Denis Johnson r.i.p.

I hadn’t intended posting today, but couldn’t let the passing of Denis Johnson last week go unacknowledged here.

Born in 1949, he was a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was taught by Raymond Carver. The influence of this seminal ‘dirty realist’ shows, although Johnson, also a poet, doesn’t just write that tough, stripped-to-bone minimalist prose – although he’s very good at it – he’s also capable of glorious poetic flights of language.

Denis Johnson I’ve read four of his books. By far my favourite is the earliest of them: his short story collection Jesus’ Son (1992). With its title taken from one of Lou Reed’s grittier drug songs, it’s about a bunch of drifters, vagabonds, addicts and dreamers who hang around mostly in the Pacific Northwest of America.

Try ‘Emergency’, which is brimming with Johnson’s exuberant weirdness. Here’s how it opens:

I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess. This was in 1973, before the summer ended. With nothing to do on the overnight shift but batch the insurance reports from the daytime shifts, I just started wandering around, over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, et cetera, looking for Georgie, the orderly, a pretty good friend of mine. He often stole pills from the cabinets.

They clumsily tend to a man with a knife in his eye. Drive out in the desert and pick up an enigmatic hitch-hiker. There’s a hallucinatory drive-in cinema. A pregnant roadkill rabbit. Here’s a typical snatch of dialogue with the hitch-hiker.

‘Who’s this guy?’ Georgie asked.

‘This is Hardee. He lived with me last summer. I found him on the doorstep. What happened to your dog?’ I asked Hardee.

‘He’s still down there.’

‘Yeah, I heard you went to Texas.’

‘I was working on a bee farm,’ Hardee said.

‘Wow. Do those things sting you?’

‘Not like you’d think,’ Hardee said. ‘You’re part of their daily drill. It’s all part of a harmony.’

Denis Johnson His novella Train Dreams (2012) is less grimy, but still rugged. It’s set in the American west in the early twentieth century. A good place to start with the longer fiction – but still only 116 pp.

I wrote in passing HERE a while ago about his epic Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which I found a little patchy, but still very powerful. I seem to have mislaid my copy, so there’s no picture here.

That leaves The Name of the World (2000) and his most recent novel, The Laughing Monsters (2015), a sort of existential thriller in the Graham Greene manner, set in various countries in Africa.

His was one of the most distinctive voices in modern fiction; a great loss to literature.

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

Zoris, woodpeckers and Carignan

Cover of UK version; photo Guardian newspaper

Cover of UK version; photo Guardian newspaper

In Denis Johnson’s epic novel Tree of Smoke (2007), a densely plotted existential Conradian thriller set in Vietnam and elsewhere in S.E. Asia from 1963 to the present day, a character with the wonderful name of Carignan goes to wash in a river in Mindanao in the Philippines:

‘wearing his zoris and underclothes’

I didn’t know what a zori was, so looked it up; this is what the OED entry says:

Japanese, < grass, (rice) straw + ri footwear, sole

With pl. concord. Japanese thonged sandals with straw (or leather, wood, etc.) soles.

The first citation dates from 1823 (from a book about Japan); the most recent is from 1984 (a text from the British Judo Association’s Coaching Award Scheme: ‘Zori (flip-flops) are compulsory wear at BJA events…’

Zori image

From J-Life website where we’re told that the pair illustrated are made from ‘real igusa grass’ and called Tatami/Zori…which led me to check out

Tatami.   OED:  1. A rush-covered straw mat which is the usual floor-covering in Japan and the size of which (approx. six feet by three feet) functions as a standard unit in room measurement.  (Citations begin 1614; the most recent is: ‘1981   G. MacBeth Kind of Treason ix. 92   He relaxed on the tatami and spoke with polite approval of the cousin’s tsuba.’

Tatami was originally a luxury mat used mostly by Japanese nobility.  As their aristocratic houses were mainly wooden, Tatami was highly prized as floor cover and for seating.  As the architectural style of homes developed, Tatami became more widely popular with the general public.  It’s valued for its texture, unique elasticity, and has excellent moisture absorbing and discharging functions, achieved by weaving in the natural rush grass, igusa.

‘A recent study has found that the scent of Igusa as an effect aromatherapy. We would like not only Japanese but people throughout the world to try our Tatami that has such excellent features. Igusa-mono was developed as a new stylish Tatami blended into overseas living spaces…’ (From the website igusa-mono.com)

If you’ve read anything else on this blog you’ll know I’m fascinated by words, so naturally I looked at unfamiliar words nearby in my Chambers dictionary; this is what I came across:

ZYGODACTYL/OUS: ‘with toes arranged in pairs, two facing forwards and two backwards…eg woodpeckers’ (adj.  and n.)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (RSPB website)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (RSPB website)

A pair of GSWs often visits my birdfeeder in the garden: they’re very fond of peanuts.  Handsome birds, but very shy – they hide behind tree trunks if they think they’re being watched.