J.D. Salinger, ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’ – a critique

J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; Seymour – An Introduction, Penguin paperback; first US and UK book publication, 1963; first Penguin, 1964; original US edition first published in UK 1994; reissued by Penguin 2010.  Raise High and Seymour  were first published in The New Yorker in 1955 and 1959 respectively

I’ve now finished the shorter works of Salinger as published by Penguin: I wrote recently about Franny and Zooey (1955; 1957), then about the story collection For Esmé – with Love and Squalor (1953).  In this blog post I shall focus on the first of the two novellas in this slim volume.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters develops the story of the Glass family, who featured in many of the other stories, with particular focus here on the oldest of the seven brilliantly precocious Glass siblings, Seymour.  As I wrote in my previous Salinger blog posts, Seymour committed suicide in Florida while on holiday with his self-centred wife Muriel in 1948, and his death haunted the family down the years that followed.  This story goes some way to indicating why Seymour ended up shooting himself – but as usual it’s narrated from his brother Buddy’s point of view, and it’s difficult to tell how reliable a narrator he is.

Yin and Yang Taoist symbol: duality of all things in nature

Yin and Yang Taoist symbol: duality of all things in nature

The story opens with a typically mystical-ironic account of the time twenty years before this narrative is set (1955) when Seymour soothed to sleep ten-month-old baby sister Franny, the youngest of the Glass children, by reading her an edifying Taoist parable – which she now claims to remember hearing.  These passages serve to show that the Glass siblings are set apart, different, but also misfits, whose love for and solidarity with each other are what keeps them, just about, sane.

The narrative then jumps to 1942 and Seymour’s wedding day.  Buddy, who narrates both these novellas, as he did most of the other Glass family stories, is in military hospital with pleurisy.  He’s discharged so that he can represent the family at the wedding – the rest of them are unable to attend the ceremony in New York.  The two youngest, Franny and Zooey, are just eight and thirteen years old and living with their parents in Los Angeles; they are still continuing the family tradition of appearing on the long-running radio quiz show called, ‘with typically pungent Coast-to-Coast irony’ It’s a Wise Child.

Seymour was at the time a corporal in the Air Corps.  Buddy receives a letter from his sister Boo Boo urging him to go to the wedding; although she doesn’t directly  mention Seymour’s mental health problems (which ultimately contributed to his decision to shoot himself – an event which is the subject of the story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ in the collection For Esmé – with Love and Squalor), she hints that he’s unwell, and her premonition is ominous:

Please get there, Buddy.  He weighs about as much as a cat and he has that ecstatic look on his face that you can’t talk to.  Maybe it’s going to be perfectly all right, but I hate 1942.

The novella’s title derives from the quotation from Sappho that Boo Boo had scrawled with soap on the bathroom mirror in the apartment that Seymour shared with her and Buddy when they were in town.  It’s typical of the well-read Glass family, another of the traits that some critics rail at.  Here surely it’s touchingly ironic that this extract is from an epithalamion, and Buddy reads it at the moment when Seymour has failed to appear at the wedding.

Om symbol

Om symbol as written in Devanagari, the alphabet of Hindi in India, and since the 19C of Sanskrit: it’s a mantra and mystical sound sacred in Dharmic religions

All of the Glass siblings are described as possessing preternatural intelligence, and Seymour and Buddy have instilled in the younger ones a spiritual quality derived from the teachings of Buddhism and oriental religions (as Zooey says in Franny and Zooey).  In her letter, for example, Boo Boo says that Franny recently described to the radio announcer on air how she ‘used to fly around the apartment when she was four and no one was home…He said she surely just dreamt that she was able to fly.  The baby stood her ground like an angel.’

Some critics have found this aspect of the Glass family irksome.  But Salinger always infuses these passages about their unusual character with ambiguous humour, as we saw with the Sappho quotation; there’s also a darker sense that they are outsiders – they often mention that they are ‘freaks’, they don’t fit in with the bourgeois society they inhabit, and can’t conform to what is generally considered normal; this saddens them.   I don’t find them annoyingly hypersensitive, then; they are simply so unusually gifted they find ordinary life almost unbearable.  Especially Seymour, whose nature radiates a kind of damaged spirituality through all the Glass stories.

The wedding is a disaster.  Seymour doesn’t turn up, and Muriel’s family is outraged.  Buddy finds himself sharing a cab with three of her relatives.  The greater part of the novella describes with acerbic humour how Buddy has to listen to their vicious, small-minded demolition of his big brother’s character and sanity, as they pretend not to know who Buddy is.  One of them says of the radio quiz show the Glass children participated in: ‘I loathe precocious children.’  Eventually Buddy snaps back at them with a heated retort.

As usual Seymour is physically absent from the narrative (‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ is the only story in which he’s a living presence).  But as usual his spirit permeates the novella, and his words are presented via the extracts that Buddy reads from his diary, which he finds in his apartment.   They are full of his habitual allusions to eastern mysticism, but more tellingly, of his bitter-sweet accounts of Muriel and her family’s behaviour: ‘A terrible and beautiful phenomenon to watch.’  He mentions that her mother thinks he’s ‘schizoid’, and Muriel has told her where he got the scars on his wrists from, ‘poor sweet baby’.  This seems to be a reference to an earlier suicide attempt that hasn’t featured in any of the other stories.  They both think he should see a psychoanalyst.  Seymour accedes to this; he knows Muriel won’t feel ‘close’, ‘familiar’ or, more revealingly, ‘frivolous’ with him if he doesn’t get himself, as he ironically puts it, ‘slightly overhauled’.

Adi Shankara

Adi Shankara Bhagavadpada, expounder of Advaita Vedanta, commentator on the Upanishads

Her mother clearly thinks Seymour is insane; like the rest of the normal world she can’t understand why he’s so detached.  When she asked him once what he intended doing after the war he replied that he’d like to be ‘a dead cat’; she laughed nervously.  He was alluding, he explains in the diary, to a Zen fable.

