What’s in a Name?
Here are five passages. The first is from Saul Bellow's Dean's December where the narrator says, "he tagged along to Liberty's, Jaeger's, Harrods", and the second from Nice Work by David Lodge: "And if her body occasionally craved a keener sensation she was able to provide it herself, without shame or guilt, theoretically justified by the writings of radical French feminists like Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, who were very eloquent on the joys of female auto-eroticism." Here is the third from Georges Perec's A Void, "Amaury is drawn to 5 or 6 works that Vowl was obviously studying with a particular goal in mind: Gombrich's Art and Illusion, Witold Gombrowicz's Cosmos, Monica Wittig'sL'opoponax, Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, Noam Chomsky, Roman Jakobson, and finally, Louis Aragon's Blanche ou L'oubli." The fourth comes from Jean Echenoz's Cherokee. "The young woman had on a black dress with miniscule blue-grey designs; her eyes were blue-grey, her hair blond, which she wore like Angie Dickinson in Point Blank." And finally Joyce's 'The Dead', "he was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better."
What do all these passages have in common? They all possess examples of what we'll call nominal determination: instances of naming that locates the detail in social space and time, potentially to the detriment of fictional intent. There is the danger that such naming can date a book or throw the reader out of the fictional story, but our purpose isn't simply to judge, but to muse over the issue - and also lightly taxonomize.
Few writers escape such usage, and the examples chosen have been almost random: Bellow, Lodge, Perec, Echenoz and Joyce: writers with different styles and different agendas; all perhaps sharing a self-reflexive aspect, but illustrating it in antithetical ways. Bellow and Lodge, for example, are interested in character-oriented realism; Perec and Echenoz more concerned with literature and the ludic. While Lodge utilises the intellectually highfalutin in his novels as a nod towards the academy from whence he comes, Bellow seems to demand more gravity. He is one of literature's great name-droppers as he attempts to sum up the culture not only of our time, but also of an empire (the US) with roots in the great empires of Europe. In Ravelstein we hear that "at Chequers, Mrs Thatcher called his attention to a painting by Titian: rearing lion caught in a net. A mouse gnawing at the cords to set the lion free. (Is that one of Aesop's Fables?) This detail had been lost in the shadows for centuries. One of the greatest men of the century, Winston Churchill, with his own brushes had restored the mythic mouse."
Here is a grand nominal sweep, covering two and a half thousand years, from Aesop to Thatcher. In the middle of Humboldt's Gift, one page informs us of why T. E. Lawrence enlisted in the RAF; the next page we're informed about an exchange between Kafka and Rudolf Steiner where the latter stuck his finger deep into his nostrils with a handkerchief much to Kafka's disgust. Bellow's work is a rash of references, and even one of his most controlled, reference light works, Seize the Day, mentions Coca-Cola on several occasions, the Giants and the Dodgers, George Raft and William Powell. Many of Bellow's references are cultural rather than geographic, perhaps apt for a writer who is often happier see-sawing between different tenses. When his leading character in The Bellarosa Connection says "my case is different in that I owe my worldly success to the innate gift of memory", and later adds "I can visualize continents and the outlines of countries, but I'm antsy about exact locations" it is because his characters seem more to exist in time than space. Though over the next few pages he will mention Palestine, Genoa, Vienna, Manhattan, Cuba, Turin and Rome, the references suggest a globe-trotting familiarity rather than geographical specificity.
By contrast, Echenoz is the opposite of antsy. Cherokee is almost narrative as map, with Echenoz detailing precisely his characters' movements around Paris. "He walked back up Rue de Richelieu toward the boulevards. Before the pedestrian crossing of rue du Quatre-Septembre, he heard the rapid clicking of her heels behind him." Later in the book another character "turned on Avenue de l'Opera to take Rue Saint-Honore, by which he reached Chatelet, where they arrived at the Cafe Sarah Bernhardt." Echenoz's book suggests the flaneur; Bellow's work often indicates the jetsetting. Echenoz describes the body's movements through space, while Bellow's move through a stratospheric time: a high altitude existence where the body's actions are rarely delineated but instead behaviour observed. When James Wood reckoned "you can never find in Bellow the kind of workmanlike sentence that goes: "He put down his drink and left the room'" (The New Republic), it lies not only, or even especially, in Bellow's stylistic gift, but in this stratospheric approach to characterisation. Where Echenoz grounds his book in ambulation, Bellow's work is often concerned with various forms of flight: the nominal determinism serves as flights of fancy of the mind and of geography. In The Bellarosa Connection Bellow says "to survive in Milan he had to learn Italian pretty damn quick. So as not to waste time, he tried to arrange to speak it even in his dreams. Later, in Cuba, he acquired Spanish too. He was gifted that way. In New Jersey he soon was fluent in English". This is whiplash biography; three countries covered in five sentences. The idea of putting down a cup and leaving a room is too prosaic an action for Bellow to delineate when he can get people not in and out of rooms but in and out of continents in little more than a sentence. On other occasions he will sum up an era nominally, as in Humboldt's Gift. "In the late forties when Huggins was a celebrity in Greenwich Village I was a very minor member of the group that discussed politics, literature, and philosophy in his apartment. There were people like Chiaromonte and Rahv and Abel and Paul Goodman and von Humboldt Fleisher."
