Judging a Book by its Quirk Words

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As much as speed-reading is in vogue, speed-learning unfamiliar words is still a rather less flaunted ability. Perhaps because it is harder to define.

Does learning a word mean acquainting yourself with its first meaning, with all its meanings, with its pronunciation, its origins, its examples and seeing its effect as you apply it in an appropriate setting? Learning has some degree of knowing as its goal. Can it be said that you know a word if, after having supposedly learned it, you have never again thought of it? (If your answer is yes, you haven’t ever attempted to learn a foreign language, and failed.)

Some words we get for free as we grow up; some we get for cheap by osmosis.

The setting often aids us: if I tell you of a milky-white small roundish object called X, and say it’s on a necklace, you might think it’s a type of pearl; if I say it’s on a plate, you might think it’s type of rice. But it could have been ivory in the first instance, and salt in the second. You can’t be sure, unless you’re sure of the word’s meaning.

Life is too short and language too multitudinous for us to know every word in every book we pick up. In fact, I am disappointed if I have failed to find a single interesting word in a text: unknown, referential, inventively used, made-up, altered—I am open to being surprised. Banal word-strings leave me with a sense of wasted time.

(In the strictest sense this can hardly occur, so I’ve set some minimum requirements for interesting words.)

In most cases, after having marked up my reading, I am left with numerous circled words which might merit investigation—and only a fraction of which will. That fraction is what I call the quirk words of a book.

Taken as a list, the quirk words can say a lot about a book: they cluster around the subject matter, they gravitate towards borrowings from the language in which the book was written (if not English), they’re dated to match the described era or the era in which the book was written.

This is not particularly surprising. A quirk list of a book varies from person to person, exhibiting the vocabulary deficiency of the reader with respect to that particular book. However, assuming we’re referring to fairly well-rounded readers, most of the words on each quirk list will be relatively rare in English overall (Frequency Bands 1–4 in the OED). These are the subject-related, the regional, the colloquial or the technical words—and each implies a specific application and context, narrowing down the kind of text it may be sensibly found in.

How about an example?

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Poetry of Hyphens: Exotic

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a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat

—E. E. Cummings

When I call my husband’s phrase a nonce-use, he thinks I said nonsense.

/nɒns juːs/ vs /ˈnɒns(ə)ns/

Try saying it quickly to someone who doesn’t expect it and you too are likely to get a blank look. Even the third time in three days.

Every word starts life as a neologism (a newly-coined expression). When a neologism is first uttered it is uttered for the nonce, meaning for a particular purpose or occasion. If it never gets uttered again that word becomes a nonce-word and its singular application a nonce-use.

Internet users—human and not—indulge in volumes of neologising, thereby making it less and less likely that any reasonable two-word combination is truly unique. But that doesn’t mean we’re liable to run out of options any time soon. And even if you’re not being entirely original, context nuances meaning.

In the other posts this week I’ve talked about binding two words together, either as a meld (without a gap) or as a compound (with a hyphen), to create a complex colour expression or a compressed, fresh description. The examples I quoted were meant to be interesting, but fairly reasonable and replicable in kind, if not in beauty and purpose. Now I quote the exotic.

By “exotic” I mean sufficiently interesting that taken as a title, I could write a whole short story based on it. Following each word, I offer the key phrases or sentences describing the ten-second flash-fiction that unspools in my mind.

Any commentary or association is not directly related to the original context but might be distantly affected by it, as I have read the three sources in their entirety.


 

Keri Hulme, The Bone People:
  • fartravelled saltsea ships: Horizon, armada, modern Simbad, oceanliners to the Moon. It turns out this is a newly unearthed painting by Rob Gonsalves. (Similar to the painting on the cover of the Masters of Deception.)

 

  • lovebent fingers: Lovers, mothers, age, fronds of plants, tree branches, lifetime cycle and reuniting with Nature.
  • mothmirth: A swarm of drunken drones, dancing, before being sent into battle. One returns from battle, but mothmirth requires at least two.
  • spiderchild: Silk-weaver born into poor family, spins fortune, climbs nearby cliffs, scene with poor moonlit mooncalf. Moral: a quick climb often leads to a long drop.
  • singing-tired and weeping-drunk people: Wedding of a child-bride to an alien as an alliance between worlds. We’ll find out in two hundred years whether it worked.

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Poetry of Hyphens: Elements

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I reserve a special internal exclamation of joy for words that I have never seen before, but I immediately understand and appreciate. These mostly fall under the heading of compound words or meld words tailored to a particular context.

(Other examples are words that I know in one language and then see for the first time ported into another language—they’re altered, but recognisable; and also word-puns that hit a sweet spot of meaning.)

In my previous post,  I discussed “new” colour descriptions coined by W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, and Keri Hulme, such as cloud-pale, blackred, seashaded, some of which are more, some of which are less far fetched. In the case of the senses (not only vision), it is fairly straightforward to write a recipe for creating sensible adjectives that a reader can enjoy without effort. It is even relatively easy to hone the craft: pick a colour and an animal nuancing that colour (e.g. elephant-grey), pick two colours (e.g. yellow-orange) and so on until you’re happy with your creation.

However, when it comes to more advanced meld-compounds—to coin a word which means either meld or compound word, or a combination, like Cummings’s watersmooth-silver—there are both more options to play with and fewer options that will work.

Take eyes. You can describe them with colours (greengrey), but suppose you want to go beyond that. Then you can also consider physical features (goggly, globular), emotions (gleeful, glamorous, goading), things and people (ghosts, gammoners, gemstones) etc. The options are endless. The price you pay is that the further afield you stretch, the harder it will be to find a reasonable pairing that will be worth the reader’s effort. Metaphors are nice, but they are taxing—this is why meld-compounds become more common and more complex the further you move along the spectrum from genre fiction to literary fiction to poetic prose to verse-novels to poetry.

This is why I picked my examples from poetic sources. (Elsewhere they are scarce and stale.)

As always, reading, reading, reading (of poetry), and tuning one’s inner ear, is probably the quickest way to accumulate ideas and experience that will allow you to hatch your own meld-compounds.

But … If I were to invent an exercise to help the process, this is what it would be:

  1. find examples you like,
  2. expand them into what you think they mean,
  3. write your own sentences of that form,
  4. compress your own sentences into meld-compounds resembling, but distinct from, your original example.

Let’s give it a go.

Four steps. I denote the transfer from one step to the next with an arrow. The first word in italics is taken from the author I’ve indicated; the last is my new meld-compound.

Simple:

  • Yeats: sea-covered stone -> a stone covered by sea -> a shell buried by sand -> sand-buried shell.
  • Cummings: balloonman -> a clown who has/sells balloons -> a clown who wears pantaloons -> pantaloonclown.
  • Hulme: moonshadow -> a shadow cast by the moon -> shade cast by the stars -> starshade.

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Poetry of Hyphens: Colours

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Approximately 90 posts and 90 books ago, in mid-April this year, I wrote about Keri Hulme’s The Bone People—the beautiful, unusual love story that won the Booker Prize for 1985. I titled the article Seabluegreen Eyes to mark my appreciation of her meld words, and, as it turns out, to mark a change in how I viewed English words.

Since then, I have become a hunter of creative and effective meld words (consisting of two or more words that have been merged, like seabluegreen) and compound words (consisting of two or more words joined by hyphens to create new nouns, adjectives, verbs, like Yeats’s red-rose-bordered hem). I seek out those neologisms that bring something genuinely new—beyond syntactic surprise—into a sentence or stanza.

Unsurprisingly, they’re seldom found.

Firstly, there is a modern tendency to avoid hyphenated hybrids: in 2007, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed hyphens from 16,000 words, either by splitting the words (ice-cream became ice cream) or by melding them (bumble bee became bumblebee). But those were old words. The University of Oxford Style Guide from 2014, for example, offers the following advice in general: To make a new compound noun – if it is a recognisable concept, make it one word; if it isn’t, use two words (e.g. it’s webpages not web-pages). I suppose the Guide would prefer to see Hulme’s seabluegreen just like that, rather than as sea-blue-green, but perhaps today it’d tell Yeats to write redrose-bordered hem?

Secondly, at around 200,000 words, some obsolete, some regional, some derivatives, English is fairly rich and nuanced by most standards. One may think, then, that the coining of an inventive compound or meld word—outside of novel applications in science, technology, and trends—is either a sign of a greedy mind unaware of a well-established equivalent, or of a greedy mind aware that none of the well-established equivalents will do. The former type of greed is almost guaranteed by the scarcity of the latter.

Except it isn’t.

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Chain of Reasoning

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This week has been about intention: first, where it starts and are we in control; then, once established, how it can employ paltering to achieve its goals. Today, I bring up the fundamental intention most of us have when we communicate: we want to make sense.

In particular, there is one figure of speech, anadiplosis, that can lend our arguments the forcefulness and validity of truth even when applied to unconnected elements.

Start from the beginning.

Making sense amounts to cogently conveying our arguments to another person. What it means to do so cogently and what is defined as an argument will depend on the situation: explaining why we’re late, discussing whether to purchase a car, or simply telling a story. Whichever the circumstances, our aim is rarely to garble and perplex.

On sentence level, our reasoning is often a long chain of phrases bound together by conjunctions, which, like the accordions of articulated buses, bend and groan under the strain of each turning—but hold. On paragraph level, we rely on unity of subject matter (traditionally a new subject requires a new paragraph), conventions of reasoning (specific to general statements, general statement and examples, logical argument etc), or all of the above formatted in an idiosyncratic, but fairly apparent “flow of thought”, such as bullet points in agendas, dialogue blocks in a book, action sequences, stanzas. Anything.

Occasionally, what we’re saying doesn’t contain any immediate or established sense, but we would like it to appear otherwise (for whatever reason, poetic or pernicious). This is when we can apply anadiplosis, a figure of speech where we begin a sentence with the final word, or any other significant word, from the preceding sentence.

Let’s see it do the job.

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Paltering in Literature

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When I talk about light pollution stopping us from seeing the stars, and you start talking about a Christmas tree ornament.

“You didn’t like working for Wilde?”
“I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination, General.”
“I always did myself, sir. I’m glad to hear it.”

—Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

The General asks a question; the detective responds with a truthful statement which may or may not answer the General’s question. It’s a shifting of focus with intent to mislead.

