Reflection

On reviewing my latest post I noticed two things that had not occurred to me as I was writing it.

One was that whenever I did not refer to Elizabeth George by her full lname (or, at least, her author name) I called her Ms. George. On the other hand, when I wrote about Ian Rankin, I called him Rankin. I evidently have not yet absorbed the by-now-not-so-new convention of referring to women simply by their surnames. It is, of course, a journalistic convention, not a novelistic one: George herself (there, I did it!) refers to Thomas Lynley as Lynley, but to Barbara Havers as Barbara. And its common use in journalism (outside the New York Times, which maintains Mr. and Ms.) can be confusing, as when in an article about Hillary Clinton, in which there may be references to her husband, she is called simply Clinton.

I also wrote that Elizabeth George “showed herself as being even more like a British writer in another respect: clumsiness in writing about non-anglophone culture,” letting it go at that, without citing examples. An example came my way the next day, as I was reading Ruth Rendell’s The Vault. Here a key element of the plot is the use of the French word punaise as a mnemonic for a person’s PIN, since punaise supposedly means ‘pin.’ But the primary meaning (that is, the first meaning that will come to a French person’s mind) of punaise is ‘bug’ (specifically ‘bedbug’); a secondary meaning is ‘pin’ of the kind that in Britain is known as drawing pin, in America thumbtack, but the general word for ‘pin’ is épingle. And just before this book I had read Rendell’s Portobello, one of whose characters has a mother who is a Muslim from Assam and whose language is not Assamese or Bengali or Sylheti but Hindi, a language practically unknown in Assam (see Wikipedia).

Even supposedly cosmopolitan, world-traveling British writers, like E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham or John le Carré, often betray in their writings the likelihood that they spend most of their time abroad chatting with other Brits. Le Carré, for example, worked as a diplomat in Germany, and yet his knowledge of German language and culture shows considerable lapses. And George Orwell, who wrote Homage to Catalonia, didn’t know Catalan.

American writers, by and large, have not exhibited these symptoms. Hispanic culture, for example, has been portrayed by some of our greatest writers, from Washington Irving and Helen Hunt Jackson to Hemingway, Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder and Katherine Anne Porter, and in reading their works one feels that their knowledge of the culture, or at least the subcultures they wrote about, is thorough.

An exception comes to mind in Tony Hillerman’s The Sinister Pig, where the digressions on Spanish and Latin American culture and history are a sorry mess, surprising from someone who spent most of his life in the half-Hispanic city of Albuquerque, and enough to almost (but not quite) make me doubt the authenticity of his Navajo lore.

Elizabeth George spent most of her life in California, another place with a large Hispanic population, so I would expect her (meticulous researcher that she is, to gather from her forewords and afterwords) to know better. My guess is that she deliberately botched the Spanish in order to seem more British.

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