If Echenoz names to locate a character precisely in space, Bellow does so to remove him from its ready coordinates. However, while Echenoz shares Alain Robbe-Grillet's interest in sketching the specifics of space, he does so with much greater nominal density. Certainly, though, both writers are interested in placing characters in spaces that are more descriptive than the characterisation, as if Echenoz follows Robbe-Grillet in the latter's fascination with giving "a minute, geometrical description of the world around him..." (Ghosts in the Mirror). In Echenoz nominalism demands spatial fidelity; in Bellow it allows him to escape it. David Lodge is of course someone who would be well aware of the choices available to him as a writer. Along with Malcolm Bradbury he was for many years Britain's best known academic-novelist: a writer known for campus novels, and which usually contained within them the knowing facetiousness of a writer having his cake and eating it too as the books played with theory while at the same time insistently telling quite conventional stories. In Nice Work it is industry year and academic Robyn Penrose has been asked to shadow Vic, the managing director of an engineering firm, as the faculty meets the street. The book gives Lodge the opportunity to reference anyone from Derrida to Lacan,Jane Eyre to Hard Times. Early in the novel we get a reference to industrial fiction and a nod to Raymond Williams. Lodge has a serious point to make - concerning the divide between the academy and the outside world - but much of the humour comes from nominal assumption. When Vic asks what Daniel Deronda wrote, Robyn replies "he's not a he, he's a book. By George Eliot". "Good writer, is he, this Eliot bloke?" "He was a she actually" Robyn says. The naming here allows for a gentle joke at Vic's expense, as Lodge will probably assume that his readers know that George Eliot is a woman, and, though a little less likely, that she was the author of Daniel Deronda. This is name-dropping as laughter creating.
In Perec's The Void the names dropped probably can't expect the resonances Lodge takes for granted; thus inevitably functioning differently. If Lodge's references indicate a literate readership, Perec's suggest something more furtive, even secretive: the bringing together of names and disciplines that wouldn't usually be grouped in one sentence. If Lodge practises a cultural assumption, an Arnold-like notion of what an educated person ought to know if they want to separate themselves from the herd, Perec assumes a readership that seems more private than public, more cult-oriented and eclectic than interested in possessing what Pierre Bourdieu would call cultural capital. Thus Matthew Arnold could note that "the disparagers of culture make its motive curiosity; sometimes, indeed, they make its motive mere exclusiveness and vanity. The culture which is supposed to plume itself on a smattering of Greek and Latin is a culture which is begotten by nothing so intellectual as curiosity; it is valued as sheer vanity and ignorance or else as an engine of social and class distinction, separating its holder, like a badge or title, from other people who have not got it." (Culture and Anarchy)
Lodge's use of Eliot here seems to fall into the knowing category, assuming the reader possesses a small sum of useful cultural capital that can be spent on a good laugh. The book isn't highbrow at all in its use of idiomatic speech and narrative convention (it was turned into a successful TV serial), but its referencing elevates it to mild snob status. The cultural capital isn't the gold standard of Ancient Latin and Greek, but it has some value on the high (cultural) street. Perec's referencing seems closer to money found down the back of the sofa, or discovered on the pavement. It is not that the writers referenced by Perec are inferior; more that the knowledge as cultural capital happens to be. In Theodore Zeldin's The French, he talks of a bourgeois who keeps up with art so that he knows what people are talking about at social gatherings and parties: he feels obliged to stay in the loop. It is a perfect example of the appropriate amount of cultural capital, and it is this appropriateness that Lodge offers and Perec does not.