We see indirectly why Seymour failed to show at the wedding.  He says Muriel doesn’t really love him, and he doesn’t make her happy.  All she wants is to be a conventional housewife and to escape from her mother, who is an ‘irritating, opionated woman’, and Muriel, we feel, is very like her:

A person deprived, for life, of any understanding or taste for the main current of poetry that flows through things, all things.  She might as well be dead, and yet she goes on living…

It’s easy to see why critics find this sort of thing condescending and smug; personally I think it’s just artistic honesty.  Countless writers have portrayed characters recoiling from mediocrity.  Seymour does so with gentle sadness and a sort of passive serenity; I don’t find him smug.

In a later entry, written when he was about to fly to New York for the wedding, Seymour gives a final insight into his conflicted but ecstatic state of mind; he’d spoken to Muriel on the phone:

I really called to ask her, to beg her for the last time to just go off alone with me and get married.  I’m too keyed up to be with people.  I feel as though I’m about to be born.  Sacred, sacred day…I’ve been reading a miscellany of Vedanta all day.  Marriage partners are to serve each other.  Elevate, help, teach, strengthen each other, but above all serve.  Raise their children honourably, lovingly and with detachment.  A child is a guest in the house, to be loved and respected – never possessed, since he belongs to God.  How wonderful, how sane, how beautifully difficult, and therefore true.  The joy of responsibility for the first time in my life.

Here again there’s a beauty in the prose that just about insulates Seymour from the charge of pretentiousness.  He’s more a Myshkin – a holy fool – than a saint.  Nevertheless it’s hard to fathom why he goes ahead and marries the awful Muriel.  Maybe he just tries too hard to see the God in everyone.

Cover (from the Penguin website)

Cover (from the Penguin website)

There’s much of Salinger’s wonderfully modulated dialogue in this novella; it serves to reveal character with understated precision – there’s hardly any narrative description, yet each character is fully, clearly realised through slight, deft touches.  The long scene in the limousine where Buddy is trapped with Muriel’s venomous, insensitive relatives is dazzling and full of surprising twists: the humour, wit and pathos are sustained in ways that few other writers could manage.

There’s weirdness, too, especially in Seymour’s self-revelatory diary extracts: he says he has received stigmata-like scars on his hands from resting them on the ‘downy pate’ of Franny’s head when she was a baby, and on Franny’s head when he was six or seven.

He goes on to say:

I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse.  I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.

Once again this is not intended as a serious suggestion that Seymour is Christlike; it’s an indication of his way of explaining his experience with a poet’s licence, in cryptic aphorisms intended to be both mysterious but also revelatory of an ineffable kind of unveiled reality – the hypersensitivity and spirituality mentioned earlier, and which some readers find sententious, uninteresting or ridiculous.

If it is then so are the Upanishads, Tolstoy and The Idiot, which all seem to have had some influence on Salinger’s work.

Next time I’ll write about the second novella, Seymour – An Introduction.


J.D. Salinger, ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’: a critique

J.D. Salinger, For Esmé – with Love and Squalor (Penguin paperback, first published in the US and UK in 1953; Penguin edition 1986 in the UK, reset 1994 from the first US edition; reissued 2010.)

I wrote in a recent blogpost about Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1919-2010).  For Esmé, with Love and Squalor was published in America as Nine Stories in 1953, two years after The Catcher in the Rye.  Both books were bestsellers.  This was also the year he left New York City and moved to Cornish, New Hampshire, where he spent the rest of his life.  There he became increasingly reclusive and litigious; he published just four more stories in the next seven years.

Salinger was drafted into the army in 1942, and served in the infantry until the end of World War II; he took part in the D Day invasions, and in the subsequent campaigns across Europe until the downfall of the Third Reich.  He was assigned to a counter-intelligence unit, using his knowledge of French and German to interrogate prisoners of war.  In spring 1945 he entered a liberated concentration camp.  Recent biographies have indicated that he was deeply traumatised by this and other wartime experiences; he possibly suffered from what is now called PTSD, and spent some weeks in hospital recuperating.

Salinger during WWII (photo from NY Times website)

Salinger during WWII (photo from NY Times website)

Most of the stories in this collection concern war and its effects on individuals, and the traumatised memories of post-war Americans.  Even when its presence isn’t directly felt, the war has created in the characters in the stories a damaged, questing quality; as we saw in Franny and Zooey, most of them seek solace in oriental mysticism.

Some (usually children) find enlightenment; others are thwarted.  The opening epigraph to the book is the famous Zen koan – what is the sound of one hand clapping?  This serves as the theme of the collection: how to transcend or deal with mundane reality when in contact with the dulling, deadening effect of what Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and members of the Glass family in other stories call ‘phoniness’.

The opening story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ sets the tone with the story of Seymour Glass’s suicide in 1948 while on holiday at a Florida beach hotel with his shallow bourgeoise wife Muriel.  In the opening section there’s Salinger’s usual technique on show: Muriel chats distractedly on the phone with her mother – there’s minimal authorial intrusion or commentary.  This is typical of Salinger’s fiction: characters talking.  In this way he shows us their foibles, weaknesses and strengths without having to tell us what’s going on.

In the story’s second section we see Seymour, about whose mental health Muriel’s mother had been expressing (not very sympathetically) concern to her daughter, chatting on the beach with a small girl called Sybil.  Unlike the women’s selfish talk, Seymour shows himself as sensitive and charmed by Sybil’s innocent prattle.  He teases her gently about the fictitious titular fish, telling her they eat so much they get too bloated to escape from the holes they enter on the seabed, causing their own deaths.  The shocking denouement echoes this jolly, innocent narrative, told to amuse and entertain the girl, in a chilling, existentially tortured way.

The edition under discussion (photo: Amazon uk website)

The edition under discussion (photo: Amazon uk website)

This metafictional form is also seen in the title story; like Seymour, the Sergeant who calls himself ‘X’ is suffering from battle combat fatigue (or PTSD) – he has the shakes, facial tics, and can’t sleep.  The precocious, rather coquettish young girl, Esmé, whom he’d met in a tearoom in the first part of the story, when he’d been stationed in Devon undergoing training prior to the D Day landings, brings him the peace of sleep when he reads her affectionate letter to him.

