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’).

On this occasion getting hold of the right name is hard work, out of which a whole story can be spun, but some of Boyd’s other characters refer to a more nonchalant, sovereign piece of name-giving, the episode in Genesis when Adam named the creatures that filed past him. We can imagine that Boyd’s own task as a namer is a bit like Adam’s, but Adam is confronted with an endless procession, and Boyd with a carousel in which the same sort of characters come round again and again, with the result that his naming duties involve a recurring set of dilemmas. Here’s one: what would be a good name for the knowing and self-assured woman all his heroes fall for? Armadillo’s answer is Flavia, a name not just Italian but Roman, patrician – a name embodying a test, in fact, because its bearer insists on being called ‘Flahvia’ rather than ‘Flayvia’, the wrong pronunciation marking the speaker as clumsy, crude, one who stumbles and is rejected. In The Blue Afternoon the hero’s beloved is called Delphine – a name at once floral and, again, classical (Delphine is ‘statuesque’ and, even better, ‘pale’). John James Todd’s lover in The New Confessions is called Doon, an odd, intractable name, one which gives Todd the chance both to dream of some shared Celtic origin and to call her by a (real) name which is shared by no other woman and which kicks up all sorts of sound neighbours but remains resolutely exotic. Each of these lovable first names, however, is attached to a malignant surname – the beloved is always married and so, unfortunately, always carries a hateful piece of her husband around with her. He may be a bit of a bully or a coward (the character is fleshed out just enough for us to find him slightly repellent), but in essence he’s only an odious narrative impediment, someone who just keeps getting in the way. Doon, for example, is divorced but still sleeps regularly with her ex-husband and even runs off with him, which is rather upsetting for poor Todd. What, then, might be a suitable name for this thwarting, stubborn revenant? Mavrocordato is Boyd’s answer: the polysyllable prolongs itself, remaining sumptuously in the mouth long after the three pips of John James Todd’s full name have disappeared (besides, Todd’s name ends with a plosive: it’s one of the fewish names that can’t be drawn out right at the death). It’s the name of someone evil-hearted and evilly bound up or tied in (‘cordato’). Flavia’s husband is called Malinverno, signalling malignity even more closely, and his name also squares him up to Black, Flavia’s lover. In The Blue Afternoon Delphine’s husband is called Sieverance: his name doesn’t threaten any more than his person does (after all, this man who married a goddess can only grow a patchy moustache) and, unusually, lover and husband don’t come to blows. Instead Sieverance, like Nat Tate, is made to carry around a name which is a telling joke: it whispers ‘severance’, ‘divorce’, implies that the man himself is someone who’ll let his wife slip through his fingers.

A third set of names also count for something in Boyd’s onomastics: the opprobrious name of the employer. In The Blue Afternoon (set initially at the turn of the century) Dr Salvador Carriscant’s boss is a surgeon who operates in a stained black morning-coat, a relic from the 19th century who won’t wash his hands. His name, Cruz, has a couple of obvious sound-neighbours, crude and cruel, as well as intimating that to be operated on by this man is to submit to some awful torture or crucifixion; it also opposes him to our modern hero-surgeon who is of course a saver, or saviour. In the name of Kay Fisher’s ex-employer, a nasty one-upman called Meyersen, we hear bigger, better, while the name of the office boss in Armadillo, Hogg, is pure invective, as is the name of Todd’s employer-persecutor in The New Confessions, Smee. The best of these employer-names (Boyd’s best name altogether) is in Brazzaville Beach, where we meet Eugene Mallabar, the wealthy, handsome founder of an African game reserve. This Englishman is well-born, his Greek name tells us, and genial with it; even better, the first name performs a tiny civilising drama – the stopped, raw consonant at its heart is disarmed, softened into a lovely, murmuring fricative. Mallabar’s surname might be the name of a precious substance, an aromatic spice perhaps or a coppery metal (he’s tanned), one which is soft and ductile. The name is redolent of lush colonial affluence and, as with all toponyms used as surnames, aggrandises its bearer, augmenting his stature by magically adding to it a huge geographical area. Mallabar opens with the minatory flourish that Boyd likes, a signal of some unspecified villainy in prospect; the name’s waist thickens comfortably into a double consonant before warning, in its final syllable, that this man’s function is to be an obstruction. Lastly, Mallabar’s name spells out what he is at root – an evil-worker, that most reviled and important category of person in Boyd’s work.

