Archive for February, 2006

another coincidence

February 28, 2006

In another convergence of reading and life, this evening I reached the letter L in Flaubert's dictionary, and came across this definition, which was particularly noticeable, today being Shrove Tuesday: LENT. At bottom is only a health measure.


write-eous roth

February 28, 2006

I recently wrote a post about Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas: what do you know about Archimedes? One of the examples of entries in the dictionary that I gave was: CHRISTIANITY. Freed the slaves.

That’s the accepted idea, and I think the trick of it is that it narrows your focus down to just that one slice of the idea.

My current train book is Roth’s The Plot Against America, and in it I read this passage, which debunks the accepted idea quite effectively:

…a Christian, a long-standing member of the great overpowering majority that… enslaved the Negro and emancipated the Negro and segregated the Negro…

what do you know about Archimedes?

February 22, 2006

As Jacques Barzun informs you in the introduction to his translation of it, Gustave Flaubert’sThe Dictionary of Accepted Ideas started life as an appendix to his novel Bouvard et Pecuchet, and was first published as a separate work in 1951.

The two themes of the dictionary, according to Barzun, are:

  1. The castigation of the cliche.
  2. …this principle has to be borne in mind, for some of the utterances pilloried are manifestly true; they have to be said at certain times, being in themselves neither fatuous nor tautological. What damns them is the fact that they are the only thing ever said on the subject by the middling sensual man.

  3. An attack on misinformation, prejudice and incoherence as regards matters of fact.
  4. Flaubert has an infallible ear for the contradictions that everybody absent-mindedly repeats: “ABSINTHE. Violent poison: one glass and you’re dead. Newspapermen drink it as they write their copy.” He plumbs with equal sureness the depths of well-bred ignorance… people know only two things about Archimedes, not three.

Here are some examples of accepted ideas:

  • ACADEMY, FRENCH. Run it down, but try to belong to it if you can.
  • ARCHITECTS. All idiots: they always forget to put in the stairs.
  • BA DEGREE. Thunder against. [I remember encountering that accepted idea all through my BA degree!]
  • BLUESTOCKING. Term of contempt applied to women with intellectual interests. Quote Moliere in support: “When the compass of her mind she stretches…”
  • CENSORSHIP. “Say what you will, it’s a good thing.”
  • CHRISTIANITY. Freed the slaves.
  • CRUSADES. Benefited Venetian trade.
  • DELFT. More swank than “china”.
  • DIPLOMACY. A distinguished career, but beset with difficulties and full of mystery. Suited only to aristocrats. A profession of vague import, though higher than trade. Diplomats are invariably subtle and shrewd.
  • ECHO. Mention the one in the Pantheon and the one under the bridge at Neuilly.
  • ERECTION. Said only of monuments.
  • FLAG. The sight of it makes the heart beat faster.
  • FURNITURE. Be apprehensive – every kind of mishap can happen to yours.

I have been dipping in and out of this delightful little volume. (There’s an entry for the dictionary itself right there: DICTIONARY, FLAUBERT. A delightful little volume. Dip in and out of it, from time to time.) Here endeth the lesson as I have only reached ‘G’ in the dictionary myself.


February 21, 2006

I am enjoying Banville’s Eclipse very much. It is ethereal and creepy, but also a tad too erudite for train reading and I find I can’t concentrate on it. So it’s slow going as every now and then I have to re-read passages (or whole pages!). Nonetheless, today on the train to work I reached the halfway mark: page 107 of 214.

Banville is always a good source of words you’ve not met before. This word was new to me today:

satrap = n. a governor in a province of ancient Persia.

The narrator’s reclusion in his dead mother’s house has been disturbed by the presence of a young girl paid to do the cleaning:

What am I to do about this girl, this Lily? She preys on my mind, which has, I know, too little to occupy it. I feel like an impotent satrap presented by his subjects with yet another superfluous concubine. Her presence makes the house seem impossibly overcrowded. (p.95)

meet Guy Blunt

February 18, 2006

Isn’t it strange the way coincidence works? Here’s an example:

Easter 2003 my lovely lady gave me a copy of Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis.

I commenced reading it. At first, I was delighted by such a dense and literary biography but soon my enthusiasm waned as it became clear that Lewis had published a hatchet job and that he had come to despise Burgess in the course of writing his biography. By the time Lewis was using four-letter words about Burgess in the footnotes, I decided to stop reading for a while.

January 2006 I decide to read The Untouchable by John Banville. This is a novel about the Cambridge spies, and the narrator is Victor Maskell, a thin cover for the real spy, Anthony Blunt. Reading around the novel on the internet, I learned about the Cambridge spy ring and another of the spies, Guy Burgess. (Perhaps, at this point, you can see where this is going.)

I finished reading that novel (v. good) and decided, for unrelated reasons, to restart reading Lewis’s biography. On pages 204-5, I read this passage:

Now, the one thing everybody knows about Burgess, once we’ve made it clear he wasn’t Anthony Blunt nor Guy Burgess, is that he loved word-play and linguistic showing-off… Yet Blunt (Anthony) and Burgess (Guy)? Just as names and words melt and mix together in Finnegans Wake, can it be possible that Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess should have nightmarishly fused to produce Anthony Burgess? He was not, I think, a traitor – for whom could he betray, not being at home in any place?

Lewis expands this idea in a footnote, giving examples of when Burgess had been confused with the eponymous spies, and his increasing touchiness:

Anthony Burgess was a pseudonym [his real name was John Wilson]… and anyone who has peeped into his work will see that it is all about double lives and deceit… My favourite example of the Burgess touchiness in this regard was his reaction to Jonathan Coe’s profile of him in the Guardian. Coe had dictated his copy down the phone and expatriate… was printed as ex-patriot… Coe was to meet up with Burgess later the same week at a literary event in Bristol. ‘I’ve got nothing to discuss with Jonathan,’ he told Bridget Sleddon, the publicity girl, shiftily. Turning to Coe, he then said, ‘You bastard, you bastard, you bastard.’

crash clang bang, whisper whisper

February 17, 2006

I am currently reading Eclipse by John Banville. It is a tale of a haunted house, and lost memories. Banville has a gift for lyrical and vivid description. For example:

The house attends me, monitoring my movements, as if it had been set the task of keeping track of me and will not let its vigilance slip even for an instant. Floorboards creak under my tread, door hinges squeal tinily behind me when I walk into a room; if I am sitting at a certain angle by the fireplace in the living room and make some sudden noise – if I cough, or slam shut a book – the whole house like a struck piano will give me back in echo a low, dark, jangling chord. At times I have the feeling that the very air in the rooms is congregating to discuss me and my doings.

related words

February 14, 2006

borborygm = a rumbling or gurgling noise produced by wind in the bowels.

auscultation = the act of listening.

last words

February 14, 2006

These, I believe, were the last words of Samuel Beckett’s father: he said, “Fight fight fight.”

Which makes you think, doesn’t it, that he must have been a fiery gent.

[Update: Reading about Willy Beckett, Sam’s father, in Anthony Cronin’s biography of Samuel Beckett, it turns out the father was a rather jolly chap, not so much fiery. But those were his last words.]


February 13, 2006

So, in addition to being a British Citizen, I am now the proud possessor of a British passport, enabling me to travel freely in Europe, the Commonwealth (including New Holland), the New World, and parts of the Orient ("Beware the mysteries of the Orient"). Hurrah!


February 9, 2006

another word for armpits