February 8



I like to wonder what causes an author to choose this name rather than any other for a particular character. Did Jane Austen once have a schoolfriend named Elizabeth Bennet and remembered her affectionately? Was Dickens once bullied in the playground by a William Sykes and took his vengeance? There are some authors with whom it is obvious of course - Bunyan, in his Christian allegory "A Pilgrim's Progress", has Christian, Evangelist, Obstinate, Pliant, Mr. Worldly Wiseman - all terribly meaningful symbolisms, rather than mere names. I am fairly certain that Dostoievski named his most famous family Black for the same reason: Karamazov, in the Russian.

George Eliot's Dr Casaubon, for example, the Reverend Edward with whom Dorothea ruins her life in "Middlemarch", and who she (George Eliot, I mean Mary Ann Evans) claimed was actually modeled on herself (yes, Mr Casaubon, rather than Dorothea, as we might presume). Such an obscure name, it must have a significant progenitor in real life - and indeed it has not one but two, both scholars, both theologians, of which the father, Isaac, born today in 1559 - he is the illustration at the top of the page - was regarded as the most learned in Europe, while the son, Méric, was noted especially for his editions of Marcus Aurelius. 

Isaac was 13 when the Huguenots were slaughtered on St Bartholomew's Day, and he spent the remainder of his childhood hiding in a cave in the Dauphiné mountains, until he was sent to study in Geneva, where Méric was born. How much of this would George Eliot have known? I like to imagine her, detester as she was of all tyrannies and ideologies, a woman dedicated to enlightenment through human knowledge, chuckling wrily to herself as she wrote the name down for the first time, fully cognisant of the sources and implications of her choice, equally aware of the complete implausibility of any of her readers catching the oblique joke.

Or there is Ludwig Leichhardt, whose journey into the hinterland of Australia was the source of one of the truly giant novels of the 20th century, Patrick White's "Voss" - a statement that I make in full awareness that Australians don't much admire their only truly world-great author. "Verbal slush" is a much spat phrase, carrying the same weight of critical articulacy as the Yahoo howling "rubbish" at the referee in the soccer stadium. Partly the problem is his Englishness - he went to school in Cheltenham and was very much a Brit who happened to live in Australia, still wearing his British values with his British accent and his British suit and his very British way of life. Partly the problem is his homosexuality, which Australians nowadays are trying valiantly to accommodate, but still it doesn't go well with the jackeroo machismo that likes to sledge from the slips, when not sneakily lifting off a bail behind the umpire's back and then claiming a hit-wicket. Partly it's his intellectuality, and his tendency towards poetry, and it could also be his irritating use of the subjunctive-conditional, because, perhaps, he might have seen human life ambivalently, as maybe this, or possibly that, but never, though even that is uncertain, but, possibly, ambiguous - his outlook on the world reflected in the demanding style of his language. But what Australians mostly find problematic with PW is precisely what Australians found problematic with Leichhardt at the time, that he would insist on making these excursions into the viscera, the hinterland, both that of the aboriginal human heart and soul, and equally, often allegorically, that of the vast inland continent that separates the great coast-hugging cities where Australians traditionally live, as though to be sure they are able to get back on board the transport ships if ever the Dream Time should catch up with them. Of all of PW's books, the one I have re-read the most often is "Voss".

But why that name for his fictionalised Leichhardt? His namesake, Johann Heinrich Voss, or Voß as he would have written it, was a German poet who translated, among others, both Homer's "Odyssey" and Virgil's "Georgics". During his tenure as a professor at Heidelberg he did little but translate, mostly from the Greeks and Romans, as well as publishing an edition of Shakespeare in German which those with expertise tell me wasn't a patch on Schlegel's. To translate a work of literature is only slightly less an act than creating it yourself, and far more than merely reading it. The translator must enter the soul of the work exactly as the original author did, and then, just as the original author did, he must express that soul in language - the only difference is the nationality of the language. So a translation of a genuine work of literature must also be a journey into the aboriginal hinterland - and that is why I think it must be him, because I cannot imagine that Patrick White gave the surname to his own greatest creation, without meaning the allusion. Voss' dates (J.H. that is) were February 20th 1751 - March 29th 1826. Leichhardt, the other model, came later, born October 23rd 1813, died (no one knows for certain where or when, but probably) April 3rd, 1848.

So much for the invented characters. What about the writers themselves, the ones who disguise their own names under pseudonyms. Several women did it out of the necessities imposed by a patriarchal society - George Sand and George Eliot the two most obvious of those, though you might not know that Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell were the names the Brontë sisters - Charlotte, Emily and Anne - used when they first published.

Some, like Eric Blair, probably thought he needed something more exotic or his books just wouldn't sell - he became George Orwell. Samuel Clemens likewise became Mark Twain. Italo Svevo simply hated the name he had been born with - 
Ettore Schmitz. Honoré de Balzac was actually Honoré Balssa; he changed it to Balzac to make it sound aristocratic, then added the "de" when the first attempt failed; he also tried Horace de Saint-Aubin for a while - I'm not sure which is the more pretentious: the allusion to the Roman poet or the switch from his name-saint (Saint Honoré of Amiens) to the best wines in Burgundy? And did he mean the red Pinot Noir or the white Chardonnay?

The Danish philosopher Soeren Kierkegaard - the name means "churchyard"- not only used pseudonyms, but constantly changed them, usually as a semiotic, a symbolic hint at the content of the work, which was always philosophical, but also variations of names within the text to allow him to present contradictory arguments through different voices. His doctoral thesis appeared under the name of Frederik Christian Sibbern, after which he became Johannes de Silentio when he published "Fear and Trembling", Vigilius Haufniensis, which means "The Watchman of Copenhagen", for "The Concept of Anxiety", Johannes Climacus for his "Philosophical Fragments", and the mere "editor" of "Either/Or" as Victor Eremita.

The 20th century prize for pseudonyms (though he called them heteronyms) goes to the Portuguese poet and thinker Fernando Pessoa, and in naming him I invite my reader to look up one very particular novel of Portugal's other great modern writer, the Nobel prize winning Jose Saramago, whose "A Year In The Death Of Ricardo Reis" manages not only to bring Pessoa back to life, albeit as a ghost, but one of his many heteronyms as well, and to do so in a book whose literary model is not actually Pessoa at all, but in its form the stream of consciousness school, and in its techniques Jorge Luis Borges - or George Lewis Burgess, as his literary half-brother Antony Burgess once pseudonymised him. I couldn't resist, in my novel "The Book of Joan" inventing a novelist named Ricardo Reis, who wrote a novel entitled "A Year In The Death of Jose Saramago", with the late Saramago playing the ghost on this occasion. I also can't help wondering now, given the nature of Pessoa's thoughts and thought-processes, whether he didn't get the idea of heteronyms from Kierkegaard.

But that is simply the "what" that they chose; what interests me much more is the "why". Sometimes it is obvious - Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski quite naturally becomes Joseph Conrad upon taking British citizenship. Sometimes there are clues. "Mark Twain" is a riverboat term which measures two fathoms (12 feet) in depth: mark (measure) twain (two); pretty obvious for the author of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn", though he goes much deeper than the mere two fathoms in "The Innocents Abroad". Eric Blair chose George Orwell to reflect his English nationalism (Saint George) and his favourite river, the Orwell in Suffolk; though he may also have been making an obscure allusion to his role-model, Daniel Defoe (or simple Daniel Foe originally, until he Balzacked it), who wrote about the Orwel river (De Foe's mis-spelling) in his 1722 "A tour through England and Wales".

Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, was Ricardo Neftalí Reyes Basoalto until his father threw the fourteen year old's just-published book of poems on the fire and he had to continue secretly; Pablo was a Spanish homage to Paul Verlaine (who, incidentally, came to fame in Paris after an article about him in the magazine "La Nouvelle Rive Gauche", written by its editor Charles Morice in December 1882 - under the pseudonym Karl Mohr); the Neruda was for the Czech poet Jan Nepomuk Neruda, like Verlaine out of print for years.

Sometimes there are stupidities, like Thackeray's idiotic pen-names that do not merit explanation (George Savage Fitz-Boodle, Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Théophile Wagstaff, and C.J. Yellowplush, Esq - you can find the entire pointless registry here if you really must), or Benjamin Franklin's (Silence Dogood, Anthony Afterwit and Alice Addertongue) or Dickens' Boz, which was "the nickname of a pet child, a younger brother, whom I had dubbed Moses, in honour of Goldsmith’s 'Vicar of Wakefield', which, being pronounced Bozes, got shortened into Boz."

Lewis Carroll is far more interesting. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson adopted his pen name in 1856 because, according to the website of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, he was modest and wanted to maintain the privacy of his personal life. When letters addressed to Lewis Carroll arrived at Dodgson's study in Oxford, he would refuse them, in order to maintain personal deniability of his alias. He came up with it by Latinising Charles Lutwidge into Carolus Ludovicus, then loosely Anglicising that into Carroll Lewis, and finally changing the order because it sounded better that way around. It was chosen by his publisher from a list of several possible pen names, but alas those do not appear to have been recorded anywhere.

I am very keen to expand this page with other tales of other pseudonyms, and therefore invite the reader to share with me any other names, whether of the authors, or of those of their characters which fit the pattern, namely of being chosen to pay homage to an actual, living - if only erstwhile - soul.

Amber pages

Robert Burton, Melancholy Anatomist, born today in 1577

John Ruskin, also, in his own way, a rather melancholy anatomist, born today in 1819

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