Lemon difficult

There is no danger of breaking the internet with this news – it’s not, after all, rocket science – but it could be a handy starter for ten if you drop into conversation that the English language remains a vigorous generator of novel idioms. Surely the keyboard warrior or the flat-track bully in your life will agree on that, without resort to Godwin’s law. (The attorney Mike Godwin put it thus, as early as 1990, when considering the phenomenon with which the world has grown all too familiar: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one”. Even earlier came Leo Strauss: “reductio ad Hitlerum”.)

Such essentially “non-decomposable” phrases, as a linguist might put it, have all manner of sources, as shown by Gareth Carrol in Jumping Sharks and Dropping Mics: Modern idioms and where they come from (If, £11.99). Television has given the world both jumping the shark and jumping the couch. Children of a certain generation will recall cops on TV shows talking grittily about a ten-four; This is cop code, originally from Illinois, for “OK” or “affirmative”. From the film In the Loop (2009), meanwhile, we were pleased to learn a wise response to the facile “easy peasy, lemon squeezy”: “difficult, difficult, lemon difficult”.

Do books still generate these living idioms? In his light guide to the subject, Carrol acknowledges the nobility of Walter Mittythe anguish of a Catch-22 situation (later to deteriorate into Sophie’s choice) and the dubious promise of a brave new world (see also April 22). Old meets new in a sarcastic response that, on his return from mental safarithe flat-track bully may utter when you casually observe that the English language remains a vigorous generator of novel idioms: “No shit, Sherlock”.

In general, however, these educational contributions to the language have taken a while to seep into widespread usage. The kind of person who can say it’s all quiet on the Western Front perhaps also identifies swings and roundabouts as a prewar concept, dating back as far as the poem “Roundabouts and Swings” by Patrick Reginald Chalmers (1912), not to mention PG Wodehouse’s novel Love among the Chickens (1906). Yet the phrase does not appear in exactly that form in either poem or novel. Its more likely source lies among those other well-known coiners of durable sayings: the costermongers of the late 1800s.

Words of a different order were celebrated last week as glasses were raised to Everyman’s Library, at the Polish Hearth Club on Exhibition Road. One or two TLS folk moved innocuously through a gentle mob of grandees; the publisher David Campbell spoke impressively of his belief in publishing as a craft rather than an industry. Whatever publishing is, it certainly involves a variety of skills, including, some would argue, sleight of hand. Officially, for example, this particular occasion concerned thirty years in the business: it was Campbell who had led the way in reviving Everyman’s Library in the early 1990s. A slightly different claim was presented by the free tote bags on offer: they bore the legend “EL 1906–2021”.

The allusion here is to JM Dent, who established the original Everyman’s Library. Various transformations ensued before the series’s demise in the 1970s. Admirable though the resuscitated Everyman’s project is, we couldn’t help but turn back to remind ourselves of what the TLS said about the originals. The volumes’ bindings were “unquestionably pretty”, noted the reviewer, Thomas Seccombe, in 1906, but their insides contained “no great superfluity of margin” and the “most unequal and irregular introductions”. An eyebrow had to be raised at Dent’s issuing fifty titles at a time, including some of uncertain value (so much for durability). The craze for such reprints would one day exhaust the Earth’s supplies of paper and ink – was William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729) really worth the trouble?

The craft of publishing clearly requires that you sometimes pay attention to the reviewers. Last month’s new Everyman titles numbered five rather than fifty.

In September 1993 – not quite for one night only – you might have enjoyed perambulating through the Jardin du Luxembourg, then strolled into the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe and seen Virginia Woolf’s Orlando on stage, in all his/her gender-shifting glory. Woolf’s novel, as adapted by Robert Wilson and Darryl Pinckney, and directed by Wilson, had already appeared in a German version, in 1989; An English version followed in 1996. Between the two came the French – Orlando being played by Isabelle Huppert – which premiered in Switzerland before its run in Paris and a tour.

In this photograph, Huppert strikes one of a number of “ballet-like poses”, as recorded in the show’s Parisian programme. That program – which also contains a word from Pinckney and French translations of excerpts from Woolf’s letters – may be as near as we non-Parisian, non-Luxembourg-strollers ever get to see Huppert’s Orlando. We’re not going to get near it any time soon, though: it seems that the copy is now for sale, for $295, via Jon S. Richardson Rare Books, is the only one on the market. Such is the ephemeral nature of the theater programme. The alternative? Redirect your footsteps to the Bibliothèque nationale and track down their copy.

We bang on, it’s true, about literary prizes (see, most recently, April 22). OK, boomer, you may say. Alas, it’s simply impossible for us to resist the manifold (and largely inevitable) absurities that such prizes generate as – for so they make it seem to us – a matter of course.

The Brooklyn Public Library literary prize, for example, was founded in 2015, and, “generously supported” by the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, it (cl)aims to “recognize” writing that captures the “spirit of Brooklyn”. It is worth $5,000 to the winners, such as (last year) New Yorkers by Craig Taylor and The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser. The selections are made by “librarians and library staff”.

Were those librarians bemused or relieved to receive an email last month informing them that they were not to think of themselves as “arbiters of quality and taste”? According to the library’s Office of Neighborhood Services, your neighbors may mistake you for such makers of taste if you include the fatal word (ahem) “literary” in the name of your prize. Despite being hobbled with that alarming adjective, the Brooklyn Public Library literary prize has “always stood for breaking down barriers and honoring innovative and inventive books”. “Literary”, however, “is a term that has come to represent an elite view that may lead to missing out on some amazing titles.” Worst of all, “literary” is a word that “puts the focus on quality of writing rather than how exciting and important those ideas are”.

The upshot? The Brooklyn Public Library literary prize is dead. Long live … the Brooklyn book prize.

There. Don’t you feel less elicit already?

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