February 11, 2010


courtney c

I have a question about a somewhat literary hoax. I'm reading "Cheever: A Life", and in it Cheever received a hoax phone call circa 1976 that John Updike had died. He burst into tears. The biographer footnotes that a famous author later admitted to the prank, but omits the name. Does anyone know who it was?


This hoax stuff reminds me of when I was doing graduate work a the University of Chicago. That place is a parody of pseudo-intellectual self-satisfaction made all too real. I got so fed up with it I started making up words that sounded philosophical, but which in fact didn't exist ("episophic" was my favorite - As in, "Gadamer's hermeneutic of intelligibility is suggestive, but a bit episophic for my taste"). I would pepper my conversation with them, hoping someone - anyone - would ask me what they meant. But no one ever did. Imagine my amusement when I heard people using these same words themselves in their own conversations. I would always ask, "What does that word mean? I've never heard it before!". And they'd be so busted. Needless to say, I was not the most popular person there. Much to my satisfaction, if you Google "episophic", you will find a few references to it. My legacy lives on.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."