Disiecta Membra

Something of a ‘disiecta membra’ about today’s post.  The expression, in case you’re not familiar with it, is from Horace’s Satire 1.4, in which he appears to be praising the poet Ennius; he says that even if the words in Ennius’s poems were rearranged it would still be possible to discern ‘the scattered limbs of a poet’ – ‘disjecti membra poetae’.  Nowadays the phrase tends to be used for any collection of scattered literary or artistic fragments.

While mulling over several blog projects (Renata Adler’s Speedboat review; Adalbert Stifter and Elizabeth von Arnim, among others) I thought I’d fill the hiatus while those pieces marinate with a few ‘fragments’ of linguistic or literary origin.  I’ll embolden the relevant words in the quotations that follow; all definitions and etymologies are from the OED, unless stated otherwise.

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Early in Laurence Sterne’s magnificently dotty shaggy dog story The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy the narrator refers to ‘literary histories’ of the past, and their ‘terrible battles, yclept logomachies’.  I rather like that cluster of nouns with the –omachy suffix (which signifies ‘fighting’ in Greek; logos of course is ‘word’).  The OED defines it as ‘a contention about words’, with the earliest instance of its use dated 1569.  I hope to write about the Centauromachy – the battle of the centaurs with the Lapiths at a wedding feast – another time.

On the following page Sterne writes of Tristram’s  Uncle Toby’s wound in the groin, sustained when he was in the army, and how he was eventually able to talk about this embarrassing badge of honour:

He was enabled, by the help of some marginal documents…together with Gobesius’ military architecture and pyroballogy, translated from the Flemish, to form his discourse.

The note in my Penguin edition glosses this as ‘the study of the art of casting fire’ – presumably in the military sense, as in artillery.  OED says this is from the Greek ballein, ‘to throw’, from which the word ‘ballistic’ derives, and defines the term as ‘The study of artillery; the art of using explosives to launch missiles’.  Only two citations are given, one from Sterne’s usage here (1760), the other from  1738 (although the earlier form, ‘pyrobology’ is dated 1728).

Another cluster of words I pondered a while ago started with looking up sarcoma: ‘A tumour composed of embryonic connective tissue. Now applied to almost any malignant tumour not derived from epithelial tissue…  Other classifications of cancers are the carcinomas, which arise in the epithelia; the leukemias and lymphomas arise in the blood-forming cells’. So naturally one then has to look up epithelium: ‘A non-vascular tissue forming the outer layer of the mucous membrane in animals.’

Sarcoma derives from Greek sarx or sark, ‘flesh’.   Cognates include sarcophagus, which originally signified ‘A kind of stone reputed among the Greeks to have the property of consuming the flesh of dead bodies deposited in it, and consequently used for coffins (attested from 1601-1750), and then  (from 1705) ‘A stone coffin, esp. one embellished with sculptures or bearing inscriptions, etc.’   Then there’s sarcophagy, ‘the practice of eating flesh’, first cited in Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1658); the only other OED citation is from HG Wells in 1901.

Pseudodoxia epidemica (image from Amazon website)

Pseudodoxia epidemica (image from Amazon website)

The –phagy element derives from the Greek phagein, ‘eat’.

Amazonomachy marble sarcophagus from Salonica, Archaeological Museum of Thessalonki (photo: Wikipedia)

Amazonomachy marble sarcophagus from Salonica, Archaeological Museum of Thessalonki (photo: Wikipedia)

And there we are: another -omachy: this one relates to the battles between the Amazons and the ancient Greeks.

I find these things lead me deeper into linguistic labyrinths, as happens when following hyperlinks on the internet.  So then I turned to sarcosaprophagous creatures (usually insects like the parasitoid wasps Hymenoptera) which feed on dead or decaying flesh.

The best known are Flesh Flies (Diptera – ie Flies: Sarcophagidae),  which are ‘ovoviviparous, which means that eggs are not deposited upon full development. Instead, the larvae hatch inside of their mother’s “uterus” and are held until a proper host is found. The term used to describe the release of the larvae onto the host is

larviposition… Female flesh flies deposit their 1st instar larvae directly on the host and the larvae commence feeding immediately. These larvae eat and develop rapidly. Approximately five days after larviposition, the larvae are already in their 3rd instar and are almost ready to pupate. When the larvae are ready to pupate, they leave the host and wander until they find a suitable location.  (University of Florida website)

I rather admire the notion of ‘wandering’ larvae, seeking a suitable place to pupate.

Dorsal view of adult male Sarcophaga crassipalpis Macquart, a flesh fly. Photograph by Lazaro A. Diaz, University of Florida.

Dorsal view of adult male Sarcophaga crassipalpis Macquart, a flesh fly. Photograph by Lazaro A. Diaz, University of Florida.

The word sarcosaprophagous comes from Greek sapros, rotten – compare ‘saprobe’: ‘Any organism that derives its nourishment from decaying organic matter’.

Maybe next time I’ll be able to return to more salubrious, literary matters.

Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

Javier  Marías , Your Face Tomorrow (YFT)

This is the first instalment of a blog post that will extend in several parts over the next few days or weeks; I’ll continue with the second instalment over the weekend.   I hope it will encourage you to take up this exciting trilogy and read it, if you haven’t already.  (Click on the coloured links, if you wish, for background detail/information.)  I was given a copy many years ago of Marias’s novel  A Heart So White by an old friend of impeccable literary tastes, founder of the small publishing house Polar Books; I found it hard going.  Recently, having read positive reviews of YFT, one of which referred to it as a ‘metaphysical epic’, I thought it time, as my summer break was imminent, to give him another go.  Having finished vol. 1 I had to order the next two, and devoured them in two hectic, fevered, often painful but always exhilarating weeks of reading.  A long train journey to London and back gave me the opportunity to struggle through some of the slower, more labyrinthine sections of vol. 3.

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951.  Parts of his childhood were spent in the United States, where his father taught philosophy at various universities.  His mother died when he was 26. [I am indebted to articles in the Guardian by Nicholas Wroe and Aida Edemariam for the comments Marías made to them in their interviews, and for some of the information they provide.]

His books have sold in their millions and have been translated into more than forty languages.   It was A Heart So White in 1992 that propelled him to the bestseller lists.  The novel later won the Impac prize.  His twelfth novel, The Infatuations, was published in English in March this year.  He has the unlikely title of King of Redonda, which is a real but tiny uninhabited Caribbean island, the monarchy of which has been passed down through a line of writers.  He founded a publishing company named after it.

Marías lives in Madrid.   He has been criticised for not dealing directly in his writing with the troubled political history of Spain, but the civil war and Franco’s fascist regime are dominant themes in YFT and many of his other novels.  For nearly two decades he has written a regular column in a Spanish newspaper– he has published a whole book consisting of just his football articles.  In a recent Guardian profile he said:  “If a book or film takes a good subject from the everyday press – say domestic murders in Spain, which are a historic disgrace – everyone will applaud, but it is easy applause.  Who will say it is bad?  People say the novel is a way of imparting knowledge… But for me it is more a way of imparting recognition of things that you didn’t know you knew.  You say ‘yes’.  It feels true even though it might be uncomfortable.  You find this in Proust, who is one of the cruellest authors in the history of literature.  He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too.”

Early in his writing career he turned to translating works of English literature; his 1979 version of Tristram Shandy won a national prize.   Between 1983 and 1985 he lectured in Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford.  He describes a translator as both a “privileged reader and a privileged writer. If you’re capable of rewriting in a different language something by Conrad or Sterne then you learn a lot.  I’ve not got involved with the creative writing industry, but if I ever had my own creative writing school I would only admit people who could translate, and I would make them do it over and over again …There is a pace and a rhythm of prose that, if the translator catches it, you can surf the wave of cadence.  I certainly felt it with Conrad and in a way with Sir Thomas Browne.  But it is not essential to good writing.  It was not there with Yeats’s prose, or Isak Dinesen’s or Thomas Hardy’s.  I like to think that my prose has some cadence that can contaminate, in the good sense, and help a translator.”

Other writers whose work he has translated into Spanish include Nabokov, Faulkner, Updike, Salinger and there are many others.  The influence of these writers on Marías as a novelist is notable, and the themes and tones of Shakespeare and Sterne, as well as Cervantes and Proust, are unmistakeable in his work.

Perhaps YFT is most influenced in its labyrinthine structure and arcane, echoed details by Sterne;  Marías admires his digressive, anecdotal playfulness, archaisms (in Vol. 3, for example, Deza becomes obsessed with the Anglo-Saxon word ge-bryd-guma, which signifies a person with whom one has shared, knowingly or not, a sexual partner) and refusal to be restricted by conventional linear narrative.

As in many previous novels, YFT has a protagonist/narrator who is an interpreter – an interpreter of people and of their faces, their lives, but there are numerous points where the narrator ponders the nature of the language speakers are using, and how their words resonate when translated; one example, to which he returns frequently, is the Spanish word ‘patria’, for which there is, he says, no direct English equivalent.  In YFT vol. 3 Deza is intrigued by young Perez Nuix’s ‘decidedly bookish’ Spanish (they usually talk in that language: she is half Spanish herself, but English is her primary language; we are also given a lesson on how to pronounce her Catalan surname), and his thoughts become a miniature lesson in translation:

She didn’t manage ‘vigas’, but she did use ‘escarmentar’ – to teach someone a lesson – ‘entablar negocios’ – to strike a deal – and ‘enjundia’ – substance.

Such meditations become part of the philosophical, epistemological fabric of the text: how far is a human being capable of expressing in words what he or she really means?  Even the slipperiness of the narrator’s name is indicative of this semantic problem: his English friends tend to call him Jack; elsewhere he’s addressed as Jacques, Jacopo or Iago (which gives rise to numerous Shakespearean allusions).

That’s the end of the first instalment of this piece on YFT; I hope you enjoyed it, and will visit again soon for the next instalment, which should be up over the next few days.  Meanwhile I’ll post something completely different tomorrow, probably something of my own creative work.  See you again soon!

btw, I think there might be a problem with the hyperlink function in this piece; hope the hot links work.  I’ll post this now anyway and check it out.  Hope it doesn’t spoil your reading if they’re not working.