“The Only Novel about the Letter P” proclaims the bright blue wrapper around the Faber and Faber original edition of Philipp Bloms’s odd little novel, The Simmons Papers (1995). Not the finest bit of marketing in the company’s history, certainly, but it’s hard to imagine what tag line would have been more enticing. “Kafka Meets the O.E.D.” is the best I can come up with.
Blom himself nearly manages to put off all but the most persistent reader with an introduction that treats the work as a manuscript discovered among the papers of the late P. E. H. Simmons, a fellow in Philosophy at Balliol College. An eccentric figure who spent most of his life in seclusion, Simmons attracted considerable academic interest with this posthumous piece, which is held by various critics to be a diary, “a coded account of masonic rituals,” or a translation of some ancient hymns. Blom includes numerous quotations from several of these exegeses as footnotes throughout the book, managing with every one of them to cloud the meaning of the passages they are meant to clarify. From all this, one could easily categorize The Simmons Papers as a satire on critical theory and similar movements whose interpretations are often more obscure than the original texts.
Myself, I would advise the reader to ignore the introduction, skip right to page 23 and dive into what I’d describe as a lexicographical soliloquoy. The nameless narrator is at work on “the Definitive Dictionary of our language,” a massive work that outreaches even the Oxford English Dictionary in its ambition. Its goal is to “finally define our language beyond the level of ambiguity and doubt.” “With an entry in the Dictionary all questions are settled, all uncertainties removed.”
Such an enterprise involves a large team of contributors and editors. The narrator, who is responsible for the section devoted to words beginning with the letter P, knows almost none of his colleagues, and never met Dr. Javis, the editor-in-chief or even Mr. Lloyd, his personal assistant. He relies entirely upon Malakh, the ninety-three year-old porter who conveys the correspondence and papers from office to office.
Although he acknowledges that P “was a small and modest letter” for much of its history, he is proud to note that, thanks to the influx of words from other languages, it has grown to stand as the third largest section in the Dictionary (after S and C):
It is a letter of immigrants; the loving and attentive ear hears the buzzing of a hundred foreign tongues within it: hymns of the early church; the babble and yelling of Arabian bazaars; Latin precision, elegance and brutality; Germanic harshness; words sailing with William the Conqueror; words drowned with the Spanish Armada (some of which mysteriously drifted ashore); Arabic prose and philosophy; commands given by Hadrian; and psalms, all humming, bubbling and chattering, colorful and delightful.
He sees himself, though, as a liberator: “Once unchained from their heavy bond of syntax and strict grammaticality, they can do anything, start to dance, whirl and revolve, like a bunch of mad little devils.” For each word in the Dictionary, the narrator has to assemble as many known usages as he can find, and then sift and sort through them to eliminate any imprecision in definition that might allow a remnant of confusion to survive the Dictionary’s publication. “I am a mineworker of language,” he writes, “I inhale ambiguities and meanings like coal dust.”
Indeed, the task is so difficult that every day Malakh brings another editions of the Communications of the Great Academy, an endless series of instructions to the dictionary workers attempting to refine their methodology to such a level of perfection that there will be no risk of the Dictionary not achieving its objective. The narrator spends as much time reading and interpreting the Communications as he does working on the Dictionary itself, searching for their central argument: “First the ideal method must be found, and only then can detail and procedures be dealt with.”
Looking out of the one tiny window in his room one day, the narrator catches a glimpse of a woman in a brightly-flowered dress. She becomes a figure of mystery and fascination for him, and, eventually, the antithesis of his own world: “The free range of flowers on her dress defies every method and system, her beauty has no name.” And with this discovery, the narrator’s utility for the Great Academy comes to an abrupt end. The work ends as he is summoned to a final audience with Dr. Javis.
A dedicated reader has to be a lover of words, and I found The Simmons Papers a rhapsody–in words and to words. Let not the stiff academic introduction deter you: there is some wonderful writing in this book, intertwined with some delightful philosophical insights. Although it’s a somewhat uncategorizable book, I would venture to class it as what Ted Gioia has called “conceptual fiction“–“stories that delight in the freedom from ‘reality’ that storytelling allows”–and recommend shelving it alongside the works of Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Stanislaw Lem. And perhaps another odd novel that suffered from ham-fisted marketing, Raymond Cousse’s Death Sty.
Power to the Odd!