Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Twice this day, I've encountered critics reflecting on the names writers give to their characters—the authenticity or not, the too-frequent overdeterminedness of the enterprise, the leap of faith that is all bound up in naming.
In Elif Batuman's marvelously idiosyncratic memoir, The Possessed (ingeniously subtitled Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them and rather otherwise ingenious, all around), Batuman, writing of the "perfection" of Anna Karenina, celebrates, among the novel's other attributes, the fact that "Anna's lover and her husband had the same first name (Alexei). Anna's maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna's son and Levin's half brother were both Sergei. The repetition of names struck me as remarkable, surprising, and true to life."
Later, in surveying the contemporary American short-story scene, Batuman notes, "No contemporary American short-story writer would have had the stamina not to name (Chekhov's) lapdog. They were too caught up in trying to bootstrap from a proper name to a meaningful individual essence...."
At the end of the day, reading James Wood in The New Yorker on "Conflict, Convention, and Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered," I discovered this:
"And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn't one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?)...."
I present this then, to all of you. I wonder how it is that you go about selecting your characters' names, and what you believe in, and don't, when encountering the names of characters in the novels and stories you are reading.