Sunday, September 09, 2012

An example of ironic use of a single word:

I married, let me see, about a month after you left France, and a few weeks before the gentle Germans roared into Paris. (from Nabokov's That in Aleppo Once...)

The writer obviously can't be the one who thinks the Germans are gentle, so the effect is that the word is used attributively and with a dissociative attitude – it conjures up the possibility of someone who would, absurdly, see the Germans as gentle - though neither of these facts is marked in the form of words used. Tacitly attributive, tacitly dissociative use is the analysis of verbal irony postulated in Sperber and Wilson's work on the subject.

That in Aleppo Once... deserves a thorough pragmatic analysis. Unusually, it's both not at all clear who the (fictional) writer is and clear that who the narrator is matters very much to one's understanding. At first it seems to be a letter written by the protagonist to a Russian emigré writer, 'V.', but there are indications that V. has taken the letter and turned it into the short story that one is reading. The title is one of them, since the letter-writer tells V. not to use it: "It may all end in Aleppo if I am not careful. Spare me, V., you would load your dice with an unbearable implication if you took that for a title. "

So it's not just that the narrator is unreliable; it's not clear who he is, and whether anything in the story happened at all. And that's without going into the obvious similarities - and differences - between V. and the non-fictional author, Nabokov. (See here for some interesting comments on the story.)

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