Wednesday Word of the Week 7


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.

6 thoughts on “Wednesday Word of the Week 7

  1. I appreciate literature’s universal buttress of language. So much of modern writing is for “ease of reading” and aims low for comprehension, often disparaging “big word.” This book sounds like a delicious well to dive into and drink. I’ve not heard of it before. Nor had I encountered “poltroonery.’

    1. I like to assuage my despair at the state of much writing today, at the swill that gets published, the hackneyed formulas with cardboard characters, by reminding myself that even “pulp” fiction has a long lineage and that perhaps there is a place for it all. Good writing can crop up in surprising places. Still, it is good to return to a master of the oft-maligned “canon” of English literature, to see the heights literature can attain and hear the music our language is capable of producing. This novel is indeed a delicious well and I haven’t quite reached the bottom of it yet!

      1. Ah, yes! I think my favorite place to settle is in that literature that also knows how to open us up to see the world, to use language to draw us into imagination.

  2. As always, Jeanne, I take great delight in your critiques. Your writing is superlative and titillates my senses. Surely, you have peaked my interest and I, too, have ‘eschewed much literary fiction of late’.

    1. Robin, good to see you in this space and thanks so much for reading and commenting! Glad I peaked your interest with Justine. Will probably read the next three in the quartet. Thought at the same time I am hungry to try some more contemporary sicence fiction, maybe something “out there” like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. Hope we can have this conversation in the flesh soon, though we seem to keep meeting like this 🙂

  3. From my good friend and former thesis advisor Linda G.

    Interesting to see your comments from Justine–Book 1 in The Alexandria Quarter. I read the whole thing when I was in graduate school. Someone gave it to me. What I also really appreciated about all four books was that the first three all looked at life in Alexandria, Egypt, from a different perspective–like in real life,– and then the last book took place later in time. I thought it was a brilliant commentary on how we all live in our different worlds–even in the same city. Not to mention the brilliant writing itself. I was so moved by it that years later when I as in Taos with a rented car, I decided to try to find the house where Lawrence Durrell lived. I had to go on dirt little roads and it was getting dark and hoped my car didn’t break down, because I was out in the middle of nowhere. But I finally arrived at the house, even though he wasn’t there. (Not sure if he was still alive then??). Anyway, he is a very poetic writer with wonderful imagery and his writing had a big impact on me at the time.

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