If you’ve ever listened to a political debate, you’ve heard it in action.

If you’ve ever listened to a sale’s pitch, you’ve heard it.

There’s little doubt you do it too, at least once a day.

It’s called paltering.


A recent BBC article titled The devious art of lying while telling the truth claims a new term has recently been coined for this misleading tactic of truth-speakNamely, paltering.

As it happens, the verb palter—meaning to shift, equivocate, or prevaricate in action or speech; to act or deal evasively, esp. for treacherous ends; to use trickery (OED)—dates from at least 1580. Also, except for the verb, the OED contains all the usual associated words: palterer (n.), paltering (n. & adj.), palterly (adv.). Hardly a new term, but that’s not the point.

The BBC article got me thinking about the role of paltering in fiction.

The rise and fall and rise of paltering (Google Ngram Viewer)

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The Edge of Intent

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I resolve to exercise more

Intent is the birthday present you will buy, the New Year’s resolution you will make, the vacation you will take in the summer of 2018. Intent is the brilliant child of the future, yet whenever something goes wrong—and it does so frequently—we point at the negation of our intent as the devil and the dark excuse of the far past: I hadn’t intended to hurt you, I hadn’t intended to be a bad person. No one intends to be a “bad person”.

In terms of type:

There’s grand intent—that requires thought, preparation, effort, time, and that is usually well-justified within our internal system of values.

There’s habitual intent—that requires only repeating circumstances and that once well-justified is rarely reexamined.

Then, there’s muddling through.

Habit is the mainstay of life, whilst grand intentions are rare (those well-thought out and actionable, even rarer). Which leaves muddling: these are the chance encounters, the unplanned stops, the out-of-stock labels on your favourite items; this is when you forgot a change of clothes or your wedding ring. Whenever Murphy’s law strikes, we muddle. Depending on what comes of it, we ruminate on what was intended—few people will admit to have been guided purely by circumstances, chance, or biology (unless they’re determinism diehards), but will instead claim step-by-step determination.

Unless it’s a crime.

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The Stories We Craft in Darkness

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Quote: Darkness promotes speech. Light is silent.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Blackouts before smartphones left people to entertain themselves without relying on sight. Night before electricity, too. Sure, we’ve had fire in some form for a million years, but as a communal means of subduing the elements, encouraged by need, not by fancy. In darkness, we talked to battle fear, to commune with the dead, to exchange information, and to tell stories. We talked to others, to ward off loneliness; failing that, we talked aloud to ourselves.

It’s only recently that we’ve found ways to communicate in silence, from darkened rooms, and at a distance, but even then we are reduced to two options: written word or spoken word. Only speech requires not a ray of light.

Vision is the sole sense we can extinguish at will, outside of sleep. But when the eyelids do come down, our consciousness doesn’t vanish, we continue to think, to be with ourselves, within ourselves. If anything, the temporary blindness cements us within the bastion of ourselves, drives us deeper, allows us to contemplate because our primary input source is unavailable to disturb or distract us.

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Books as Family

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Quote: According to Seneca, we can pick from any library whatever books we wish to call ours; each reader, he tells us, can invent his own past. He observed that the common assumption—that our parents are not of our choosing—is in fact untrue; we have the power to select our own ancestry.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Let us leave aside textbooks, technical manuals, picture books, and the grey area of “bad writing” (everyone defines it differently); what remains is a thickly-padded centre consisting of books, fiction and non-fiction, that adults read because they want to. Because there is something enticing about delving into another person’s explicitly printed (if opaque, mysterious, multifaceted) thoughts.

Such books are friends that console and regale, give hope and dispel loneliness, but, vitally, they also illuminate and edify. When it comes to fiction, Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story synthesises various authoritative sources that describe how story affects neurobiology; in essence, we crave fiction because it is a safe environment that equips us with mental tools we can use in real life. Our brains expertly convert a made-up narrative into a convincing environment, cast us as the relevant protagonists, and take us through our paces word by word.

Reading fiction is role-play.

Or, if you prefer Einsteinian terminology, reading is an immersive thought experiment. While we’re within the pages, the thinking is done for us; when we close the covers, we can either forget what we went through, or we can ruminate on the implications, extending the story, transposing it onto our own lives.

Non-fiction also transmits tales, which may be served up well-seasoned, savoury, steamy, but usually fail at inducing the sugar-rush of fiction. History is gripping because it happened—its lessons taste of iron; philosophy is mesmerising because it requires us to step through distorting mirrors to see ourselves more clearly—a paradox; books that cross-section subjects, like Manguel’s on Libraries or Ackermann’s on Senses, are magic because they reveal the intricate strings holding swathes of our reality together—they ask why.

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Books as Libraries

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Quote: No page is the first page; no page is the last.

— Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand

Traditionally libraries contained books; later they expanded to hold film and music; later still, computer files and programs. Metaphorically, they are repositories of vast knowledge.

How vast does vast have to be before we call a collection of items a library?

Any public or private institution that has densely populated bookstacks is unmistakably a library. A child’s shelf containing twenty-thirty books is that child’s library—small, but present. What of a physical handful that fits thumb-to-little-finger and the weight of which you can hold up in your palm? I suspect most people would say: no, that’s hardly a library. Surely, the answer should be: it depends.

Consider three moderately-sized books you could just about fit in your hand: a dictionary, an encyclopaedia, an atlas. Right there you’d have more facts than you could possibly learn, and more thought-seeds than you could possibly nurture in a lifetime. What if you added a single Joyce, a single Tolstoy, and a single Plato?

Library is a sliding term that involves defining a minimum of some quantity (word count, page count, size, weight, space, influence) that inevitably leaves out a certain immeasurable aspect of knowledge, because no matter how cunning your index of choice, what knowledge means is in itself a personal matter. A bit like intelligence, or wisdom, or savvy. Any test you set is couched in terms of perceived excellence versus failure—often societally defined, but privately disputed.

The finiteness of a personal library is both its greatest weakness (it biases its owner) and its greatest strength (that bias supports the uniqueness of its owner). Indeed, a writer’s creativity springs from the kinds of books they have around them, like flowers or trees from a particular patch of soil. One may wonder: what of the roots?

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Siloed in a Writer’s Library

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Every reader is also a writer, if writer is taken to mean author to mean originator of one’s own actions. Books, like people and circumstances, influence our actions; the more we tease out those influences and knead them into useful, applicable tools, the more we are aware of our partnership with the written word.

Quote: The rooms in which writers (that subspecies of readers) surround themselves with the materials they need for their work acquire an animal quality, like that of a den or a nest, holding the shape of their bodies and offering a container to their thoughts. Here the writer can make his own bed among the books, be as monogamous or polygamous a reader as he wishes, choose an approved classic or an ignored newcomer, leave arguments unfinished, start on any page opened by chance, spend the night reading out loud so as to hear his own voice read back to him, in Virgil’s famous words, under “the friendly silence of the soundless moon.”

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night.

A den may invoke a tight, dark, mystical space, dense with gases, metamorphosing thoughts, and halusogenic phantasmagoria, but it could also be spacious, light, littered with post-it notes and gewgaws and candy wrappers, or spotless with perfectly aligned rows of books like lines on a page ready for inscription. Whatever its physical manifestation, the library is both an extension of a writer’s identity and a container for it.

To unite these two seemingly clashing metaphors—extension and container—I prefer the idea of a silo from the top of which it is possible to see lands, seas, skies, as well as, communicated with other silos.

Few writers have a complete, perfect library. Better-personalised probably encompasses most desires for improvement (change in arrangement and content), but even if a snap of the fingers brought about an envisaged ideal, there remains the issue of finiteness: the library is of limited size.

This limit is one cause of reader’s angst. But we do have a choice of what to put in our library and that choice, every time it’s made, influences us.

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Reader’s Angst

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Quote: I have no feeling of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night,

The Library at Night is an “uneven” experience: a passing familiarity with the frequent citations is necessary, yet, if you possess such familiarity the connecting exposition sounds oddly bland and loose in places. It’s almost as if this were an expert draft ready to be tightened. Or as if the writing were deliberately left colloquial to “balance out” the  dense forest of references. What Manguel excels at, however, are the dashes of insight, like in the Quote—some of them developed, some less so—that he inserts between the obvious and the obscure in his chapters.

Perhaps calling the Quote an insight a misleading overstatement, for what he says sounds neither novel nor enlightening, but it does touch on a relevant, persistent gripe of many people: there’s never enough time to keep up with the to-read list. Whether feigned or genuine, hyped or deep-seated, I call it reader’s angst.

There are at least two types of reader’s angst: one plagues people who would like to read this or that, in an abstract, diet-and-fitness-goals sense (these are the casual readers); the other plagues people who would like to read an impossibly large number of books, in a concrete, obsessive, catalogue-and-notes sense (the compulsive readers).

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Bookscapes, Real and Imaginary

Around us may be windowless walls of brick and rebar, but give us a story and immediately an arc of the horizon appears. What if we had many stories?

Magnificent arrangements of books inspire awe in most bibliophiles. Awe—the feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature (OED)—really is the right word. Public libraries, bookshops, private collections, even a carefully positioned mess of tattered paperbacks on a stack of plastic shelves in a café: they are magical vistas of possibility.

By Diliff (Own work)

Library of Trinity College Dublin, by Diliff (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the grander the bookscape, the more likely it will overawe any visitor with sheer Olympian attitude, for where does one begin?

Occasionally, even if we were to just dip into a book, then into a another, and so on, it would take years before we wormed our pathetic way through all the covers. (For example, it would take approximately 35 years in the case of the library of Trinity College Dublin, if we were to spend a minute a book, eight hours a day, every day of the year.) The thought makes me go hot and cold and shaky—the potential knowledge, the tales, the imagination, the human ingenuity waiting within the pages, the Diderot-Deridda-Dostoevsky, and only a finite amount of time before my hands will no longer be able to reach beyond the inside walls of an ash-filled urn, let alone hold a book. The desperation!

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On Annotating Books

My annotations on a page from John Banville’s Birchwood.

 

To read, I need a book and a pencil.

I’d like to emphasis that the pencil is as much a conduit of information between book and mind, as are eyes and brain, and as much of a physical necessity, as is my ability to hold a book open or flip a page.