Even later on, when the narrator in A Void talks about Italy's top film star, we're left with an obscure world rather than the clear vision Lodge offers. "Most conspicuous by far is Italy's top film star, Amanda von Comodoro-Rivadavia, soon to fly out to Hollywood to sign a six-million-dollar contract with Francis Ford Coppola for a trilogy of Mafia dramas with Marlon Brando and Al Pacino." Here the nominal real world doesn't intrude on the fictional one, it intermingles with it, as Perec thinks nothing of mixing the actual and the fictional. It is one thing for a character to be reading a writer like Eliot, and not entirely different to note that someone is reading a strange brew of Mann, Gombrowicz, Jakobson and Chomsky, but it is another to bring the names actively into the fiction. This is like a variation on the roman a clef, a novel which is thinly-veiled fact, but where instead of the factual lightly covered by a fictional gloss that hides the reality, the reality occasionally peaks through. It would have been easy enough for Perec to talk of a famous Italian-American director and two of Hollywood's biggest stars of the seventies without naming them, but the naming invites us to wonder much more speculatively about who Comodoro-Rovadavia might be if proper names are invoked around her fictional character. Where Mann, Gombrowicz and the others are names utilised by Vowl for some project he seemed to be working on, Coppola, Brando and Pacino become actively rather than passively involved in the fictional world: they aren't part of a film that Comodoro-Rovadavia sees, but people she meets.
Is Saul Bellow closer to Perec or Lodge? With references in Herzog to Goethe, Rousseau, Kierkegaard and Buber; Picasso, Rilke, Tsvetayeva and Whitehead inThe Dean's December; Dante, Pound, Proust and T. S. Eliot in Humboldt's Gift,Bellow is nominally incontinent. Yet Bellow's approach seems different from Lodge's - as if Lodge simply assumes cultural capital, where Bellow's naming seems almost culturally capitalist, as if a socio-economic variation of Arnold's notion of elitism quoted above. There is often luxury involved in Bellow's referencing, as many of the men in his later books are in positions of power. InThe Bellarosa Connection the narrator announces straight away: "As founder of the Mnemosyne Institute in Philadelphia, forty years in the trade, I trained many executives, politicians..." In A Theft the central character was once married to an oil tycoon, while her great love affair was with a man where "the Shah likes to talk to him. He sent for him once just to be briefed on Kissinger". In The Actual the narrator is a self-made man able to leave others to run his business while he takes his leisure.
Where Lodge offers the knowing cultural capital of the post-war consensus, with the bright going to university with full grants and gaining the sort of knowledge Lodge distributes throughout his book, Bellow's referencing suggests a cultural elitism not because he is any more or any less of a snob than Lodge; more that the socio-economic relationship to education in the States might be perceiveddifferently from that in the UK. References to George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Kafka and Kierkegaard are within the remit of the modestly paid, not only the exorbitantly wealthy. At one moment the narrator in Nice Work informs us of her educational background, saying "she attended an excellent direct-grant grammar school...where she was Head Girl and Captain of Games and which she left with four A grades at A-level." She was urged to apply to Oxbridge but chose Sussex. "Under the umbrella of a degree course in English literature, Robyn read Freud and Marx, Kafka and Kierkegaard". Even the references to Saussure and Lacan are contained within the notion of an arts education not too hard to come by. In an interview in The Independent, Lodge insisted: "It's a fallacy the idea that you allow the market to decide what is done by the universities. This assumes that students know exactly what they need to be doing. It is a very, very fallacious argument that you only supply where there is demand. If you do that, many important cultural areas will disappear from what universities have to offer." Though he admits that getting into university in the sixties and seventies might have been difficult, it wasn't at all elitist: if somebody had the grades they could get the grant.
As the British system moves increasingly to an American style with high student fees will British novels increasingly resemble American ones? Of course we are over-simplifying, but Bellow's nominalism indicates elitism, while Lodge's suggests democratic knowledge, culture that is close to Arnold's ideal, or rather a lot closer to it than we find in Bellow. Yet what Bellow does share with Perec in the example we gave above is nominalism as guessing game. When the high-flying political character in A Theft is acknowledged to be someone who knew the Shah and Kissinger, we might wonder if the person actually existed.
Also, for all Bellow's high-brow references, he often utilises a middle-brow use of comparison. In The Dean's December someone says, "you sound like the Reverend Jones" in an allusion to the cult leader, while a county jail director is talked about in the papers "as if he'd been Chicago's Idi Amin". There is also a remark about someone looking like the actor William Powell. In A Theft, one of Clara's husbands had a lifestyle that "would have qualified him for a role in La Dolce Vita." In Humboldt's Gift a character is described as wearing old-fashioned dresses that made her look like Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford". If the references to high culture in Perec, Bellow and Lodge are one thing, then the comparative nominalism is something else. It is the same as Echenoz's comment about a hairstyle like Angie Dickinson's, where often the descriptive expectation is displaced: with the writer asking the viewer to utilise cultural memory over imagining the character on the basis of visual description.
