i love the sound of “ferruginous.” loved that it stopped me on page seventeen. furrrr-udge-in-us. love how it sounded to me when i read it out loud. loved how the urrrrr rolled around in my head a bit. i boxed it with my pink pen and then went back to re-read the sentence.
to be halted by a word is a glorious thing. like being haunted, i believe barthes describes it as a pin-prick, by a photograph. i admit, i looked it up at m-w.com. and i pressed the audio option. feh-rooo-ginous. hmm. that’s not how i heard it. and did i want to post how i stumbled across this word on facebook and be part of an elite circle that also looked up ferruginous? nope. not yet, anyhow. i had a much better idea.
i have two beloved “found” objects. they reside beside one another in a safe, dry and permanent home. both i found out of some kind of magical, serendipitous, good fairy kind of luck. one walking back to my son’s elementary school after finding library books left in the back seat on a tuesday, on library tuesday nonetheless, following the blue paw prints back to the front office. there i saw the blur of a giant, spherical object being tossed into the dumpster. hey rick, i asked, was that a globe you just threw away? yup. apparently it doesn’t work anymore. so he dug it out, i backed up the jeep (after dropping off the library books) and loaded up my broken globe. a globe void of country, continent, or sea nomenclature. a globe, i found, that was part of an industrial circa 1976 set for school use when i saw the same (devoid of the LUSD etching in custodial handwriting that MY globe bears) globe in a luxe urban housegoods shop in newport coast selling (with a hand written tag) for $2400.
the second, much earlier find, is a two volume set of the compact edition of the oxford english dictionary at the local bookshop for a new twenty. i think the bookseller, whose shelves were bulging with waiting-room fiction knew it was a steal, with its leather slip case and pull out drawer containing a magnifying glass for reading the micrographically reproduced text. but he gave it to me anyway in exchange for my earnings of four hours of work at the Y latchkey program. it helped me through an undergraduate thesis on the word “seem” in paradise lost, and resurfaced in graduate school while working on beowulf in the old english . . . and now some eighteen years later with proust.
ipulled out the microscope from the bottom drawer and found it in volume one. my seven year old marvelled at this technology. wow, mom, you have to use book glasses for all those words? using the book glasses i was able to trace the word: in 1666 ferruginous described the rusty taste water accumulated as it flowed over certain rocks. a zoologist in 1766 described ferriginous scales on particular kinds of reptiles and an eider duck shows up in 1870 as having such a hue. it also told me what i knew already, that it is “of the nature of iron.” which makes sense. ferr-, ferrum, ferrious. . . or some deriviation. but i also learned that due to its reference directly to ferrum it exists also in french, that this word, had the geneaology continued could have continued with 1913, Proust, with the following sentence, here, of course, translated for our reading enjoyment:
The evenings when, sitting in front of the house under the large chestnut tree, around the iron table, we heard at the far end of the garden, not the copious high-pitched bell that drenched, that deafened in passing with its ferruginous, icy, inexhaustible noise any person in the household who set it off by coming in ‘without ringing’, but the shy, oval, golden double tinkling of the little visitors’bell, everyone would immediately wonder: ‘A visitor–now who can that be?’ but we knew very well it could only be M. Swann; my great-aunt speaking loudly, to set an example, in a tone of voice that she strained to make natural, said not to whisper that way; that nothing is more disagreeable for a visitor just coming in who is led to think that people are saying things he should not hear; and they would send as a scout my grandmother, who was always glad to have a pretext for taking one mote walk around the garden and who would profit from it by surreptitiously pulling up a few rose stakes on the way in order to restore a little naturalness to the roses, like a mother who runs her hand through her son’s hair or fluff it up after the barber has flattened it too much
this passage comes as the narrator recalls the evening’s nightly consolation and sorrow:”mama’s kiss.” (a passage, admittedly, as a mother of two, i keep coming back to rather obsessively–the passage and the theme of obsession d. takes on quite nicely below). note, first, that the passage itself is a sentence. one sentence about the “golden double tinkling of the little visitors’ bell” and “not the copious high-pitched bell that drenched, that deafened in passing with its ferruginous, icy, inexhaustible noise.” it’s about the visitor, THE visitor M. Swann and the memory of that nightly diversion, one paired in memory with his mother’s kiss. so the passage is both about the “golden” tinkling bell and the “ferruginous” gong. and as i write this, and re-read the passage i’m realizing that i did not escape the earlier moment after all… that these metallic extremes are intertwixt with his memory of the pleasure and the pain of that moment. that they are at the same time about the grandmother’s pruning the roses which is also a mother’s impulse.
and i love the way that these words are heavy and permanent, they are “drenched” and “inexhaustible” and leave a mark… they are not unlike the leaden circles big ben leaves in the air throughout london in virginia woolf’s mrs. dalloway (i find, by the way, that all answers are in that novel). i know, or i’ve been told anyhow, that these kinds of close readings are an indulgence. but isn’t it a wonderful kind of indulgence? one proust both warns us against and yet delightfully invites us to do? he takes us away from his novel (to our bookshelves, to our memories) while still suspending us over the page.