I produce the following anecdotal evidence:

If I sink into a sofa with a book, but without a pencil, I will exhibit all the symptoms of anxiety and discomfort—fidgeting, gazing about, scratching, gazing about, back-and-forth page-flipping because I can’t remember what I just read, and some more gazing about—until I finally get up and acquire that writing implement I’d been gazing about for.

It has to be a pencil (preferably a mechanical pencil so I don’t need to sharpen it), but no erasers are needed.

michal-grosicki https://unsplash.com/photos/refAFfV35Cw

Reading implements.

 

Underlining is much maligned; it’s generally useless, it’s for those who can’t think at the time of reading but leave it for later, it produces an appearance of engagement while actually reducing it.

All true.

That is why I mark up the text and take notes.

Marking up a text involves:

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Six Hundred and Twenty-Three

Avond (Evening): The Red Tree, by Piet Mondrian (1908-1910)—I preferred this painting to one of his lozenges.

 

I compiled a list. Take a moment to guess what these words have in common:

leaven, reticulum, neroli oil, raglan, syzygy, lozenge.

Don’t try too hard, it’s not obvious, other than I liked them, they’re nouns, and they sit in a file together with a few dozen others. That’s it. No deeper insight.

Doesn’t that leave you feeling unsatisfied?

Certainly that’s how I feel, when I’m given a selection off someone’s list, but there isn’t a clear designation of why these words even when they’re supposedly a purposeful sample.

It’s like being given a few answers from a survey, but not being told whether those answers are the best, the worst, the most frequent, the most obscure. In which case you might respond: fine just give me all the data from the survey, I’ll read it myself.

Satan in Paradise by Gustave Dore, illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost.

 

One chapter of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon presents a selection of words that John Milton (1608–1674) introduced into the English language. The chapter is written in Forsyth’s signature style—bantering, yet erudite—but at one point he simply lets a list speak for itself:

Milton adored inventing words. When he couldn’t find the right term he just made one up: impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental, and cooking. All Milton’s. When it came to inventive wording, Milton actually invented the word wording.

Fun! But what to make of the list? Is it ordered alphabetically? No. Are its elements the same parts of speech? No. Are the words related to an obvious subject? No. So what then?

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Humour Takes Dictionary

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Definitely not British weather: El Salvador one beautiful morning.

 

The biographies of words are almost as riveting, embarrassing, profane, and lewd as those of humans—just turn to Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon. The official book description is:

A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. 

I would add:

Or, what happens when Humour takes Dictionary to bed and lets a writer spy on them.

Beyond that, a summary or analysis of such a book ends up being a mishmash of paraphrases and inferior humour. Instead, while I was tidying my reading notes, I marked up a number of passages that could stand on their own.

A bit on British weather:

Do you know the difference between the clouds and the sky? If you do you’re lucky, because … our word sky comes from the Viking word cloud, but in England there’s simply no difference between the two concepts, and so the word changed its meaning because of the awful weather.

A primer on how to speak with grace of the lesser human urges (euphemism):

A polite, even beautiful, word for foods that make your bottom quack is carminative.

One that makes me wonder about the reading list of the Archbishop of Canterbury:

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Huh: Quirks and Perks

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Plain is a vice too

 

Forget figures of speech. Avoid them all. Speak cleanly, and commit no rhetorical crimes. What remains is aschematiston.

But that, too, is a vice.

Aschematiston comes from the Greek, meaning without form or figure, and technically it designates not only plain-speaking but also the inappropriate use of figurative speech.

In Trying to Be Cute, I discuss how one way to think about vices (the coin model), considers licit rhetoric to lie between the extremes: the ordinary and any of the various ornamented styles. Most of us know overwrought when we see it, but aschematiston is harder to spot. In particular, sometimes it’s not clear whether a literal interpretation is called for, or whether there’s a hidden metaphorical dimension after all. I termed this phenomenon the metaphorical itch. I often encounter it in surrealist literature, but it’s also present in contextually ambiguous situations.

The last batch of my Nature Magazine  headlines falls into this category. See what you think.

  1. Eating ourselves dry
  2. Economy in the toilet 
  3. Frozen fruit cake
  4. How to build a better dad
  5. How to suck like an octopus
  6. Winged wonder

My first reaction was: Huh. 

What are your guesses: which ones are literal, which metaphorical? What about their subjects? (My answers below.)

If you’ve stuck around on Quiver Quotes for the last three weeks, then you’ve seen approximately 80 headlines drawn from 40 issues of Nature.

That’ll do for a while.

I think it’s time to read on—past the title.

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Trying to Be Cute

jerome-prax https://unsplash.com/photos/jLZWzT_kdTI

Where virtues live, live vices.

Figures of speech are no less afflicted by this schism, although classifying them accordingly is as much a matter of taste, nuance, and circumstance, as any binary division of a continuous scale.

Following The vices of style by William Poole (Chapter 13 in Renaissance Figures of Speech), there are essentially two ways to approach this dichotomy:

  • Fine linguistic feats are opposed by abominations, but they are both just obverse sides of the same tool. (Idea drawn from Peacham’s observations.)
  • Virtuous rhetoric lies between the vicious extremes: plain language, on the one side, and various modes of excessive ornamentation, on the other. (Idea of Aristotelian mean.)

I call the first, the coin model; the second, the razor model.

Take the familiar notion of alliteration (starting consecutive or nearby words with the same consonant), which I develop in Ad Nauseam.

  • According to the coin model, alliteration can be both a good thing (it yokes ideas to words in mnemonics, it gives poems their glitter, it turns headlines into hooks, it makes names memorable, it lends a twist to prose), but it can also be a bad thing (it makes poems sound shallow, headlines puerile, names forced, prose juvenile).
  • According to the razor model, a gracious application of alliteration lies between the dullness of plain “tone-deaf” writing and the grossness of overuse (paroemion).

However, before you can talk about vices or virtues (using either model), you need to be able to classify the figures themselves. But surely, you say …

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Ad Nauseam

This week is about vicious word-choices. Up today: repetition.

hans-eiskonen https://unsplash.com/photos/clkYWlgOHIQ

Beautiful parrot pics are used to counterbalance any negative attitude towards parroting

 

Learning by rote has been banished to the domain of crafts, sports, and foreign-languages studies. Although, even there we first ask why? Certainly with unfamiliar words, we’re encouraged to memorise by association and etymological inference, to think about them before repeating, repeating, repeating.

Passive acceptance of knowledge is equated with boredom, unintelligence, accidie. Which won’t do: smart multitasking is the emblem of the successful twenty-first century man. (Heap scorn on the art of reverie and creative procrastination, which are best done while completing some innocuous action by rote.)

Also mechanised memorisation smacks of “robot”, and “robot” smacks of “subhuman”, or worse, of “brain washing”.

Perhaps I should I update my vocabulary: not paying attention to data intake is like opening up our brains to information from unverified sources and then making sure we remember every dubitable factoid by parroting it to others. (Once incorporated into a belief system, fake news ossifies to prejudice, and prejudice is a long-term affliction—just a hunch.)

tomas-sobek https://unsplash.com/photos/5EtinxYsE8w

Poor rote. 

It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adjective, and it’s gone down in the world. Even its origin seems unclear—most likely to do with roundness (rota) or repetitiveness (rotative), in both senses related to musical composition. Of all the early entries in the OED, I prefer the 1623 example taken from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (iii. ii. 56):

Now it lyes you on to speake to th’ people … with such words That are but roated in your Tongue.

It’s quite fitting that one should think of words as being roted (I almost wrote rooted) in one’s tongue, like second-nature reflexes—which is what speaking becomes in healthy adults. But it’s also a fitting quote because it pinpoints where tongue meets memory meets ear in the musical nexus of the language.

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Dissenting Voices: Quirks and Perks

 

A number of years ago I read a book called How to Read a Book (1940), by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It’s not some postmodernist meta-referential literature; it’s non-fiction that teaches the art of absorbing letters.

I was mocked for taking it seriously. (After all, what is there to reading?)

I persisted.

The book pointed out some useful techniques, of which one at least has become almost a reflex. I call it book pigeonholing. 

Quote: 

Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

Knowing what type of text you’re approaching determines your point of view. For example, reading a short fictional story versus a piece of investigative journalism changes your willingness to suspend disbelief and apply critical thinking.

Pigeonholing a piece of writing is usually done first by source: where did you find it, who wrote it, is it a trustworthy source, is it fiction, etc. Then by title and subtitle: as I’ve discussed these past two weeks in terms of non-fiction, the most successful titles are designed to resonate with the content (as well as “hook” the reader). Next come any prefaces or pictures or graphs or other information.

Ultimately, it’s all to do with expectation. The closer a reader’s initial expectation is to the actual experience, the higher the likelihood they’ll be satisfied. This is why blurbs or advertisements ought to be representative; and why we have the divisions into fiction and non-fiction, into literary and genre, into YA and adult; and why websites tell you the expected reading time of an article or the particular skill set or information you will glean.

So things have changed since 1940.

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The Flavour of Personhood

Sequence of a Fata Morgana of the Farallon Islands as seen from San Francisco. (Brocken Inaglory CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

To improve the taste of an insipid factual statement, baste in metaphor, bake with active verbs, and serve soused in piquant words. But be wary of overdoing it.

For example: There was a mirage on the horizon.

Could be changed to: Sun-drunk air shimmered in the offing.

Regardless of whether the edit is an improvement, it is a more complex piece of writing which triggers a more complex response. In particular, the reader recognises the sentence as not being literal because air cannot be drunk.

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Come again?

alexander-mils https://unsplash.com/photos/aiIANaSK9DQ

Neither humble pun, nor humble pie.

 

The humble pun.

What interests you more: its aesthetics or its taxonomy?

The internet seems to think that the issue of aesthetics cannot be settled: if you like puns, you like them; if you don’t, you don’t. But nothing is ever so clear-cut, and especially when it comes to newspaper headings where wordplay is almost an obligatory linguistic foreplay.

Out of context and as a congeries, the titular wordplay assumes melodramatic proportions. I have in mind a mordant self-critique taken from The Economist’s blog (Oct 28th 2010by G.L. | New York). Try not to cringe as you go down the list.

I note with chagrin that The Economist‘s series of awful puns in stories about the Chinese currency has reached epic proportions:
A yuan-sided argument
Yuan small step
Yuan up, yuan down
Tell me what you yuan, what you really, really yuan
It’s yuan or the other
Yuan step from the edge
Yuan-way bet
Yuan for the money

Yuan. A word made in punner’s heaven?

