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Posts Tagged ‘language’

The Right Kind of Damage: An Interview with Colin Barrett

March 3, 2015 | by

colinbarrett

Photo courtesy of the author.

There’s a moment in “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking,” a story by Denis Johnson that first appeared in The Paris Review, in 1989, when a woman learns of the death of her husband and unleashes a terrible scream. The narrator, instead of expressing the expected sympathy, leans out of the page a little to offer this unnerving confession: It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”

Reading Young Skins, Colin Barrett’s debut story collection, can leave one with a similar sense of disturbed gratitude. The stories blend moments of horror with moments of hilarity, shocks of joy with shocks of despair, and no matter how grim a given scene by Barrett can get, it’s a thrill to be alive to hear him. In a restroom, under a naked bulb, we find “a lidless shitter operated by a fitfully responsive flush handle.” In a field, “crushed cans of Strongbow and Dutch Gold and Karpackie are buried in the mud like ancient artefacts.” A “big brown daddy-long-legs pedals airily in the sink basin,” its movements ”describing a flustered circle,” and a character named Bat cannot enjoy his dinner because a clan of kids is “eyeing the bulky hydraulics of his jaw.”

The vitality of Barrett’s prosethe special intensity of attention he’s able to draw from details of small-town lifehas already helped win him the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. To mark the U.S. release of Young Skins this month, I talked with him about his allergy to “lethally competent writing,” the details of character and language upon which he builds a story, and how a work of fictionlike the community it describescan develop “its shibboleths, its customs and codes, its own way of talking to itself.”

Were your earliest efforts as a writer very different to the stories collected in Young Skins?

I wrote and drew lots of gory comic books as a young kid and as a teen. Then I discovered and wrote lots of poetry around college age. Awful, sub-Ashbery, sub-Muldoon, sub-Eliot stuff, but at least it was writing. Then I attempted a few novels—multinarrator, genre-splicing Pynchonian or Foster Wallace sprawlers, usually set in alternate futures, though I never got more than a couple dozen pages in. I only started really writing stories at twenty-five. The early stuff was all, obviously, awful—but awful in a vital way. The wonderful thing about being completely inexperienced is the impregnable purity of your ignorance. You are utterly insensible to any conception of your own crippling and patent limitations, and so you try anything and everything. Read More »

Of Pimps and Pyknics

February 24, 2015 | by

Adventures in dictionaries.

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An aurochs from The Wonderful Paleo Art of Heinrich Harder, 1920.

I.

In the novel by Patrick Modiano I’m translating, a bus stops at Cross Road in Bournemouth “devant un cottage pimpant,” and I had a feeling, somehow, that my first try, “in front of a pimpin’ little cottage,” was probably not right.

“Origin obscure,” says the Oxford English Dictionary about pimp. You can hear a titch more donnish vinegar in the etymology than the stolid lexicographers usually let show:

Generally thought to be in some way related to 16th century French pimper, vb., present participle pimpant alluring or seducing in outward appearance or dress…. French pimper is taken as ≈ Provençal pimpar, pipar, to render elegant. But these leave much to be explained in the history of the word before 1600.

Much to be explained indeed. Read More »

Sherlock Holmes Defends Civil Engineering, and Other News

February 20, 2015 | by

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An illustration of Sherlock Holmes from The Strand, 1920s.

  • In Selkirk, Scotland, a man has found a previously unseen Sherlock Holmes story in his attic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently wrote it around 1904 to help raise funds for a new bridge. “It is believed the story—about Holmes deducing Watson is going on a trip to Selkirk—is the first unseen Holmes story by Doyle since the last was published over eighty years ago.”
  • Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so beloved? Probably just because everyone was forced to read it growing up—in reality, it’s a “white-trash gothic” that infantilizes blacks and demonizes poor whites: “The central struggle in To Kill a Mockingbird involves class, not race. The book’s theme is the class war within the white South between the noble gentry and the depraved poor. In a clever twist, thanks to the community’s racism the white underclass villain wins in court, but the gentry hero enjoys revenge at the end, thanks to a killing that is covered up by the local sheriff.”
  • While we’re at it, we’ve made a mess of Huck Finn, too: “We persistently misread Twain’s messages on race and children for a simple reason: Americans still subscribe to many of the same myths and prejudices as their nineteenth-century ancestors. Twain’s novel is not a hymn to the carefree pleasures of a rustic childhood; it’s a barbed critique of precisely the sort of standardized education that has now led to the book’s adoption in countless classrooms … Common readings of the book are now trapped in the same sanctimonious clichés that Twain both punctured and perpetuated.”
  • How quickly is our spoken language changing, and how many of those changes should be reflected in print? “There is a natural problem, found the world over: how quickly to allow writing to adapt to changes in the spoken language? If spelling were adapted to pronunciation, the result would be a radical and destabilizing break with centuries of tradition … English-speakers are stuck with an archaic and anarchic system. Liberties with grammar—making the written language look like the spoken one—should be few and cautious. Giving the written language a little room to change, but not too much, is the only way to enjoy the best of both stability and vitality.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers David Carr, who was his boss at the Washington City Paper: “David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it … ”

