:: Article

Of Cigars and Pedants

By Houman Barekat.

I cannot claim the credit for the discovery. A good friend is reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008), and it was from there that he had gleaned, and related to me, the story of Henry James’ cigar. It concerns a letter from Vladimir Nabokov to his friend, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, in which the Russian-American novelist vents spleen on a point of style.

The offending article is the briefest of vignettes in which a narrator — Henry James, in his novella, The Aspern Papers — makes reference to the ‘red tip’ of a lit cigar as seen by an outsider looking in through a window at night. Nabokov considered this an exemplarily sloppy way of describing the lit end of a cigar. Because a cigar, he insisted, does not have a tip. James’ choice of signifier marked him out as a second-rate writer who did not look deeply enough into the meanings of the words he used.

Can a cigar have a tip? What exactly is a tip?

Never mind that the word is often used to refer generally to the end of some long or tall thing, a usage no less legitimate for being colloquial and derivative; we needn’t look beyond the OED’s narrower definitions to cast doubt on Nabokov’s strident rebuke. The first of the dictionary’s two meanings is ‘the pointed or rounded end or extremity of something slender or tapering.’ Okay, so perhaps a cigar’s end does not taper like a tongue (oh that it might!), and perhaps in some hyper-pedantic universe its bluntness absolutely precludes it from being pointed or rounded, even though it may well appear so from a distance.

We might argue over that one, but the second definition leaves little room for uncertainty: ‘a small piece or part fitted to the end of an object: e.g. the rubber tip of the walking stick.’ In this light (if you’ll forgive the pun) it is actually rather an apt way to conjure the visual impression, in side profile against the gloom, of the lit end defined against the dark, thin body of the cigar. But Nabokov would have none of it: a cigar does not have a tip, and it is a poor wordsmith who would suggest otherwise.

Perhaps only someone who had come to the English language later in life would be capable of finding fault — and with such truculence at that — with such an easy turn of phrase. Clumsy, jealous linguists abound in Nabokov’s oeuvre, and are also to be found scattered among the works of that other adopted Westerner and distinctive stylist, Joseph Conrad. Nabokov accused James of not looking hard enough — in truth, it seems more a case of Nabokov looking too hard. The convert’s zeal of his surly outburst betrays the precise perfectionism that made his own prose so elegant. At its heart lies a chronic insecurity about linguistic correctness, an atavism from an earlier stage of the author’s cultural formation — the displaced foreigner within, that no degree of proficiency can ever fully efface.

Last year I encountered, in a work of literature, a character (a teacher as I recall) whose manner of speech was described in disapproving tones as ‘pedantically correct.’ It was only a passing reference but an intriguing one nonetheless, if only because it seemed such an odd little trait to pick up on. I imagined a neurotic type, whose grammatical and syntactic infallibility represented something of a Pyrrhic triumph because his every enunciation would be staggered and strained; like all pedants, he would have lacked true conviction. Such a person would probably have known better than to describe the lit end of a cigar as a ‘tip’. He would doubtless have been, in many other respects, a dreadful bore. The book in question was Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderful memoir, Speak, Memory; and I for one suspect the author’s dig was born of admiration.

Houman Barekat is a London-based writer and editor of Review 31. He is co-editor, with Mike Gonzalez, of Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring, forthcoming from Pluto Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 3rd, 2012.