FOR THOSE of us with a logophilic bent there is nobody quite as exhilaratingly infuriating as Booker Prize-winning author John Banville. I say this because he’s at it again, you see, in his latest book Mrs Osmond.
A sequel, of sorts, to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, I only managed to get to page 3 before reaching for the dictionary to seek out the meaning of ‘vastation’ and ‘chidden’.
Personally I enjoy the challenge, though I know from experience that some do not, and find the Irish author’s liberal use of, shall we say, certain esoteric words disconcerting. Why eschew the demotic, they ask, though not in those exact words.
For me, the marking out with a small (disfiguring, book purists might say) asterisk in the margin of words unknown – and the later hunting and pinning down of them in a kind of lexical lepidoptery – is of little consequence compared to the general poetic beauty of the sentences that Banville conjures.
Where else would I have learned that there is a word to describe yawning and stretching at the same time (pandiculation) – something I put to good use in my own novel for Young Adults in 2014. Yes, there are now at least 20 teenagers who know what it means. How cool is that?
In 2017, for the first time in many years of writing a thematic annual yarn about books for Fairfax Media’s Spectrum section and/or the Summer Herald, I let my nose lead the way. None of this only reading award winners, or letting the local library staff choose the books; for the first time in years I just read whatever took my fancy.
And got through more than 70 books with only four I was unable to finish (Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, David Szalay’s All That Man Is and The Evenings from Gerard Reve). Just FYI, I last night started reading Gabriel Tallent’s much-lauded My Absolute Darling and came across this wise insight from Jacob, one of the main protagonists: “Okay, so: To The Lighthouse. Or – you know what? – people die in subordinate clauses in that book.”
Wise words. And it is my judgment that Woolf was single-handedly responsible for the Great Comma Drought of 1927.
The only re-read of the year was John Banville’s The Sea, his 2005 Booker winner and one of my all-time favourites. It was in this book I first discovered the joy of the apotropaic apostrophe (as in the surname De’Ath) and was not satisfied until I had slyly inserted ‘apotropaic’ into a story in The Sydney Morning Herald. How it got past the subs is anybody’s guess.
What shocked me was just how many words I still didn’t know on this second reading. Add to this a few choice additions from Ian McGuire’s terrific The North Water and from the always self-effacingly erudite Alan Bennett, whose memoir Keep On Keeping On I picked up at the start of 2017, and it’s been an interesting year.
You can find the full list below if you feel inclined to discover what an illiterate fool I am or just want to see how many YOU know. Or both.
In defense, I did recall ‘flocculent’, ‘evanescent’ and ‘casuistry’, and while some of the rest (purblind, lucent, choleric) can be guessed at from context, similarity or Latin/Greek etc root I find that the writing down of them and the confirmation by searching the dictionary is like unexpectedly bumping into old friends in the street. “Good grief, Gallimaufry, you’re looking well.”
For the rest, it’s simply exciting to come across them. It’s like meeting new people at some swanky soiree, some of whom will become firm friends and some of whom will glance across the atmosphere of one’s witlessness and bounce off into space, never to be seen or heard of again. Cracaleured being one such, I suspect. Of course now that I’ve typed it I’ll never forget it.
It was thus that in years past I met that rather base fellow borborygmic and the louche lounge lizard pandiculation. This year thanks to Alan Bennett, I was introduced to the unforgettably ugly batrachoidal, warts and all. All of whom remain firmly fixed in the memory for some reason while poor old prelapsarian, plangent and poetaster are like triplets whose faces I know but can never remember their names.
Of course, with Banville, it’s not just that he knows all these wonderful people but that he knows just who to partner them with on the chaise longue of language in the upper levels of the Tower of Babel. Hence apotropaic and apostrophe, flocculent and hush.
Alongside A Little Life, All The Light We Cannot See and A Gentleman in Moscow, The Sea remains a highlight of 2017, even without the more (to me) arcane wording. For who could read this first, simple sentence and not want to carry on: “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”