Greetings from Kingston Pen, and Other News

February 16, 2015 | by

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Photo: Geoffrey James, via Slate

  • The Book of Mormon may be a dull, plodding testament to the assorted lunacies of America’s Second Great Awakening—but it’s also “a Great American Novel, or, failing that, a priceless artifact from the Old, Weird America—a uniquely American product, like jazz music and superhero comics, that deserves our attention.”
  • What role, if any, does the “public intellectual” have in 2015? “It might be to participate in making ‘the public’ more brilliant, more skeptical, more disobedient, more capable of self-defense, and more dangerous again—dangerous to elites, and dangerous to stability … It is perhaps up to the intellectual, if anyone, to face off against the pseudo-public culture of insipid media and dumbed-down ‘big ideas,’ and call that world what it is: stupid.”
  • The English language has been in decline for a long time—a very, very long time, in fact, and along the way plenty of people have seen fit to remind us that we’re swirling in the toilet bowl. “It was William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, who wrote that ‘There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.’ He died in 1386.”
  • “There’s something about making a diagram or calendar for an imagined world that feels over-the-top or maybe borderline delusional,” but everyone does it anyway—see this collection of novelists’ visual aids.
  • Kingston Penitentiary, which had a rep as “Canada’s Alcatraz,” opened in 1835 and closed only a few years ago. The photographer Geoffrey James was one of the few to document life inside it before it shut down—his photo-essay is bleak.

Ten Hours a Day, Ten Days a Week, and Other News

February 12, 2015 | by

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A French revolutionary clock.

  • Two newly discovered letters by Jane Austen’s brother, Charles, “shed a suggestive and unexpectedly saucy light on the ways her literary reputation was kept alive in the decades after her death in 1817.” (That sauciness is literal and figurative, I’ll have you know.)
  • The politics of the calendar: Why have so many nations attempted to change the way we mark time? “In perhaps the most famous example, the French Republican Calendar not only reorganized the days and months around a ten-day week called a décade, but also restarted the entire thing at Year I. At the time John Quincy Adams decried it as ‘superficially frivolous’ and ‘coarsely vulgar,’ not to mention ‘irreligious’—but this was of course the point: the de-Christianization of the calendar.”
  • On the photographer Duane Michals, a retrospective of whose work is currently at the Carnegie Museum of Art: “In a career spanning more than half a century he has worked in both utilitarian black-and-white and luxuriant color, produced slapstick self-portraits, evoked erotic daydreams, pamphleteered against art world fashions, and painted whimsical abstract designs on vintage photographs.”
  • The war on sadness in language: “A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined 100,000 words across texts in ten different languages and found ‘a universal positivity bias.’ ” We demand more sad words.
  • Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s orgies happen four times a year. What else happens four times a year? We can think of a thing or two …

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Golden Brown

February 3, 2015 | by

An_alchemist._Oil_painting_by_E._Lomont,_1890_Wellcome_L0075259

E. Lomont, An Alchemist, 1890.

Here’s a phrase you don’t read much nowadays: brown study. First cited in the sixteenth century (specifically in a book called Dice-Play), the expression—which describes a state of intense, sometimes melancholy reverie—really seems to have hit its stride in the nineteenth. Dr. Watson describes “falling into a brown study” in the course of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” In Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, Uncle Alec “paced up and down the lower hall in the twilight for an hour, thinking so intently that sometimes he frowned, sometimes he smiled, and more than once he stood still in a brown study.” In David Copperfield, Dickens uses it like this: “I fell into a brown study as I walked on, and a voice at my side made me start.”  Meanwhile, here’s Conrad, in “Thrift and the Child”:

He ceased and sat solemnly dejected, in a brown study. What day? I asked at last; but he did not hear me apparently. He suffused such portentous gloom into the atmosphere that I lost patience with him. 

These were all books written for a popular audience; presumably the phrase was in regular use in both the English and American vernacular. What seems puzzling now would not have to a population who knew brown as a color associated with sadness. Indeed, brown was once used the way we do blue today—to connote melancholy. And it’s a good phrase, well suited to stories sustained by brisk narrative pace; in such cases as these, it was doubtless useful to be able to sketch interiority in a couple of words. Read More »