Eley Williams is enraptured by the metaphysical intimations of language. In her brilliantly inventive collection of short stories, Attrib., this sense of wonder was brought to bear on an array of characters whose foolish and tender sensibilities, frequently distinguished by an enchantment with the properties of words, offered the reader a series of unexpectedly joyful encounters with the linguistic register of time, consciousness, emotion, memory. In her latest publication, Williams returns to these themes with a novel that, in addition to everything else it manages to achieve and to be, stands in some ways as an embodiment of, and an affectionate reproach to, Samuel Johnson’s definition of the form as “a small tale, generally of love.”
The Liar’s Dictionary tells the story of a nineteenth-century lexicographer named Peter Winceworth who, when we first meet him, is suffering from last night’s festivities (a condition for which, in 1899, the English tongue had no term), and slogging away at the letter S in his capacity as a servant of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, housed in Swansby House and (unbeknown to Winceworth) destined to remain unfinished.
Winceworth is an exquisite creation. Seldom heard or afforded the chance to speak, he is all honour, awkwardness, benign dissimulations and private dreams, and poignantly mobilised in the service of circumstances that see him and his fabricated lisp—nurtured in the hope it might make “people respond to him with a greater gentleness”—fall in love, and wind up covered in ink, brick dust, cat vomit, pelican blood.
Meanwhile, in the present day and in the same building in which Winceworth laboured over a century earlier, a young woman named Mallory is an intern on a project to digitise the Swansby lexicon. Passing daily a memorial to her predecessors (many of whom perished in the Great War), she devotes her time to updating the meanings of each of the dictionary’s extant entries, and to fielding threatening phone calls from an individual who purports to be disgusted by its new, orientationally inclusive, definition of ‘marriage’.
When not so engaged, Mallory—shy, funny, clever, full of kindness and self-knowledge, and thrillingly brought to life in Williams’s vibrant first-person narrative—ruminates on the uneasy apprehension that the reality of her feelings cannot be accommodated by language (“I wished there was a word for marshalling a loved one to safety. I wish that I could be the one to coin it”), and consumes rapturously furtive lunches, usually in the form of a hard-boiled egg, while sequestered in her favourite cupboard.
Or favourite closet. For although Mallory is committed to her girlfriend, Pip, she remains inarticulably reticent concerning the truth of her sexuality. Her family do not know. Her boss, the affable, clumsy and quixotic David Swansby—about seven-foot tall and forever growing taller—does not know. But what he has discovered is the presence in his great project of a population of ‘mountweazels’ – fake contributions deliberately inserted into reference works. Instructed by David to root out every instance of such an entry that she can identify, Mallory embarks on an undertaking that draws her into a speculative reckoning with the forebear (whose identity you’ll already have guessed) responsible.
Williams’s aptitude for the choreography of cartoon and slapstick is as funny and vivid as Dickens
Joining Mallory as she engages in this task, and watching Winceworth as he endures the affective undulations that inspire him to inflict on the world his personal army of neologisms—an exercise he, in a spirit of lexical unease similar to Mallory’s, regards as a way of defining “parts of the world that only he could see”—is a delight. Williams handles their respective stories with a gripping command of the development of her plot (chiefly: what will come of the threats deployed by Mallory’s disgruntled caller?), dazzling clarity of thought and vision, an extraordinarily fecund capacity for imaginative compassion.
Some of these qualities lie in the freshness, elegance and lyricism of Williams’s prose. A fin-de-siècle photographer crouched at his camera appears as “a glassy Cyclops with a concertina snout”; a stranger on a train is “a mixed-metaphor of an older man”; the lens of damaged lorgnettes carries “a small asterisk shatter.” Yet her book is also gloriously full of gently sardonic asides (Gerolf Swansby was the recipient of a name “that always struck me as worth another round of spell-checking”); charmingly deadpan divagations (“I rolled back over to my cubicle and to the window. I spun on my chair midway: you have to take your perks when you can grab them); and an aptitude for the choreography of cartoon and slapstick (“David hit the cafetière plunger with the stance of someone detonating a mountainside”) that is as funny and vivid as Dickens, as moving and memorable as Nabokov – one thinks most readily of Pnin.
The power of language to realise, shape, and deny our natures; the attributes, boundaries and meanings of human connection—are addressed with care
For all its exuberance, however, this is ultimately a gentle and reflective book whose great preoccupations—the power of language to realise, shape, and deny our natures; the attributes, boundaries and meanings of human connection—are addressed with a care, intelligence and sensitivity that is suffused with an atmosphere of fellow-feeling, shared endeavour, friendship. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tale’s concluding pages, in which Winceworth and Mallory, each having faced a moment of darkness, must confront the task of constructing the figurative dictionaries that will come to define their lives.
By attending so assiduously to the circumstances that propel them to this point, The Liar’s Dictionary stands as an extraordinarily large-hearted work of obeisance to the lexicographical belief in the “transformative power of proper attention paid to small things”, and as an ennoblingly expansive guide to the plangent lineaments of love.
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