 

Perhaps you didn’t cringe, perhaps you enjoyed that. Either way, I won’t discuss taste—I’ll focus on the taxonomy. However, I will not do so with any degree of precision that a true linguist might appreciate. My method is a mental shortcut through the jungle of word-jokes.

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Mythology in Science

Laocoön and His Sons. Image by LivioAndronico (2014) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

LAOCOÖN, n. A famous piece of antique sculpture representing a priest of that name and his two sons in the folds of two enormous serpents. The skill and diligence with which the old man and lads support the serpents and keep them up to their work have been justly regarded as one of the noblest artistic illustrations of the mastery of human intelligence over brute inertia.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


This week we’ve seen literature, film, and music referenced, but how often do myths crop up in Nature Magazine?

For example, there’s a reference in An Achilles heel for kidney cancer, but Achilles heel is a recognised OED term and is no longer properly thought of as the Trojan hero who was dunked into the Styx while held by a heel.

I found no obvious mythological references in the general section. However, the specialised, cutting-edge research articles yielded some interesting terminology:

  • Argonaute proteins,
  • Asgard archaea,
  • and the volcanic Loki Patera on the moon Io.

As you know from posts like Playing Detective: Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane, I enjoy tracking down wellsprings. So here goes …


Argonaute proteins

The science: Argonaute proteins were observed in a plant that reminded researchers of an octopus called Argonauta argo, which itself had gotten the name from a (never-observed) method of propulsion along the surface of the sea that resembled a boat with sails.

The myth: Jason and the Argonauts were the Greek heroes of legend who went to steal the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts were named after the ship they sailed on, Argo (which makes Argonauta argo a pleonasm).

Argonauta argo by Comingio Merculiano (1896)

 

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Know Your Culture

rafael-miranda https://unsplash.com/photos/HRxkGGBn3eA

 

Culture, noun:
1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
3. The cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc. in an artificial medium containing nutrients.

Like in Titles: Literary Allusions, today’s post discusses the bridge between culture (meaning number 1) and culture (meaning number 3). Today, I focus on the titles from Nature magazine that are related to film and music.

But first: here’s what happened when a pun-detector was applied to a 2004 copy of The Economist (source).

SIR – Your newspaper this week contains headlines derived from the following film titles: “As Good As It Gets”, “Face-Off”, “From Russia With Love”, “The Man Who Planted Trees”, “Up Close and Personal” and “The Way of the Warrior”. Also employed are “The Iceman Cometh”, “Measure for Measure”, “The Tyger” and “War and Peace” – to say nothing of the old stalwart, “Howard’s Way”.
Is this a competition, or do your sub-editors need to get out more?
Tom Braithwaite, London

Actually, even further back, in 1986, a certain Richard J. Alexander published a paper entitled Article Headlines in “The Economist”. An analysis of puns, allusions and metaphors. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my efforts to analyse headlines were not that dissimilar from (if less rigorous than) those applied as recently as thirty years ago.


https://unsplash.com/photos/Hys5qHaDbZQ

Film

Title: Science, lies and video-taped experiments.

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Titles: Literary Allusions

← → The Librarian Giuseppe Arcimboldo

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1566)

 

Puns proliferate in titles. Allusions, alliteration, attention-grabbing sensationalism. Anything goes, so long as it attracts the reader to click on a link or peruse an article. Sometimes it’s cute, sometimes—and especially out of context and surrounded by ten other similar examples—it’s downright silly.

It sounds like a cunning ploy by the author or editor to market a text.

And it is.

Because it works.

The next few posts will focus on the fun behind the titles of Nature Magazine. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally compiled a list of my favourites from the past nine months of their weekly editions.

If you are not a scientist, do not be alarmed—a PhD in neurobiology or astrophysics is not required. In fact, today’s post highlights the opposite: if you are a scientist reading Nature, you have to be conversant in literature or else you might miss the resonance hook when scanning the contents page.

The listed titles come from the print editions, so sometimes do not correspond exactly to the linked articles.


I discuss the image on the cover in Symbols as Quotes

 

Title: Magnetism in flatland.

Reference: Edwin Abbot’s 1884 satirical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. It develops the idea of a two-dimensional society, Flatland, where women are lines and men are polygons. Regularity and multi-sidedness is praised (triangles are the lowest caste, near-circles the priests). The narrator is a square who dreams of both Lineland (a one-dimensional world) and Spaceland (a three-dimensional world). An intriguing read if you haven’t seen the idea before.

The Nature article is about condensed-matter physics and being able to study the phenomenon of ferromagnetism in a truly two-dimensional setting, that is, in “flatland”.

Verdict: Informative title; guessable without literary background, but helped with it.

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The Dinosaur: Quirks and Perks

andrea-reiman https://unsplash.com/photos/AEVAMhago-s

To hold a dinosaur descendant in the palm of your hand

 

In the 1950s, Hondouran writer Augusto Monterroso (1921–2003) produced an itsy-bitsy story called The Dinosaur. He could hardly have been the first to attempt radical brevity for the sake of memorable storytelling, but his seven words seem to have captured the world’s imagination. In the era of twitterature, his story might be fun to recall and—perhaps, possibly, at a stretch, in the fullness of time—to memorise.

The Dinosaur

When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

The Dinosaur is relatively well-known. However, there are two other (marginally longer) stories in Monterroso’s Complete Works and Other Stories, that aren’t cited as much, but that struck me as having deeper content per word printed.

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The Writer Who Never Writes

max-conrad https://unsplash.com/photos/H1rvxkzq8A0

If you want to write, you should write. Otherwise you might become one of those people who are brimming with ideas, while perennially on the verge of penning a story.

Oh, but the writer’s block!

Oh, but I’m not ready!

Oh, but …

I fear the verge more than I fear the blank page. However, I do acknowledge there is an inherent resistance present at the beginning of any project. The mind, like the body, prefers stasis. That is why getting started with an activity is often a challenge, but also why once on a roll it becomes easier to stay on a roll. 

When you’re writing a piece in a single sitting, getting yourself into that chair is harder than staying there. When you’re writing a larger body of work that requires many sittings, getting into that chair is hardest the first time, but still an achievement every other time.

The question is: what if you’ve been planning to write, planning and plotting and note-taking for days and weeks and even years, but it’s come to nothing because you haven’t thrown down that first word?

Augusto Monterroso wrote a short story exploring that situation. His thirty-four-year-old protagonist, Leopoldo, has been devoted to literature for half of his life, but seems unable to surmount that crucial first hurdle. In the Quote, Leopoldo is considering writing a story about the pecking order in corporate society.

Quote: He made a note that he needed to take notes, and he wrote in his notebook: “THE PECKING STORY. Visit two or three large department stores. Make observations, take notes. If possible, talk with a manager. Get into his psychology and compare it to a chicken’s.”

—from Leopoldo (His Labors), translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The psychology of a chicken. (Specificity.)

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Writing as Legacy: Quirks and Perks

Little boy writing a letter by Norman Rockwell (1920)

Why write? Answering with soul-scraping honesty may be too difficult, so instead here’s an alternative question from the end of Lukeman’s First Five Pages. It requires a simple yes or no.

Quote: Ask yourself what you would do if you knew you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes. And then, every word is a victory.

In the extreme: if you knew your work would never be read by anyone else—would you still write?

That strikes at the heart of writing as a communication medium between people, but it still leaves one reader that you have to sleep with every night: you. Perhaps writing in that case is an extension of the conscience (and consciousness).

Language is an inherently societal legacy that allows every literate person to feel a part of humanity, even if he or she leaves behind no traces for others. That said, I believe that every life has something to contribute to our common heritage. So next time you think your writing isn’t worth keeping, think again. History, too, is a qualified judge of relevance.

 

To Really Know a Word

Modern-day aspiring authors are advised against long words in convoluted punctuation-sausages filled with phrase upon clause upon fragment. Such constructions are said to be either obsolete or abstruse. And why bother when masters of the craft themselves rarely reach for such exotic linguistic contortions?

(Brevity is the soul of wit.

Occam’s razor.

Tweets.)

Taken at face value, that kind of advice is equivalent to suggesting you should make a good façade, without worrying whether your building is part of a Potemkin village, that is, whether there exists a building behind the front-facing wall.

Potemkin gave façades a bad name. (Painting by Dmitry Levitzky, c. 1797)

It’s the fake it till you make it method, which argues that eventually you’ll pick up the complicated stuff by osmosis.

But any serious piece of writing is cumulative: you can only fake it for so long. Sooner or later an audience member will move in a little closer and touch the brickwork with their pinkie. Which is when the glitzy scenery comes toppling down—paint, plywood, and authorial pride included.

So before making it the hard labour has to be done: the foundations dug, filled in, reinforced, all that goodly construction work that ensures the building can withstand the hurricanes of time and the hellfires of critics. In the case of the writer, that means grappling with (amongst other things) the basic blocks of language: words.

Hands up if you’d love to brush up on your vocabulary.

Hands up if you do brush up on your vocabulary regularly. Or ever.

(I’m not even going ask about learning foreign languages.)

Children imbibe new words; they’re unafraid to experiment with them, to practise their variations, to ask endless chainlinked why questions. The rest of us swallow new words like they’re thistles—it’s painful and digestion takes a while.

But that shouldn’t deter us.

jonathan-simcoe https://unsplash.com/photos/GxnyOLTxCr8

In Negative Writing Advice, I discuss Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages. His approach to telling writers what not to do works well, in part because he also includes some brilliant exercises and positive advice. He won me over with a tight, spot-on section on vocabulary.

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Negative Writing Advice

Advice comes in two flavours:

  • what to do (positive advice),
  • what not to do (negative advice).

Positive advice is like being shown Edgar Rubin’s vase

… and being told you should look for two faces.

Aha, a revelation! Your eyes have been opened; your problems have been fixed.

Negative advice is like being shown the same vase …

… and being told it’s not a vase. Then the interpretation is up to you.

Yes, I did flip the image; yes, I added some black, some white. I not only changed my perspective, I embellished it—according to my imagination.

Negative advice is far more open-ended and sometimes it’s the only kind you can give with a degree of certainty. In particular, here’s Noah Lukeman, in the opening of his book The First Five Pages.

