The Essence of Another: On the Convention of Eliding Names in Fiction
by Tess Crain
(pictured above: Clarice Lispector)
He was sad and tall. He never spoke to me without making it understood that his gravest flaw lay in his tendency toward destruction…. I, to be honest, didn’t know how to answer and regretted not having some backup gesture, like his, of stroking his hair, to slip out of the confusion.
So begins Clarice Lispector’s “Interrupted Story.” For six pages, the narrator debates herself on how to reach, “shock” into being, or possess this man for whom she feels “a deep and thrilling certainty of love…. You only have a feeling like that two or three times in your life….” Per titular promise, the narrative ends with pitiless abruptness.
I have never read another story like it, nor have I ever felt such joy or terror or recognition in so few pages. It is, I think, my favorite short story.
Throughout, the narrator refers to her lover only as “W—.”
The literary device of eliding proper names of course predates Lispector (“Interrupted Story” was originally published in 1942).
In 1695, after decades of censorship, the British Licensing Act lapsed and newspapers could suddenly print texts without prior vetting; libel laws having very much not lapsed, however, authors and publishers took to replacing risky words with an initial letter followed by a dash or stars. Novelists of the time, such as Daniel Defoe or Samuel Richardson, replicated the tactic, achieving a two-for-one effect: first, as with a frame narrative (The editor believes the thing to be a just history of fact) or an epistle (DEAR MOTHER, Well, I will now proceed with my sad story), gaps and blanks gave the impression that real newspapers had removed real names from the text, making the reader's disbelief lighter and thus easier to suspend; second, erasure eased the authorial burden of description by calling upon the reader to supply the man, “Lord —”, or their local “B—n-hall”, galvanizing the fictive world with lived experience. Jane Austen and the Brontës later employed the same strategy, along with other Europeans, including Heinrich von Kleist (The Marquise of O—) and most nineteenth-century Russians (the first sentence of Crime and Punishment includes “S——y Lane” and “K——n Bridge”).
Postmodernists—not to mention that genius poltergeist of eighteenth-century typography, Laurence Sterne—resuscitated the practice ironically, perhaps none with so much self-consciousness as John Barth (see Lost in the Funhouse). Contemporary writers have intermittently deployed the method (The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman), as well, for various reasons and to varying effect.
Aside from style, political necessity and commentary have required proper-name erasure, as have issues of translation (the town of “D—” or “Digne” in different editions of Les Misérables), or the taste of a particular translator.
Lispector uses the dash—as she does so many things—differently. Neither conventional nor sarcastic, allegorical nor sly, her elision serves instead an emotional, metaphysical purpose: to capture without reducing the essence of another.
The problem with a proper name is that to define is to exclude and thus reduce—“We, with words and finger-pointings,/ gradually make the world our own,/ perhaps its weakest, most precarious part,” Rilke wrote. The total significance of being cannot be contained within a name.
Conversely, as Taylor Swift indicates (“I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name”) and Beyoncé, too (as the featureless “you” in “I could have another you in a minute” obliterates the other’s difference from others), full elision precludes specificity and thus intimacy.
Neither, however, does a single initial alone suffice to encapsulate a soul, despite a brilliant, depersonalized history—from Kafka (“Joseph K.”) to Fleur Jaeggy (“XX”) to Alexandra Kleeman (“B” and “C”)—of using letters in lieu of names. Without the dash to provide, per Catherine Gallagher, “an incompleteness that invites emotional investment,” a letter becomes as interchangeable as a space. It is the incongruous alloy of parts, discontinuity as “the presupposition of unity,” that combines to represent a living, beloved person.
In another of her stories, “Jimmy and I,” one of only a few besides “Interrupted Story” featuring proper-name redaction, Lispector writes:
I then explained to [Jimmy] that I was madly in love with D— and, in a marvelous stroke of inspiration (I regretted that the examiner couldn’t hear me), told him that, in this case, I was incapable of unifying the contradictory elements, making a Hegelian synthesis.
It is this Being-Nothing-Becoming, a cuneate duality of the familiar and the opaque, that letter-dash elision captures—and also what makes “Interrupted Story,” and Lispector generally, so good. She understands, as Mahmoud Darwish has written, that love—and the world in which love unfolds—is neither truth nor faith but rather “the completion of meaning with non-meaning”—a first initial followed by a dash.
Tess Crain is a graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program, where she served as a Goldwater Fellow. Her writing has appeared in the New Republic. She lives in New York City.