Monday, March 05, 2007

On Raconteurs

Though I've long loved the word "raconteur," I've recently realized that I have been giving it a sense that it does not, apparently, have. According to Merriam-Webster's, the meaning of raconteur, which dates from 1828, is very straightforward:
A person who excels in telling anecdotes.
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is a bit more inclusive to start:
A (usu. skilled) teller of anecdotes
but then circumscribes the word significantly by adding a reference to a word I'd never heard of:
raconteuse A female raconteur.

What surprises me here (aside from raconteuse) is not what is in the definition, but what is left out. Having over the years imagined a definition based on the ways I've heard the word used, I would have defined raconteur as
One who skillfully tells anecdotes, often (if not always) from personal experience, that experience gained often (if not always) while drunk or with drunks.

Am I the only one who thinks of raconteurs this way? I decided to put the question to Google. A search on notable storyteller Garrison Keillor and raconteur returns 518 hits, while a search on notable drunk, actor, and storyteller Peter O'Toole and raconteur yields 567 hits. That may not satisfy science, but the fact that someone best known for his acting and drinking outperforms someone primarily known for his storytelling is enough for me.

[Side note: A search on Garrison Keillor and drunk yields a surprising 67,700 hits--but here's where O'Toole really shines: he draws about 130,000. What a man.]

This is all prelude to an appreciation of raconteurs, especially as I erroneously define them. As someone who mostly stays at home or sees the same old friends, enjoys a single martini and hates hangovers, and is nearly always in bed by midnight, my respect for those who are capable of adventuring until dawn knows almost no bounds. I understand that the rackety life can cause difficulties for the practitioner and his loved ones--but once the tippler has survived his adventures, and especially once he's committed them to the page, he becomes my friend for life, giving me entree to late-night worlds as unexpected and exotic as those of The Arabian Nights.

In recent weeks, I've been spending a lot of time with a couple of literary raconteurs. I'm continuing to plow through Soho dandy Julian Maclaren-Ross's ouvre, which is essentially one long story about being down at heel and looking for money for cigarettes and booze. His Memoirs of the Forties (1965) features cameos from all sorts of well-known and long-forgotten London literary drunks and hustlers, from Dylan Thomas:
"Why don't you take that bloody jacket off?" Dylan said.
"What's wrong with my jacket?"
"Fucking dandy, flourishing that stick. Why don't you try to look more sordid, boy. Sordidness, that's the thing."
to the mostly-forgotten editor of Poetry London, J. Meary Tambimuttu, about whom Maclaren-Ross first learns from a girl named Kitty of Bloomsbury:
When Kitty came down from Oxford and was looking for a job, [Tambi] took her to a bare basement room, containing a half-collapsed camp bed, a kitchen chair and a wooden table on which were a bottle of blue-black ink, a chewed post-office pen holder, and stacks of [his] embossed crested paper.

"This was my office," he said. "Now it is yours. I engage you as my secretary and poetry-reader." Squashing a cockroach on the sweating wall with a rolled-up copy of Poetry London, he waved this at a chaos of accumulated MSS in a corner.

"Poems," he said. "Contributions, you know? I have not time to read them. If they're no good, perhaps they should be returned. They've been here a long time; the rats have eaten some. We have no typewriter yet, but there is ink and paper to write the authors. You will be paid fortnightly. Do you have any money?"

"Yes, thank you, I've got five pounds."

"That is good," Tambimuttu said. "I am a prince in my country and princes don't carry money, you know. Give me the fiver and later the firm will refund you. I am going to lunch with T. S. Eliot. You know who is T. S. Eliot?"
Tambimuttu, whose incorrigibility is perhaps only matched by his general enthusiasm for anything not involving paying out money, becomes a regular drinking companion of Maclaren-Ross. One night, says Maclaren-Ross,
We were with two suburban young women, new to Fitzrovia, whom he'd picked up in the Wheatsheaf and who were both uninteresting and interested only in being bought a meal in some newly opened restaurant which they'd heard was good but which was off our usual beat. Tambi was becoming increasingly worried as we stumbled over cobble-stones further and further from the territory that he had made his own; he glanced longingly at strips of light visible through the blackouts of pubs where the girls refused to stop.

"Nearly ten o'clock," he muttered. "In an hour they'll be closing and this restaurant perhaps has no license," and suddenly he caught up with the girls who were walking ahead arm-in-arm, giggling and whispering together, convinced that they'd achieved their objective in finding a pair of suckers who would foot the bill.

"Listen you must tell us please, my friend and I wish to know, do you do it or not?"

"Do it?" they chorused. "Do what?"

"You know. Sex."

There was a pause for shock to register, then outraged gasps of "How dare you," came in unison.

"You mean you don't?"

"Certainly not. The idea!"

"Then be off!" Tambi shouted, banishing them with a gesture into the blackout: "You are wasting our valuable drinking time," and we retraced our steps to Rathbone Place.

I said: "I could have told you those girls were NBG."

"How did you know?"

"Well they were nurses or something weren't they?"

"Don't nurses do sex?"

"Yes but only with doctors whom they hope to marry after."

"Only doctors? Is that all?" Tambi was silent for a moment then asked: "Only medical doctors? A doctor of literature would not be any good?"

"Are you a doctor of literature?"

"Not yet, but I could have a degree conferred. Honorary you know. From Oxford. I know many professors there, and then I could fuck with all these nurses. What do you think?"

Again and again, Maclaren-Ross recounts tales that could only happen in the wee hours, when the participants are burning with a low blue flame--exactly the hours I spend in bed, and exactly what I want from my raconteurs. Similarly, many of the people he tells of would be absolutely intolerable in real life--especially if one or both of you were sober--which leads me to expand on my definition of raconteur:
One who skillfully tells anecdotes, often (if not always) from personal experience, that experience gained often (if not always) while drunk or with drunks--frequently drunks who are best heard of at second-hand.

This rambling post is getting long, and I haven't even gotten to the second of my recent raconteur companions, Ludwig Bemelmans. For that, you'll have to wait until tomorrow. Until then, I'm going back to my martini.

1 comment:

  1. A Yahoo! search for "garrison keillor raconteur" gives you 1,400 hits and a variety of related sponsored ads (with an never-before-seen-by-a-human words-in-the-wrong-order ad in the first position), whereas "peter o'toole raconteur" has 1,320 hits and no sponsored ads.