This story also has two sections, also mainly in the form of dialogue, but its structure and form are complex.  At the end of the first section the American has promised to write a story for the girl; make it ‘extremely squalid and moving’, she’d urged him.  He obligingly describes the opening of the second section, where he’s stationed in Bavaria immediately after the end of the war, serving in an intelligence unit, interrogating prisoners of war (ring any bells?), as the ‘squalor’ part.  The story, therefore, is the one he’d promised, but it ends with a direct address to Esmé:

You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac- with all his ‘f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

In mirroring her last words to him in the tearoom, and the innocent-adult way in which she’d spelt out the word ‘slain’ to protect her little brother, X demonstrates that she’s brought him the kind of peace (or love) that passes all understanding.  It’s a deeply moving moment, and one doesn’t have to be a believer in Christ, the Buddha or any mystic or guru to respond to it positively.

The cheesy US Ace paperback cover: what were they thinking?

The cheesy US Ace paperback cover: what were they thinking?

In the unlikely setting of a commandeered Nazi woman’s house in Germany, Sgt X finds the epiphanic peace that eluded Seymour, whose death haunts all the stories about the Glass family.  That his release is brought about by the innocent affection of an orphaned girl – a lonely soul, like him – is characteristic of Salinger’s fiction.

‘Down at the Dinghy’ is the only other Glass family story in the collection.  Boo Boo Tannenbaum, née Glass, talks with her four-year-old boy Lionel, who’s been upset by a crass racist remark by one of the servants.  As Zooey manages to use big brother Seymour’s wit and wisdom to bring about Franny’s rehabilitation when she was enduring existential despair in Franny and Zooey, so Boo Boo is able to talk Lionel round to a kind of emotional stability.  In his innocence he doesn’t realise the full significance of the ugly word the servant had used.

Redemptive innocence crops up frequently in the other stories.  In ‘Teddy’, the eponymous ten-year-old is a kind of savant; he’s been touring European universities with his parents, propounding his mystical insights and prophetic visions to incredulous professors.  On the ocean liner en route for home in the USA he’s engaged in conversation by a young academic who wants to learn about his spiritual gifts.  Teddy talks with the precocity blended with naiveté that was seen in Esmé.  For example he asks the young man if he’s a poet.  No, he replies, why did Teddy think he might be?

Poets are always taking the weather so personally.  They’re always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions.

He goes on to declare he favours logic over emotions: ‘I don’t see what they’re good for.’  He’s disparaging about sentimental love.  He goes on to discuss his state of enlightenment achieved through meditation, and his theories of reincarnation.  In a peculiar passage he talks about a previous incarnation and his current state of spiritual imperfection:

I mean it’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America.  People think you’re a freak if you try to.  My father thinks I’m a freak, in a way.  And my mother – well, she doesn’t think it’s good for me to think about God all the time.  She thinks it’s bad for my health.

Character wu (mu in Japanese) meaning 'nothing', from the famous Zen koan of Zhaozhu's dog

Character wu (mu in Japanese) meaning ‘nothing’, from the famous Zen koan of Zhaozhu’s dog

Like the Glass siblings, Teddy is so gifted, precocious and extraordinary – he’s another of Salinger’s youthful geniuses – he’s sort of deranged, an outsider, unable to thrive in the world of ordinary people.  In Franny and Zooey, Zooey says to his mother that he and his sister are freaks; he blames Seymour and Buddy for teaching them oriental religion – it’s enlightened them, but made them unfitted for life in unenlightened post-war America.  In ‘Franny’ his sister had declared a similar dissatisfaction with everything.

‘Nobody’s aiming to please, here.  More, really to edify, to instruct’, said the narrator of the title story of this collection, in setting down his thoughts about Esmé.  Some critics have taken exception to Salinger’s precocious, ingenuous young characters and their guru-like tendencies; they don’t like what one called his glamorising of self-pity and his elevation of the Glass family to the status of sanctity, full of ‘stricken sensitivity’.

That I think is understandable – Seymour and his fellow devotees of Dharma can come across as a little smug or priggish – but the warmth and humanity of Salinger’s stories more than compensates for this occasional earnestness.  Passages like this one in ‘Esmé’ could easily grate:  Sgt X picks up a book by the German woman Nazi arrested by him and in whose house he now stays.  He reads the fly-leaf inscription she’d written in the book by Goebbels: ‘Dear God, life is hell’.  In his traumatised, nerve-shot state he finds this a ‘classic indictment’, and struggles, ‘against heavy odds, not to be taken in’.

He writes in pencil underneath:

‘Fathers and teachers, I ponder “What is hell?”  I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.’

This typically enigmatic quotation (from Dostoevsky) is one of many such gnomic, often Zen or Hindu philosophical notes in Salinger’s stories (the long list of mystical quotations from Seymour and Buddy’s door in Franny and Zooey fits into this same category; we’ve just seen Teddy’s dharma views).  Some critics have found such pronouncements pretentious and discordant; I think they’re quite endearing.  I don’t think he’s showing off – and why shouldn’t he write from his own spiritual point of view?  Dostoevsky did.

Why not rail against the ‘phoniness’ of materialist American culture and insincerity in people, and strive for authenticity?

In her letter Esmé wrote that she hoped that D Day would bring about a ‘swift termination’ of the war (she loves those polysyllabic nouns!) and ‘a method of existence that is ridiculous to say the least.’  This is inadvertently what she has brought about for Sgt X.  She’s shown him an alternative to the phony ridiculousness of life.

Salinger's childhood home in Park Avenue, NYC

Salinger’s childhood home in Park Avenue, NYC

I did find some of these stories weak: ‘Laughing Man’ seems contrived, but it has charm; ‘De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period’ is too flashy – but it also contains one of the finest lines in the book.  The nineteen-year-old narrator, yet another flawed, precocious youth, has taken a post as instructor in a correspondence art school.  One of his students is a gifted nun to whom he writes with inappropriately candid ardour.  After an epiphanic vision of a woman framed in a shop window, he writes in his diary:




I am giving Sister Irma her freedom to follow her own destiny.  Everybody is a nun.