Quote: There’re no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.  

Note, however, that avoiding poor writing is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for producing great writing. Indeed, like with my vase example above, even after you’ve been told what not to do, your literary venture—in all its newfound gloss and glory—may fall short of a masterpiece. Just because you’ve been shown which way lies artistic hell, doesn’t mean you’ve found a ladder to the heavenly abode of your muse.

(It occurs to me: eight of the Ten Commandments are of the negative form thou shalt not.)

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Describing the Ineffable

Ancient temple by Piranesi … nothing to fear here.

 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) was an Italian artist known for his etchings of Rome and a series of plates titled Carceri d’invenzione, or Imaginary Prisons. His Prisons are filled with high vaults, beams, machinery, and even a piece of impossible architecture à la M. C. Escher. (Bruno Ernst identifies it here; the link also provides a fun introduction into impossible geometry.)

 

Find the point of impossibility

 

 

With these pictures in mind, read the following Quote.

Quote: That night I couldn’t sleep. Toward sunrise I dreamed of an engraving in the style of Piranesi, one I’d never seen before or perhaps seen and forgotten—an engraving of a kind of labyrinth. It was a stone amphitheater with a border of cypresses but its walls stood taller than the tops of the trees. There were no doors or windows, but it was pierced by an infinite series of narrow vertical slits. I was using a magnifying glass to try to find the Minotaur. It was the monster of a monster; it looked less like a bull than like a buffalo, and its human body was lying on the ground. It seemed to be asleep, and dreaming—but dreaming of what, or of whom?

—Jorge Luis Borges, There are more things (Translation by Andrew Hurley)

A nightmare emerges. Where else to lock a Minotaur then in a Piranesi prison, to lend it an additional grotesque aspect?

 

Can you spot all the people walking up the stairs in the background? (click on the picture to enlarge)

 

In Symbols as Quotes, I discuss the various other references to people and places that  Borges weaves into his story. I saved Piranesi for last because of the strong visual effect his etchings could have on any interpretation of Borges’s story.

However, the magic of a story emerges not only from the elements that have been included, but also from how they have been linked. In There are more things, Borges’s goal is to create an atmosphere of ineffability: he is guiding us to imagine the unimaginable—a paradox. To achieve this he uses two strategies:

  1. figures of speech,
  2. extreme skewing of Freytag’s pyramid (or dramatic arc).

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Symbols as Quotes

 

Borges is a master forger of the complex connection. But it is only complex because the elements he brings together are sufficiently disparate that few people understand them immediately. As he himself says: In order truly to see a thing, one must first understand it.

Therefore, to truly see the complexity of his stories, you first must understand its elements, which often come in the form of proper nouns. With one word he quotes a whole body of work.

This is the most distilled form of testimony and of context creation. Borges is known for brevity.

Today’s post is symbol and sign-guide to Borges’s eight-page story There are more things from the collection The Book of Sand (1975). Think of it as a treasure hunt, where there’s no point claiming that you’ve followed the trail until you know what most of the the names mean. Some critics label this particular story’s climax as truly spine-chilling, only to accuse Borges of wasting words beforehand. But a climax makes no sense if there is no build-up, and a build-up only makes sense if you understand its symbols. And the symbols are truly

Well, judge for yourself.

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The World in the Mirror: Quirks and Perks

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_(mythology)

Narcissus by Caravaggio (1599)

 

Mirrors enlarge spaces, they double and reflect, and at night they reveal eerie shadows standing behind you. Mirrors achieve what paintings have been struggling to achieve since the discovery of perspective: their images are a planar phenomenon that revels in realistic depth.

There ought to be something more to the silvery surfaces than physics; they ought to be a gateway to another world.

Our imagination obliges.

Narcissus dies in love with his image, unable to reach it, unable to hold it—the cost of hubris.

Snow White imbues Mirror, Mirror with the power of taking an instantaneous beauty census and reporting it, but no cross-over occurs.

Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), however, goes all the way and sends Alice into the Looking-glass House. Moments before she steps through, she stands on the mantlepiece in front of the huge wall-mirror gazing inside:

You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.

A question indeed: is the World of the Mirror the same beyond the bits you can see? Which has a similar paradoxical feeling to it like, Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one around to hear it, or, What is the sound of one hand clapping? 

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The Unnatural Act

Reading is an unnatural act. Unlike the appreciation of aural and visual arts, reading requires conscious effort even before deep interpretations are sought. Children see, smell, touch, hear, and learn to speak, before they master the written word. It’s the hardest form of basic communication. Harder still if it courts the edge of the expected by riding upside down on the underbelly of unnatural beings while holding onto its senses by the seams of its straightjacket. Hardest of all, possibly, if it’s …

… surrealism.

Dali flashes before the mind. But, that’s not what I mean: the visual mind sees, then interprets or doesn’t. Reading surrealist literature, however, is an act of spike-studded iron will (and no little amount of curiosity for the quaint that you hope no one else ever finds out about).

Forget drinking from a firehose—firehoses gush at you, and it’s just water. Think instead: a fountain spouting body parts, balloons, beetles, bronze tables and acid blue jackets floating between the blessings and the bronchitis, and you roll up your trousers, step over the rim into this bizarre potpourri, get dragged down by something slithering in the water, but continue sitting in there with water up to your chin, collecting random floating objects and putting them together like legos—creating your very own Frankenstein. Occasionally you pluck up a memory or a scar. Occasionally you cut yourself.

Who said that exploring the unexplored within the safety of a book was good practice?

I’m not trying to be off-putting.

Actually, I am: if you’re not the kind to throw yourself into the aforementioned fountain out of curiosity (or spite, or kink, or whichever particular personal quirk), I would recommend fishing out only choice morsels and grappling with them on dry land.

You might discover you’re developing some odd tastes.

Today’s rather tame Quote comes from The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. She died in 2011 at the age of 94, and was one of the last surviving participants in the Surrealist movement of the 1930s. This is how she opens her short story called The Royal Summons. 

Quote: 

I had received a royal summons to pay a call on the sovereigns of my country.
The invitation was made of lace, framing embossed letters of gold. There were also roses and swallows.
I went to fetch my car, but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it.
“I did it to grow mushrooms,” he told me. “There’s no better way of growing mushrooms.”
“Brady,” I said to him, “You’re a complete idiot. You have ruined my car.”
So, since my car was indeed completely out of action, I was obliged to hire a horse and a cart.

(Translated from the French by Kathrine Talbot with Marina Warner)

According to the information you have, where is the car? Take a guess.

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The Softness of the Pillows: Quirks and Perks

https://unsplash.com/search/photos/cloud?photo=pgGnvJF7p20

Imaginary beings live on the thin strip of fancy between sobriety and nonsense—the one we all walk at least twice a day on most days, just before and just after sleep (the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states). To complete the previous two posts on imaginary beings, Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane and The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards, today I offer two quotes, from two very different authors, describing this creative threshold of consciousness.

The first is from Bruno Schulz’s short story Mr Charles, included in his collection The Street of Crocodiles (translated by Celina Wieniewska). He’s the only European I’ve come across who writes magical realism with a panache to match South American authors (I touch on this in Between Infinite and a Sneeze and Charged With Eternity). Note the richness of metaphor and simile.

Groping blindly in the darkness, he sank between the white mounds of cool feathers and slept as he fell, across the bed or with his head downward, pushing deep into the softness of the pillows, as if in sleep he wanted to drill through, to explore completely, that powerful massif of feather bedding rising out of the night. He fought in his sleep against the bed like a bather swimming against the current, he kneaded it and molded it with his body like an enormous bowl of dough, and woke up at dawn panting, covered in sweat, thrown up on the shores of that pile of bedding which he could not master in the nightly struggle. Half-landed from the depths of unconsciousness, he still hung on to the verge of night, grasping for breath, while the bedding grew around him, swelled and fermented—and again engulfed him in a mountain of heavy, whitish dough.

He slept thus until late morning, while the pillows arranged themselves into a larger flat plain on which his now quieter sleep would wander. On these white roads, he slowly returned to his senses, to daylight, to reality—and at last he opened his eyes as does a sleeping passenger when the train stops at a station.

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The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards

https://www.wikiart.org/en/maarten-de-vos/unicorn

Maarten de Vos, Unicorn, a familiar beast.

 

Of all the beasts in Jorge Luis Borge’s The Book of Imaginary Beings, I am most struck by those I do not understand. As understanding stems from familiarity—a fallacy and an illusion, but prevalent—I am left fascinated by those I cannot relate to. Or rather, by the ones that keep evading my grasp like Kafka’s godforsaken Odradek, a flat star-shaped spool for thread with a handle, mentioned last time in Playing Detective.

Borges’ book contains 120 entries detailing creatures born of mythology and literature. In his 1957 Preface, Borges chooses to mention the dragon.

Quote: We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster …

 

While reading his book, I noted that the most common feature seemed to be a relation to birds—about a fifth of the creatures has some capacity for feathered flight. Whether that makes them dragons or not, I’m not sure (I too am ignorant of the meaning of dragon), but if the chicken is the closest modern relative to the Tyrannosaurus rex, then perhaps we can assume birds and dragons hatch from similar eggs.

The two oddest imaginary birds are the Pinnacle Grouse and the Goofus bird found under the heading of Fauna of the United States. The Goofus bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been. I get queasy looking backwards when riding the bus, so I’d say that lifestyle takes a sturdy gizzard. Based on this scant information, I speculate that the Goofus bird would be a good pet for anyone in the sect Laudatores Temporis Acti, comprising those who worship the past—to them the past is absolute: it never had a present, nor can it be remembered or even guessed at. On second thought, according to them, the Goofus bird shouldn’t exist.

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Playing Detective: Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane

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Why?

That one question gives life meaning. How, who, where, when, all lend solidity to our world, but the intangible web of causality tickles our imagination like nothing else. Asking why means staring into a chasm of chaos and glimpsing sense—the intellectual equivalent of climbing into the jaws of a shark, looking around, and coming out with a souvenir. It’s exhilarating.

Why is also the reason everyone likes playing detective occasionally.

Me included.

Today, I’m investigating The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (co-written with Margarita Guerrero), an encyclopedic account of a most eccentric menagerie. It contains familiar names such as Centaur and Cerberus, Norns and Nymphs, Salamander and Satyrs, amongst a whole plethora of unfamiliar ones. The starting point of my investigation is the opening of the Preface to the 1967 Edition.