This is perhaps especially unusual a device in Bellow's work when we know that he is one of the great descriptive writers in the U.S, someone who details the minutiae of a character's appearance for the pleasures of the flesh at one remove: few writers care more for the small touches that sum up character. When in Herzog the narrator says "Her fingers, some elegant, some nail-bitten, gripped the agate steering wheel", this is a sentence with potentially superfluous adjectives, and one might be reminded of Colin Wilson's analysis of H. P. Lovecraft's work in The Strength to Dream to understand the difference between Bellow's use and the horror writer's. "The incalculable age and brooding horror of this monstrous waste began to oppress me as never before, and I could not keep from thinking about my maddening dreams of the frightful legends...And yet I plodded on, as if to some eldritch rendezvous". (The Shadow out of Time) Wilson notes there are "six unnecessary adjectives in this passage", but would we claim there are unnecessary ones in Bellow's? If we reduce his sentence to its most basic we have "Her fingers gripped the wheel." That is the point of the sentence, but the comment on her nails and the type of steering wheel does descriptive work, the very point and purpose of adjectives. Lovecraft's adjectives don't manage to do so as he uses abstract adjectives to create an atmosphere that is, Wilson would say, descriptively empty. Now nominalism also of course functions adjectively. The writer may be invoking proper nouns, but he is doing so for the purposes of description as much as, if not more than, function. The functional noun, the common noun, in Bellow's passage, would be steering wheel, but he adds agate, which serves as an adjective, with Bellow looking for more precision in the description.
Often Bellow's use of proper nouns works similarly. When the narrator talks of Armani, Christian Lacroix and Sonia Rykiel, Bellow adds "she took the girl [Clara] to a show of the latest spring fashions from Italy, where she heard lots of discussion about the desirability of over-the-knee boots, and of the layering of the skirts of Gianni Versace over puffy knickers". The use of proper nouns allows Bellow to talk very specifically about elements of fashion as he shows the financial comfort zone his central character moves in. One might initially find the actual naming of the fashion houses gratuitous, but then Bellow grounds it in the specific. He wants to suggest not the narrator's perspective on the fashion show but Clara's. This is nominal immersion, with Bellow trying to indicate a specific world (that of fashion) through specific names. They function adjectively as they describe an environment. In this sense, Bellow's nouns can be seen to be more successful descriptively than Lovecraft's adjectives. As Wilson shows that they're descriptively empty, "Maddening dreams" and "frightful legends" become stock phrases with no content, or rather no added content beyond dreams and legends.
When James Wood, in a short piece in the Guardian, admires Bellow's prose it resides partly in Bellow's capacity to load his adjectives and verbs with great descriptive purpose. This is the opposite of purple prose, as Bellow describes for example a demolition team. "At the corner, he paused to watch the work of the wrecking crew. The great metal ball swung at the walls, passed easily through brick, and entered the rooms, the lazy weight browsing on kitchens and parlors. Everything it touched wavered and burst, spilled down." Wood notes the lack of similes, as Bellow's prose is "metaphorical, but there is hardly a simile in it: most of the weight is being held by verbs, or by single adjectives." Nominal determinism can work similarly where instead of the writer talking about a person's stupendous mind, a person's ability to read the greatest of thinkers, the most arcane of theory, a passage with careful use of proper nouns can do it quietly.
There is of course a danger however of proper nouns being asked to do more work than they are capable of doing. When Bellow draws on comparison through their use, we might wonder if they have enough historical longevity to serve the comparative. In The Dean's December a character says, "every time the plane landed they would search my plane. Search? They tore it apart. They must have seen The French Connection". Here the character is talking about Federal Narcotics people reckoning he was smuggling opium from Germany, and the scene in William Friedkin's film where the cops strip a car down to the very skeleton searching for drugs. It is a brilliant scene in a film that is a major work of seventies cinema, but it is not like quoting a passage from Medea or Macbeth. Comparative nominal determinism is one thing, but even within it we can differentiate between the sort of comparative quotation involved in invoking Euripides or Shakespeare, and references to The French Connection or La Dolce vita. The former possess nominal longevity; the latter nominal brevity. They might gain nominal longevity, but they don't possess it. This doesn't make the usage bad, but perhaps we might be reminded of Samuel Butler's comment: "when a man is in doubt about this or that in his writing, it will often guide him if he asks himself how it will tell a hundred years hence". Bellow's use of contemporary reference points for comparative comprehension might age the work: the desire for immediacy eventually countered by the stain of irrelevance.
