24 September 2008

David Foster Wallace (continued)

Another thing Wallace mentions in the article 'Consider the Lobster' which had never occurred to me before is our tendency to use euphemisms for the meat of higher animals: 'pork', 'beef', 'veal', 'venison', etc, which keep carniphiles (a Wallace neologism?) an emotional step away from the fact that an animal is being eaten (1).

(1) I wasn't aware of the existence of the word 'dysphemism' until I read the article 'Grammar and American Usage' (also in the book Consider the Lobster), and had to check that it wasn't another neologism. No, it's pre-Wallace: a dysphemism is a kind of exaggeration, like an opposite of a euphemism, as in some of Wallace's examples: 'grammar nazi', 'syntax snob' and 'usage nerd'. But imagine (as he claims, anyway) his family inventing the acronym S.N.O.O.T. to avoid dysphemisms when describing language usage fanatics: depending on whether you were one or not, this stood for 'Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance', or 'Syntax Nudniks Of Our Time'. Who'd of guessed it. But then Zadie Smith, who was apparently too (intellectually) 'scared' of Wallace to interview him, is quoted on the front cover of Wallace's Oblivion: '[H]e's in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him.' Jealousy is fruitless now.

A final point: when Wallace was an undergraduate, he was so thrilled that a philosophy lecturer had called him a genius that he thought he'd never have to go to the bathroom (he used the American euphemism) any more: he'd transcended it.


Anonymous said...


I'm a physicist, originally from Ukraine, and now working in Germany.

Despite my poor English, I like "obscure" English literature & writers. The last discovery which I enjoyed a lot, was "The Childermass" by Wyndham Lewis.

In the table of contents of "Bookworm" I met a new name - "Lionel Britton". But there is no chance to find his works in libraries, at least here, in Germany.

It is written on your blog that you wrote Britton's biography. Is there a possibility to buy your book?

Dr Tony Shaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Tony Shaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Tony Shaw said...

(I deleted my original postings to make small clarifications and/or additions.)

Hi Ioann

Thanks for your enquiry. I've not actually written the biography yet, only a PhD thesis, although the brief biographical details in this are included in my blog at


Do you know of his novel Hunger and Love?

I too am interested in obscure literature (of any nationality), particularly if it's outside of the artificial realist mainstream. About last May, as a wild experiment (I wasn't really expecting any response) I started a group in Facebook designed to increase awareness of out-of-the-ordinary literature:


The title of the group is:

The Experimental Novel: Modernism, Postmodernism, Surrealism, the Absurd

You just give your email address and create a password. The list of writers under consideration is growing all the time, and I'm sure you can think of more to add:

Nicola Barker
Djuna Barnes
John Barth
Samuel Beckett
Marcel Bénabou
Anthony Bertram
Jorge Luis Borges
T. Coraghessan Boyle
Bertolt Brecht
André Breton
Lionel Britton
Harold Brodkey
Christine Brooke-Rose
William Burroughs
Michel Butor
Italo Calvino
Horacio Castellanos Moya
Camilo José Cela
Albert Cohen
Robert Coover
Gregory Corso
Robert Creeley
E. E. Cummings
Guy Davenport
Lydia Davis
G. V. Desani
John Dos Passos
Edouard Dujardin
Lawrence Durrell
Jean Echenoz
T. S. Eliot
William Faulkner
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
William Gaddis
William Gass
Gabriel García Márquez
Allen Ginsberg
Julien Gracq
B. S. Johnson
James Joyce
Franz Kafka
James Kelman
Jack Kerouac
Wyndham Lewis
Malcolm Lowry
Archibald Macleish
Harry Mathews
Paul Metcalf
Henry Miller
Steven Millhauser
Rick Moody
Vladimir Nabokov
Flann O'Brien
Georges Perec
Harold Pinter
Ezra Pound
Thomas Pynchon
Raymond Queneau
Ishmael Reed
Alain Robbe–Grillet
Henry Roth
Jacques Roubaud
Raymond Roussel
Nathalie Sarraute
Ali Smith
Gilbert Sorrentino
Gertrude Stein
Laurence Sterne
Ronald Sukenick
Mario Vargas Llosa
Boris Vian
William T. Vollmann
David Foster Wallace
Paul West
Virginia Woolf

I got no response for weeks. Then people started joining, and in the last few weeks an average of one person a day joins, with the number of members now at 68. The main problem, though, is that hardly anyone introduces things to say: if they want to say something, they normally just contact me directly, although I've learned some interesting things from members (but they tend not to share them yet). Hopefully, the group will grow and people will communicate more freely.

Another crazy idea I had was to start a Lionel Britton group through Facebook, which I did two days ago, although so far I'm the only member of course, so please feel free to join:

Lionel Britton (1887–1971): Working-class Modernist

I'll also be starting one soon called 'Forgotten Writers' (and I'm sure you can guess who one of those will be), so keep your eyes out for it!

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

Thank your for the detailed answer.

Yes, I'm interesting mainly in Britton's only novel, "Hunger and
Love", although what I found about his plays ("Brain" etc.) also
sounds alluring.

It is hard to discuss Britton as a writer without any knowledge
about his works. Pity, but there is no possibility to read his books
- what I found in amzon.com (and in other bookstores) are very
expensive original editions.

I'm very interesting in a "simple" literature, i. e. novels (plays,
stories) written by writers with strong and well-defined ideas.