All this talk about names turns up some entertaining verbal legerdemain, but also makes it clear that Boyd swoops repetitively on two big, worthy themes – love and work. What he wants to do is to tell in one breath the double story of a character who has at the same time both an amorous affair and a professional adventure. The love stories themselves are all based on a similar premise: the lover and the beloved are already spoken for, both have partners, usually spouses. As a result they experience a limit to their freedom (marriage is an institution that always comes off pretty badly in Boyd’s books), and their affair always casts a narrative shadow, the also told story of an estrangement back home. Boyd has worked out an iconography for the beloved (although not for the lover): she’s pale, tall, has dark hair (Delphine’s hair is ‘reddish brown’, Flavia’s ‘chestnut shot with purple’), dark eyes (Delphine’s ‘like unmilked coffee’, Flavia’s ‘like unmilked tea’), and, on a couple of occasions, a slightly hooked nose. The lovers’ first meeting is one-sided, provoking a physiological crisis in the man but having little effect on the woman, and here we have the whole amorous episode in brief. For the man there follows a drama of subterfuge, in which he attempts to get hold of the (important) name of the beloved and to engineer another meeting. Desire turns the lover into a spy, according to Boyd, someone who investigates, who loiters, who follows or watches from the safety of a car. Even worse, desire often turns Boyd’s men into buffoons, like Carriscant in The Blue Afternoon, for whom infatuation entails a nasty series of public embarrassments, or Black in Armadillo, whose defining, shaming moment comes as the result of trying to impress a woman. The beloved woman, however, follows her own trajectory, she leaves the narrative serenely, she returns serenely, she sets the pace, she accepts or refuses. The rebuff is a Boydian theme in itself, and occurs with ugly regularity: Todd’s erotic life consists of not much more than a series of rejections (one of which is the paradigmatic knee-in-groin). On the couple of occasions when women tell these stories and so are themselves central characters we see how different things can be. In Brazzaville Beach, for example, Hope is seduced by a name and goes in search of its bearer, a mathematician called John Clearwater (Nat Tate’s antecedent, a failed genius who drowns himself). Everything unrolls smoothly for her, there are no snags, no catches, no embarrassments, and when the relationship ends it’s Hope who decides that a break must be made, just as in The Blue Afternoon it’s Kay Fisher who decides to keep her distance from her own partner. In fact, in all the major relationships Boyd describes the women have the final word: these love stories never demonstrate reciprocity – the woman never loves enough, she’s never besotted.

Boyd’s work stories are just as gloomy. One of the first things we notice in his novels, in fact, is not only that everyone’s got a job, trivially enough, but, more important, that we’re always told what it is. Every two-bit character is employed, and if we know nothing else about them we know what they do. What Boyd’s main characters have in common is not an occupation but a particular situation and a trajectory: each of them is good at their job, for a start, and they share a passion for work. But Boyd’s heroes remain subordinate to an employer, and relations with this figure always start bad and end up worse. This professional relationship is as important as the love affair in Boyd’s work: the employer may be a talentless, slovenly worker, but without him and the beloved there’s nothing to tell. There’s no detailed Boydian iconography for the employer, but these villains tend to have some ugly physical characteristic: yellow, equine teeth, for example, or thinning hair – the sign of a poisonous, resentful nature. Unattractive and duplicitous, the employer is nevertheless unimpeachable, and all Boyd’s novels could be described as work-place tragedies – every contestation of the employer’s authority is tragic because it is both necessary and futile. In the best tradition each one is carried out alone: confidants and small-time allies ferret out a little information, but ultimately Boyd’s heroes confront their bosses alone. Each employer deals with the good work of his more able, rebellious subordinate by denying, censoring, destroying or appropriating it – whether what is involved is a piece of research, a technique, a film, or even a house. There are a couple of further defeats that Boyd has mapped out for his main characters: the demonstration at the close of play, which teaches the hero that he is confounded and without legal means of redress; ignominy (the public rubbishing of an innocent man’s reputation); and, finally, unemployment or a change of job, both of which amount to the same thing – the good worker is defeated and stops working.

Most of the elements of Boyd’s other books turn up in Armadillo – scenes of war and surveillance, beaches, absent fathers, corpses, engaging hermetic lexicons – but it has more in common with The New Confessions, partly because in both the heroes take on not just an employer but, through him, a powerful class and partly because the two books share a similar ending. After passing through Boyd’s narrative machinery a central character generally ends up making a declaration that has three parts: retrospection (they look back over the story); illumination (they acknowledge life’s chaotic, unpredictable nature and tend to talk about understanding how things are at bottom – Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is quoted several times); and affirmation (they acknowledge that the future will be as unpredictable as the past, and agree to embrace anything that life may throw at them). In The New Confessions, though, Todd ends up with something in addition, the possibility of compensation, and Armadillo continues this movement by leaving Lorimer with something even more extraordinary – the possibility of revenge.

Comparisons with The New Confessions do Armadillo no favours, however: Boyd’s new novel is a less substantial achievement, something we might justifiably call a novella, should we feel like a bit of name-giving ourselves. This Aesop’s fable of an armadillo and a Hogg may be pretty thin, but every so often something reflective and rather subtle seems to be going on. The bits of Armadillo that lodge in the mind are those moments when Boyd’s comic writing leaves off satirising people (this, like The New Confessions, is a book with comic ambitions), and turns intelligently on itself instead. All Boyd’s novels are immaculately imagined, full of places and things seen in high resolution, but every now and then Armadillo throws up a preposterous detail, or an inventory too far. There’s a genealogy of the Blocj family which is a very sophisticated piece of writing, something only possible in a book that has big siblings – like parts of Nat Tate, the passage is an astute, gentle parody of a whole style of writing, perhaps even of a whole novelistic project.