If you’re so inclined, see other vocabulary lessons here.
As I wrote yesterday, Janet Malcolm is nothing if not academic; and she expresses this in her vocabulary and allusions. I made no shortage of notes. Here are a few words and references that I took the time to explore further.
asperity: “…writing with the affectionate asperity of a sibling…”
Turandot: “presenting herself as a kind of Sphinx or Turandot before whom the various supplicants must appear…”
bathetic: “Plath, unable to eat or sleep, was running actual high fevers as well as figurative ones of jealous rage and bathetic self-pity,” and again, “…sinks deeper and deeper into bitter bathos…”
Cerberus: “Olwyn ran a small literary agency in addition to her work as Cerberus to the Plath estate.”
lability: “Plath’s recording of the calm stealing over her after she left Sassoon’s house, and of her sense of her entitlement to the pleasures of Paris, wonderfully evokes the lability of feeling for which youth is famous…”
Racine’s Phèdre: “Women are demon spirits in the poem. They’re Racine’s Phèdre.”
marmoreally: “…the letters we used to write one another in the 1950’s and 60’s on our manual Olivettis and Smith Coronas, so different from the marmoreally cool and smooth letters young people write one another today on their Macintoshes and IBMs.”
The Aspern Papers: “I felt like the possessor of a great prize – the prize that the narrator of The Aspern Papers goes to such extreme lengths to try to get.” (I loved learning about this one. I may have to read it and reconsider Henry James.)
oriental, in this usage: “…I’ve also wasted a great deal of time being positively oriental in tact…” (quoted from a letter written by Olwyn Hughes to Anne Stevenson) I remain puzzled by this one; I could find no definition of oriental that made the least sense in this context. My mother the linguist, when consulted, suggested that maybe it’s a reference to a stereotypical behavior of the population of people sometimes referred to as “Orientals.” (This is not considered polite or politically correct usage.) That sounds like the best theory I can find…
Leonard Bast: “Butscher has figured as a kind of Leonard Bast in the community’s imagination – and, I should add, in his own.” From Forster – naturally.
exiguous: “…but as the house and food were nourishing, the memories were exiguous.”
Cyrano: “Cohen apparently forgave her for her rejection of his actual person and accepted his Cyrano role.” All I can figure is Cyrano de Bergerac, though I don’t entirely get the reference. Anyone care to elucidate?
verdigris, from Plath’s poem, Death & Co.: “The nude / Verdigris of the condor.” (I have looked this up repeatedly but can never keep straight which color is verdigris.)
seraphic: “…her head raised with a kind of seraphic expression…” Like a seraphim, of course.
immanence: “…dust that through the years had acquired almost a kind of objecthood, a sort of immanence.”
Whew. Keep the dictionary handy. Anything new to you here?