective statement then a ‘one hand’/’other hand’-‘hard to believe’/’equally hard to believe’ oppositional/parallel pair of structures, each section of which has balanced, complex multiple clauses. This signals what’s to come: it’s a ruminative, fastidiously self-investigative tone, self-deprecating and witty, meticulously and skilfully controlled. The genre, it seems, is going to be autobiography.

But as we read on we find it’s a genre-defying book. It might be a novel about a writer’s inexhaustible capacity to procrastinate; that writer is called ‘Geoff Dyer’, but he may be a fictional construct. He’s endlessly irascible about the world around him, but also about himself and his clinically delineated defects; he’s mercilessly self-accusatory (look at that wonderfully modulated phrase ‘psychological disarray’, to describe what he clearly suggests is his default mental state). When he reveals that it’s Lawrence’s ‘irritability’ that he finds most endearing about the man, it’s obvious why: they are kindred spirits.

The epigraphs at the start are illuminating:

Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.

That serves as a perfect summary of Dyer’s book: it’s not about ‘anything but’ Lawrence; it’s mostly about other things – as the second epigraph suggests:

Endless explanations of irrelevancies, and none whatever of things indispensable to the subject.

This is Gustave Flaubert on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. So we see Dyer fulminating against seafood and its resistance to being eaten and its disgusting taste when finally ingested; the awfulness of films in Italy dubbed badly into Italian; children and people who breed them; people obsessed with telephones…it’s a catalogue of grumpiness.

Then there’s this:

It must all be considered as though spoken by a character in a novel.

This is Roland Barthes, that trickster-savant murderer of the author. At one point Dyer writes:

Perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression.

Hence this book.

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer RageDyer has signalled his intentions clearly from the outset then. What’s not clear from all this, though, is it’s often very funny. Not ‘the funniest book I have ever read’, as Steve Martin is quoted as saying on the jacket blurb – it didn’t make me laugh; but I did smile ruefully.

I found the stream of bile and the looping, self-cancelling vacillations (should he take this particular volume of Lawrence’s poems to Greece or not? Right, decided; no, changed his mind. Regrets it…) just a little too relentless.

It’s a travelogue of sorts, too, as Dyer and his long-suffering (and incredibly patient) girlfriend go on a savage pilgrimage of their own in search of the places Lawrence lived, replicating the miner’s son’s endless, doomed quest for a safe, healthy haven (his life was a ‘long convalescence’, said Huxley – a state Dyer characteristically claims for himself after a reckless crash on a moped), from his birthplace in grim Eastwood – become a sort of tacky literary theme park – to Sicily, Italy and New Mexico. There are other, non-Lawrentian pilgrimages mentioned in passing, like Dyer’s trip to Algeria in the steps of Camus.

There are erudite tones, too:  frequent allusions to Rilke, Nietzsche, Barthes and so on. These tend to be counterpointed jovially with earthy, scatological or sexually explicit scenes.

Occasionally among all this knockabout stuff Dyer inserts an aphorism that’s gemlike in its perfection, like this rueful reflection on a statement by Camus about accepting stoically what he is powerless to change:

Not like me. I can’t accept anything, especially things I am powerless to change. The only things I can accept are those that I do have the power to change. This, I suppose, is the opposite of wisdom.

Dyer loves these riffs in which key words are repeated, recycled, savoured in new contexts, positioned next to new verbal partners to see what ensues. The longueurs of this book are worth enduring for moments of brilliance like this.

Dyer makes new combinations of genre, tone and style look effortless and obvious. This is classy writing.

The edition I used is the handsome paperback in the illustration above – strangely there’s no title or author name on the front cover: they’re on the spine. This is in the excellent ‘The Canons’ series by Canongate, published in Edinburgh 2012; first published in 1997.

 

Chloe Aridjis, ‘Book of Clouds’

 

I read most of Book of Clouds, the first novel by Chloe Aridjis, appropriately, on a long-haul flight to Chile, mostly above the cloud cover. Clouds are the central (perhaps over-obvious) symbol in an engaging narrative about a lonely young woman called Tatiana, a Jewish Mexican linguist adrift in Berlin after five years of solitude (lonely as a cloud?).

