Friday, September 09, 2005

Four Words

Just finished reading John Banville's The Sea. Liked it, didn't love it. The man's vocabulary is amazing though (who else would speak blithely of levitant euphoria, or think that telling you that the narrator had a scar on his wrist just over the ulnar styloid is going to help?). Four new words I picked up [1]:

Prelapsarian a. Pertaining to the condition before the Fall.

A rough beast, its hour come at last, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. Not the skipping fawns of some impossible innocence but a Leviathan, a nostalgic dinosaur hauling its great bulk out from the tar-pits of a grief that is yet to harden into guilt. The folds of its skin hanging loose, like memory. That expression in its eyes that tells you it is already looking past you.

Anaglypta n. a proprietary term for a special type of thick embossed wallpaper.

The musty weight of the silence, thickening corridors through which no one dares pass. Walls that have fattened on long forgotten footsteps. The flaking memory of a time when our dreams were still covered with paper, prints of hope blue and green and yellow, the colour of flowers that were bound to die. Look how sad the truth seems now, hidden under bulky layers of faded dreams. As if the loneliness of those who passed this way all those years ago had silted the very air with their defeat.

Catafalque n. ‘A stage or platform, erected by way of honour in a church to receive the coffin or effigy of a deceased personage’ (Littré); A movable structure of this kind; a kind of open hearse or funeral car.

Lethe. An hour to go till day arrives, the first spirits stirring in the pre-dawn light. Death, it turns out, is a city rather like Venice; Charon is just another gondolier. Dogs appear around corners to bark at you, from the buildings that tower over your bewildered head, the faces of tart housewives glance at you from half-opened windows, then withdraw, having satisfied their curiousity. Somewhere, a few blocks away now, but invisible to the eye, the sea sighs in its restless sleep. You trail your hand in the water, feeling the cold of it travel up your wrist. You have been told not to drink from the river, but it occurs to you suddenly that you are not a tourist here, that from this place there is no going back. A great sun is beginning to blaze in the sky. You cup your palms, bring the cool liquid to your lips. It tastes salty, and a little stale. When you look up, you have forgotten already who you are and what you are doing here. You are aware of nothing but the slow, gliding movement of this boat, skimming silently through the water, making hardly a ripple.

Assagai n. A kind of slender spear or lance of hard wood, usually pointed with iron, used in battle. Originally, the native name of a Berber weapon adopted by the Moors; but extended by the Portuguese to the light javelins of African tribespeople generally, and most commonly applied by Englishmen to the missile weapons of the South African tribes.

There he stands, the warrior, sleek as a panther, spear held tightly in his hand. Standing there, on the shore, in the half light of dusk, it is difficult to tell which is man and which weapon. They both have the same air of lightness made feral with power, of a being poised endlessly on the edge of flight. There is a lethal causalness to them, a relationship with death so familiar that neither would hesitate to throw himself, almost lightly, in death's way. The warrior's eyes scan the sea carefully, searching for a weakness in its grey, metallic armour. This is the mythic quarry he has sought these six long months, hunting it sometime by smell, sometime by the hint of it in the breeze on his skin. Now it lies before him, sleeping, and he must strike. But where? Where is the heart of the monster? Taking up his spear, he readies himself, throws the spear mightily at his quarry. As the missile arches in its fell trajectory towards the beast, he feels, for an instant, that sense of godhead that his ancestors gambled away all those years ago. But his spear has not flown true. It sinks slowly under the beast's skin and the beast stirs, moves a little way. He can still see the spear lying there, gouged into the enemies side, drifting further and further away from him. It is a flesh wound, nothing more. He turns his back on the ocean, walks away. There is no shame in losing to so mighty a foe, he tells himself. But it still hurts.

The other interesting find from the book was a discussion of Bonnard and his paintings of his wife in the bath, which I wasn't familiar with before, and have now been exploring thanks to Google. See, who said fiction can't be educational!

[1] All definitions taken from the OED.

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