Word of the Week 7: Poltroonery
Welcome to Wednesday Word of the Week, a hump-day cyber celebration of skillful and felicitous word choice selected from my current reading.
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my friend, la belle sakura, for this week’s selection from Lawrence Durrell’s monumentally literary and erudite modern novel, Justine (1957), a book that leaves me utterly abashed. The first novel in The Alexandria Quartet, it is now recognized as a hallmark achievement in modern English literature. Having eschewed much literary fiction of late, I felt my brain lit on fire with this book’s magnificent command of the language, its brilliant metaphors, its fiercely intelligent reflections on love and art and the travails of the human condition.
The book also presented a formidable challenge of elimination; so many superb words to choose from, many of which sent me plucking the pages of my dictionary: plaints; clouts; transpontine demotic; meretricious; ordure; anchorite. Some words both my Oxford American College Dictionary and Merriam Webster online app failed to recognize: mumchance; eikons; cafard. No doubt the author’s British colonial background had something to do with this extraordinary diversity of vocabulary, but it is also his conception of literature as a universe unto itself that more adroitly explains his feat. In a 1959 Paris Review interview he explains it thus:
. . . we’re all, as artists, attacking as a battalion on a very broad front. Individual and temperamental personalities are incidental to the general attack and what we as artists are trying to do is to sum up in a sort of metaphor the cosmology of a particular moment in which we are living.
And what a cosmology it is: the glittering, treacherously seductive city of Alexandria on the eve of the Second World War, in which the purblind characters chart their faltering journeys along the fault lines of passion and desire. There is the eponymous Justine, violated in youth, doomed to repeatedly deceive the men who love her; the love-struck narrator, drawn like a spider into the web of subterfuge and complicity; Justine’s husband Nessim, an Egyptian Gatsby held like a moth before the flame of her beauty and confounding contradictions, repaying her infidelities with luxury and sad solicitude; and the cast of expats and locals who trace their crisscrossing trajectories in the ‘dust-tormented, subtly anarchic city, in “light filtered through the essence of lemons.”
I pause breathless here, and can only recommend that you dive into this deep well of a book, and drink in its extraordinary language and story.
As for today’s word, I admit that I had to check the definition. The lines refer to the thoughts of the character Pursewarden, a respectably successful Anglo Saxon novelist flagging under the weight of a sullen, brooding self-assessment at odds with his swelling Reputation. He cannot reconcile his lonely suffering with his new-found fame, and will soon commit suicide.
“Underneath it all he has been steadily putting up with an almost insupportable consciousness of his own mental poltroonery.”
I could say so much more about the extraordinarily beautiful metaphors (“a squinting spring shower”; “his little cranium glowing like a minor sun; “the scampering of the sea”; her brain at night “ticking like a cheap alarm-clock”) but I’ll end with a simple recommendation: When you find yourself longing for a taste of writing at the pinnacle of craft and sensibility and form, pick up this novel and leave mediocrity trodden in the dust.
And if you’ve encountered this word in your reading, let me know. Or consider sharing the use of another word or phrase that has stopped you in your reading tracks this week.