Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Game Of The Name (9 Paras)

Occasionally, my job requires that I take names (then, when the clock strikes thirteen, I repeat these names before a squad of albino scythe-carrying monks who begin furiously chanting, "Doom upon these wretched appellations!"). Names, then, I say, I am sometimes required to take.

"H-E-F-F", one customer spelled after I asked his name, and I couldn't keep the wide smile off my face. Ridiculously, I was thinking he was going to spell Heffalump. The customer dodged nervously under my grin. "Heffelfinger," he finished. "That's Heffelfinger." I don't know, that's a name which stacks up pretty well against Heffalump, don't you agree? My favourite customer-name, so far, belongs to a Filipino whose signature reads Josélito De Los Angeles. But my all-time favourite name is a wonderful thing, a Best Ever name, is Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong. Ten points and a poem to whoever knows that name without googling it.

Names are wonderful, of course. So random, so meaningless, so meaningful and deliberate. Even a name without meaning must aquire meaning across its lifetime, will aquire meaning by association. And what is a name without meaning but the conscious intent of its giver? Which, of course, gives meaning. Examples of such meaningful meaninglessness run like rivers in fiction, where "realism" is often the order of the novel. The meaning neither you nor I understand in our neighbour's name, or the name of our friend, that meaninglessnes is mimicked in the popular novels of Nora Roberts, James Michener, the works of a thousand mystery novel authors, and that modern novel of which you wrote three chapters that still collect digital dust in the back of your hard drive.

But meaninglessness is just a fad, and not even long-lasting, at that. There is no such thing as chaos. Check back through Thackeray, Dickens, Pilgrim's Progress famously, Smollet, the entire Augustan age of English literature and the greater part of the Victorian, and you'll see that most names of most fictional characters were consciously endowed with meaning. And wonderful fabled meaning, at that; who would choose to ignore names like the Giant Despair, and Diffidence his wife? Excellent, excellent names. The fashion in literature has swung back to "meaning", of course, especially in the post-modern novel. Not with more subtlety, I believe, but with less dissonance, with a smoother, more acceptable agreement between the meaningful intent of the author and the perceived meaninglessness of everyday names, office names, mall-walking, grocery-store, know-your-neighbour names. But that's post-modern literature for you. Clique-ish, full of codes for the initiates, less concerned (many say) with meaning than with being meaningful. Beach novels, though, romance novels, literary popcorn, these don't play games; these novels, these authors, can generally be trusted to be a solid read, entertaining without resorting to gamesmanship.

Am I being condescending?

Georgette Heyer is one of my favourite authors. She can be said to have invented and clarified the regency romance genre across fifty-one novels (not all, it should be said of them, historical or even romantic). This is a literary sub-genre, I would like to add, which I mostly loathe. Heyer makes this genre work (for me), because she's a clever author, writes witty dialogue, excels at sarcasm and irony, and writes a good stock character quickly and memorably. She's many things as an author, Heyer is, but subtle is rarely one of them. This is not a flaw. Her genre does not require Heyer to be subtle. She once named a character Satanas, for instance. Meaning, here, becomes fairly clear. My favourite novel among her publications, the first Heyer I ever read, is Cotillion. But recently I reread that novel, and was very surprised. Heyer can be subtle like she just slithered down from the Tree of Knowledge. Don't look at me like that! This is like finding out that Danielle Steel has been educating her readers in the finer points of Renaissance poetry. It just isn't going to happen. Such a revelation would boggle the mind too much, like discovering that Dan Brown was actually an author, when, clearly, "Dan Brown" is a giant publishing collective along the lines of "Carolyn Keene" or "Franklin W. Dixon", except, of course, that the latter collectives wrote credible literary novels if you compare them to "Dan Brown". But Georgette Heyer can be subtle, and she can be knowing, and she can wink at her readers and play games with names just like more-respected and well-known contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf or Katherine Anne Porter.

Now I'm being condescending, right? Or just thick?

Cotillion includes the usual Heyeresque host of types and eccentrics. Freddy Standen is a likable dim bulb about to make good as the hero of the story. Kitty Charing is a helpless young orphan possessing, sadly, only charm and good-looks. Jack Westruther, as the story opens, is the worthless rogue and object of the heroine's affection, and a cousin of the self-serving Hugh Rattray. Lord Dolphinton is the mentally-deficient impoverished Irish aristocrat. And Matthew Penicuik plays a cheapskate Lear to the whole bunch. The plot is ridiculous. Matthew Penicuik, wanting to provide for his ward, Kitty (he loved her mother, you see), will give his fortune to whoever marries her. But whoever marries Kitty must be one of Penicuik's extended family, which means it is up to either Jack, Hugh, Lord Dolphinton or Freddy (who has no idea what's going on) to marry the ward. Penicuik made that money (last name? see? see!) and he'll be damned if it's going to leave his bloodlines. Of course, Kitty objects to being made an object of charity, despite her name (see? see!). And the love of her life, Jack Westruther, won't put in an appearance because, frankly, he would rather gamble his fortune west than have his hand forced (and his surname? see? see!). Lord Dolphinton, also called Foster, acts like a fish out of water, probably because he wishes he was back across the sea in Ireland (surname significant? see? see!), Hugh makes the worst marriage proposal ever ("Even though I'm not attracted to you, let's be Platonic partners and study together"), and Kitty convinces Freddy to make a false engagement with her until she can see Jack in London. Freddy is a stand-in for Jack, see? See! There is a regal domineering aunt called Augusta, nearly Wodehousian in the fear she spreads, who treats her son (Lord Dolphinton) like a foster-child; there is a flowery French dandy called Camille; there's a lady named Buckhaven, who nearly brings her name and home into disrepute; there's an oafish elder brother called Claude; and there's more, more unremarkable realistic names, more added meaning and plot substantiation, more lightly-worn learning and clever post-modern humour. Should I have been surprised? At one point, a character called Olivia is referred to as "Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty". When did Shakespeare become decoration in a popular novel? Heyer ground, it turns out, covers a lot more territory than I ever expected.

Cotillion is an excellent novel, full of charm and cleverness, well-balanced and well-balancing. I'm going to keep my eyes open, from now on. I'm going to expect more, enjoy more. I'm going to stop sneering at games. I'm going to stop smiling without reason at other people's names. Go read Cotillion and enjoy it for yourself.

Reading: The Well Wrought Urn + Cleanth Brooks
Listening: "River Of Jordan" + Drexel

No comments: