Metaphors, mountains, and magic

This post is a mixum-gatherum of bits from books I’ve read over the last while. First up is an arresting passage from ‘Vertigo’ by Joanna Walsh, in her short story collection of the same name:

At the turn of the road, willing the world to continue a little space, there is a man, a woman, and a child. They are not tourists: there are few here. From the outside, the man is greater than the woman, who is greater than the child. The child is brighter than the woman, who is brighter than the man. Of their insides we know nothing, because we cannot understand the words that turn those insides out. I grasp at words in this language with other languages I know, languages other than the one I mostly speak, as though one foreignness could solve another.

I love the idea of using language as a tool not to communicate directly but to unlock another language, like an inoculation.

ali-smith-the-accidental-penguin-book-coverI’ve written before about contagious laughter and how strange it is. Ali Smith’s brilliant novel The Accidental describes a prolonged laughing fit shared by two characters. When it recurs, Smith puts analogy to memorable effect to convey just how weird the feeling is:

Nights later it comes into her head again and she can’t help it, she starts to laugh all over again, it is the kind of funny that’s so deep in your middle where your breathing starts that it feels like your insides are melting or you have been taken over by an alien which does nothing but laugh inside you . . .

Next up is Morvern Callar by Alan Warner, which I originally encountered in film form a decade ago. The source novel uses an unusual word in describing a miniature town:

His toes at the far end of the pass. His face beyond the railway line. His body crushed the hotel with its pointing-up tower at the top of the stairs. The Tree Church on the sgnurr above where he lay back upon the land.

I don’t know sgnurr, and it’s not in standard dictionaries. A search on Google/Google Images suggests it’s a dialect word for a geographical feature, perhaps hill- or mountain-related, but if any reader can specify it I’d be grateful. My Tumblr blog has another excerpt from Morvern Callar that points to the emotional loss from loss of language.

Speaking of mountains, Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (which I’ve just begun reading) has a lovely linguistic/calligraphic metaphor for geology:

I read more widely about geology, and I began to understand the grammar of the Scottish landscape – how its constituent parts related to one another – and its etymology; how it had come to be. And I appreciated its calligraphy; the majuscule of the valleys and peaks, the intricate engravings of streams and rivulets, and the splendid serifs of ridge top and valley bottom.

The editor in me itches to amend those semicolons, but no matter. There’s more Macfarlane in my post about The Old Ways, his book about pathways and walking the land. Another memorable metaphor comes courtesy of A.M. Homes’s travel book for National Geographic, Los Angeles. She is visiting the vast wind farm in Coachella Valley:

We are in a valley with hills all around, rocky, hard-packed dirt/sand – the Earth’s crust – is the floor of the field. The tall towers surround us and the fellow is explaining the process through which the wind is actually transformed into power.

“Step out if you want,” he says. I open the door, not knowing there is something more. The sound is overwhelming, like seagulls or whales, haunting, mystical, magical – a kind of mournful hollow bleating, seesawing squeaky call and response. This is the sound of air being bitten by blades; it is sexy and profound. If it weren’t raining I could stand here forever. For the first time all day, there is something wonderful about the rain, the unrelenting grayness, and the weight of the sky, something wonderful about the sound of man and nature mating in the desert.

mike-mccormack-solar-bones-tramp-press-book-coverI’ll finish with an explicit book recommendation, a new novel published by my friends at Tramp Press (who also brought out Vertigo, quoted up top). The book is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack, who comes from my home county of Mayo in the west of Ireland. It’s at once experimental and gripping, cosmic yet wholly down to earth: the narrator is a civil engineer and this vocation influences his patterns of thought.

Solar Bones lacks full stops, which sounds like a gimmick but isn’t. It’s written as a stream of consciousness but styled with such supreme lucidity that it’s hard to stop reading once you start. I’ve been enjoying McCormack’s prose since his first books appeared in the 1990s, and this one blew me away. For once, a book that’s been garnering prizes and rave reviews lives up to – transcends – the hype.

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11 Responses to Metaphors, mountains, and magic

  1. Sawney says:

    It’s just possible that ‘sgnurr’ may have been a typo for ‘sgurr’ (Gaelic for ‘peak’), but the author liked it so much he allowed it to stay. Given Warner’s strong connection to the language and topology of the west Highlands, this etymo-geological discussion of the word may be of interest:
    http://www.edinburghgeolsoc.org/edingeologist/z_42_04.html

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thank you, that’s very helpful and interesting. I wondered if it was a variant spelling of a more common word, but I didn’t spend very long trying alternatives. Sgurr has no entry in the DSL, but it does have cameos in a handful of other entries, none of which has the depth of information in the Edinburgh Geologist article.

  2. larastillo says:

    Great excerpts – thank you! Made my morning coffee that much better, reading great writing from others along with how you present in your blog. And I’m always trying to figure out when and how I can use a semicolon correctly, hah. They are a bit confusing, but interesting. I’m drawn to try ;) Also really like your comment about using language as a tool to unlock another language. I do love how nothing translates over directly since cultural context and meaning are so unique. So much cannot be explained in words when the experience often creates the need for a new word to help define it. Anyway, etc. – I could wax on, so I’ll stop there ;) Thanks again!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thank you for reading. :-) I’ve written about semicolons before: one old post looked at how to use them, and more recently I defended them from Kurt Vonnegut’s insults.
      Translation is a conceptual can of worms I won’t open here, except to agree with you that it’s only ever approximate, as is the translation of thought or experience into words in the first place. Any posts tagged ‘translation’ address the subject in one form or another.

      • larastillo says:

        Ah, thanks for the mention of a former post looking at semicolons – I’ll check that out. Funny your mention of Vonnegut’s insults regarding them! I like them, though I always doubt if I’m using them correctly or not. Makes for more variety in written communication and presentation:) Thanks again, Stan!

      • larastillo says:

        Great post on how to use semicolons – thank you! Some of that I remembered, some was new, and all was helpful “) I’ll probably have to refer to it a few times (since I enjoy trying to use semicolons ;)

        • Stan Carey says:

          You’re welcome! I’m glad it was helpful. Eventually I’ll do one on colons, because a lot of people confuse the two marks.

          • larastillo says:

            Always great to have reviews on punctuation, grammar, and even how to communicate in general. I’ve been writing and teaching massage courses over the last 10 years, and was always concerned with much of the written material students turned in. I actually found it shocking; too many assignments looked like middle school level work. – Did I use the semicolon correctly? ;P

  3. “Of their insides we know nothing, because we cannot understand the words that turn those insides out.” This is such a beatiful line! Such an eloquent expression.

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