Eccentric writers, like Baron Rolfe, are very interesting persons to
read about, but their works are not so powerful, imho.

There are many familiar names in your list, so I'll try to join your
group in Facebook.

Snatch51 said...

Hi ioann,
You say your English is poor, but it looks pretty proficient to me!
If I could read a book in Ukrainian, any book, I would be rather proud of myself!
Keep up the good work!
Hardly anyone in England these days can be bothered to learn any foreign language at all, to any high standard.
Dr Shaw would certainly be one of the exceptions, but I'm not sure he does Ukrainian.
I am a Great-nephew of Lionel Britton.
Even when I was a very small boy my Uncle's linguistic abilities were held up to me as an example of genius, or of what can be achieved by the human mind: Uncle Lionel was generally regarded as being able to speak 22 languages.
He also was regarded as fairly nuts, but those who read his plays and the novel 'Hunger and Love' must make up their own mind about this.
I hope you have had time to review the synopsis of Lionel's life in Dr Shaw's blog.
I have been working with Tony for a year now in trying to find out more about the family background, which is of course my background too.
Lionel came from a family which was itself bi-lingual at least. His father had lived in France, his mother was born there, as was his younger brother, my grandfather.
Each of his grandfathers had also lived in France for part of his life, and one of his grandmothers was a French-speaking Belgian lady.
The ability to speak, and think in, two different languages must have assisted his later development into a linguistic genius; but not every bi-lingual person goes on, as Uncle Lionel did, to translate books out of Russian into English.
One such was 'Batu Khan', a very long and dense account of that dreadful historical figure's career.
Ironically, Batu Khan is a folk hero in Turkey. When I was there on holiday, I was regarded with extra respect for my Uncle having translated this book!
Our copy of Batu Khan sadly has been lost at some time over the years, but we still have one of 'Brain' and one of 'Spacetime Inn', both of which are inscribed to my mother by Lionel in his elegant script, (which you have probably seen on Tony's blog).
I had no copy of 'Hunger and Love', and had to buy one which came from New York and cost rather a lot of money; but when I have finished reading it, (it is not an easy read, I warn you: unless you skip lots of passages, which I think is cheating a bit, and anyway Lionel would have been furious at the very thought of any of his readers doing so), I would be happy to lend you my copy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robert,

I'm very touched by your comment.

>it is not an easy read, I warn you:
unless you skip lots of passages, which
I think is cheating a bit, and
anyway Lionel would have been furious at
the very thought of any of his readers doing so

I like difficult books, I like books that require some effort on my
side. Reading is a kind of intellectual job. If an author spent his
time & efforts in order to share his ideas with me, then I should
spend some time in order understand him. This is an intellectual
equality, when an author consider a possible reader as a human being
capable of the same intellect.

But only light things float on a surface, and heavy things go down.
So now, instead of a real literature, we have a kind of surrogate,
"mill cake": a reader assumed to be a pet, a sucker, which needs an
light entertainment.

What I have found about Lionel Britton makes me think about him as a
honest and deep writer, with some solid ideas and vision, which he
sincerely wanted to shear with other human beings.

I read that he was an admirer of Soviet Union but he got
disillusioned about Stalin's reality finally. This is very interesting

> I would be happy to lend you my copy.

It would be great to read "Hunger and Love" (and/or plays). A copy (xerox or
scanned version) will be enough. I'm not sure is it legal or not.
Moreover, it will be a wasting of your time.

Anyway, it was great to hear about Lionel Britton straight from
his close relative.

Snatch51 said...

Hi ioann,
Uncle Lionel left the copyright of his works to the vicar and churchwardens of Polstead, in Essex, (an English county).
We don't know why he did this although we suspect that it was because he was mad, (in the English sense, in other words nuts).
However, it almost certainly means that we don't need to worry much about the legal issue of photocopying: Lionel would have been delighted to see his work propagated by any means possible I think, (certainly now that he doesn't need the money).
My copy of Hunger and Love was not new, it came from a secondhand shop; but it has never been read: many of the pages have to be cut before they can be turned at all.
Photocopying it would take longer than reading it probably.
I shall see what I can do.
It's tremendous that you are interested in such an obscure writer as my uncle!

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Hi Ioann

I'm delighted to note your intellectual curiosity, and your interest in writing seen as a dialogue between writer and reader.

>>But only light things float on a surface, and heavy things go down.
So now, instead of a real literature, we have a kind of surrogate, "mill cake": a reader assumed to be a pet, a sucker, which needs an light entertainment.>>

There are some very perceptive things here, Ioann, and although you can't have read much Lionel Britton (very little, after all, is readily available), your expression 'mill cake' seems an apt one.

Britton was certainly honest in probably every way: he couldn't lie, but as a result he had to die: you can't be honest and survive in the world, which Britton could neither understand nor accept; I think that in part this is what Robert means by his perceived madness. But then madness is of course relative, or perhaps invented by society to write off its discontents, and Russia is of course an example of this latter diagnosis.

No, copyright doesn't pose a problem. Lionel Britton had a great sense of humour, a fact which is written throughout Hunger and Love and his plays, as well as his many letters to, for instance, Sinead Acheson and Herbert Marshall: Polstead is a real place all right, but Britton was an atheist, and he left (part of) the sum total of his royalties to the churchwarden and vicar of that parish: precisely nothing. I think that means a middle finger up to God.

Snatch51 said...

if you can contact me at
we can arrange for a book to be sent to you.