That he does so, pretentiously, in French, adds an ironic dimension that diminishes his pomposity; Salinger’s humour and affection prevent the story from overbalancing into affectation – and the young man does seem to have undergone a life-changing experience.  The sententiousness is of the same order as Esmé’s gauche attempts to sound grown-up by employing expressions she doesn’t fully understand.

I’d be interested to hear if others agree with me that Salinger is worth reading…

Images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons, unless stated otherwise














Apotropaic magic

I’ve read more Salinger in the past week, but having been to the dentist this morning and had some unpleasantly painful work done I don’t feel up to much in the way of literary blogging today; I’ll post on the Salinger stories shortly.  Meanwhile here are some musings on one of my favourite words: Apotropaic

OED online:

Etymology:  < Greek ἀποτρόπαιος averting evil ( < ἀποτρέπειν to turn away, avert)

Having or reputed to have the power of averting evil influence or ill luck.

Middle Eastern Hamsa(meaning 'five', as in fingers)

Middle Eastern Hamsa(meaning ‘five’, as in fingers)

1883   Encycl. Brit. XV. 570/1   The sacrifice of the ‘October horse’ in the Campus Martius..had also a naturalistic and apotropaic character.

1904   W. M. Ramsay in Hastings Dict. Bible V. 115/1   The..employment of a bull’s head on..sarcophagi..evidently..had at first an apotropaic purpose.

1918   L. Strachey Eminent Victorians 230   The same doctrine led him [sc. Gordon]..to append, in brackets, the apotropaic initials D.V. after every statement in his letters implying futurity.

1945   Proc. Prehistoric Soc. 11 55   In the centre, an apotropaic ornament, a severed head between two volutes.

apotroˈpaically adv.

1956   W. H. Auden Old Man’s Road,   Apotropaically scowling, a tinker Shuffles past.

A glass 'eye' from Israel

A glass ‘eye’ from Israel

This notion of magic used to ward off evil or bad luck- whether by way of amulets, talismans or other potent symbols – is common in many cultures.  In 6th century BC Greece it was frequently found in the form of an eye, exaggerated and enlarged, painted at the bottom of drinking vessels to ward off evil spirits when imbibing.  Bad luck tended to be associated with envious looks from others, hence the use of an eye to deflect or reflect back such looks.

In most middle eastern cultures the Hamsa amulet (or Khamsa, meaning ‘five’, as in fingers of the hand) was thought to be potent in warding off envious looks.

In Turkey the Nazar eye amulet is ubiquitous still, especially on the prow of boats.


Roman-era mosaic from Antioch depicting a plethora of devices against the evil eye

Roman-era mosaic from Antioch depicting a plethora of devices against the evil eye

The ancient Romans believed that laughter could keep away evil with the use of deformed or rude images – phalluses, dwarves; deformity was thought funny.

In the mosaic pictured left: Attacking the evil eye – the eye is pierced by a trident and sword, pecked by a raven, barked at by a dog and attacked by a centipede, scorpion, cat and a snake. A horned dwarf with a gigantic phallus crosses two sticks. Greek annotation “KAI SU” meaning “and you (too)”. Roman mosaic from Antiochia, House of the Evil Eye. Hatay Arkeoloji Müzesi, Antakya, Inv.-Nr. 1024

Similarly apotropaic are silver bullets (against werewolves); garlic and crucifixes to ward off vampires; crossing one’s fingers or knocking on wood to avoid bad luck.

'Gargouille' atop NDame de Paris, construction of which began in the late 11C

‘Gargouille’ atop Notre Dame de Paris, construction of which began in the late 11C

Gargoyles on the parapets of churches were intended partly as a deterrent to witches and other evil spirits, especially when placed over doorways and windows, for such liminal positions were thought especially vulnerable; fireplaces were, too.




The Lady of Shalott, by JW Waterhouse, 1888

The Lady of Shalott, by JW Waterhouse, 1888

Mirrors were believed to have apotropaic powers, hence, perhaps, the belief that breaking a mirror brings bad luck.  The Lady of Shalott was doomed when she looked out of her window to gaze at handsome Lancelot on his horse, induced the curse against her doing so, and her mirror cracked…the rest went badly for her.  He did ok.  C’est la vie.


All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons


What’s in a name? Hypocorism

A rose by any other name…

I thought I’d depart from the world of literature for a change.

In my teaching of entry-level linguistics I try to explain the concept of address terms.  There are various technical terms related to these: appellatives, onomastic meaning (onomastics being the term for the academic study of names), and so on.  I’m sure there’s a word that signifies something like ‘names of characters in fiction that indicate their nature or salient feature’ – Dickens was fond of these: Gradgrind, Mr McChoakumchild in Hard Times, to name just one novel.  Can’t recall this term right now.  Do let me know in the comment field if you can enlighten me.

They are not characternyms: that’s the term for names of characters in literature in general (I think).

Which brings me to hypocorism.

A hypocoristic name is a diminutive, familiar or reduced form of the full name.  In England there’s Will, from William.

Then there are those which don’t just shorten the name, but which distort it: William becomes Bill, then lengthened to Billy; that –y ending is popular, hence Timmy, Dicky (see the next example), Jimmy and Tony);  Richard becomes Dick; Margaret becomes Meg, Maggie or more strangely, Peg – it was common for nicknames to substitute Ps for Ms.  Mary becomes Moll, then lengthens again to become Molly.  Not quite sure why Madonna became ‘Madge’…

Ann changes to Nan (from the old form ‘Mine Ann’), though that name seems to have died out of use.

Cees Nooteboom

Cees Nooteboom

In Holland Cornelis becomes Kees (or Cees, as in the writer Nooteboom, born 1933).  Maria becomes Ria (now also becoming popular in the UK).  Alexandra becomes Sanna (the name of the little girl in Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal, about which I intend blogging soon).  Ruud Gullit, the inimitable footballer (and not so imitable football manager) is derived from Rutgerus.