Quote:
The title of this book would justify the inclusion of Prince Hamlet, of the point, of the line, of the surface, of n-dimensional hyperplanes and hyper volumes, of all generic terms, and perhaps of each one of us and of the godhead. In brief, the sum of all things—the universe.
(Translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with Borges)

My question: Why did Borges chose to include in his book Harpies, but not Hamlet, Fauna of Mirrors but not the symmetries of surface friezes, Animals in the Form of Spheres but not the n-sphere …? I suppose that including all generic terms, each of us, and the godhead, would require an infinite book like the The Book of Sand, Borges invented in his eponymous story published in 1975—over a decade after the Quote. In fact, given the Quote, The Book of Sand could be said to begin with an almost familiar sentence:

Lines consist of an infinite number of points; planes an infinite number of lines; volumes an infinite number of planes, hypervolumes an infinite number of volumes…

A gander at Borges’s original work reveals he had other ways of addressing mathematical issues, so perhaps we can assume he simply left that for “later”.

Which leaves the question of why not Hamlet.

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Three Words: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: Perfection is round.
—Anne Carson, Red Doc>

Perfection is simplicity: As of 3rd September, the Quote throws up six results on Google, all of which are Carson’s citations. In today’s age that translates to: she said it first.

Three words, two ordinary nouns and the most frequent verb of the English language in its most frequent form. And it’s not nonsense.

Let’s start with the verb.

Even though “to be” is often used to equate and identify, simple sentences centring around it are not obviously semantically symmetric: round is perfection, means something else. Think: the circle, the sphere, the sun—often taken as symbols of the ideal, the perfect, the godly. In both the Quote and in round is perfection, the subject complement states a property of the subject. Indeed, perfection and round are—as Carson says of two utterly different things—parts of each other / although not parts of a / whole.

Therefore, is is a simple verb that can denote mutual inclusion without denoting equivalence.

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All Those Times

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Time is a lot of things. It’s precious, it’s money, it’s irreversible. It measures change and is defined by change. And, as I was proud of deducing early on (when I still thought of the world as consisting of either-or pieces), time is easy to measure: you’ve got an eternity ahead of you, until you have not a moment more.

Now here’s how Anne Carson thinks about Time at the beginning of a chapter in her verse-novel Red Doc> (I discuss the book’s unusual structure in my previous post, The Not-So-Mild Hallucinations of a Musk-Ox).

Quote:
Time passes time
does not pass. Time all
but passes. Time usually
passes. Time passing and
gazing. Time has no gaze.

Sense or senseless? Let’s see, Time by Time in the Quote:

  • The first is a paradox. (Time is elusive)
  • The second is a quibble, a bridge between the two extremes, as is the third. (Time is finicky)
  • The fourth introduces a new theme of gazing, as we’d gaze from a car in passing. (Time is aloof)
  • The fifth denies the gaze. (Time is blind to our differences)

But that’s just the beginning. This chapter is fifty-one lines long, and she goes on to give another twenty-four instances of Time, most of which follow this pattern of starting a sentence with the same word—an example of the figure of speech called anaphora.

What makes the chapter special beyond the hammering of a repetitive element, however, is how Carson employs examples of Time to describe other human afflictions.

I’ve chosen to showcase some of her best ones (I quote her lines verbatim in italics, but I’ve left out the formatting). My interpretation is in square brackets.

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The Not-So-Mild Hallucinations of a Musk-Ox

Juno, Jupiter and Io by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1672).

 

Io is a golden-eyed, white-haired, much-beloved musk-ox of Anne Carson’s protagonist, G, in her 2013 verse-novel Red Doc>.

How to unpack such a sentence? Try.

If you had a slightly vertiginous, confusing, yet ultimately not unsatisfactory experience figuring out three compound adjectives and two compound nouns, as well as, that Anne Carson is a poet, G is the name of (presumably) a person, Io is the name of a musk-ox, and that an angle bracket at the end of a book title is not an impossible concept … Excellent! You now have an inkling what it’s like to read Carson’s verse in general.

Of course, she does it better, and for longer, and without resorting to hyphens at every turn to compactify her images.

Quote: 
Blood still
buzzing with gorse she
does not hesitate to
believe that a masterpiece
like herself can fly.
Should fly. Does fly.

She in the Quote is Io the musk-ox.

I already wrote about Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998), which is also a verse-novel, albeit of different appearance and feel. It follows the childhood and early years of Geryon, a boy with red wings; it is written in free verse, alternating visually between long and short lines on the page, and it reads like a dense, lyrical, unconventional novel—like a novelisation of poetry.

Red Doc>, published fifteen years later, returns to follow a middle-aged Geryon, now referred to as G. It’s a connected sequence of free verse poems contained within two-inch columns, justified on both sides, and it unfurls down the middle of the page like the chatters marks of a glacier or like the clusters of aa lava.

Speaking of which: glaciers and lava, flying red-winged monsters and oxen, love and army, hospitals and Ancient Greece—expect to find them all within the pages of Red Doc>. Bizarre can be beautiful, and meaningful. Carson ensures it.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Intoxicated flying oxen.

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Inspired by the Ordinary: Quirks and Perks

 

Everyone likes a good myth. The Metamorphoses by Ovid comprises a couple hundred. Being a narrative poem from around 8 AD, it’s not exactly all the rage nowadays, but its influences have trickled down through much of Western literature.

In particular, I grew up on a children’s version of Gustav Schwab’s Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece, and I still fondly recall wondering what one would do with a golden fleece or how the cattle in the Augean stables could live in such filth. Recently, I decided to investigate some of the older sources like Homer, Sophocles, and Ovid.

The Greek and Roman mythologies are closely related, but translating between them requires a basic dictionary of terms. For example, Jove (or Jupiter) is Zeus, Juno is Hera, Mars is Ares, Minerva is Athena, and so on. It’s interesting how the names conflate in your mind, and yet they never quite do.

Today’s Quote is from the beginning of the The Metamorphoses describing the formation of the world (taken from Mandelbaum’s translation).

Quote:    
He ordered fog and clouds to gather there—
in air—and thunder, which would terrify
the human mind; there, too, the god assigned
the winds that, from colliding clouds, breed lightning.
(Lines 54–57)

Nothing special about it? Perhaps, not, but even ordinary quotes can inspire fiction. Here’s a short story I wrote to illustrate the point (1250 words).

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How to Survive a Tough Book

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Some books aren’t as inviting as others

 

A tough book is a maze, a mire, a minefield. Ten minutes into it, you’re either groaning or yawning, or—like me, when reading Knut Hamsun’s Hunger—you’re in the first stages of a literary delirium. The headache is an indication that you should stop; the disbelief at what you’re reading keeps you going. You throw the book aside saying, End this torture!, only to pick it up again asking, But where can this possibly end?

The nameless protagonist, let’s call him the starving artist (for the notion could have been named after him), is in a delirium himself—he is deteriorating before the reader’s very eyes. His hair falls out, sores open up, erratic behaviour and twisted thoughts beset him. Poverty shackles him; pride puts him on the rack; vanity shields him from admitting the truth of his situation the way an iron maiden shields you from the outside world.

And Hunger is killing him.

As I wrote in From the Witch’s Point of View, a first person narrative is biased and brutal.

Quote: I tore a pocket out of my coat and took to chewing it; not with any defined object, but with dour mien and unseeing eyes, staring straight into space. (George Egerton’s translation from the Norwegian.)

After that, what else is there to say?

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White and Black

 

Let’s talk about chess.

Sixty-four squares, half white, half black; thirty-two pieces, half white, half black; two players, half playing as white, half playing as black.

Of course, Stefan Zweig put it better in his novella Chess (translation from the German by Anthea Bell), often also titled The Royal Game in English.

Quote: Is [chess] not also a science and an art, hovering between those categories as Muhammad’s coffin hovered between heaven and earth, a unique link between pairs of opposites: ancient yet eternally new; mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by the imagination; limited to a geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; constantly developing, yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere; mathematics calculating nothing; art without works of art; architecture without substance – but nonetheless shown to be more durable in its entity and existence than all books and works of art; the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, although no one knows what god brought it down to earth to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind.

That’s a single sweeping sentence, so richly deep, that you could dive into it repeatedly and come up each time with a new pearl.

What makes the Quote (and the whole novella) quiver?

Dichotomy and duality.

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Book Sequences: Quirks and Perks

Paul Signac used sequences of brushstrokes to create meaning in Place des Lices.

 

Quote: Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.

  • I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
  • I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.

In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.

I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.

She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.

So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.

Which brings us to books.

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Between Infinity and a Sneeze

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The stars we see when we sneeze

Infatuation has been described so many times, you’d think triteness was its middle name. And yet Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández digs fresh channels down which to guide the imagination. The Quote is from the short story The New House, from his book Lands of Memory.

Quote: … she even allowed herself to lower her eyelids. I told my poet friend that when she had her eyes like that her stance was somewhere between infinity and a sneeze.

Felisberto Hernández (1902–1964) was a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing in cafés and cinemas and wealthy private homes, until he finally dedicated himself to writing full-time in his later years. His blend of dream, reality, memory, and magic was a potent influence on many of the Latin American greats, including Márquez and Cortázar.

To my mind, Hernández’s stories have a distinct, viscous consistency—imagine if air were like water, hard to walk through, easy to float in—lacking in the Latin American magical realism that came after him. Maybe lacking is the wrong word: distilled is better.

But, like other Latin American authors, Hernández’s writing radiates heat. Not Californian heat, not African or Asian heat, not even Mediterranean heat. It’s specific and maybe, in some convoluted way, connected to his vision of how magic permeates the ordinary.

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The magic beyond the ordinary

The closest to Hernández in the blending of the worldly with the otherworldly comes his contemporary, Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), a Polish-Jewish writer. The viscosity is there, as is a dank European chill.

But let’s leave my literary proprio- and thermoreceptors aside; they bear only limited scrutiny before starting to take false readings.

To get this post back on track, here is another quote from the same short story, about the same woman.

She talked continually and this was fine with me since it concealed the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I was trying to detach her from her words, like someone extracting a sweet from infinite layers of cardboard, paper, string, frills and other nuisances.

What makes the (first) Quote quiver?