Photo: Hartwig Klappert, New York Times 2009

Photo: Hartwig Klappert, New York Times 2009

The novel opens with her teenage hallucinatory vision of a female centenarian Hitler on the U-Bahn in 1986, three years before the fall of the Wall, that ‘intractable curtain of cement’ that divided the city for decades, and the presence of which still haunts it – one can see its trace picked out in the pavements and streets.

Every  10 or 12 months Tatiana moves apartments:  ‘Spaces became too familiar, too elastic, too accommodating. Boredom and exasperation would set in’ –  she suffers from ‘restlessness’. That usage of ‘too accommodating’ is revealing of her illogical inability to settle.  From the empty apartment above come disturbing noises. Like Caliban, she’s troubled and intrigued by them. Or is she imagining them?

She strives to fill the ‘empty, loveless hours’ by wandering the streets of the city, alert and observant, marginalised, a true étrangère (in the French senses), but with the hypersensitive antennae of a poet. Here’s a typically lyrical description of one such dérive as a storm brews:

The restless air was closing in…A plastic bag, the discarded ghost of the object it once carried, was blown toward me and clung to my leg for a few seconds before I managed to shake it off. Birds twittered nervously in the trees but were nowhere to be found, not a single beak, claw or feather when I looked up. And then they fell silent. The sky had grown a shade or two darker, a slate grey cumulonimbus blotting the horizon.

Aridjis shows here she has a poet’s ear for rhythms, and an eye for the mundane image made numinous, even disturbing, defamiliarised (those disembodied, nervous birds). It’s not all grim though; Aridjis can be quite amusing in her wryness, for example in a description of a Russian market stallholder: ‘his nose stuck out like the muzzle of a malnourished fox.’

We begin to wonder if Tatiana isn’t perhaps going slightly mad in a Berlin that’s a combination of so many literary ‘unreal cities’ full of spectral figures, past and present. But she also portrays the real Berlin very evocatively, its cafés, ice-cream stalls, tram sidings and beggars.

Along with clouds and other weather events it’s time and the ghosts of the past that permeate the novel. Decades of dirt and dust rise up through the floorboards after a storm, and she feels ‘something in the building’s very foundation had shifted, ever so slightly, revealing new fault lines’ – images of the seismic, cosmic, meteorological urban sediments of time accumulate, clouding Tatiana’s (and our) sense of place and self.

In Berlin, an ‘omphalos of evil’,  she’d become ‘a professional in lost time…The city ran on its own chronometric scale.’ On Sundays the solitude ‘hardened into something else’ – loneliness. One of her only high points is the S-Bahn announcer’s voice, which  pleases her with its mechanical inhumanity,  ‘especially on days when I felt disconnected from the city, attached by the thinnest of strings’.

This is the Berlin of peripatetic Walser and Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood, experienced by Tatiana as coeval with the Holocaust and the TV tower in Alexanderplatz.

She has bizarre, often unsettling encounters on her random journeys as a flâneuse, observing urban existence like a latter-day Baudelaire in this ‘fourmillante cité’.  There’s a mysterious Xoloitzcuintle dog (Xolo) that ‘in Aztec myth would guide human souls through Mietlan, the ninth and lowest circle of the labyrinthine underworld, to their eternal resting place.’ Berlin’s past interpenetrates its present, life and death/afterlife coexist in this visionary protagonist’s liminal consciousness. Symptomatic of this are the ‘ghost stations’ of old East Berlin.

She gets a job working for the reclusive Dr Weiss (owner of the Xolo), an eccentric historian in his 70s, with 14 books published, but nothing recent. She transcribes his antiquated cassette tapes for projected essays on

the phenomenology of space, specifically in Berlin.  Spaces cling to their pasts, he said, and sometimes the present finds a way of accommodatinig this past and sometimes it doesn’t. At best, a peaceful coexistence is struck up between temporal planes but most of the time it is a constant struggle for dominion…[also] the reverberation of objects, the resonance of things long banished or displaced…

The quietly surreal tone that permeates the narrative is also seen when Dr Weiss tells Tatiana that he knew a man in her home city,  Mexico: ‘a photographer from Budapest named Chiki Weisz…He was married to Leonora Carrington.’ She was indeed a surrealist painter and author (1917-2011), who fled the Nazis in Europe, lived in the US and Mexico; his near-namesake Weisz was a photographer who worked with Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War.