Donnie Darko may owe something to the Croatian hypocoristic form of the name Davorin, which is Darko.

Russian Aleksander becomes Sasha.  Natalya becomes Natasha (is that right?  Might have misremembered that one).

In Latin, diminutives often involve lengthening the name, hence Ursula means ‘little bear’ (which is ursus/ursa).  The notoriously vicious Emperor Caligula’s name is derived from ‘caligas’, the name for soldiers’ sandals.  Little Boots, if you like.

French diminutives or feminine endings also involve lengthening the masculine form.



So Nicolas becomes Nicolette, then Colette (as in the author, 1873-1954, famous for Gigi and other sex comedies considered racy at the time).  Not very pc, this tendency, for the unmarked term (which is what linguists call the culturally accepted ‘normal’ form) is invariably the masculine.  Compare English ‘usherette’ and all those other demeaning feminine linguistic terms (‘lady doctor’, ‘actress/poetess’, etc., now considered unacceptable in sensible usage).

The French also like reduplicated diminutives generally, like ‘dodo’, the child’s word for ‘dormir’ (sleep, or bedtime), as well as hypocoristically, as in Didi, etc. (and, I suppose, Gigi).

German Ignatz used to be reduced to Nazi (which was used by Hitler’s opponents as a term of abuse, signifying they were all country bumkins, for that was a popular name in provincial, rural Catholic Germany).  Heinrich becomes Heinz (so the beans are little Heinrichs).

Polish Tadesz becomes Tadzio – known to me best as the name of the beautiful boy in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.  

Numerous appellations of the Virgin are common for girls’ names in Spain; one of my favourites is a person I used to know: Sole, from Soledad – solitude.  Inma is from Inmaculada – the immaculate conception (hence the once-popular Irish girls’ name, Concepta, an early character in the soap ‘Coronation Street’).

Mononyms are names for people known only by one element, like Bono.  Anthroponyms are places named after people (like Constantinople; or Disneyland).  Toponyms are place-names in general; topanthroponyms are personal names derived from places, hence Chelsea Clinton or Paris Hilton.

Endonyms are the names of places as used by the natives of those places, so Köln is what we call Cologne.  Similarly London is the English endonym; French people would call it Londres.  Paris Hilton would not change.  Unfortunately.

Exonyms are what we call these outsider names for endonyms.

Retronyms are fun; these are terms which have had to become modified, usually as compound nouns, as a consequence of technological or cultural developments; examples include TAP water (to distinguish it from bottled); ACOUSTIC guitar (not electric).  Previously it was unnecessary to qualify the noun, because there was only one variety.

Hope you enjoyed this little excursion into the world of words.





Somebody Ate Her Gerbil: Renata Adler, ‘Speedboat’

Somebody Ate Her Gerbil: Speedboat, by Renata Adler (This review was first published in Open Letters Monthly on 1st October, 2013)

Speedboat, Renata Adler’s first novel, was originally published in 1976; along with her second from 1983, Pitch Dark, it has been reissued this year by NYRB Classics.  I found it a stimulating and bravely ambitious but not consistently successful entity.

This is partly because of the structure: there’s no linear plot, just a fragmented collection of vignettes and eclectic, reported snatches of conversation.  As the reader tries to make sense of the apparently random fragments a unifying consciousness almost comes into focus and just about holds the novel together and prevents frustration from setting in: Jen Fain is a hard-drinking, dysfunctional journalist and teacher (she’s ‘never been any good at interviews’, she confesses).

NYRB Classics cover

NYRB Classics cover

Speedboat ‘s tone is witty but can be slightly irritating in its jerky sequences of arch non sequiturs: ‘I know someone who is trying to get rid of a myna bird – I mean, find a loving owner’.  Then we’re told about a man who offloads an unwanted cat.  Next door lives a kid who wants to give away her rabbit, but is concerned that the ‘wrong kind of person’ might take it in ‘bad faith’ and eat it:

She thinks somebody ate her gerbil.  No one eats gerbils.  It is strange to think that most of the children under six whom one knows and loves, gives presents to, whatever, are not going to remember most emotional events of those first years, on the couch, or in jail, or in a bank, wherever they may find themselves when they are twenty-five.

A boyfriend’s brother takes her on a surprise treat, which turns out to be a five-hour performance of Parsifal – she’s not impressed.  She ponders its absurd plot, and her thoughts express something of Speedboat’s narrative structure:

The whole magic of plot requires that somebody be impeded from getting something over with.  Yet there one is, with an emotional body English almost, wishing that pole-vaulter over his bar, wanting something to happen or not to happen, wishing somebody well.

I began to find I was not wishing Jen well, while admiring the skill with which the fragments were assembled.   Jen’s an observer, piling them up and recording them, but the pieces drift off into the unexpected and surreal, then fade out with a gnomic generalisation that’s funny or provocative, but frequently insubstantial (as with the gerbil story) .

The disconnected nature of the narrative, perhaps, is Adler’s way of showing Jen’s flawed attempts to make sense of a fragmented world.  She’s almost defying herself and us to make connections and find coherence as she tries to shore up her life against its ruin.  She’s vulnerable, self-absorbed, damaged, questing, with a perceptive intelligence – she’s examining herself in this out-of-joint Cold War America as if she were a pinned specimen:

I am a fanatic myself, although not a woman of temperament. I get nervous at scenes. I stole a washcloth once from a motel in Angkor Wat. The bellboy was incensed. I had to give it back.

Her insecurity and sensitivity are represented throughout the short episodes she strings together like charms on a bracelet: she’s based in New York City or Washington, D.C., with frequent flashbacks abroad – Paris as a student, or exotic locations as a reporter or tourist.  Full of intensities and contradictions, she’s seemingly involved with a series of men about whom we learn very little.  These peripheral guys seem to bore her – they are mentioned sporadically among the dozens of other characters with airy insouciance on Jen’s part.  She appears lonely yet longing for attachment, toying with the idea of maternity.  She says, three pages from the end, ‘Anyway, I seem to be about to have Jim’s child; at least, I think I will’.  Prior to this there’s a scene in a maternity ward, where Jen may be a patient or there for a termination.   Earlier, in Venice with a boyfriend called Aldo (after many ‘separations’), she vomits after a heavy drinking session:

So I was in despair because six fat women of Venice I would never see again thought I was pregnant by a man who did not want to marry me.