The scale that contains both a sneeze and infinity.

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From the Witch’s Point of View

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A candle is a rectangle when seen from the side, a circle when seen from above (or below), and a pinprick of light when seen in the dark.

Stories, like candles, depend on our point of view. Let me sketch a comparatively tame example. Setting: student A taking oral exam in history with Professor B.

Point of view A: Did I hear him right? I’m shaking, shambling through the narrative, yup, aaaand said that name wrong, I’ve got sweat patches on my white shirt, I should have worn dark. The professor, he keeps piercing me with that look telling me I’m going to fail, and now he’s writing something down, probably the year I just got wrong, and the battle I just misplaced, he’s counting my mistakes, disaster, disaster, disaster.

Point of view B: Aha, correct, fine, right, God this is boring, why does she keep playing with that earring, she’s already got droopy ears, now she’s tapping her foot, chewing gum between questions, and she just checked the time on her phone, again. I’m as bored as her, I gave her maximal marks the moment she opened her mouth because we both know she’s learned the book by heart, but there’s the protocol, I have to ask another question after this, tralala, let me doodle a Snoopy for a while to pass the time.

Who’s right?

A first person narrative is an intimate experience, the closest to living someone else’s life, but it suffers from the same limitations as living your own life: it’s a blinkered perspective, prone to bias. There is no right or wrong.

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Different view, different perspective. Different perspective, different view.

 

The inability to see beyond ourselves to the “objective reality” can lead to a severe disparity of viewpoints. This is the so-called Rashomon effect, named after Rashomon, a film by Kurosawa from the 1950-s, where murder witnesses give contradictory statements.

Unsurprisingly, conflicts are rooted in the Rashomon effect—as are most good novels.

In mainstream fiction, truth and thoughts are fickle, highly sought-after commodities that are usually hidden by the conniving author. Indeed, most misunderstandings have to be inferred by the reader or by the characters, and only occasionally is the book’s “objective reality” made explicit in a Watson-Holmes type of interaction.

But wait, objective reality is boring; don’t you wonder what it’s like to be someone else?

Whilst in real life you can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or see the world through their eyes, in a book, however, you can. Remember Grimm’s Snow White? Young beautiful girl put by evil stepmother into comatose state after swallowing poisonous apple until rescued by prince? The stepmother (I’ll call her Queen) is so evil she orders a huntsman to murder the stepdaughter (I’ll call her Princess) and bring back her heart or lungs or liver, depending on which version you read, to be eaten by the Queen.

That was so 19th century.

Steps in Neil Gaiman with Snow, Glass, Apples in 1994. His short story is a retelling of Snow White—it keeps all the well-known elements of the fairy tale —but it’s written in the ultimately biased viewpoint: in first person, from the Queen’s perspective. (Far from the omniscient narrator of fairy tales.)

Quote: And some say (but it is her lie, not mine) that I was given the heart, and that I ate it. Lies and half-truths fall like snow, covering the things that I remember, the things I saw. A landscape, unrecognisable after a snowfall; that is what she has made of my life.

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Chronicles of the Time: Short Announcement

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Quote: Do you hear, let them be well used, for they are the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time.

—Shakespeare (Hamlet 2.2.514)

This is Hamlet telling Polonius to take good care of a theatre troupe, because the acts they put on reflect and summarise the times for posterity. That was then, around the year 1600. Modern, smaller-scale chroniclers of the times (and hardly so well-regarded) are blogs. Like plays, blogs can suffer from technical difficulties, but they push on with the show and hope the audience doesn’t notice. Occasionally, the audience might notice, and the show is offered again, under better circumstances and after a brief delay.

As you may have guessed, this applies to Quiver Quotes.

In the past fortnight, I’ve had a few issues with the WordPress hosting on my blog. Some of my posts didn’t reach their readers; some readers had difficulty finding the pages or interacting with them. To fix this, WordPress rolled back my site to how it was before the problems started (which means that all the changes and posts I have made since have disappeared). As such, over the next week and a half I will be reposting four or five of the essays that encountered the biggest problems, possibly with a few small changes.

Those of you who follow me through the WordPress Reader may notice some dregs & detritus left over from the clean-up process. This too is being looked into. Please comment below if you’re having difficulties with this post or with the site.

Thank you for your patience!

To Quote: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: During the student revolts that shook the world in the late 1960s, one of the slogans shouted at the lecturers at the University of Heidelberg was Hier wird nicht zitiert!, “No quoting here!” The students were demanding original thought; they were forgetting that to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present. To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

The Quote illustrates part of the reason I chose to blog about quotes. As Alberto Manguel says, to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.

Context determines meaning; without it we are doomed.

She stomped down hard and everyone applauded means one thing if she stomped as part of a flamenco dance, another if she stomped on a snail, yet another if she stomped on the fingers of her opponent in a fight to the death.

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Allegory meets Tolkien’s fox

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Tailoring voices

 

To illustrate a point you can relate an anecdote (it happened to me) or quote from a source (it happened to others, elsewhere, possibly in a book)—that’s called using testimony as a form of argument. But what if you need something tailor-made for the occasion of your argument? Well, then you fire-up your imagination and your Singer model 2.E (E for English) and fabricate your own testimony.

Yes, you call upon a fictional person, or indeed, you personify whomever you need—that’s the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia.

As I hinted in my previous post on Tolkien’s fox, prosopopoeia isn’t limited to fictional characters, on the contrary, it can come to your aid in everyday conversation (If he were here he’d tell you [insert convenient pseudo-quote]), and even more so in carefully-crafted arguments.

To get to a few interesting examples, let’s take a scenic route from Tolkien’s (fox in) Lord of the Rings to Tolkien’s speech on Beowulf.

Before he became the celebrated author behind the modern Lord of the Rings franchise, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) was a philologist with a penchant for developing imaginary languages. Indeed, he says in his 1951 letter to Milton Waldman how “I have been at it since I could write” and how “behind my stories is now a nexus of languages”. That storytelling, nay, world-building can spring from such a low-level linguistic basis—language first, world later—fascinates me.

But perhaps it shouldn’t: in a lot of ways it’s one of the most logical places to start if you want a complex world which is self-consistent and complete. Because, ultimately, world-building is about cohesion on a grand scale.

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Tolkien’s Fox

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Humans are anthropocentric. By extension, so are our creative efforts, like writing.

I use anthropocentric to mean caring about what happens to man or man-like presence, fictive or real, more than caring about anything else. It’s the reason why personification in writing—a figure by which an animal or inanimate object or idea is given human characteristics—is such a powerful imagination catalyst. Take the following three sentence:

  • The car was enclosed in fog.
  • Two rosebuds were bent towards each other on the terrace.
  • An armchair was tilted backwards.

Boring? Now take the way three authors decided to “bring them to life” using various degrees of personification (from weakest to strongest):

Carson gives fog a fist, White turns rosebuds into courtiers, Banville imbues the armchair with nuanced human feelings. The next step up would be a full-blown image, for example, Death as a scythe-wielding skeleton. But each of these is a mere eidolon, a spectre of personification, a teaser that enlivens the writing but stays safely in the realm of the non-human. To elevate an eidolon you need to give it the one thing that defines us: you need to make it speak like a human.

Just think:

  • “Ha, ha, ha I’ve got the car in my fist,” said the fog.
  • “My Lord,” said the rosebud, bowing. “My Lady,” said the other, bowing back.
  • “Wow,” thought the armchair, “humans, long time no see. I shouldn’t have passed wind just now. Whoops.”

The difference is vast.

Uttering or thinking what we perceive as human speech means passing the literary Turing test of personification. The thing that is being made to speak isn’t necessarily human, not even fictionally so, but it’s so darn close you’d take it with you to a deserted island and consider it company.

Which brings us to Tolkien’s fox.

Here is J. R. R. Tolkien, in The Fellowship of the Ring (the first book of the Lord of Rings trilogy), using his power as a third-person omniscient narrator to saunter into the head of a fox. For those unfamiliar with his world: short, human-like beings called hobbits live in a woody, hilly green-grasses-of-England type of place called the Shire; Frodo and his friends are hobbits.

Quote: They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.

‘Hobbits!’ He thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it. 

And that’s it: no more mention of the fox. So why bother?

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Translation: Quirks and Perks

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Translate this

Quote: 

All novels are translations, even in their original languages.

— Michael Cunningham, Introduction to Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

Therefore, if you write, you translate. How’s that for being fluent in a foreign language without ever opening a dictionary?

What Cunningham means is that most of the problems that translators face were faced by the authors themselves.

Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers’ minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few.

This week was marked by two posts on synonymia, Synonyms to Spare and One Word is Not Enough, so it’s unsurprising that I’m primed to consider lists and how conceptually distinct their content really is. What did you think of: confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot? Are devotions the same as fixations in this context? Is a confusion of images the same as some vague sort of plot?

For me the answer is yes in both cases: devotions are fixations in writing because I don’t do things by halves; and I draw a vague sort of plot from a confusion of images and a vague sort of plot is what I’d call a confusion of images.

You probably disagree, and that’s alright.

Equivalence of meaning sits at the heart of synonymia: no two different word fragments are interpreted identically across all writers and readers, across all time. People may be more flexible or more pedantic, but what will be called a creative, meaningful variation in one instance, is likely to be considered redundant repetition in another.

Equivalence of meaning also sits at the heart of translation. The novels in writers’ minds may or may not be synonymous with the novels on the shelves; two official translations of a novel into another language may or may not be synonymous with the original novel, or with each other, depending on who’s reading and to what end. But the mere existence of novels (as translations from thought-speak to human-speak) and of their translations in the standard sense (from one human-speak to another) proves that we believe equivalence of meaning is worth seeking out. Even if what we find is only a good approximation.

Approximations are all we have time for in this life.

One Word Is Not Enough

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Where the Gods live

Latibule, Pierian spring, ideate, kalon, afflatus.

Let me try to explain what these words have in common.

So far on this blog I’ve discussed quotes from two books about fictional murderers awaiting justice, Albert Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger (1942) and John Banville’s Montgomery in The Book of Evidence (1989). Today’s Quote is from a third: Ernesto Sábato’s The Tunnel (1948, translation from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden). His protagonist is Juan Pablo Castel, a successful painter. A woman visits Castel’s exhibition and is drawn to one of his paintings; he, in turn, becomes obsessed with her. Disaster ensues.