She interviews Jonas Krantz, 36 – one of the child artists who’d depicted the old East Berlin. He lives in an outer, bleak Plattenbau district on the 18th floor, ‘much closer to the clouds.’

As a meteorologist he loves clouds, which enables Aridjis to return to her central image; here he is, talking about them:

…all structures are collapsible. Just look at their own existence, condemned to rootlessness and fragmentation. Each cloud faces death through loss of form, drifting towards its death…destined to self-destruct…the fogs of time and all the obfuscation that surrounds them.

He strives to see contemporary Berlin as more than a ‘museum of horror.’ Yet Tatiana has a terrifying experience in a former Gestapo Bowling Alley, part of the spectral underground world, ‘a whole topography that lay, forgotten, twenty or thirty or forty feet down…’

Aridjis, Book of Clouds coverThere she tries to rub out the chalk scores scratched on the wall by the erstwhile bowlers, but ‘nothing can truly be rubbed away or blotted out…the more you try to rub something away the darker it becomes.’

The poetic, muted, ethereal style of this haunting novel persists until the final sentence, as she flies back to Mexico (another long-haul trip, somewhere above the clouds) after a violent encounter with neo-Nazi thugs: ‘there was little difference between clouds and shadows and other phenomena given shape by the human imagination.’

Aridjis occasionally lapses into stereotyping Berlin’s terrible Nazi legacy; her characters and slightly creaky plot are less compelling than the dissonant, vatic-magical mood and style created so deftly through the language.

I found it an intriguing novel with a highly original take on the psychogeography of a city as experienced by a sensitive individual.

 Chloe Aridjis, Book of Clouds, Vintage paperback, 2010; first published 2009

 

Michael Flay, ‘The Persian Wedding’

The Persian Wedding (Polar Books, Cheltenham: 2015) is a timely, angry novel. I’m writing this on the day after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, apparently by Islamic extremists. Over the past couple of weeks lurid stories have been published in the media alleging sexual malfeasance by a prominent English prince, famed for his involvement in aiding British trade abroad – especially the arms trade with dubious militaristic regimes.

Author of The Lord, The Watchers and a volume of short stories, Michael Flay here turns his attention to the troubled cross-cultural relationship between two young lovers, in a setting in which terrorist attacks appear to be instigated by the Western political/security forces who ostensibly protect its people. Instead they ‘keep things insecure, then you impose the order that suits you.’ Sinister trains and ships transport deadly cargos of nuclear materials and goodness knows what else. British-made tanks patrol the repressed streets of the Shah’s Persia. British ‘advisers’ train torturers, their leaders gloating and gorging themselves in scenes of sickening illicit sex and violence. All power corrupts.

Flay Persian Wedding coverAn unnamed English man meets a Persian girl at a language school in England at a time that seems to be around 1976. He’s the English teacher, she (her name is Zohre, which means ‘Venus’ in old Persian) the child of a privileged middle-class Persian family, sent to Europe to polish her education and no doubt make her a more suitable match for a wealthy Persian husband.

He follows her to her home country, still ruled by the autocratic Shah, propped up by UK and US interests (it was they who’d instigated the coup d’état which installed his family in 1953). We see the young man’s struggles to adapt to the passive, powerless position of a suitor for a woman who lives in a fiercely partriarchal world. He meets her young, westernised friends, who sympathise with the lovers’ plight and do all they can to help, but ultimately he fails to change the intransigent attitude of the Persian father.

Later things change for the better for the lovers, but this is set against a chilling account of the West’s cynical exploitation of a lucrative market for its weapons and personnel who specialise in intimidation, sedition and control.

The narrative style is pared down and restrained, in keeping with the sober subject matter. There are descriptions of the bucolic English setting at the start, which ironically contrast with the stark scenes in urban Tehran which fill the bulk of the rest of the novel.