This then is the central, noble theme: Jen trying to sort out what her life might mean, what she might want from it all in a world that’s largely absurd, hostile or indifferent.

As if to anesthetize herself she attends all kinds of social functions (the food is always awful, she says) but with an ironic, anguished detachment:

I go to parties almost whenever I am asked. I think a high tone of moral indignation, used too often, is an ugly thing. I get up at eight. Quite often now I have a drink before eleven. In some ways, I have overshot my mark in life in spades.

Sometimes she is surely testing our credulity with her creations:

I once met a polo-playing Argentine existential psychiatrist, who had lived for months in a London commune…

I used to live with a graduate student of political science, a kind of Calvinist in reverse; that is, he was uncompromisingly bohemian. His mother was a dancer. His father was a judge. Our mattress was on the floor.

I appreciate that these abrupt shifts and accretions of information represent Jen as constantly picking over such items as a therapeutic narrative act.  But it’s simultaneously ironic, earthy and bathetic – that unglamorous student mattress on the floor, ruefully, rawly remembered:

Being neurotic seemed to be a kind of wild card, an all-purpose explanation.  Other ways, of course, are straighter.  I don’t know.

Near the novel’s end she reflects: ‘It is possible that we are really a group of invalids, hypochondriacs, and misfits. I don’t know.’  Jen says ‘I don’t know’ or ‘whatever’ quite often.

It’s not just Jen’s personal life that’s presented as eclectic – there’s a cultural, existential disjunction in her world reflected in these atomized narrative fragments and ephemera: ‘Down the block a woman shouts: “You are nothing, nothing, nothing”’.   She understands herself and her world incompletely or sporadically, so is vigilantly watchful of everything around her, but most particularly of herself in this world of disorder, doubtful integrity and disintegrating morals, politics and beliefs.   Is the world going mad, or Jen?   The image of America is shown as tainted: there’s a scene set in Paris in 1961 where people are demonstrating against US policy on Cuba.  Jen had gone abroad as a student with the ‘usual American smile’, and is disconcerted to find that she’s not universally welcomed.  This is the 1976 of insecurity – nothing it seems can be relied on: ‘And so, class,’ her schoolteacher used to say at the end of each year’s American History Week, after her discourse on the ‘treachery of Roosevelt’ who got them into war to ‘save his Russian friends’ and the ‘sinister effects’ of those Russians: ‘Don’t say you have not been warned.’   Jen and her classmates ‘never said it.  Nobody I ever met who grew up in the fifties…would have said it.’

Also towards the end Jen thinks this about the ‘solid enthusiasms’ of the coterie of ‘educated women’ in the age group to which she belongs:

Our ambitions were, nonetheless, what those of any sensible group of women at that time, perhaps at any modern time, ought to have been: to become safe and successful; to marry someone safe and successful; to have for our children some sort of worldly safety and success. From time to time, however, there is something, I don’t know, wistful, about how it has turned out.

This time her ‘I don’t know’ is poignant and moving.  ‘We are thirty-five’, she says elsewhere. ‘Some of us are gray.’

Reflexive incomprehension seems to be the social norm. Only the watchful eye and hypersensitive consciousness of Jen remain a narrative constant; we make our inferences about what everything means on the frame she creates – and this surely only half makes sense to her. She and one of her boyfriends charter a boat from three deracinated Swiss people who are baffled by the behaviour of their clients:

 They thought of selling their boat again and returning to Geneva. The jet, the telephone, the boat, the train, the television.  Dislocations.


This list of apparently unconnected objects, concluding with the abstraction of ‘dislocations’ embodies what Adler is maybe trying to achieve in Speedboat through Jen’s pondering the way things pile up, people, events.  The lack of verbs in so many such sentences, the lack of agency in others, the adjective-free descriptions, point up the fragile dislocations of Jen’s cluttered, urban life.

Renata Adler

Renata Adler

Although the narrative is largely engaging, then, and I admire Adler’s brilliant attempt to render an intelligent person’s struggle to make sense of things, it’s not always possible to find this novel completely satisfactory.  The accumulated details and pronouncements can seem inconsequential or contrived.   ‘The radical intelligence in the moderate position is the only place where the centre holds.  Or so it seems’, Jen muses, alluding to Yeats presumably;  what’s presented as an aphoristic, poetic truth is surely just muddled thinking presented as if debatable (that apparently uncertain final tag), but it’s dogmatically asserted.

A sub-plot about her murdered landlord is taken up and dropped, but not before this enigmatic reflection of Jen’s:

It is possible that I know who killed our landlord. So many things point in one direction. But too strong a case, I find, is often lost. It incurs doubts, suspicions. Perhaps I do not know. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I think it does, though. When I wonder what it is that we are doing – in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper – the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.

I felt, by the end of Speedboat, that perhaps this novel itself, witty and daring, dazzling in parts, really ‘doesn’t matter’; like the image Adler uses when Jen is thinking about stories and plots, it’s like a ‘game of solitaire or canasta’, the narrative is shuffled and dealt, but doesn’t ultimately ‘come out’.  But it’s much to Adler’s credit that she puts up such a spirited fight in playing this game of Jen’s life.

Photos as they appeared in the Open Letters Monthly review.


Brian Moore, ‘Black Robe’: a critique

Brian Moore, Black Robe.  Paladin paperback, 1987; first published in Great Britain 1985

In this visceral quest narrative, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels meet Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s whisky priest/Catholic crisis stories.