However, sometimes a writer uses a reference almost as if they not only don't mind if the reference is irrelevant in a hundred years' time, but want it to appear slightly arcane even now. When Echenoz talks of the woman's hairstyle resembling Angie Dickinson's in Point Blank, this is the specific within the obscure. Such a reference might work with an icon like Marilyn Monroe, perhaps Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor, but with a modest star in a secondary role it seems willfully obscure, an opportunity, rather like in Perec's book, to create a reader in the know rather than culturally knowledgeable, or if not in the know, creating in the process a portal towards the possibility ofdiscovering something. Bellow's references are in danger of taking the work out of its fictional context at a future date as the references seem too tied to their moment, but Echenoz and Perec are perhaps seeking this very thrown-ness with any reader they happen to have.
One might wonder whether this stretches to geographical specificity as well. If Monroe, Hepburn and Taylor are bodily icons, places like The Eiffel Tower, The White House, the Houses of Parliament, the Reichstag, Notre Dame, and the Empire State Building are geographic icons. Equally street names like Oxford Street, Fifth Avenue, the Champs Elysees, Corrientes, the great squares in Mexico City and Marrakesh, carry huge symbolic import attached to their geographic specificity. Equally rivers like the Thames, the Danube, the Seine and the Rhine. But if a writer talks of a character walking from one little known street to another, but naming both, as Echenoz does, then again it seems to have the dimension of a portal more than a ready cultural reference. Here the geography isn't at all fictional or even elliptical: as we have proposed, it maps the space. In Bellow's work it seems often like a map collapsed by the vagaries of time. When in Humboldt's Gift the narrator says that "Humboldt picked me up in front of Demmie's apartment building on Barrow Street near the Cherry Lane Theatre", a page later we're told the car was "charging toward the Holland Tunnel". The space in between remains uncommented upon in an example of geographical ellipsis. In Joyce's 'A Little Cloud', however, we can trace the character's walk from The King's Inn, along Henrietta Street, towards and along Capel Street, and across Grattan Bridge and into Corless's - the pub. It is a journey easy to map, and even to follow for anyone who wants to create a Joycean experience in actual space rather than through only reading the text. It is a great example of the literary portal.
Might we propose that in terms of social, cultural and political references, or geographical possibilities, the portal might be the best reason for name-dropping in literature, and an inversion in some ways of Butler's remark? When Butler warns the writer that he should think about how something will read a hundred years hence, the geographic nominalism in Joyce's story is almost ready to be put to the test. It was published in 1914, the year the first world war began, of course, and a war that gave Ireland the opportunity to move towards its own independence. That walk a hundred years ago would have been one down a British street and now it is a walk down an Irish one. The story itself is a tale of admiration for one man who has made it in the great capital - not Dublin, of course, but London, the city towards which central character Little Chandler yearns. Yet, partly because of Joyce's cultural specificity, no matter his peripatetic wanderings that led him to live in Paris and Trieste, he helped define a nation - the birth of a nation. The geographical nominalism that is part of his work is also part of the building of a nation state. The portal expands to become vital to a national consciousness. It is where the cultish dimension of the writing develops into an account of national self-determination. This doesn't mean this is the writer's intention - though it might be - more that the need to address the specifics of time and place can then become part of the history of that time and place. When Dickens writes of London, Balzac of Paris and Dostoevsky of St Petersburg, they are not putting their cities on the map; they are already there. But when Joyce specifically maps out Dublin in the early years of the 20thcentury, he is doing exactly that. It is here that the apparently cultish portal of the writer appealing to the specific over the general reader can then become an element in an historical shift. Where Echenoz details a Paris that many readers will not automatically feel they know, as if creating a subterranean world within a well-known city, Joyce describes a little known city and helps make it internationally famous.
Nominalism is a broad church, indeed, and so it would be unfair to dismiss its use when it has been utilised in so many different ways and for many different purposes. Better, surely, to taxonomize, and there are no doubt far more categories available for examination than we have happened to offer here. Yetthe tentative categories have, we hope, served a purpose: to propose that one ought not to have an a priori resistance towards proper nouns in literature, but rather to see the ways in which these nouns can be put to use.
© Tony McKibbin