Michael Flay habitually deploys a paratactic style, piling on adjectives and noun phrases to the main clauses, to demonstrate, for example, the random fortuitousness of events happening beyond the protagonist’s control; here’s an early description of Tehran soon after the man arrives there:

Air hung heavy with exhaust fumes, coloured blue grey. Unfinished blocks of apartments lined the road in disorder. Buildings were put up, incomplete, non embedded on scrap land…There were several limousines, chauffeur driven, running  silently, these were common like broken off parts of a US president’s cavalcade, dispersed. Everywhere space was taken up, cars, buildings, as if dumped down at random, unembedded and laid on.

This technique also adds cumulative detail to the disconcerting  narrative: there’s a dreamlike quality to the prose, which foregrounds the disturbing incongruities in the story. Tehran under the Shah is a city of a westernised, power elite, deeply corrupt and cynical; England is little better. And after the 1979 revolution and the return of Khomeini, nothing changes. Everywhere is the same. Women are used as sex objects but otherwise kept in subjection. Fathers and men are all-powerful, demanding total obedience of their daughters. Yet they commit despicable sex crimes themselves. Hypocrisy is rife.

The protagonist’s attitude throughout seems to me rather naive: he would go to Iran, he thought, at the start of the novel, ‘confident’ and optimistic that he could convince the family that he was a suitable match for this pampered but closeted daughter in a stereotypically protected environment, and spirit her away from potentially more suitable matches (as the father would see them). He was educated, decent – what could possibly go wrong?

But of course that’s what happens in life. We all believe the person we love and who loves us is all that’s needed to convince everyone that the match is right. To hell with convention, social pressures and the desire to conform to bourgeois morality (which usually involves perpetuating the system of self-aggrandisement financially); love conquers all.

This is a novel with some flaws in the style, perhaps – all those loose-limbed sentences with their odd syntax and accretions. But it’s also a searing indictment of repressive regimes everywhere, not just in Iran, and of the swaggering toxicity of power elites, and their inbuilt conviction that they have the right to do whatever they like in a world tailor-made for their own gratification.

Perversity takes many forms, and this novel powerfully melds the political with the personal: sexual depravity as an outward and visible form of inward corruption – in short, of the evil of our decadent western world. Yes, the Iranian society depicted here was corrupt, misogynistic and depraved, but ours has pretensions of superiority; it is no less depraved, flawed or corrupt. Worse, really, for we see ourselves as beacons of fairness and upright moral probity.

Yesterday in Paris fundamentalists murdered writers and artists for propagating satiric views. Novels like this play an important role in holding up a mirror to our complacent society; as was memorably said by Swift in the preface to The Battle of the Books (1704):

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.

 

Henry James,’An International Episode’

HENRY JAMES: ‘AN INTERNATIONAL EPISODE’.

America certainly is very different from England’

There was an excellent piece on ‘Daisy Miller’ on the Mookse and Gripse site here in 2010; ‘An International Episode’ can be seen as a companion piece. It was published in the Dec. 1878 (a few months after ‘Daisy Miller’) and Jan. 1879 editions of Cornhill Magazine in England. Both stories have James’s famous ‘international theme’ – the collisions between the old world of Europe and the new of America. Both very young female American protagonists attract flawed admirers: Daisy (who seems to be in her late teens) is admired by the Europeanised American, Winterbourne while they are in Switzerland and Italy; and twenty-year-old Bessie Alden, who meets the English Lord Lambeth with his cousin Percy Beaumont when they are visiting America.

Daisy represented that type of ‘new American woman’ that James was to portray so often, but in a guise that was innocently flirtatious, bright, beguiling and woefully ignorant of the social mores, history and culture of Europe; the snobbish forces of the old world conspire to defeat her. Bessie, on the other hand, is more similar to Isabel Archer: she’s a Boston intellectual and democrat.