Samuel de Champlain, map of New France, Canada, 1612

Samuel de Champlain, map of New France, Canada, 1612

At the age of twenty Daniel Davost, a French orphan, has arrived at Sieur Samuel de Champlain’s early seventeenth-century French settlement that will become Québec city in New France, Canada.  He asks to accompany the Jesuit priest, Father Paul Laforgue, on a dangerous river expedition by canoe, with Algonkin ‘Savages’ (as the French settlers in the region hypocritically call them) as guides – they are on their way to their winter hunting grounds, and are given gifts as inducement .  Word has reached Champlain that the two priests at a Jesuit mission deep in the ‘country of the Hurons’, have succumbed to sickness, or may have been murdered.  A replacement is needed.

Daniel harbours a secret: he is not motivated by missionary zeal, as he leads his countrymen to believe; he has fallen passionately in love with Annuka, a young Algonkin woman, who is to accompany the group with her family.  Daniel is aware he is in mortal sin for this deception.

The group undergoes numerous tribulations on the way,

Champlain; book illustration from Champlain's 'Works', 1925, vol. II, p. 39

Québec settlement, 1608, by C.W. Jefferys after a drawing by Champlain; book illustration from Champlain’s ‘Works’, 1925, vol. II, p. 39

culminating in their capture by the fierce enemies of the Algonkin – the Iroquois; not all of them survive.  They call the cruel torture to which they subject their victims, with typically fierce ‘Savage’ irony, ‘caressing’ them.

After a not entirely convincing escape scene, Daniel, Laforgue, Annuka and her father resume their quest.  Laforgue goes on to the mission village alone; there he finds old Father Jerome dying, having suffered two strokes.  His assistant had been murdered.  The villagers are dying of fever, presumably smallpox, and their sorcerers accuse the ‘Blackrobes’, as they call the Jesuit priests, of bringing the illness among them:

…the Blackrobes did not speak of curing rituals to combat sickness, but of death and another life to which they wished to lead the people.   The Blackrobes spoke this way because they were the sorcerers of death…[they] were devils of great power.

But the Algonkin sorcerers are forced to concede, and agree to let the village be baptised – they have no choice, for their people have no resistance to the disease which the Europeans tend to survive; this is seen as evidence of the superior power of the Jesuits’ god.

There is more than a culture clash here; the rival belief systems are mutually incompatible.  As Aenons, a local sorcerer says to Laforgue:

You and your god do not suit our people.  Your ways are not our ways.  If we adopt them we will be neither Norman [the Savages’ name for the French] nor Huron.  And soon our enemies will know our weakness and wipe us from the earth.

Iroquois-Algonkin battle: engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage to America's NE coast

Iroquois-Algonkin battle: engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage to America’s NE coast

It’s hard not to feel saddened when they agree to give up their animistic beliefs, that there is a life-force or spirit in all living things –  trees, animals – which the Savages respect and embrace joyfully.  They despise the French desire for material possessions and lack of sympathy for the spirit of the country. One of the strengths of this novel, however, is that Moore avoids sentimentalising either side; he portrays the barbarity of much of the Savages’ society – its casual cruelty, polygamy, sexual licence and misogyny, foul-mouthed ‘filthy banter’ in their talk (there are almost as many profanities in their speech as in Trainspotting), and the ambiguity of the Jesuits’ faith and mission.  Was the coming of the Europeans a deliverance for benighted heathens into the enlightenment of Civilisation, or was it a tragedy for a noble, ecologically balanced world?  Moore is able to keep most of these questions open without attempting to provide pat answers.  But the sorcerer was right: some ten years after the Algonkin agreed to submit to baptism, they had been wiped out by the Iroquois.

Central to the dramatic success of the novel is the conflicted character of Laforgue.  His apparently indomitable Christian faith weakens and almost breaks by the end of the novel.  From the start he longs to be called to undertake the mission, but lacks complete conviction in his fitness to fulfil it;  as early as p. 41 he muses on the ‘Jesuit house in Dieppe’ he had left behind, its priests reading their breviaries in their cloisters:

He had been one of them.  But from now on he would read his office in some clearing in a strange forest, or behind the wooden palisades of a distant mission house.  He looked again at the rabble of Savage women, emaciated, burdened by years of toil, limbs gnarled, faces worn by sun and wind; at the brown laughing girls; at the children, wild as the forest which was their home.  With these people he would live for years, perhaps for the rest of his life.  A sudden sadness came upon him.

Algonkin couple, 18th century watercolour

Algonkin couple, 18th century watercolour

He dreads failure, or going native, as most of the depraved, greedy, fur-trapping French settlers have; their descent into the sexual depravity (as they see it) of the Savages disgusts him.  Even Champlain wears a beaver-fur robe, like an Algonkin chief.

By the end, he clashes with the fanatical Fr Jerome; as he reasons, the villagers at the mission only ask for baptism because they fear death:

‘Or because they fear God,’ the sick priest said.  ‘Alas, most Christians do not perform their duties because they love God, but because they fear Him.  This fever is God’s hand.’

The priest’s paralysis and declining health – he almost seems to be putrefying while still alive – highlights the tensions between his zeal for converts, for saving souls, as he sees it, with the fever God’s missionary tool, and what Laforgue sees as the ‘sophism’ of baptising the heathens uninstructed, under spiritual and mortal duress.  ‘The end is good!’ insists Jerome.

Brian Moore (1921-1999)

Brian Moore (1921-1999)

The style throughout is lucid, and the prose is spare, as the quotations above demonstrate.  The pace of the plot is cracking; in fact there’s almost too much dramatic action.  But this slight weakness is countered by the powerful, sympathetic portrayal of this clash of belief systems.  Moore never slips into hagiographical representation of either side; neither does he demonise them.  When the village sorcerer at the novel’s end asks Jerome if those who are not baptised will die of the fever, Jerome replies, ‘That is for God, not me, to decide.’  ‘That is not an answer’, snaps the sorcerer; he demands one.  Jerome repeats he doesn’t know, then says:

‘But let me ask you.  If you were our God, who would you spare?  Your friend or your enemy?’

That is an answer’ [says the sorcerer].

Laforgue looks on, more and more disenchanted.  Daniel has become a Savage, he reflects:

And I, what am I?  Do I still have the right to challenge Jerome, who is strong in his faith, I who am an empty shell?’

