So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf), termagant (nag), unctuous (smug), otiose (useless), punctillio (formality), orotundity (pretentiousness) and how about… incarnadined?
I am a good ways through “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure,” by Artemis Cooper (John Murray, 2012), the biography about the gad-about polymath and well-reviewed travel writer who died in 2011.
And it has been a revelation.
For one thing, I have learned that it is possible to write about a fascinating life without, you know, actually being fascinating yourself. This book, though warmly recommended to any fan of Mr. Fermor’s work, is nearly as desultory and dissipated as Mr. Fermor himself.
But, more important, it has revealed the subject in a stark and authentic light. He was, it says here, kind of a jerk. Well-loved, of course, and with admirable qualities; whose every book I have bought and read, eagerly, from cover to cover; and whose life, as aimless as it was, still furnishes the mother lode of my dreaming life — but nonetheless a jerk.
Incarnadined, a transitive verb (inn-CAR-nah-deened) defined by Webster’s Fourth as “to make the color of either flesh or blood,” crops up in a case in point.
(Photo credit: Joan Leigh Fermor)
Mr. Fermor was staying with friends — which is what he was doing, more often than not — at a castle in Ireland. The previous weeks had been a riot of parties — it was, as Mr. Fermor wrote to a friend, “a mixture of a night-club, the Hons’ cupboard* and the Charge of the Light Brigade, so tremendous was the pace, even for me, all day and all night.” But now it was quiet, and Mr. Fermor proposed to his friends that they attend the Kildare Hunt Ball as a lark. No one liked the idea, though the owner of the castle finally agreed. But first, she asked her butler for, as Ms. Cooper puts it, something to make “a tiresome evening a bit more bearable. A pill the size of a hornet arrived on a silver salver and Paddy, intrigued, asked if he could have one, too.”
To the ball we go. Mr. Fermor’s celebrated charisma, no doubt accustomed to consorting with alcohol, did not get on well with whatever was in the hornet-size pill. And he was no stranger to chemical enhancements; he once celebrated Christmas in Cairo with a Benzedrine-stuffed turkey. But at the Kildare Hunt Ball, Mr. Fermor did not exactly ride high in the saddle. The climax came after he picked out the tallest mug in the room and asked him, as Ms. Cooper writes on Page 281, “if it was true that the ‘Killing Kildares’ were in the habit of buggering their foxes.”
Bedlam ensued. “There we were, all slamming away at each other like navvies [‘an unskilled laborer, as on canals, roads, etc.’],” Mr. Fermor wrote a friend.
I was being dealt with by a half a dozen great incarnadined Nimrods;** Robert Kee came to my rescue, only to be brought down by Roderick More O’Ferrall, and the scarlet maelstrom surged over them and me.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Fermor, himself incarnadined from a small gash in his head, was eventually rescued by a female acquaintance (not his girlfriend).
The verb comes from the adjective incarnadine, from the French incarnadin, snug in my dictionary appropriately between incardinate, “to attach a cleric to a particular diocese,” and incarnate, “endowed in a body.” It is tempting to think that Mr. Fermor meant that his assailants had been bloodied, but in reality I think he is referring to the red hunting jackets, above right, worn by members of the club.
In any case, this is just the tip of the boorish iceberg when it comes to Mr. Fermor. A few pages earlier (Page 278), Ms. Cooper diverts from her narrative to give a brief disquisition on sexual hygiene, noting that “his weakness for the sleazier pleasures of the night sometimes led to a nasty surprise for his more respectable girlfriends.” Ms. Cooper is herself so diverted that she quotes in full a letter Mr. Fermor wrote to one such unfortunate. Mr. Fermor, after examining his “fragrant and silent glades” for tiny livestock, concludes sheepishly that the “crabs of the world fly to me, like the children of Israel to Abraham’s bosom…”
(Yes, he really did.)
Mr. Fermor in 1966.
And so on. Mr. Fermor, when he isn’t cadging money from friends, swilling their wine and brandy, popping their pills, fornicating with their wives, sisters and daughters, was also a card-carrying member of a thoroughly irritating species: the writer unaware of deadline. He once, having been asked for a few thousand words on a well-known episode from his wartime service, turned in months late nearly 40,000 words.
Words, I will add, that have still not been published.
Unpublished is what you might say of the word incarnadine. It is the title of a recent collection of poetry, and it has a rich life in online role-playing games, apparently. But few writers have been seduced by its charms.
Except for one you might have heard of:
Macbeth: Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
“Macbeth,” Act 2, Scene 2, 54–60
* “Hons’ cupboard” refers to a secret childhood hiding place of the Mitford siblings, English aristocrats whose style and politics were the stuff of scandal in 1930s Britain.
** A nimrod is a foolish person, of course, but capitalized here I believe Mr. Fermor is referring to King Nimrod, a renowned hunter and a stout Babylonian king. It was his ill-conceived plan to build the Tower of Babel, which seems to indicate that Mr. Fermor was reserving similar divine judgment for his Kildare persecutors.