The plot hinges upon the visit paid to America on business by the somewhat cynical lawyer Percy Beaumont (a worldly denizen, as his name suggests, of the beau monde), accompanied by the rather ‘stupid’ but handsome Lambeth. They are treated with open-hearted frankness and hospitality by the New York lawyer, Westgate, who invites them to stay with his ‘tremendously pretty’ young wife Kitty and her younger sister Bessie at their seaside house in Newport.

Lambeth, on arriving in America, is keen to flirt with the local girls, who seem much more forward than their English counterparts. Percy, however, warns him not to, and, ‘like a clever man’,

had begun to perceive that the observation of American society demanded a readjustment of one’s standard.

This is the story’s central theme; Lambeth is too dim to heed the advice.

James makes Bessie as spirited as Daisy, but less frivolous, ‘tremendously literary’; Kitty describes her to Percy as ‘extremely shy’ and ‘a charming species of girl’:

She is not in the least a flirt; that isn’t at all her line…She is very simple – very serious…She is very cultivated, not at all like me – I am not in the least cultivated. She has studied immensely and read everything; she is what they call in Boston “thoughtful”.

Even Lambeth thinks: ‘If she was shy she carried it off very well’. James seems not fully to make up his mind whether Bessie is as reserved or naive as she seems.

Kitty frequently denigrates America, saying that unlike the English the Americans had ‘no leisure class’, no history or ‘ruins’. Bessie, for her part, is said to be ‘very fond of Englishmen. She thinks there is nothing like them’. Unlike her sister, or the uneducated Daisy, she has an idealistic, naive reverence for the history, traditions and culture of England; she even believes its scenery is less ‘rough’ than America’s – a misconception she has developed through her reading.  Percy is (perhaps with good reason) sceptical about her supposed reserve, and fears that she’s ‘A rum sort of girl for Lambeth to get hold of!’

She rebukes Lambeth, however, for failing to take his responsibilities as a ‘hereditary legislator’ seriously. She is uncritically admiring of England’s ancient traditions, but enough of a democrat to deplore its hierarchical political system and emphasise the responsibilities of its privileged and unelected aristocratic ruling class:

‘I should think it would be very grand,’ said Bessie Alden, ‘to possess simply by an accident of birth the right to make laws for a great nation…It must be a great privilege…very inspiring…I think it’s tremendous.’

But when Bessie grills Percy about his cousin’s ‘rank’, ‘position’ and family she thoroughly alarms him by musing aloud ‘with more simplicity than might have been expected in a clever girl’ that when his father died Lambeth would become the Duke of Bayswater. Percy warns Lambeth: ‘that girl means to try for you.’

I find it difficult to reconcile the portrayal of Bessie as a studious, shy ‘blue-stocking’ with this cynical view of Percy’s (we’re told he’s a much shrewder ‘observer’ than Lambeth) that she’s a disingenuous gold-digger, a typical American looking to marry into the aristocracy of England, and fulfil her dream of living in an historic castle.

The intriguing aspect of this story is the way James shows up the differences between the two cultures, bringing out the merits and deficiencies in both. He carefully shows the frankness, spontaneity, honesty and friendliness of Americans, but there’s an undertone of brashness and vulgarity, too, a feature merely hinted at in the narrative: the young Englishmen are introduced ‘to everybody’ in Newport, ‘entertained by everybody, intimate with everybody.’

These differences are brought into relief when Kitty and Bessie visit England the following year, where Bessie becomes increasingly enlightened about and disillusioned by English society, which is thrown into unflattering relief by contrast with the more liberal, generous American people we saw depicted in New York and Newport. In England the character of Kitty undergoes a curious change; we now see her as more perceptive and wise than she appeared in Newport, where she openly flirted with Percy, and was described ambivalently as ‘spontaneous…very frank and demonstrative’, left ‘to do about as she liked’ by her workaholic husband.

Bessie is starry-eyed, delighted to see all that she had read about in the poets and historians:

 She was very fond of the poets and historians, of the picturesque, of the past, of retrospect, of mementos and reverberations of greatness; so that on coming into the great English world, where strangeness and familiarity would go hand in hand, she was prepared for a multitude of fresh emotions.