Later he thinks:

What are these baptisms but a mockery of all the days of my belief, of all the teachings of the Church, of all the saintly stories we have read of saving barbarians for Christ?  Why did Chomina [Annuka’s father] and go to outer darkness when this priest, fanatic for a harvest of souls, will pass through the portals of heaven, a saint and a martyr?…The hosts in the tabernacle were bread, dubbed the body of Christ in a ritual strange as any performed by these Savages.  God, whose wishes he had dedicated his life to fulfil, was, in this land of darkness, as distant as the pomp and magnificence of the Church in Rome.  Here in this humble foolish chapel, rude as a child’s drawing, a wooden box and a painted statuette could not restore his faith.  Yet somehow he must try.

Whether he manages to find his faith again is left unclear; what he does find is a redemption that I found more satisfying; he finds that he has come to love these ‘Savages’ in their ‘vast, empty land’.  As he pours baptismal water on a sick brow, a ‘true prayer’ comes to him at last.

All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


‘Franny and Zooey’, by J.D. Salinger: a critique, part II

The novella ‘Zooey’ completes the book Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, and was first published in The New Yorker in 1957, then with the short story ‘Franny’, about which I wrote recently here, in book form in 1961.

Its first section takes place bizarrely in the bathroom: Zooey, an exceptionally good-looking 25-year-old actor, soaks in the bathtub, smoking and reading a long letter from his older brother, Buddy, which had been written four years earlier, and a script for a TV drama.  When his mother enters he’s irritated but wryly amused; a long conversation ensues, with Zooey screened behind the shower curtain while his mother sits on the toilet seat and, like her youngest son, smokes continuously.  The precocious Glass siblings all address their parents by their first names; Bessie has come to report her concerns about the spiritual and emotional breakdown of her youngest daughter, 20-year-old Franny.  The story ‘Franny’ serves as a kind of prologue to this novella – it shows her argument with her cynical, poseur boyfriend Lane, and her existential distress.


Autumn in Central Park

Autumn in Central Park

Now she has come home to the shabby genteel Manhattan apartment where the Glass parents live, and has taken to the sofa with her scruffy cat Bloomberg, and sleeps and frets there like a latter-day Elizabeth Barrett, refusing to eat or do anything.  When Bessie urges Zooey to do something about his sister’s emotional collapse, he banters with and teases her, repeatedly ordering her to leave and afford him some privacy.  Bessie, like most of her children, is an eccentric, and accepts his breezy irony calmly, simply wondering how Zooey turned out so like his older brothers and they all lost their sweet innocence.

In the second part of the story Zooey has dressed and entered the living room to speak to Franny.  Their conversation is also lengthy.  He questions her motives for adopting the ‘ceaseless prayer’ mantra of the Pilgrim book (which I described in the previous post), upsetting her deeply.

He then retreats to the former bedroom of his older brothers; Seymour had committed suicide some years earlier, and his spirit haunts all of the surviving family.  Buddy has moved north and become a teacher (a foreword to the story written from his perspective suggests that he is the true ‘author’ of this story).  The story ends with Zooey tapping in to the spiritual wisdom of Seymour in order to get through to Franny.

The narrative fizzes with colloquial vigour, but the dominant voice, Buddy-Salinger’s, is literary and sophisticated.  The dialogue, as in ‘Franny’, is witty and animated, with carefully placed emphases to show up the speakers’ intonation and character – this is Bessie in full flow, complaining that her husband isn’t taking enough interest in Franny’s spiritual-emotional breakdown:

Right after the eleven o’clock news last night, what do you think he asks me?   If I think Franny might like a tangerine!  The child’s laying there by the hour crying her eyes out if you say boo to her, and mumbling heaven knows what to herself [that’ll be the Jesus Prayer], and your father wonders if maybe she’d like a tangerine.  I could’ve killed him.

Later, after another plaintive request from Zooey that she leave the bathroom and let him complete his ablutions in peace:

‘I wish you’d get married,’ Mrs Glass said, abruptly, wistfully.

Everyone in the Glass family – Zooey certainly not least – was familiar with this sort of nonsequitur from Mrs Glass.  It bloomed best, most sublimely, in the middle of an emotional flareup of just this kind.

Although the narrative teeters occasionally on the brink of tweeness or whimsy, as here, Salinger manages to infuse sufficient seriousness to hold it all together: Franny’s crisis is real, and despite his laconic sarcasm, Zooey’s love and concern for his little sister is palpable.  Similarly the mystic theme, as in ‘Franny’, because it’s treated by Zooey with such scepticism, doesn’t become intrusive or embarrassing.  This is Zooey who, like Franny, is having a bit of an existential crisis of his own; he hates the arty-creative TV types he has to mix with:

They’re as happy as pigs till I show up.  I feel like those dismal bastards Seymour’s beloved Chuang-tzu warned everybody against.  “Beware when the so-called sagely men come limping into sight.”’  He sat still, watching the snowflakes swirl.  ‘I could happily lie down and die sometimes,’ he said.

Ilya Repin (1844-1930), watercolour study of a pilgrim; in the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Ilya Repin (1844-1930), watercolour study of a pilgrim; in the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

He accuses Franny of indulging in an emotional ‘Camille routine’,  and is ironic about her love of Epictetus and Emily Dickinson; he’s also dubious about her commitment to the Jesus Prayer business:

‘But I still say I don’t like it.  It’s rough on Bessie, it’s rough on Les – and if you don’t know it yet, you’re beginning to give off a little stink of piousness.  God damn it, there isn’t any prayer in any religion in the world that justifies piousness.  I’m not saying you are pious – so just sit still – but I am saying all this hysteria business is unattractive as hell.

As an antidote to the plotless metafictions I’ve been reading lately Franny and Zooey works well; it’s slight, a little pretentious (all those quotations from Kafka and oriental mystics on the bedroom door of Seymour and Buddy’s old bedroom), but beautifully crafted, and a highly rewarding read.

All pictures from the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons