My charming, patient Post-War British Fiction-studying undergraduates are currently becalmed in the brackish waters of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, the first novel of his Alexandria Quartet.  I say “brackish” because Mr. Durrell can scarce forbear to use the adjective when Alexandria’s salt-sea breezes blow off the torpid waters of the port.  Torpid—there’s another word to conjure with.  T.S. Eliot speaks in the Four Quartets of “the torpid driven on the wind,” a phrase that was once a source of amusement to my fellow boarding-schoolers in Britain.  In the school slang, junior boys were known as “torpids,” and during our compulsory afternoon runs our “torpids” were often driven on the wind, much as Eliot states, around the gloomy hills of North London.  Of course Eliot didn’t mean Harrow schoolboys; he meant those-who-are-torpid or -listless, the febrile inhabitants of our godless cities and suburbs—but how many of his younger readers could possibly know the meaning of his chosen word?

Brackish is an adjective Durrell favored, like tenebrous (he shares this passion with William Faulkner) and phosphorescent.  Lovely words, each one.  I say my class and I are “becalmed” in Durrell’s splendid if patchy masterwork, precisely because his language holds us up like so many weedy strands in a Sargasso of often turgid (nay, torpid) prose.  We could glide swiftly forward, I suppose, on wings of ignorance, and simply ignore Dur­rell’s vocabulary.  But then why read him at all, when the poetic prose is the best part of the book?  So we leave no verbal stone unturned.  This involves very close reading, indeed; which in turn prompts much discussion of issues raised in and around the text; and I’m a happy teacher, imagining that I am uncorking for my class a rare wine that could be slugged back in half a dozen classes, or glasses, but which instead I am issuing in little sips and allowing to breathe so that its true bouquet can be savored.  This is a joy for some members of the class, they tell me, but clearly an agony of tedium for others.

It all came to a head with the word exiguous.  Every page of Durrell has three or four or more words of this kind, each one once a bloom in the posy of an author’s vocabulary, but now dustier than a corsage from a pharaoh’s tomb.  Durrell’s narrator speaks of his “exiguous earnings”; as I tried to explain, earnings were just the kind of item that begged for the word exiguous, while other archaic adjectives were drowning for lack of a convenient spar.  Thank goodness for earnings!  They could still be exiguous.  They might be paltry, of course, or even modest.  But modest was getting a ride to safety on many a noun, while in the growing dark, poor paltry, like exiguous, was learning to swim in ever rougher seas.

For my students, exiguous was the last straw.  Why must they be subjected to such words?  Why, if they must be subjected to them, must they have to understand them?  Worse still, why should they waste time discovering their meaning—which I could be relied on to tell them, were it not for the fact that I made the students look up such words themselves—when these exiguous-words were not ones they would ever use themselves when writing or conversing or, indeed, would ever come across in literature of their own choosing?

In reply, I flee to images of pleasure: the wine, the aroma, the palate-tickling delight, even when sounded only in the silence of the mind, of a word like exiguous; then again, wasn’t there a moral distinction, too, in the choice of this word?  While paltry, a word deriving from palte, the Middle Low German for “rag,” confessed the paltriness of your vocabulary as well as your earnings, exiguous declared that you were some sort of scholar, poorly treated by your employers but wearing the old school tie, as it were, of the Latinate.  Exiguous earnings!  Only someone who deserved better of the world could describe his modest salary this way.  Exiguous!  Such a bony word!  The “egg” and the “zig” announced that you were skin and bone, lacking the fleshy earnings you deserved.  What a word-arrow to have hidden in the quiver of your vocabulary, like a mashie-niblick in your golf bag!

A confession: I have no idea what a mashie-niblick is, but before the golfers among you hurry to enlighten me (assuming that a mashie-niblick is still in the quiver of your golfing vocabulary as it surely would have been, once upon a time), remember one thing.  You don’t need to.  With a couple of keystrokes I’m at the helm of my Google-machine, which will tell me the answer at once.  Ha!  Similar to a modern seven-iron (whatever that is), but with a loft more comparable to a nine-iron, the mashie-niblick is an archaic term (ha! again) for an obsolete, usually wooden-shanked golf club, in use between 1903 and 1941.

All right—you didn’t know the term yourself?  Well, that’s forgivable: It’s obsolete. (In use between 1903 and 1941, indeed!  What could have brought about so sudden a demise?  It’s a riddle comparable to the overnight disappearance of the dinosaurs.)  A vanished term, then.  But who—including nongolfers like me—can possibly forget the name of this dinosaur of a golf club, once they have seen it written?  Or heard it spoken, I was going to say, except that you’d have to be around 70 to have heard someone say, “I think this calls for a mashie-niblick!”  I suppose a younger person might have heard an older fellow-golfer say, “Now if only I had my old pre-war mashie-niblick!”  More likely, if the word resonates in your head as it does in mine, you came across it in the pages of P.G. Wodehouse or some other humorist who couldn’t resist the term, whether or not he’d ever set eyes on the real thing.

