The Italics of Disdain
Can we talk about italics for a minute? In the last two books that I have written about here on Vertigo, both authors have used italics in what I think of as the italics of disdain. It’s a way of making clear to the reader that the speaker or narrator dislikes or wishes to distance himself or herself from the very set of words he or she is uttering.
In Mark Haber’s book Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, for example, a novel about two art historians, the Austrian-born Schmidt looks down his nose on his colleague simply for being American. The narrator tells us how Schmidt laid into him one day: “I couldn’t help myself being American, he hastened to add, I’d been stunted and impaired and because of this geographic shortcoming, I suffered a lack of nutrients readily found in the ancient soils of Europe, Austria especially, its soil as dark and rich and awash with history as one could ever dream of, the complete inverse of the anemic American soil on which I’d regrettably been raised, he’d said, a wasteland, he’d called it, a revolting abyss, he’d added.” Here, we not only have several instances where Schmidt cringes from the very words he is forced to tell his American colleague—detestable words like “wasteland” and “revolting abyss“—but we have an example of one italicized phrase—”ancient soils of Europe“—that serves as the exact opposite from the italics of disdain. These are the italics of triumph, the sound of slapping down the winning hand, of showing up the poor schlub who has forced you to say all these distasteful things.
Anyone who has read the novels of Thomas Bernhard will recognize even in this partial sentence that Haber is paying homage to the great Austrian writer in Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, not least through his similar use of italics, but also in the sentence construction of non-stop short clauses (and I’ve only quoted less than half of the original sentence) and the repeated insertion of variants of “he said,” to remind us that the narrator is telling us his own, possibly rephrased version of what Schmidt said to him.
Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory has an omniscient narrator, which is quite a bit different than having a known character as a narrator. Omniscient narrators are generally neutral, but Houellebecq’s narrator likes to use italics to point out whenever any of the book’s characters speak in clichés or use phrases that seem faddish. Here’s the narrator commenting on the main character Jed Martin, an artist: “he had produced a body of work, as they say, without ever encountering, or even contemplating, happiness.” Characters are chastised on the page for uttering trite phrases such as “a genuine human drama” or a “stupefyingly strong desire” or for using tired business phrases like “core target.” Sometimes the narrator makes fun of his own choice of words when even he resorts to clichés, as he does here in writing about one aging couple: “You could say that they still had some beautiful years ahead of them.” Houellebecq seems to be in love with italics in The Map & the Territory, using them to emphasize words and phrases, to indicate foreign words, and sometimes simply to make a point.
Thomas Bernhard was a master of italics of all kinds. Beginning with his second novel, Gargoyles (1967), his narrators begin using italics with increasing frequency, at first just for emphasis or little cries of anguish over the annoyances of the world. But by mid-career, there seem to be moments in every novel when his narrators just drip with disdain for whomever they are talking about or to, as Bernhard targeted pretensions of every sort throughout Austrian society and government. In Woodcutters (1984), his satiric novel about a literary dinner party, the narrator makes fun of the pretensions of the hosts by referring to the event as an “artistic dinner” on innumerable occasions throughout the book (lest we forget!). And he skewers one of the hosts for the “vulgar and repellent” way in which she continually refers to someone as “altogether the most important actor and the greatest living actor, an assessment with which the narrator apparently disagrees” Later on, the narrator snidely notices that an actor at the dinner party pronounced the phrase “dream role” “as though it denoted some culinary delicacy.” When the dinner ends, the narrator flees towards his home, determined to begin writing the first sentences of what will become the tell-all novel that we have just finished, letting the italics of urgency pile on. “And as I went on running I thought: I’ll write something at once, no matter what—I’ll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought—at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City—at once, I told myself, now—at once, at once, before it’s too late.”
Bernhard’s narrators also loathe colloquialisms, even as they frequently resort to using them. On the opening page of The Loser, his novel about the pianist Glenn Gould, the narrator writes: “while now of course he didn’t kill himself like Wertheimer, but died, as they say, a natural death.” Later on: “The Wertheimers have always lived, as the saying goes, in grand style.” Or: “the three of us were, as one can say, friends for life.” It’s a way for the narrator to simultaneously use a cliché and allow the italics to let the reader know that he’s holding his nose while he utters it. Toward the end of the book, the narrator (and Bernhard) vents his spleen toward both the Austrian people and its government: “They all wanted a socialist government, I said, but now they see that precisely this socialist government has squandered everything, I purposely pronounced the word squandered more clearly than all the others, I wasn’t even ashamed of having used it at all, I repeated the word squandered a few more times with regard to our bankrupt state and our socialist government. . . Never before in its history has our country sunk so low, I said. . .”
Thomas Bernhard. Gargoyles. NY: Knopf, 1970. Translated from the 1967 German original by Richard and Clara Winston.
Thomas Bernhard. The Loser. NY: Knopf, 1991. Translated from the 1983 German original by Jack Dawson. Thomas Bernhard. Woodcutters. NY: Knopf, 1987. Translated from the 1984 German original by David McLintock