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Sunday 15 July 2012

Literary name-dropping

I’ve always had a special liking for novels that are filled with factual references. I may be in a minority on this -- most people see this sort of thing as shameless padding, which it probably is! But I like it because it’s one of the most painless ways to learn new things. It’s one of the reasons why Philip K. Dick’s VALIS is a favourite novel of mine, and why I like The Da Vinci Code despite its awfulness. The first book of this type that I ever came across was a novel by Robert Silverberg called Dying Inside, which I read 40 years ago when it was first printed in the July-August and September-October 1972 issues of Galaxy magazine. These were among the first grown-up science fiction magazines I ever read -- I was about 14¾ at the time.

Dying Inside is a vaguely Fortean novel, about a telepath who earns a living ghost-writing essays for students who have more money than brains. It isn’t the most thrilling adventure ever written—in fact it’s positively dull—but it’s got a lot of sexual references in it, which are quite interesting when you’re 14¾. It’s also packed full of factual allusions... almost none of which I understood at the time, although I was fascinated by them nonetheless.

There are references to classical music—Schoenberg, Beethoven, Mahler, Berg, Bartok, Bach and Schoenberg, and to high literature from Aeschylus and Sophocles to Balzac, Dostoyevsky and Proust. When I was a student in the late seventies I used to listen to Radio Three a lot, and developed a taste for all the composers mentioned. Great literature, on the other hand, is something I’ve never had much interest in.... although I did go through a phase circa 1975 of trying very hard to read Finnegans Wake, which Silverberg also alludes to (“Earwicker’s borborygmi”). I’ve got more time for poets than I have for heavyweight novelists, and he namedrops some of the best: Tennyson, Browning and T.S. Eliot (whose ashes are buried at East Coker, a few miles from where I live).

For some reason, there aren’t that many painters mentioned in Dying Inside, but the ones who are are among my favourites: Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Bruegel and El Greco. Another artist, M.C. Escher, is referred to as M.G. Escher!

There are very few scientists, too—the only one I found when I just looked through was J.W. Gibbs, whose name will mean a lot to anyone who did physics at university and very little to anyone else. On the whole, though, Silverberg is less interested in the materialistic side of things than the mystical: he mentions Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine, the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad-Gita, and a number of quasi-forteans such as J. B Rhine, Arthur Koestler, Wilhelm Reich and Edgar Cayce. He also mentions the I Ching, which features in Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle (which I didn’t read until 1976) and General Semantics, which features in A.E. van Vogt’s masterpiece The World of Null-A (which I didn’t read until 1994!).

Silverberg even namedrops a couple of fellow science fiction authors: Theodore Sturgeon and Isaac Asimov. Seeing Asimov on his visit to Birmingham in 1974 was the high point of the seventies for me... even though I saw Silverberg himself at the Eastercon in Manchester the following year!


Unknown said...

I would take issue with your use of ellipses. I think there should be three dots, not four, and that there should be a space before the first. Having checked,it would seem that this is broadly correct, although there are some subtleties: .

Pedants Untie! :-)

Unknown said...

I enjoyed learning more about !

Unknown said...

If you like allusions, try by Pratchett.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the comments -- nice to see you're not over-busy at the moment! The four dots was a mistake -- in another place I used three, which was what I normally use. I think you're basically right about ellipses, and when I use them in a formal article (to mark an omission from a quote) I would put three dots with a space before and after if a few words were omitted in the middle of a sentence (like ... this), or three dots in square brackets after a full stop if a whole sentence or more was omitted. [...] Like that.

However, I am unrepentant about the way I use dots in informal writing like emails and blog posts. These aren't really ellipses (i.e. marking missing text), but just mark a pause in writing that is meant to reflect spoken English -- I also use two short hyphens (like I just did) for much the same purpose.

Did you mean "untie" or "unite"? Usually, "untie" is a transitive verb and requires a predicate. I mean, untie what?

Unknown said...

Explanation understood and accepted! I wouldn't want to imply that I were a more precise writer than you, because that wouldn't be true! :-)

The "Untie" was a pedants' joke!

Filip Graliński said...

You should try "Peace on Earth" by Stanisław Lem. It is a grotesque science-fiction novel with a reference to... a real medical monograph.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the tip. I'm afraid I'd never heard of this book, but having just read about it on Wikipedia, it looks a lot of fun!