“She writes everything down. Then puts the fountain pen into the drawer of the small table where she keeps the book she is reading to him, along with two candles, Vesta matches.”
Most days I’d step over “fountain pen”, knowing it well, sometimes writing with one, enjoying the feel of the nib sliding over clean paper, the shape of ideas appearing for the first time, the long flow of ink drawing words into existence. Words like “fountain pen” in these sentences. Because I know the phrase well, it doesn’t break my stride—I read those last two words on page 124; the image arises; certain connections form, and my eye flicks to the top of the next page,
“…into the drawer of the small table…”An image of ink drying; a cap closing over a gold nib; nearby, a heavy bottle sitting on a sheet of extensively stained blotting paper—its soft, thick feel no longer as common as when Hana closed that pen as her war drew to a close.
The pages of my copy of the book resemble blotting paper; just a little less soft, a little less absorbent. If I touched the nib of a fountain pen to one of those pages the ink would spread along the fibres as if the page were trying to suck words from the pen. Nothing I wrote would be clear.
The images and the connections they make now locate “fountain pen” in the past. The candles and the Vesta matches—particularly the Vestas—confirm it, make it more precise, move it further back but not too far; they give it a period. I’ve held Vestas. I know what they are and what they look like; the size, colour, and texture of the box; but, unlike fountain pens, few people now can form this detailed an image—for them, the connotations are intellectual rather than experiential. Most people, I suspect, will detour around “Vesta matches”, appreciating the detail, the specificity, but not able to step straight over the image.
Usually, this is what we do with unfamiliar words, and the next time we encounter them they’re a little less unfamiliar—with each encounter we come to know them a little better; each context adds a little more understanding, until at last we find ourselves taking them in our stride.
Sometimes unfamiliar words stop us. The detour seems too far; obstructed, we stop reading and hunt for information—definitions, which are often unhelpful, and examples, which are often better than definitions, particularly because we now have two: the example that stopped us and the example we sought.
But some days we’re stopped in our tracks by familiar words. Words we've met many times and usually consider ordinary. We read “fountain pen” and something arrests us; we read past the small table, the candles, and the Vesta matches and find we haven’t really gone anywhere. We’re still back at the fountain pen, wondering; captivated by something. But what? Is it that “fountain pen” is at last beginning to become unfamiliar—if not to us, then maybe to the biro and felt-tip generation, and certainly to the keyboard kids? Is it the knowledge of the accumulating unfamiliarity that draws attention to the words?
Or perhaps it’s because the words, like the pens themselves, are becoming rare. We read them and something taps us on an ankle, trips us; something that says, “Look, it’s been a while since you’ve seen those words.”
Then you begin to notice the strangeness of the words—why “fountain pen”? To fountain would seem to be the last thing you’d want a pen to do. Generations of designers struggled to prevent pens from doing exactly that; strove to design the pen that could be relied on never to gush over your page or piss in your pocket. You wonder; you don’t step over the words, nor detour around them—you circle, inspect, explore; and the more you do so, the more you feel you’re seeing them for the first time.When you finally pick up the book again to read on, you know those words differently. Maybe you think you understand them better; maybe not; maybe you think you understand them less. What you do know is this—you appreciate them more.
I'm looking after Dirk, Miep, and the marvellous house at Eastbourne, and struggling to process photos on a computer with too little memory and too slow a processor—a bit like me, I think. So, you only get three photos. Sorry.
 Ondaatje, Michael 1992 The English Patient. London, Picador (Pan Books). 302 pp. ISBN 0 330 32754 2.
Photos (click on the first two if you want larger images; the third is full size (blogger being uncooperative)):
1. Mere illustration (see note 2 on this post).
2. Pihoihoi, New Zealand pipit, Anthus novaeseelandiae. Eastern shore of Wellington harbour, south of Point Arthur.
3. Piwakawaka, New Zealand fantail, Rhipdura fuliginosa. loc. cit.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor