NICE ONES AND UGLY ONES
I mentioned big words recently as something I often use for comic or ironic effect in my fiction. One or two of my fans and followers continue to shake their heads dolefully, and say they have to have a dictionary to hand at times for the novels, and for this blog of mine likewise. I promise I’m not like the eminent UK story writer and critic VS Pritchett(1900-1997), who urged people to read the novels of the Victorian poet George Meredith (1828-1909), with the injunction that such readers would ‘have to work for their pleasure’. I certainly don’t expect people to work for their pleasure when they read either my novels or these pages, but rather to relax and even whistle and drink fine wine, and simply to enjoy themselves, and go with the mood if they find it to their taste. In any case like a lot of people (as evidenced by the massive quantities of his works that never shift in 2nd hand book shops) I don’t think George Meredith is worth the phenomenal slog. Oscar Wilde thought otherwise, but even he, comparing him with Balzac, said, ‘his style is chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning’. Virago over 30 years ago reissued Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways (1885) along with George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893) as 19th C fiction sympathetic to a feminist reading. Gissing’s novel was a wonderfully readable and subtle and dramatic love story, and with the added bonus of having an obscure and improbable Cumbrian seaside town (good old radioactive Seascale, pre Sellafield needless to add) for its romantic denouement.
George Gissing was also capable of fustian, elitist and misanthropic stuff, as in the unpleasant, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), a thinly disguised account of his own obsessional Olympian tendency to withdraw from the world. But Henry Ryecroft is a piece of cake compared with reading Meredith’s Diana, as I did all the way on a bus from grim Ceausescu’s Rumania to grimy Thatcher’s England in August 1984, and it was exactly like wading through treacle. Interestingly, in 1962 a famous child psychologist, JA Hadfield, published a bestselling book called Childhood and Adolescence, and throughout he quoted Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) as a key text on adolescent romantic infatuation. I struggle to imagine any self respecting adolescent battling through its leaden and august pages in Beatle-era 1962, much less 2015, and you would wonder why Hadfield couldn’t find something more contemporary when it came to obsessional infatuation, moonlight dreaming, and sighing and yearning for the gorgeous young lass sat blushing and hopeful next door. As a sensitive child psychologist, surely he should have been in rather than out of touch with the contemporary preoccupations of those he was helping.
There are beautiful big words and horrible big words, and some that look beautiful, but on close inspection are more or less ugly. Two of my favourite big words relate to decay and inanition, which is interesting, as those are not really where I’m focused as a writer or as a man. They are ‘desuetude’, meaning ‘ a gradual state of decay’, and ‘evanesce’ which means ‘to vanish or disappear’. I use them at every opportunity in my writing, not because I fetishise decay or disappearance/loss, but because they are beautiful words, and they give a kind of nostalgia and tenderness to those after all inevitable organic processes. Also, if rarely, a scientific and hence Greek-derived word, can be beautiful, as in ‘phylogeny’, meaning the biological development of an animal species. I can never forget a Scientific American article about caterpillar metamorphosis I had to read in 1968 for my Oxford entrance, where it finished with the gnomic words ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ apropos the beauty of a finished butterfly, namely the ‘imago’ (another lovely word). Otherwise the only beauty I have ever found in something as cut and dried as organic chemistry terminology, is that Aldous Huxley named some of his characters (e.g. Joe Aldehyde and Mr Mercaptan) after organic compounds. ‘Mercaptan’, as in ethyl mercaptan, is evil-smelling, so we know where we are there, thank you Aldous, as we did with Dickens’ Gradgrind and Pecksniff and Uncle Pumblechook.
An example of an ugly word that I have never once seen used (unless just possibly on one occasion I read it in a DJ Taylor book review; more likely I dreamt that I did) though it is not archaic and obsolete, is ‘nugatory’, meaning ‘futile, vain, trifling’. Let’s just try a swift and painless experiment. Can you, I wonder, imagine yourself or anyone else telling your lazy child, a schoolkid with hereditary protuberant ears, struggling to draw a circumcircle in Maths, that his labours are alas all too ‘nugatory’?
Another word I have never seen in print, though again it is not obsolete, is ‘thrasonical’. It means ‘boastful’ or ‘vainglorious’. For me it is not so much an ugly word, as an absurd and stiff and bumptious one. Its synonym ‘vainglorious’ is a beautiful term, and if you have anything like a rudimentary poetic sense, you can work out why that is. Its two halves ‘vain’ and ‘glorious’ are both examples of firm, assertive yet resonant prose. Put the 2 together and you get a very nice oxymoron, and as everyone knows oxymorons are addictive and funny and entertaining, if used by an expert, who is of course not necessarily a poet.
30 years ago I happened to be in touch with the critic who had roundly mocked my first novel Samarkand (1985) in the TLS. He and I both worked on separate literary magazines, a venerable and brilliant and independent-minded metropolitan one, in his case, and Cumbria’s Panurge fiction magazine, of which I was founder-editor, in mine. I had with an effort taken his scourging on the chin, and never let him know I was dismayed by his comments, though my incensed publisher had immediately rung his boss, the TLS editor, and threatened to withdraw his choicest Nobel winners from review. This critic and fellow magazine slave, later wrote to me that another of my publisher’s novelists had been so incensed by a bad review he had given him, that he had written an angry if pathetic letter of complaint to his detractor, via the newspaper where the review had appeared. As the critic commented:
“Such foolish and vainglorious behaviour!”
Is that better than, ‘Such foolish and thrasonical behaviour’? Not everyone would agree with me perhaps.