The Best of Brit Lit
Once upon a time at the Times Literary Supplement a dictionary of slang was a compact addition to the bookshelf containing the Oxford English Dictionary. Green’s Dictionary of Slang, reviewed by James Sharpe this week, contains over 6,000 pages, comes in three volumes, and is constructed on “historical principles” so that the reader can examine how much (and how little) the meanings of such phrases as “abraham man” and “powder monkey” have changed over the centuries. Sex and foreigners are constant subjects; the Dutch seem to have suffered surprising levels of linguistic abuse by the British. Thus we have “not only Dutch treats, uncles, auctions, and courage, but also the less familiar Dutch act (suicide), Dutch dumplings (gay slang for buttocks), and Dutch doggery (a low grog-shop).” The arrival of William III on the throne in 1689 seems to have set limits on the use of “Dutch” in pejorative expressions and there explanations of new slang: “gelt” for money; “Hans-en-kelder” for a jack-in-the-box or a baby in the womb; “placaert”, defined as “a Dutch proclamation, an order of the States”; and “skipper”, defined as “a Dutch master of a ship or vessel”.
Few would regret the drift to democracy—slow and faltering as it has been—that has taken place across so much of the Spanish-speaking world in the decades since the death of General Franco. But for young writers in that world, writes Michael Kerrigan in the TLS this week, the burden of history has been heavy. “To live just after interesting times is a special kind of curse. How is the new normality to be borne?” Kerrigan praises the ambition of Granta magazine in bringing together 22 pieces—short stories and extracts from longer works—by writers who were born in or after 1975. The compilation, which is published both in Spanish and in translation, offers a wide-ranging sampler. Spain itself is represented, as are Latin American countries from Uruguay to Peru, and from Mexico to Chile. Not that nationality matters, the editors insist: “The literary homeland... is the language itself.” That is true enough, as far as it goes, says Kerrigan. What they might have added is that the other country here is frequently the past.
The most peculiar story, he notes, is “Olingiris,” by Argentina’s Samanta Schweblin. Bald and laconic, it starts out from the image of the fisherman harvesting the river for food. “Harking back to humanity’s evolutionary origins, it recalls our drift to the cities in slightly elegiac terms before looking forward to a faintly sci-fi future in which women, just arrived in the capital and in need of money, take themselves to a mysterious 'Institute.' In the most matter-of-fact tone, it describes how here they are laid out face-down like wet fish on slablike gurneys so that wealthier women, who have paid for the privilege, can pluck their body hair with tweezers (like 'seagull beaks pulling fish from the sea')."
"Add a dream, lose a reader,” writes Will Self, misquoting Henry James and misattributing this dictum to “Uncle Vladimir” (presumably Nabokov rather than, say, Putin or the Impaler). And rarely can an authorial warning have been more flagrantly flouted than by Self himself, writes Toby Lichtig in his review of Walking to Hollywood, “a fervid, febrile and wilfully demented ‘memoir’ of the author’s mental pathologies and psychiatric hypochondriasis. Mixing moments of brilliant lucidity and wit with vast tranches of wayward verbiage, Self’s gonzo autobiography demonstrates everything that is best and worst about this most uninhibited of authors.”
There are three sections for three pathologies. The first (obsessive-compulsive disorder) looks at Self’s friendship with the (at least partly fictive) sculptor Sherman Oaks (also the name of a Los Angeles suburb). Oaks, who suffers from achondroplastic dwarfism, creates giant, Antony Gormley-esque sculptures, which cause Self to ponder his own Swiftian obsession with “distortions in scale,” an “expression of my own arrested development.” Wherever the author goes, he scales up and scales down, refusing to see the world as it appears, which becomes a recurring joke as Self neurotically questions every unit and measurement around him.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq War.