Quote: I returned home with a feeling of absolute loneliness.
Usually that feeling of being alone in the world is accompanied by a condescending sense of superiority. I scorn all humankind; people around me seem vile, sordid, stupid, greedy, gross, niggardly. I do not fear solitude; it is almost Olympian.

What makes the Quote quiver?

A single word, backed by a list of synonyms.

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Synonyms to Spare

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When you’re feeling ill, are you indisposed or infirm? What about lousy, queasy, or woozy? Or are you just a hypochondriac who prefers the word valetudinarian (because it sounds a lot like valedictorian and valerian)?

It matters.

A thesaurus may serve up a whole heap of “synonyms”, words that may be interchangeable in some contexts, but even in off-the-cuff speech you can rarely apply one at random—and if you do, you’re risking rosy cheeks, unintended humour, and hasty corrections.

Luckily, our minds do not work with machine-like precision: only a few more-or-less apt words will present themselves in any given situation. To recall the rest, we have to make a conscious effort, as the writers amongst us do.

But there’s more to synonyms than word-for-word considerations; what about phrase-for-phrase, description-for-description?

The Sun is the golden disk in the sky, the centre of a heliocentric worldview, the star closest to Earth, the giver of light and life, it is the Greek Helios, the Egyptian Ra, it is Romeo’s Juliet,  …  A fun exercise, you might say, but in the end you always need to chose le mot juste.1

Actually, no. Sometimes you can just pile on the synonyms. Here’s Thomas Mann writing about his protagonist Aschenbach in Death in Venice (translation by Michael Henry Heim). How many synonymous descriptions can you count?

Quote:  There he sat, the master, the eminently dignified artist, the author of “A Wretched Figure,” who had rejected bohemian excess and the murky depths in a form of exemplary purity, who had renounced all sympathy for the abyss and reprehended the reprehensible, climbed the heights, and, having transcended his erudition and outgrown all irony, accepted the obligations that come with mass approbation, a man whose fame was official, whose name had been made noble, and whose style schoolboys were exhorted to emulate—there he sat, his eyes closed, with only an occasional, rapidly disappearing sidelong glance, scornful and sheepish, slipping out from under them and a few isolated words issuing from his slack, cosmetically embellished lips, the result of the curious dream logic of his half-slumbering brain.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Gravity of description.

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I Shied Away From the Lyrical: Quirks and Perks

hugo-kemmel https://unsplash.com/search/night-sky?photo=oY9coVnhJL0

Quote: A bright star quivered in the sky; another star trembled closer by. The sky was night blue, with strands of day, with threads of day, feminine, seamstressy. The scissors of wind sounded as in a barbershop, and it was difficult to know if one’s own hair or the Chinese silk of the sky was being cut.

— Martín Adán, The Cardboard House (translation by Katherine Silver).

Growing up I shied away from the lyrical. I feared I would not “understand it”, or that “understanding it” was a matter of special education, verbal intelligence, and practiced sensibility. I took long enough to convince myself otherwise. So now I hope to convince others who share even a fraction of this misguided opinion to abandon it forthwith.

Ironically, my conviction stemmed from my own inclination to turn every school assignment into a string of poetic allusions; most of my classmates said they enjoyed my writing, but didn’t understand it. The teachers assigned me top marks for effort and “aether-ic effect” (am I misremembering, was it esoteric?), and asked that next time I write about a concrete event. But my essays were already about concrete events, only those that happened within me!

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Life Without Parenthesis …

… would be impossible.

ricardo-gomez-angel https://unsplash.com/search/blue-sky?photo=jNm43zrIN0Q

Dome of flawless blue

 

Day-to-day dialogue would be unhelpful and dull without parenthetical asides, mid-sentence descriptions, reminders, questions, interjections. Written language would lose commas, dashes, and round brackets. Indeed, the news, already written to be as straightforward and stylistically unadorned as possible, would convey only half of the information, and only to the already informed reader. For example, as I am composing this post, the front page sports article of the BBC is about Venus Williams competing at Wimbledon, and the first time a comma appears in the article it signals a parenthetical insertion (italics are mine).

The American, 37, will overtake sister Serena’s record – set when she was 35 at the Australian Open in January – by winning her sixth SW19 title.

Imagine that those two italicised fragments were missing. The first, telling us Venus’s age, is crucial to the article’s lead sentence: Venus Williams could become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era; the second, answers a natural question that arises while reading about Serena’s record, namely, what is the record? (Added Saturday afternoon: Sorry, Venus!)

The language of literature, though, would suffer even further without parentheses. Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence (introduced in my previous post, The Woman and the Painter). The Irish protagonist reflects on life in America; the we refers to him and two of his Irish girlfriends.

Quote: Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia, of homesickness, even? Living there, amid those gentle, paintbox colours, under that dome of flawless blue, was like living in another world, a place out of a story-book. (I used to dream of rain — real, daylong, Irish rain — as if it were something I had been told about but had never seen.) Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It’s true, at times it crossed our minds, or it crossed my mind, at least, that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves.

That is 99 words, of which 54 are parenthetical.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Rich prose: lyrical, colloquial, intimate.

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The Woman and the Painter

Who is she?

Quote: The squalor is what strikes her first of all. Dirt and daubs of paint everywhere, gnawed chicken bones on a smeared plate, a chamber-pot on the floor in the corner. The painter matches the place, with that filthy smock, and those fingernails. He has a drinker’s squashed and pitted nose. She thinks the general smell is bad until she catches a whiff of his breath. She discovers that she is relieved: she had expected someone young, dissolute, threatening, not this pot-bellied old soak. But then he fixes his little wet eyes on her, briefly, with a kind of impersonal intensity, and she flinches, as if caught in a burst of strong light. No one has ever looked at her like this before. So this is what it is to be known! It is almost indecent.

Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, c. 1633–1634

Not the painting in question, but it is the style you should have in mind. This is Rembrandt’s Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, c. 1633–1634.

 

Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidencea fictional book-length confession of a man awaiting trail for bludgeoning a girl to death while attempting to steal a valuable painting. The narrative structure is complex and nonstandard: the protagonist, Freddie, interweaves his recollections of the events leading up to the crime (first person past tense) with his confessional voice addressing you, my lord, the judge (first person present, with second person thrown in occasionally). Or perhaps this is the simplest, most natural narrative structure: that of one person telling another about an event and interjecting commentary with hindsight.

Back to the Quote and the question: who is the woman in Banville’s story?

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Dictionaries: Quirks and Perks

michael-dam https://unsplash.com/?photo=1xpnPZJJHuM

A single word can seed a mental storm

 

Reading through a list often inspires dread or boredom. It is redolent of school, rote learning, tasks at work, chores at home, shopping at the supermarket on the weekend. It symbolises all those things you don’t want to do in your free time.

But wait, what about dictionaries?

Dictionaries are for daydreamers that think in words, mind-travellers that see adventures in a syllable, historians of linguistic persuasion. The fun is never-ending!

Am I in the minority again?

Browsing dictionary entries is an acquired taste, but every so often there’s an amusing comment or personal aside suitable for wider consumption.

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Saying it the Long Way

Nobel Prize.png

By: Jonathunder. Medal: Erik Lindberg (1873-1966)

 

Genome editing is creeping out of science-fiction into real life, and the question is who owns the rights to a breakthrough. The CRISPR technology is particularly promising and lucrative, and has led to a legal fight for the patent between MIT and Harvard’s joint venture, Broad Institute, and the University of California, Berkeley. The Quote comes from a recent article in Nature Magazine.

Quote: Although that battle is over, the war rages on. Berkeley has already appealed against the decision; meanwhile, the European Patent Office has ruled in favour of Doudna and Berkeley. Doubtless there are many more patents to milk out of this versatile system. And then there’s the fistful of 66-millimetre gold medals they give out in Stockholm each year.

Why is that last sentence so long? Why didn’t the author just say: And then there’s the Nobel Prize?

What makes the Quote quiver?

A mini puzzle to make the readers feel in-the-know once they’ve worked it out.

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Opium Meets Classical Readers

kris-atomic https://unsplash.com/search/poppy?photo=iuZ_D1eoq9k

How much do you know about opium?

Poppies. Sherlock Holmes. Afghanistan.

What about its “classical” forms?

Morphine. Heroin.

Those came later. Opium meets “classical readers” in the form of laudanum, a 10% tincture of opium, discovered in the sixteenth century and recommended as a panacea during the first two hundred years of its existence.

(Not to be confused with ladanum or labdanum, which is made from rockrose, another flower, and which crops up in perfumes.)

The topic’s locus classicus is Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-EaterIt was meant as a cautionary tale of opium abuse, although the first part of the book is dedicated to justifying De Quincey’s contact with the drug and the second part to lauding its restorative qualities (before reaching the third, cautionary part). Good intentions aside, today’s post focuses on a piece of writing taken from the autobiographical section.

Quote: This person was a young woman, and one of that unhappy class who subsist upon wages of prostitution. I feel no shame, nor have any reason to feel it, in avowing that I was then on familiar and friendly terms with many women in that unfortunate condition. The reader needs neither smile at this avowal nor frown; for, not to remind my classical readers of the old Latin proverb, “Sine cerere,” &c., it may well be supposed that in the existing state of my purse my connection with such women could not have been an impure one.

De Quincey wants us to believe him. He asserts his honesty in the matter, then he invokes a proverb to testify in his favour: his pecuniary difficulties must imply his chaste behaviour.

The problem with the Quote is that classical readers are rare in modern times.

What would have made the Quote quiver for the classical reader?

Familiarity with a trusted source.

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Charged With Eternity: Quirks and Perks

fabian-struwe https://unsplash.com/photos/4cloovdyuvw

Quote: The car came to a halt by the side of the road. I opened the door and got out. It wasn’t yet completely dark, but it was no longer day. The land all around us and the hills into which the highway went winding were a deep, intense shade of yellow that I have never seen anywhere else. As if the light (though it seemed to me not so much light as pure colour) were charged with something, I didn’t know what, but it could well have been eternity.

— Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)

Such colloquial equivocating in that final sentence of the Quote, such seemingly disinterested prose until the final word, where—of all things that could have charged the light—Bolaño sees eternity. It is as natural in Bolaño’s prose, as it would be in another writer’s poetry.

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