This week I took Alan Furst’s Red Gold (HarperCollins, 1999) off the shelf and am very glad I did. Set in German-occupied France in the early 1940s, it’s an absorbing, rambling spy story full of atmosphere, wry humour, lean characterisation, and suspense.
The protagonist, Casson, is a former film producer scraping by in Paris, hiding from the Gestapo. He becomes a reluctant go-between for various entities in the resistance, and in the following passage has just been told the identity of a contact he hopes to make:
Casson knew him, had sat across from him at a dinner party back in the old days. After that, a handshake two or three times at some grande affaire. Casson hated him. Short and wide, preposterously fat, with thick glasses and tight, curly hair. He floated on waves of amour propre – boundless conceit, in measures rare even in France. He described himself as an ethnologist, no, there was more to it than that, it was better than that. Socio-ethnologist? Psycho-ethnologist? Anyhow, a hyphen. Now he remembered – gods, something about gods. He’d written a book about them.
Casson’s prejudices will not, I hope, put you off reading Furst, if you like a good historical yarn. All I want to register here is my appreciation for that wonderful off-hand line fragment: Anyhow, a hyphen. Seldom is a punctuation mark given such explicit and loaded insinuation in fiction.
We never do find out what preceded the hyphen. Theo-? ‘Theo-ethnology’ gives me a single Google hit: digital gold. Red Gold, meanwhile, featured in a book spine poem I made some years ago. Just one from that poem left to read now.
Love Alan Furst and love that you were able to include his book in your blog!
My first time reading him. It won’t be the last.
Yes – a lovely dismissive referential use of the hyphen. Which led me to Google and a related and surprisingly common deflation of supposed expertise: ‘an ologist of some kind’ (or ‘sort’).
And of surprising vintage: ologist as a standalone term dates to at least 1839, according to the OED: ‘We have eight or nine ologists of different sorts staying with us’ (New Monthly Magazine and Humorist). Ology goes back a few decades more.
Recently, I told a one-time friend whose entire discourse anymore consists of tiresome left-wing memes and accusations against anyone who disagrees with the outrage du jour in any way–
“Let’s start with your inevitable conclusion, that because I agree with most but not all of your causes and not necessarily in full when I do agree, I am guilty of some kind of -ism and I am therefore an -ist of some kind. Or shall we simply declare me a ‘mis-‘ something?”
A misismist, for short.
Ethno-theology is more likely than Theo-ethnology, but in repoorted speech (especially of the dismissive variety), it more than passes muster.
In regards to the hyphen and loaded insinuation – it was rather common to refer to it thus at a certain time (not that long ago) when hyphented surnames were not as popular as today (due to “women’s liberation”, no doubt) and they were an indication of upper class pretension.
Yes, much more likely: ethno-theology has a few thousand hits in Google Books, with or without the hyphen. Why the scare quotes (if that’s what they are) around women’s liberation?
More irony quotes. As if speaking from the voice of one for whom a hyphenated name is an anomaly except for the upper classes. One who would say “women’s liberation” rather than feminism or simply egalitarianism.
“Anyhow, a hyphen” is just magnificent, a triumph of succinct insight over unwieldy analysis.
Yes! Precisely. I’m glad I’m not the only one smitten by it.
[…] on compulsive pedantry and mutual unintelligibility; Furst in ‘After the Fire’ and a post on a significant hyphen; O’Brien in various places; […]
Thank you for this post, which introduced me to Alan Furst’s work. I’ve been slowly but very enjoyably reading my way through his Night Soldiers series since I first read this post, in 2018, and I just finished Red Gold. I relished “Anyhow, a hyphen,” and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.
I’m happy to hear this, Mary. The only Furst I’ve read since is Dark Voyage, which I didn’t get into as much. But I have A Hero in France on the shelf, so I’ll try that sometime. I hope you continue to enjoy the series.