One did not talk nonsense to horses: Notes on Molly Keane by her daughter Sally Phipps

May 27, 2022

When the Irish author Molly Keane (1904–1996) suggested to her daughter Sally Phipps that she write Keane’s biography, she told her: ‘I trust you completely; the only thing I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough.’

Book cover shows a black and white portrait photo of Molly Keane as a young woman, with title ('Molly Keane: A Life') and author's name, Sally Phipps, below it, along with a blurb from Diana Athill: 'Marvellous'.The result of that proposal, Molly Keane: A Life (Virago, 2017), is an excellent account I can recommend to anyone who enjoys Keane’s work. It contains several passages and items of linguistic note, which – this being a blog about language – may be of passing interest also to those who have not read her.

Keane wrote her first dozen or so novels as ‘M. J. Farrell’. The name came to her fortuitously:

When returning from hunting one evening she saw the name M. J. Farrell over a pub doorway and she took it as a pseudonym. Secrecy was important to her as she thought no one would dance with her in the horsey society in which she moved if it was known she was a writer.

The seriousness of ‘horsey society’ extended to the horses themselves:

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Joyce County by Ray Burke

February 20, 2022

It was a hundred years ago, in 1922, that James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published in Paris. Joyce famously set the novel over the course of a day in Dublin; his connections with Galway, a smaller city on the opposite side of Ireland, are less well known but intriguing in their own right.

Those connections are mainly a result of Joyce’s lifelong relationship with Nora Barnacle. Though he visited Galway just twice, Joyce’s exploration of it continued vicariously through Nora as they settled and resettled in cities around Europe. Anyone who has read ‘The Dead’ will appreciate the richness and resonance of that exploration. But Joyce also wrote about Galway in poetry and in articles for a Trieste newspaper, for example.

Cover and spine of 'Joyce County: Galway and James Joyce' by Ray Burke. Cover is mainly white, with line drawings of Nora Barnacle, James Joyce, and Connemara mountains in the background. The spine is light green, and the border of the cover is green fading into purple. The O in 'Joyce' and 'County' are linked and so appear like Joyce's glasses. At the bottom are the publisher's name, Artisan House, and the text 'Foreword by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland'.Delving into this relationship between writer and place is Ray Burke in his book Joyce County: Galway and James Joyce, recently published in a beautiful revised edition by Connemara-based Artisan House. Long-time readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in Joyce’s writing, and I’m delighted to have worked as copy-editor on this project.

Joyce County, first published in 2016 by Currach Press, now reappears with original illustrations by Raymond Murphy and Joe Boske and around 10,000 words of additional text, the result of ongoing research in the intervening years. From the new foreword by Michael D. Higgins, president of Ireland (and himself a poet and scholar):

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David Cronenberg on inventing a language

January 29, 2022

People invent languages for different reasons. It’s always a creative act, but artistic expression is not always the main motive, as it was for Tolkien. It may be a political undertaking, as with Esperanto. It can be a pastime, a linguistic or an intellectual exercise, or a job, which is how Klingon came to be. And it can be a mixture of these and other things.

Filmmaker David Cronenberg came close to ticking a few of these boxes early in his career. On a recent re-read of Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley (Faber & Faber, 1992), I came across this brief discussion of Cronenberg’s linguistic aims for his first film, the avant-garde Stereo (1969):

Cover of 'Cronenberg on Cronenberg', Faber & Faber paperback edition. It features a photo of Cronenberg on the set of Naked Lunch, sitting facing the camera with his hands resting on a large tentacled prop. Similar items hang behind him, strapped and chained. He is facing the camera and wears round glasses and a black sweater.I wanted to create a novel mode of interrelation. There is no speech [in the film], but we know there is a kind of speech in gesture. Every community has a whole unspoken dictionary, and I wanted to invent one of my own. I had seriously thought of having the people in the film speak a tongue I had invented, but it’s very tricky to avoid making it ridiculous. I tried to get the alienness of culture involved in the film in subtle ways. One of them was to have that balletic sense of movement.

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Consumed by Lydia Davis’s short stories

May 11, 2020

An early highlight of my reading year has been Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories. Many of her stories put a slight and strange and startling twist on consensus reality (or a fresh insight that amounts to the same), sometimes combined with a self-conscious linguistic flourish:

Book titled "The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis" with text in white all caps on a bright orange background, with a double border of two thin white lines. Smaller text at the bottom reads: "Winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2013". In the bottom right corner is the Penguin publisher's logo.I am reading a sentence by a certain poet as I eat my carrot. Then, although I know I have read it, although I know my eyes have passed along it and I have heard the words in my ears, I am sure I haven’t really read it. I may mean understood it. But I may mean consumed it: I haven’t consumed it because I was already eating the carrot. The carrot was a line, too.

