Onomastics

Alex Ivanovitch

  • Armadillo by William Boyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 310 pp, £16.99, February 1998, ISBN 0 241 13928 7
  • Nat Tate: American Artist, 1928-60 by William Boyd
    Twenty One, 77 pp, £9.95, April 1998, ISBN 1 901785 01 7

‘Names are important,’ someone says in Armadillo, William Boyd’s seventh novel. The line crops up a few times elsewhere in Boyd’s books, as do characters who show some sensitivity to the tricky business of naming. ‘What if we hadn’t had such great names?’ Frank O’Hara wonders in Nat Tate, the hoax biography that took in much of New York’s art establishment a few weeks ago: ‘what if we had been called Gilbert Kline, Jonathan Pollock, Cyril O’Hara, Jennifer Krasner, Timothy Rivers, Philip Tate?’ The question is left hanging but the answer, in Tate’s case, is that this little practical joke would surely have gone out into the world without its best gag. Had the guests at Modern Painters’ New York party read The New Confessions, for example, they might have remembered that Boyd was the sort of writer who could call a man with bad skin Hamish Malahide, and a German private eye Eugen P. Eugen. Nat Tate’s name is not exactly a giveaway, but it’s certainly the sort of joke Boyd’s readers have come across before. It’s appropriate that a nasty verbal ghost should have taken up residence in the name of a painter haunted by die fear of being second-rate, but the allusion to the word ‘tat’ in both parts of his name ought to have alerted the partygoers.

Boyd has always believed in giving proper nouns work to do, comic or otherwise, but recently the taxing business of name-giving and name-claiming has come to occupy an increasingly central place in his fiction. It started with his fifth novel, Brazzaville Beach, which opens with the narrator explaining how the beach came by its name. What’s interesting about Hope’s introduction is not just that it shows her to be me sort of person who takes names seriously, but that this little throwaway passage tells in brief the sort of story Boyd’s subsequent two novels go on to tell at some length. The Blue Afternoon, for example, takes the beginning of Brazzaville Beach and makes something rather grand out of it, an epic explanation of how Kay Paget came to be called Kay Carriscant. Armadillo is similar, a story that spools out between two names: our hero calls himself Lorimer Black and ends up as Milomre Blocj. Like the author of NatTate, Black is a dissimulator, but one whose project has nothing jokey about it: after an embarrassing episode at university he changes his name and decides to live as anonymously as possible by adopting, at various points, the identity of least resistance. The name he comes up with, Lorimer Black, turns out to be a nom de guerre for an embattled man who feels in need of protection from life’s attacks – which is quite appropriate for a maker of bits and metal mountings for horses’ bridles. Lorimer is the armadillo of the title, the ‘little armed man’ whose hobby is collecting antique helmets and whose task, we find, is to shrug off both his own nominal shell and Boyd’s taunting nickname. The hero has to come to terms with the unpredictability of life, and he shows how important names can be by choosing to make his big affirmation symbolically, on a nominal level. The book ends with him listening to his old, and now recovered, name, Milomre, or Milo, being broadcast over an airport tannoy system – nicely, ‘milo’ is pretty much all that’s left of an armadillo that has lost its armour (and, nicely, milo is Russian for ‘nicely’).

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