Is there a secret code that works its way through award-winning literature, unknown to the judges of literary prizes, or maybe known and used as a checklist by those same judges? Or is it just a “coincidence”?
Over the years I have noticed that at least two of the following words or phrases often appear somewhere in “serious” works of fiction, in Booker Prize winning novels and the major works of Nobel Laureates: filigree, antimacassar, daguerreotype, lapis lazuli.
For about the fourth time this month I will mention how good it would be to have every book I’ve ever read on an eReader for research purposes. I could type each of those words in and see how often they occur. I first wondered about them over 30 years ago, when I had to look up “daguerreotype” (an early form of photograph) and “antimacassar” (a piece of cloth put over the back of a chair to protect it from grease or hair-oil – macassar was used as a hair oil in Victorian and Edwardian times, and most of these books are set at least partly in those eras).
I am still working my way through “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (Booker Prize Winner, 2014) and enjoying it. Having reached half-way I have already encountered the word “filigree” twice, and ”antimacassar” twice (a quick search on my Kindle Reading App tells me I can look forward to another instance of the latter). For a change the word “filigree” is used in dialogue; this could be a first in my reading matter. (Filigree is fine wire, typically gold or silver, “formed into delicate tracery”, according to the Oxford English dictionary on my Kindle; the word and has never featured in my day-to-day conversation.)
“Look at the way they lean into each other to form those great gothic arches,” Rooster MacNiece said. “And behind them, the teak trees tracing those filigree lines, like glass leading.”
And I had to look up lapis lazuli many years ago: “a bright blue metamorphic rock consisting largely of lazurite, used for decoration and in jewellery”, again according to that Oxford English Dictionary, or “a bright blue pigment formed by crushing lapis lazuli”, or simply, “a bright blue colour”.
The contents of my Kindle are a very small subset of the books that I have bought and read (most of them are “on vinyl”) but I am still surprised at how rarely these four items appear. From memory I am pretty sure that some or all of them feature in books like “Midnight’s Children”, “Moon Tiger”, “Oscar and Lucinda” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, heavy hitters and prize-winners all.
For the record (having searched through my Kindle), “filigree” also features in Pulitzer Prize winners “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt and “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan (and “Jude the Obscure” and “Middlemarch”, and in The Bible 8 times). “The Goldfinch” also uses the word “daguerreotype”, as does Joyce’s “Ulysses” and “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn. Lapis lazuli is in Jim Crace’s “Harvest”, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile” (and The Complete Words of Shakespeare 3 times and The Bible 7 times). And, in addition to “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, only 3 other books refer to an antimacassar: Arnold Bennett’s “The Card”, “Ulysses” again, The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes.
Next time you come across filigree, antimacassar, daguerreotype or lapis lazuli, could you make a note of it, and let me know?