Thursday, January 09, 2014

In praise of Thavolia Glymph

I’ve been kicking around a few ideas for a novel recently. It’s not exactly a work of naturalism, seeing as how it’s set in an imaginary island state that includes components of about six Asian cities, and I want some of the names to reflect that disconnected oddness. So far I’ve got a magazine publisher called Valpolicella Wang and a gay chef, Reinhardt Funt, neither of which entirely satisfy. I’m always impressed by fiction writers who get the names of their characters dead right, implying all the appropriate tropes of background and personality without seeming to try too hard. The trick is to be odd but not entirely implausible and of course, very few pitch every name right every time; Dickens and Waugh are masters of the game but for every Wilkins Micawber or Margot Beste-Chetwynde there’s a Georgiana Podsnap and a Miles Malpractice, which are just silly.

More recent exponents of the art are Kurt Vonnegut (who gave us Kilgore Trout, Montana Wildhack and Valencia Merble but was probably trying too hard when he created Isadore Raspberry-19 Cohen) and Thomas Pynchon, responsible for Oedipa Maas, Brock Vond and Laszlo Jamf. You can just about imagine someone bearing one of those names in real life but the chances are that nobody actually does, which is handy if you want your characters to do something really horrid without their namesakes taking legal action. I speak as someone whose name has twice been appropriated in the cause of fiction, once in a Doctor Who novel, then in a Commando comic, in neither case applied to characters who committed any atrocities as far as I recall. But then my name is just very slightly out of the ordinary. The only time I’ve known it to provoke more than a flicker of reaction came the first time I visited the United States. “Foot-man?” sneered the man checking my passport. “What sort of a name is that?” “US Immigration?” I responded, reading the badge on his uniform. “What sort of a name is that?” Except I didn’t of course, because I was 17 and a bit scared.

So for a name to work, it has to be a bit odder than Tim Footman, but not to the point of outright goofiness. I’d have been really proud if I’d concocted a character called Thavolia Glymph. I mean, what a name; such mouthfeel. Each part could stand alone. Thavolia, I’m thinking, is some imaginary princedom, on the border between Ruritania and Shangri-La. And Glymph? A glum nymph? But it’s when they come together that the magic really happens. As I type the letters, a whole, fully formed character comes to life in the space between the screen and my eyes. I’d have identified her as the leader of an eschatological cult in Pynchon’s next book but one. Or maybe one of Reinhardt Funt’s fag hags.

So I’m at once grateful to and frustrated by Hadley Freeman (another good name, but only if you know she’s a woman) in The Guardian who informs us of the existence of a real Thavolia Glymph, an academic at Duke University. (What is it about academia? Remember the mighty Drummond Bone?) I’m sure she’s a fine scholar in her field; but were I ever to attend one of her lectures, I’d worry that all her words would become an indistinct blur as I focused my attention on the weird glory of her name and wondering if I’d slipped through some sort of conceptual portal and found myself within a work of literary fiction. Although maybe that’s happened already. Foot-man. What sort of a name is that?

(The picture shows Professor Glymph examining Lincoln’s inkwell. Which is obviously a pretty rubbish inkwell, since ink from it was never used to write her magnificent name.)

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