She’s also inclined to interest herself in Lambeth again, embodying as he does

an unconscious part of the antiquity, the impressiveness, the picturesqueness of England; and poor Bessie Alden, like many a Yankee maiden, was terribly at the mercy of picturesqueness.

Bessie’s character too seems to have become less ambivalent now she’s in England: the hint of calculating hypocrisy that Percy detected in Newport disappears.

Kitty advises her not to expect too much of Lambeth now he is back in England, where there are a ‘thousand differences’. Bessie is ‘too simple’ and trusting, Kitty suggests; ‘you are not in your innocent little Boston…Newport is not London.’ Lambeth has to pay more heed to ‘consequences’ in London, she warns, astutely aware that his aristocratic family will consider ‘a little American girl’ like Bessie too vulgarly ‘eager’ in pursuing him to England: they will assume, she says, ‘that you followed him’ – that Bessie had ‘come after’ him.

When Bessie describes the English as a ‘great people’, her sister explains they had become great ‘by dropping you when you have ceased to be useful’.

Bessie stubbornly persists in her faith in English integrity, seeing in Lambeth a representative of the ‘nobility’ of that country both in title and character. ‘She liked him for his disposition’, and finds him the epitome of the ‘simple, candid, manly, healthy English temperament’; she also alludes to his ‘bravery’ (though our ironic narrator wryly adds that she had never seen this ‘tested’), his ‘honesty and gentlemanliness’; that she also admires his ‘good looks’ is an indication that this Boston ‘blue-stocking’ is also red-blooded. She naively and romantically views him as

a handsome young man endowed with such large opportunities – opportunities she hardly knew for what, but, as she supposed, for doing great things – for setting an example, for exerting an influence, for conferring happiness, for encouraging the arts. She had a kind of ideal of conduct for a young man who should find himself in this magnificent position, and she tried to adapt it to Lord Lambeth’s deportment, as you might attempt to fit a silhouette in cut paper upon a shadow projected upon a wall.

Sadly this silhouette ‘refused to coincide with his lordship’s image’; in the flesh ‘there was little of the hero’ in him, and at such times even she perceives ‘he seemed distinctly dull.’ She upbraids him as she had in Newport for failing to ‘address the House’ and fulfil his responsibilities as ‘an hereditary legislator’ who ‘ought to know a great many things.’ Lambeth ‘ought to have a great mind – a great character’, she insists; his response is telling: ‘Depend upon it, that’s a Yankee prejudice.’ She admits she finds him ‘disappointing.’ Her idealistic image of the young aristocrat is becoming tarnished.

Gradually Bessie also comes to see the snobbish ways of English society in all their hideousness: ‘I don’t like your precedence’, she tells Lambeth; ‘I think it’s odious’. She means the English hierarchy, and the expectation in social situations that those of higher rank should leave before lesser mortals:

‘It is not the going before me that I object to,’ said Bessie; it is their thinking that they have a right to do it – a right that I should recognise.’

‘…I have no doubt the thing is beastly, but it saves a lot of trouble.’

‘It makes a lot of trouble. It’s horrid!’ said Bessie.

‘But how would you have the first people go?’ asked Lord Lambeth. ‘They can’t go last.’

He’s too obtuse to understand her indignation. ‘No’, she concludes, ‘you have a lovely country…but your precedence is horrid.’ She is unable to induce him to condemn ‘this repulsive custom.’

After Bessie’s epiphany she is able to see English ways for what they really are; as a consequence she is obliged to refuse Lambeth’s offer of marriage. After his ‘protectors’ – his mother and sister – attempt to bully Bessie and her sister out of accepting his offer to stay at the family castle, she realises that their snobbish prejudice against her lack of aristocratic lineage is insufferable. Her only regret, at the story’s end, as she tells Kitty, is that by spurning the son the mother and sister ‘will think they petrified us.’

Bessie’s destiny, then, is very different from Daisy’s: this time it’s American integrity that is shown as superior to old world hypocrisy and callous intransigence. Although Bessie, in maintaining her democratic principles and high-minded Bostonian ethics, may not defeat the forces of hereditary snobbery, she at least shows how a person with a functioning social conscience should behave.