So here I am in the classroom with a history of falling in love with dinosaur words, and a rebellion on my hands.  No more exiguous-ness!  (Exiguity?)  No more mashie-niblicks.  It’s time for language to square up and be a simple, transparent currency, a vehicle for meaning in all possible immediacy.  But what of beauty? I cry (as usual).  And I start to evoke for them the charmlessness of Esperanto, a language conceived as pure currency, pure immediacy.  Ah, my dear students!—they are, after all, English students, and there is in their hearts a soft spot for beauty.  A few hands are even raised in support of exiguous.  Grudgingly, the rebels surrender their AK-47s and admit that they, too, are entertained by Durrell’s vocabulary, even though to track every obsolete word to its lair means we won’t even finish Justine by the end of the semester.  Too bad, is my response; read it to the end yourselves, if you love it, and otherwise find a different book that you do love.

Behind the battle over bygone words and whether we should honor them or even try to resuscitate them lies, of course, a matter of simple human laziness.  Who would walk to the well to fetch water, when he could turn on a faucet?  Who would seek out a dictionary when he could locate a word like mashie-niblick without moving, with a few keystrokes?  And shouldn’t that make it easier, not harder, for obscure words to survive?  But something interesting is happening in the realm of human laziness, or more precisely economy of effort.  We don’t need word-meanings as we need water; faucets will always be used, while we have faucets, and water running through them.  But what do we need to know?  If knowledge is as readily to hand as water, more readily indeed, why strap onto ourselves the water bottles of information we used to carry like so much extra RAM?  And now the surprise: The effect of the internet, quite contrary to what we might at first have assumed, is not to add to our daily store, but to diminish it.  There’s so much we no longer need to carry.  History, for instance.  The steady disappearance of history as a feature of classroom study was noticeable even before the advent of the internet; for more than a generation now, chronology has not been considered all-important by art schools when teaching great works of art and their differing styles—these are now more often exhibited by theme, not period, in the classroom.  Likewise in museums.  History is a winding path; theme is easier to assimilate.  And why do we need history?  Whereas history was once manifestly identity, identity is now a kind of menu: Choose who you want to be, define yourself by what you like, who you would like to be, not where you come from.  As for the threat that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, is this a threat, or a promise?  In a world of postmodernity where history returns as kitsch, what isn’t repetition?  Chronology is vanishing from film study and even from literary studies, where undergraduates bounce back and forth among the centuries with so little regard for evolution that students may as well deem all artwork to be contemporaneous.  All aboard for Planet Art!  And now here is the internet—a product of our negation of history, or its coauthor?—to render all information equidistant, both from us and from any other items of information.

(Some forms of knowledge are still treasured, of course.  A scrap of student conversation overheard this morning in our windy quad as I walked past: “I’m not putting that into my body unless I know . . . ”  I’m confident that it was the ingredients of foodstuff of which she was speaking rather than sexual intercourse.  There is no end to American knowledge of the content of foodstuffs: narcissistic knowledge.)

So much for information, close to hand but unnecessary, for the most part, to handle.  Wisdom, of course, is something else; schools have rarely claimed to offer wisdom certification.  Nor do job descriptions mention wisdom.  But don’t we still pursue pleasure, at least?  Is the pleasure of carrying around knowledge no longer one we rate or require?  Enjoying knowledge is, after all, a largely solitary sport, open to rich and poor alike, a links sport played with mashie-niblicks on the reedy verges and eroding sands of history.  Between each class, my students must look up six words, in the pages of Durrell’s Justine, that they do not know.  They have to type out and bring me the definitions.  Judging from the frequency of their definitions, per page of Justine, I would guess that in Durrell’s novel there are a thousand, perhaps several thousand words that have eroded, over the 50 years since the book’s publication, into shapeless forms.  How long before English itself turns into a kind of Esperanto, enlivened by acronyms and e-mail abbreviations, while only a monastic class, hunched over obsolete terms, cackle happily, undeterred by their exiguous earnings?

Predictably, we never finished Dur­rell’s Justine, but we got far enough into it for the students to make an informed choice as to whether they wanted to continue reading it, on their own time.  Since then a kind correspondent alerted me to Michael Wood’s piece about Durrell in the January 1 issue of The London Review of Books.  Wood’s article is billed as a review of Clea, the last volume of the Alexandria Quartet, of which Justine is the opening volume.  Clea, it must be said, is a perfectly dreadful book, even by the standard of the final book of a quartet.  (I make an exception, though many would not, of The Last Post, the final volume of Ford Madox Ford’s “Tietjens” quartet.)  Why are the final volumes of novel-quartets so disappointing?  It isn’t just exhaustion of their material, or their author’s appetite.  Romans-fleuve are less subject to drastic decline.