This synaesthesia-adjacent report is one of fifteen self-contained entries in a story titled ‘Examples of Confusion’.

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Cúirt book festival goes online

May 1, 2020

Every April the Cúirt literary festival kicks off the festival season in Galway, Ireland, where I live. This year, its 35th, events in their original format were cancelled because of the pandemic, but festival director Sasha de Buyl and team put together a terrific mini-festival entirely online.

I just caught up on the talks I didn’t see or hear live last weekend – live online, I mean – and you can do the same if you haven’t already. Nine are freely available to view on Cúirt’s YouTube channel, and two audio-only events can be listened to on Soundcloud.

It’s a feast of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each talk is about an hour long and has one, two, or three authors speaking about literature, language, writing, and life, including short readings from their new work. If you’re not sure where to start, try Kevin Barry and Jan Carson talking with Peggy Hughes:

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‘The most coveted and desirable book in the world’

April 10, 2019

Oliver Sacks is one of my favourite science writers, for many reasons: the remarkable lives he reports, his insight and empathy in doing so, his unabashed honesty, his love for the creative arts. He also excels at conveying technical ideas and complicated phenomena in plain language without compromising their complexity.

Sacks has a flair for the right word, the telling metaphor, the poetic flourish that impresses his stories’ truth. He doesn’t rely on jargon but will use it when appropriate. Though his breadth of vocabulary and command of registers are impressive, they never feel forced or flashy. This is someone whose love of words is obvious in their prose – you might think this would be automatic with authors, but it’s not.

Recently, after reading Sacks’s book The Mind’s Eye, I visited his YouTube channel to catch up on any supplemental material, and ended up watching all the videos (there aren’t many, and they’re short). In one, Sacks reads an anecdote from his autobiography, about his time at the University of Oxford, which chimes nicely with his logophilia:

Transcript:

My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford. We dissected bodies and attended lectures, and a couple of years later had to sit for a final anatomy exam. When the results were posted, I saw that I was ranked one from bottom in the class. I dreaded my mother’s reaction and decided that, in the circumstances, a few drinks were called for. I made my way to a favourite pub, the White Horse in Broad Street, where I drank four or five pints of hard cider. Stronger than most beer, and cheaper too.

Rolling out of the White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize: the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk, and looked at the exam paper. There were seven questions to be answered. I pounced on one – Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation? – and I wrote non-stop for two hours on the subject. Then I left, an hour before the exam ended, ignoring the other six questions.

The results were in The Times that weekend. I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded. How could someone who’d come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams Prize? Fifty pounds came with a Theodore Williams Prize. Fifty pounds! I’d never had so much money at once. This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s Bookshop, next door to the pub, and bought, for 44 pounds, the 12 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary – for me, the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf now and then, for bedtime reading.

If you’re impressed (or appalled) by the idea of someone reading the entire OED, well, there’s another book all about that; I’ll have more in a separate post soon.* In the meantime, you’ll find more Oliver Sacks in the Sentence first archives.

* Update: See my post ‘50 lost words from the OED‘, prompted by Ammon Shea’s book Reading the OED.

 
 

Lewis Carroll and the portmanteau words quiz

August 2, 2018

If you enjoyed my quiz on nouning and verbing, you might like my new quiz on portmanteau words, now up on the Macmillan Dictionary site. It will test your knowledge of novel portmanteaus such as plogging, smombie, theyby, and zoodles. It’s multiple choice, so you can guess at any strange ones.

Portmanteau words are words that blend two or more others in structure and meaning, like smog (smoke + fog), brunch (breakfast + lunch), and portmonsteau (portmanteau + monster). That last one hasn’t caught on yet. They should be distinguished from compound words like teapot and seawater, which also combine words but don’t blend them.

I like a good portmanteau word, and by browsing Macmillan’s Open Dictionary (which is crowd-sourced but lexicographer-edited – this ain’t Urban Dictionary) I see a lot of shiny new ones soon after they enter circulation. Hence the portmanteau quiz. Let me know how you score.

Now follows a bit on the etymology of portmanteau, for anyone unfamiliar with it.

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