Jayne Joso, ‘Soothing Music for Stray Cats’.

A common thread in my work seems to be an interest in debating what constitutes the right place and space in which to feel at ease, be it psychological, geographical, architectural… In Soothing Music for Stray Cats the main character dreams of finding better ways of negotiating his sense of the disconnectedness of modern life alongside the loss of a friend through suicide. This he attempts to do as he wanders the streets of London finding himself lost at times, at odds with the environment, the urbanity, and at times quite literally with the ground beneath his feet. I wanted to write about someone who managed to walk away from a life that was leaving them feeling empty.

Published by the Welsh imprint Alcemi, 2009

cover Soothing MusicI came to this novel – and the writer who was new to me, which is always a potentially exciting development – via this piece in 3:am.

Mark Kerr attends the funeral of his old school friend Jim, who’d failed to resist the siren call of the open window on the 20th floor of a tower block, and jumped. Mark consequently feels guilty that he wasn’t a better friend to him.

The rest of the novel portrays what it is that impels and prevents us from responding to that call, while acknowledging that we all hear it. That’s the strength of this novel. It’s a fitfully moving dramatisation of a young, mixed-up man’s attempt to make some kind of sense out of the deracinated mess of his life.

It’s also a solid psychogeophrapical account of the big city, with its throbbing trains in subterranean tunnels, brutal architecture and feral or privileged inhabitants, who subsist like rats and lords in the same locales.

Here’s Mark meeting the yuppie guy who’s advertised for a flat-sitter:

While I waited for him to answer I lit up again and wondered how come he was living in a flat and not a house, the guy was loaded, that much I do remember. He was born loaded. Those were his defaults: born loaded, and being a dick; often, and this is unfortunate, but it’s true to say, the two go hand-in-hand, the result being that the bastard winds up with an easy life and is termed, scientifically, as being: an easylife – and a ‘Class A’ tosser. I’d barely inhaled when the door shot open and Ron greeted me with this hearty hug as though in the past we’d been really close mates, and I suppose I should have felt pleased…

And so on. Chatty, engaging, but just a little too bigoted; the blend of low and high registers doesn’t quite somehow ring true. Yes, Ron is a tosser, but Mark is far too pleased with his superior status: his taste in music, his vaguely new-age politics and world view. He doesn’t really have any convictions; he’s a reactionary, a political naïve. My problem with this narrator is Mark thinks he’s cool. Not easy to pull this off in a novel. Joso makes a valiant effort, and very nearly succeeds. She’s good on tossers, that’s for sure. And street rats and depressed samurai student cricketers.

The title comes from a jazz album by Edgar Jones. ‘Nice one’, as Mark’s narrator suggests.

He’s found himself living in an unnamed northern town with a girl he calls Doris, a waif he’d taken pity on and now finds himself saddled with, and doing a dead-end job he hates, in a town he dislikes. Sound familiar? Jayne Joso taps with sporadic sensitivity into the ennui and existential angst of modern urban life in this novel.

It’s a touching love-story, too: he’s attracted to Jim’s sister, but lacks the capacity to express his feelings. He writes passionate love-postcards to her that he doesn’t send.

Redeeming features abound, and these give the novel its uplifting, heartening element: there are the ‘Three Musketeers’: a trio of street kids whom Mark befriends, and they rapidly shift from thieving, vandalising urban rats to supportive, vulnerable, equally distraught victims of the modern world’s crappiness. They redeem each other through kindness, cricket and zen.

The semi-literate narrator has an unusual penchant for (post-)modernist literature: references to Mrs Dalloway and Calvino abound. So how come his narrative voice is so limited?

Which brings me to …. the Japanese student, with his zen/samurai philosophy, another potential suicide. He’s a living exemplum of the old problem: why not end life that’s devoid of meaning? As Camus says, it’s the only logical alternative.

This is a charming, rather fey novel with a heart. I felt deeply moved at the end.

