Wednesday, 21 September 2022

The Terrible Traum Twins


Recently, an old college friend copied me in to an email – subject: "Where are they now?" – which contained a clipped item in which, it was implied, persons of mutual interest were mentioned. As it turned out, there was actually only one such name in there, but it was another, unknown name that caught my eye. I was intrigued by the name of one of the co-authors of a scholarly presentation – a Catalan name, as I later discovered – which struck me as unusual in itself, but which also had all the hallmarks of an anagrammatic invention, the sort of thing a playful author – Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace come to mind – might come up with in their novels. So, just for fun, I remarked on this otherwise irrelevant name and came up with a few anagrams based on it in my reply to the email. It seemed nobody else wanted to play, though, but I didn't mind: I realise my urge to be amusing can be tiresome, and many of my older friends are considerably more earnest, these days, than they used to be.

My interest in that other name was thoroughly piqued, however: there seemed to be something about its particular combination of letters (AAEGMNRRTU) that invited anagrammatic formations. So (mainly as a distraction from the incessant and obsequious coverage of the queen's funeral on Monday) I set about seeing whether it would be possible to populate an entire novel with names solely derived from it.

It was. In the end (and I'm tempted to say "so far") I came up with well over 200 names. Obviously, most of them are silly, repetitive, and unconvincing. Once you establish a simple first name – "Meg", for example – the surnames can be cranked out mechanically from the remaining letters, AANRRTU: Meg Runarat, Meg Ruranta, Meg Ruratan, Meg Runtara, etc, etc., ad nauseam. It starts out being fascinating and fun, passes through mild obsession, and ends up with you at midnight wondering why on earth you started doing this in the first place.

Along the way, though, some great names popped out. To pick just a few, I like Runt Ramage, Ruta Manger, Tam Runrage, Marten Ragu, Urma Retang, Ragnar Mute, Ranter Magu, Marta Unger, Grant Mauer, Egan Marrut, Uma Tregarn, Tamar Gruen, Marge Nutra, Margaret Nu, and the terrible twins Regan and Negra Traum, for example. It's curious how such invented names seem to arrive imbued with ready-made character traits, mainly created by the cultural and semantic cross-currents they set up, from the deep-fried Mars bar of Tam Runrage to the enticing fusion cuisine of Urma Retang.

The fact that they are all combinations of the exact same letters adds another dimension, of course. I can imagine an Oulipian novel where it gradually dawns on the protagonist that everyone else in the story bears an anagram of their own name: The Hunt for Runt Ramage, or Who Are You, Margaret Nu?, perhaps. Sadly, I don't suppose I'd ever write it. Setting aside the fact that I'm far too easily distracted to write a novel, it's all a bit too "meta" for me. But it wouldn't surprise me to discover that someone else has already written something along those lines. Writers have always enjoyed the alphabetic mischief of using anagrammatic names: as long ago as 1668 Christoffel von Grimmelshausen published his picaresque novel Simplicius Simplicissimus under the pseudonym German Schleifheim von Sulsfort, for example (and, yes, I've checked, and it is an exact anagram). But, if it has already been done, I wonder whether the starting point was also a chance encounter with one strikingly unusual name? That wouldn't surprise me, either.


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