Sunday 13 January 2013

Gertrude Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

I vowed to avoid the hack's trick of working a modish public figure into my first paragraph to snag the reader's attention. You know the sort of thing: "Many top celebrities, like Mick Jagger and Nigella Lawson, will be seeing in the New Year with friends and family. But what about those calories?"

I'm told this is a way of attracting internet search engines - so if an article on quantitative easing name-checks Lady Gaga it may just snare the attention of a gormless browser. And the more hits on a newspaper website the better the advertising revenue, and the better the revenue the happier the cynical, grasping and immoral proprietors.

This blog isn't like that, so I'll begin today's entry by introducing the Estonian poet and short-story writer Jaak Jõerüüt, whose name flourishes a cluster of umlauts that reminds me of first seeing the word 'Fijiian' in print. He was at one time his country's Defence Minister, resigning voluntarily over the so-called 'T-shirt affair' in 2005. (That's worth a Google when you have a moment.) If, like me, you haven't read his stuff it may be down to the fact that his name is unpronounceable, even by fellow Estonians. How would you ask for his books in Waterstone's? The amiable assistant in my local branch has enough difficulty with J. K. Rowling (to rhyme with bowling? or fouling?).

Jõerüüt takes the palm for unbankable cognomens in the Anglophone world - but how about such higher-profile names as Michael Houellebecq, Annie Proulx and Theodore Roethke?  They are respectively and approximately Wellbeck, Prool and Rottker. At least that's how I say them - but then I recall the lecturer who confidently and consistently pronounced Yeats to rhyme with Keats. Yeets. Nobody questioned this as she was no fool and might even have been on to something. 

And, likewise, I think I may be on to something. Browsing in Foyle's bookshop recently I made a note of all the authors appearing on the first few shelves of General Fiction. Here they are, as they appeared, and with no exclusions: 

Kobo Abe, Kia Abdullah, Nathalie Abi-Ezzi, Leila Aboulela,   Diana Abu-Jaber, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Aravind Adija, Sholem Aleichem, Aynd Alethar, Turki Al-Ahmad, Isabelle Allende, Uwem Akpan, Niccolò Ammaniti, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Tashmina Nam . . .

And there I stopped, not least because any more books in the sequence were displayed below knee level, and I wasn't prepared to squat uncomfortably in pursuit of a thesis. (It's a baffling aspect of bookshops that they feel a need to display so much of their stock at ankle level - who knows what authors languish undisturbed down there?)

For some reason there were no Ackroyds or Ackers on display, but I noticed a stray Eric Ambler a few feet away. Of course the familiar giants of the nineteenth century are shelved elsewhere as 'Classics', and various genres now have their own point of sale displays. I'm not complaining about the dazzling ethnic diversity of current fiction - far from it. The astonishing range of talents to be found in a few feet of bookshelves - Chilean, Italian, Indian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Nigerian and Sudanese writers, some of them writing in English, others translated - is a cause for celebration, and the rise of post-colonial literatures is one of the most exciting and optimistic developments in the arts in generations. Multiply the dozen or so authors listed above by several hundred and you'll have an idea of the range on offer. I'm all for it. 

But here's a Pooterish admission. With the exceptions of Chinua Achebe and Isabelle Allende and Niccolò Ammaniti (whom I haven't read) and the two Amises, I don't know for sure how any of these authors' names are correctly pronounced. I can make a fair guess in most cases but feel uncomfortably aware that I might well be wrong, fear such an exposure and don't know who to ask. Are authors and publishers missing a commercial trick here? Could they not improve their sales by inviting their authors to adopt more reader-friendly names? Not Anglo-Saxon names, to be sure, but phonetically unambiguous and instantly pronounceable. While they're at it they might do something to improve the look and feel of the books - all of which resemble The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye, complete with fulsome encomia from some heavyweight name. 

What's also worth noting is that almost every book in the list is a work in translation and seems to trail plaudits from other authors in the same category. I tend to avoid novels in translation for the same reason that I avoid (say) 3D movies and Virgin Trains - the experience tends to be all gong and no dinner.

And I couldn't help but notice an inverse relation between the alluring exoticism of the authors' names and the lacklustre quality of the titles: Child's Play, Wandering Stars, I'm Not Scared, The White Tiger, Half of a Yellow Sun and (my favourite) Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them.

Getting back to writers though - none of the others I've listed, with the exception of Kia Abdullah (and I may look at her in a later blog), is a negligible talent, and none is is as challenging to an English reader's eye (or preconceptions) as the distinguished Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Renouncing English, Christianity, and the baptismal name James Ngugi as oppressively colonialist back in the 1970s, he began to write in his native Gĩkũyũ and Swahili - a case where the author's choice of a name articulates a complete and coherent artistic and political position, and more power to him - he's a substantial and admirable figure and makes a point worth making. He'd be the first to give my observations the bum's rush, and quite rightly. 

But when it comes to an apparently simple issue of pronunciation are we even on firm ground when it comes to 'Jekyll'? Not as in Gertrude Jekyll (which as we all know rhymes with treacle) but as in the depraved Mr. Hyde's strait-laced alter ego. These days it's universally pronounced to rhyme with freckle, but I expect Robert Louis Stevenson would be taken aback. Only a morbid pedant would bother to mention this, to be sure - but we live in a culture in which pedantry is necessarily morbid. 

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