But I’d also have to say I have profound reservations about the demotic narrative voice, with its ‘me grandad’, ‘nice one’, ‘sorted’  street slang; ok, ‘a prize bleedin’ wanker’ is a justifiable way to describe such a person, but this is a dangerous approach – it appears at times too limited. Yes, I understand that’s how Mark would think and talk, but this rather patrician, over-literary reader finds this style too irritatingly colloquial. I love Huckleberry Finn, which employs the illiterate register through the filter of the senscient writer, in my view, more successfully, so  I don’t have a fundamental problem with novels written in a slangy voice; but I found the repeated tics of Mark’s repertoire a little tiresome – that and his industrial capacity for cigarettes: ‘then I Iit up’ is his refrain.

Don’t do this at home, kids.

An interesting novel, then. A voice to watch.

Raisins, Sultanas and Currants: etymological notes

I’ve been working on some Henry James material, and reading Jayne Joso. Meanwhile, here’s a brief seasonal etymological note…

I’m quite partial to cake, and with the Christmas variety looming I was thinking about dried fruit. It occurred to me that I didn’t really know the difference between raisins, sultanas and currants – so I looked them up in the OED [Collins and Chambers provided extra material]:

RAISIN

 A grape partially dried in sunlight or by artificial means, esp. used as an ingredient in cooking or in the production of wine.

First recorded use:

1302–3  …ij fraellis de fyges et Reysingis.

c1330  (▸?c1300)    Reinbrun (Auch.) in J. Zupitza Guy of Warwick (1891) 632 (MED),   Þai brouȝte..Fykes, reisyn, dates.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman reisin, reysin… etc., grape, cluster of grapes (c1130), dried grape (first half of the 14th cent.; French raisin  ) < post-classical Latin racimus   (a1310 in a British source) < classical Latin racēmus  [Greek ‘rhax, rhagos’, grape, berry]  It is uncertain whether the following earlier example should be interpreted as showing the Anglo-Norman or the Middle English word:

1278   in J. T. Fowler Extracts Acct. Rolls Abbey of Durham (1899) II. 486   In..ficubus, Raycinys, et novem lagenis vini.

Its pronunciation  as a homophone of reason   (i.e. in modern English /ˈriːz(ə)n/ ) is exemplified by puns in Shakespeare [and]… is still defended by Webster in 1828; it survived longest in U.S. regional usage (southern and south midland), where it is recorded as rare but current in c1960 ( Dict. Amer. Regional Eng. s.v. raisin).

SULTANA:

 In full, sultana raisin: A kind of small seedless raisin produced in the neighbourhood of Smyrna and other parts of Turkey, Greece, and Australia.

 Etymology:  < Italian sultana (Spanish sultana, Portuguese sultana) feminine of sultano  sultan [as in ruler of Turkey, from Arabic for ruler, king, or Aramaic, shultana, power] First recorded use in OED: 1841; with primary meaning of ‘wife or concubine of a sultan’, first recorded use was in 1585.

CURRANT:

  1. The raisin or dried fruit prepared from a dwarf seedless variety of grape, grown in the Levant; much used in cookery and confectionery.

Etymology:  Originally raisins of Corauntz, Anglo-Norman raisins de Corauntz, = French raisins de Corinthe raisins of Corinth [port in Greece from where they originally came]; reduced before 1500 to corauntz, coraunce, whence the later corantes, currants, and corans, currence, currans (found in literature to c1750, and still dial.). Some of the 16th cent. herbalists restored the original form Corinth, which has been affected by some writers down to the 19th cent.

First recorded use in OED: 1334; ?c1390  Lat it seeth togedre with powdor-fort of gynger..with raysons of Coraunte. a1616   Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale (1623 edn) iv. iii. 37   Three pound of Sugar, fiue pound of Currence, Rice.

While on the subject of food names, here’s

FILBERT: a. The fruit or nut of the cultivated hazel ( Corylus avellana).

Etymology:  probably short for filbert-nut (i.e. Philibert-nut), dialect French noix de filbert (Moisy Dict. Patois Normand) from being ripe near St. Philibert’s day, Aug. 22 (O.S.) [St Filbert was a 7C Frankish abbot; cf OHG filu-berht, very bright]. Compare German Lamberts-nuss. First recorded use in OED: c. 1400