Which is the most important unit in writing? For Stephen King, it’s the paragraph: “the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.” Martin Amis seems to live between the full stops, in the riverine ebb and flow of the sentence. Eley Williams shrinks matters still further – for this most exciting of young British writers, the word is the thing.
Williams arrived on the scene in 2017, with Attrib. and other stories, a collection of quirky miniatures. It set out her stall as an obsessive and playful word wrangler, exploring the origins and idiosyncracies of vocabulary, the puns and twists and happy coincidences that underpin human communication.
Her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, continues the theme. A tale of two lexicographers working a century apart on a deservedly obscure reference book called Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, Williams luxuriates in words and wordplay, in definition and precision and invention.
The main characters are a joy – Winceworth in particular could have wandered from the pen of Kingsley Amis
Peter Winceworth is a stuffy late-Victorian toiling away on the letter “s” for the first edition of Swansby. His apparent stiff-spined reserve masks an unstable temperament and a mischievous mind, and he begins to insert mountweazels into the process – a mountweasel being a deliberate fake entry in a work of reference. Williams has tremendous fun here: “widge-wodge (v.), the alternating kneading of a cat’s paw upon wool, blankets, laps etc”; “agrupt (n. and adj.), irritation caused by having a denouement ruined”; “asinidorose (n.), to emit the smell of a burning donkey”.
Mallory is a young modern-day intern with the task of digitising Swansby, which includes finding and eliminating her predecessor’s mountweasels. As she goes about her work she receives anonymous daily phone calls from a man who seems to hold a violent grudge against the dictionary.
Both main characters are a joy – Winceworth in particular could have wandered from the pen of Kingsley Amis. The chapters flit consecutively between the two of them, managing to squeeze in a fight with a pelican, a cat called Tits, a fake lisp, a bomb, and a somewhat unexpected orgy.
In her preface, the author essays on the possible purposes of a dictionary. “To name a thing is to know a thing,” she writes. “There’s power there… Finding the right word can be a private joy.” The Liar’s Dictionary is a public joy, and Eley Williams a free-spirited literary kook with bags of potential.
Finding the right work can be a joy, too, especially if it’s an overlooked classic. The publishing industry has developed a thirst for reissuing lost gems in recent years: John Williams’ Stoner and Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin are best-sellers long after the authors’ deaths; the works of Stefan Zweig, Elisabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym and Henry Green are among those enjoying a critical renaissance.
Isabel Colegate’s Orlando King is a fine addition to this canon of new-old masterpieces. Actually a trilogy, the first part of which appeared in 1968, it follows the life of a gifted young man who makes his name in politics and business during the inter-war years. There are resounding echoes of today’s key debates – the nature and purpose of capitalism, what constitutes the Good Life, the emptiness of image over substance. Like one of Evelyn Waugh’s best novels, Colegate’s is a wry, amusing and diamond-sharp dissection.
The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams; William Heinemann, £14.99
Orlando King, by Isabel Colegate; Bloomsbury, £7.99