Wood begins his London Review article with a spirited defense of adjectives, quoting Barthes to the effect that “at night, the adjectives come back.”  This is a sweet and silly observation, of the kind that kept the higher French criticism aloft for many years.  (I believe it was last seen floating in the Hudson River.)  It would be more nearly true to say that the night is dominated by the verb, architect of dreams.  My correspondent points out that adjectives are under fire not only in grade-school English classes but in college creative-writing classes, and have been so ever since minimalism seized the throne.  We don’t have far to go to find the reason for this: The heart of the creative-writing course is the workshop, where short-story ethics rule, and not only because short is convenient.  To expose a novel-in-progress, even to approving critiques, usually maims the secrecy in which narrative evolves.  Better for workshoppers to lunch on completed stories, in draft.  But what shall we say of short stories?  What shall workshoppers ask of them?  Surely not that they should be more ornate, in this day and age.  Literary fashion forbids; the journalistic cast of contemporary thought forbids; the shorthand modes of contemporary communication forbid; utilitarianism forbids.  No one wants to dwell, no one cares for the exquisite.  Even wit is no longer required.  Workshop culture concerns itself with slimming, as if it were a branch of the physical-beauty subculture.  Literary aerobics!  Who urges a fellow writer to fatten, to dilate?  Go further, be wilder, indulge that vice until it blooms as a virtue, or dies of superfetation!  This is not what we hear around the workshop table.  “I’d like to know more about the sister,” someone may suggest, but elaborate description is not what he has in mind.  Adjectives, a slow-moving target, are indeed the first casualty on the front lines of contemporary style.

Of course, for the survival of adjectives, you have to have nouns worth adjectivalizing.  Given the setting and subject matter of most contemporary fiction, I can do without adjectives as I can do without sauce on my hamburger.  In the Alexandria Quartet, the outrageous tachiste palette of Durrell’s adjectives derives less from a love of adjectives for their own sake than from the fact that at dusk Lake Mareotis is violet; that sherbet colors of orange, mauve, and apple green do dot the dust of Alexandria; and that such blazing ice-cream hues make sense as the color of kisses exchanged in that great “winepress of love,” as our novelist calls the city.

Adjectives are novels in miniature: Each should be a surprise and, as such, a compression of all the tricks and twists the story has in store.  Predictable adjectives tell of the death of imagination.  And absence of adjectives?  Well, it signals modernity, but does this mean we are a spartan literary culture, free of cant and frou-frou?  Or readers in a hurry, snacking on fast-food prose that has migrated, in the past hundred years, from lowbrow to high?  With a pinch of holy water, like a baptismal blessing, from Gertrude Stein, via Hemingway’s domesticated Stein.

And quickly: Why are the final volumes of tetralogies so feeble, so etiolated?  The problem isn’t that there’s no more plot to be found, no more to be told.  There’s always more to be told.  But does it relate, does it cohere?  It can’t just be more.  Four is an interesting number, and an interesting shape.  (Consider Chekhov’s four-act structuring.)  And here’s the difficulty: A really excellent opening volume—Ford’s Some Do Not . . . and Durrell’s Justine are good examples—contains the remaining three volumes, by implication.  This sounds promising, I know, as if all that remained for the author was to birth the remaining puppies.  But every good narrative is attended by a bodyguard of possibilities—if you will, by all the possible contiguous narratives the author does not write, does not articulate, precisely so that they will couch the good narrative.  They create the aura in which the good narrative sits.  What happens to the sister?  Will the next generation reclaim the old house?  Will Uncle Wilfred ever get his due and his work be recognized?  These are the questions that must not be answered, if the original narrative is to preserve its magic.  Pursue each of those—give each of them its own novel—and there is a strange sense, shared by author and reader, of illuminating corners that formerly gave chiaroscuro, of nailing notes that once hovered above the melody.  There are, of course, narrative strategies to avoid this.  I must confess a preoccupation with this issue: Three volumes of a novel-quartet have been published, over a period of 15 years, and now a further ten years have passed while I battle with the fourth and final volume, of which I have twice written and discarded 300 pages.  Perhaps with good luck one can stumble into a self-renewing foursome structure, or with cunning devise one.  But the fascinating question remains: how to enable closure while still ensuring the ever-opening spirit of the long narrative?

Of course my other challenge is how to get through a long narrative in my undergraduate 20th-century fiction class.  This coming semester, I’m teaching, in two separate classes, the empresses of 20th-century British writing: Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch.  I shall take opposing extremes of method, and in one class take 14 weeks to read To The Lighthouse line by extraordinary line, with my undergrads, while in the same period, my poor dragooned graduates will be marched through eight, or perhaps nine of Dame Iris’s labyrinthine constructs, so that we may consider each wonderful Murdochian confection as we would a page of Woolf.  To each its own.  I shall report.