A playful take on a sometimes-pretentious subject, The Liar’s Dictionary is a superbly whimsical novel from wordsmith Eley Williams. Williams’ debut novel successfully intertwines both contemporary and historical story plotlines, meditates on the meaning of agency, and allows language itself to be rightfully center-stage. Prepare yourself to be delighted!
Shortlisted for the 2021 Desmond Elliott Prize
“An audacious, idiosyncratic dual love story about how language and people intersect and connect, and about how far we'll go to save what we're passionate about.”—NPR
An exhilarating and laugh-out-loud debut novel from a prize-winning new talent that chronicles the misadventures of a lovelorn Victorian lexicographer and the young woman put on his trail a century later to root out his misdeeds while confronting questions of her own sexuality and place in the world.
Mountweazel n. the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.
Peter Winceworth, Victorian lexicographer, is toiling away at the letter S for Swansby's multivolume Encyclopaedic Dictionary. His disaffection compels him to insert unauthorized fictitious entries into the dictionary in an attempt to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom.
In the present day, Mallory, a young intern employed by the publisher, is tasked with uncovering these mountweazels before the work is digitized. She also has to contend with threatening phone calls from an anonymous caller. Is the change in the definition of marriage really that upsetting? And does the caller really intend for the Swansby's staff to 'burn in hell'?
As these two narratives combine, both Winceworth and Mallory discover how they might negotiate the complexities of the often nonsensical, relentless, untrustworthy, hoax-strewn, and undefinable path we call life. An exhilarating debut novel from a formidably brilliant young writer, The Liar's Dictionary celebrates the rigidity, fragility, absurdity, and joy of language.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A is for artful (adj.)
David spoke at me for three minutes without realising I had a whole egg in my mouth.
I had adopted my usual stance to eat my lunch—hunched over in the stationa/ery cupboard between the printer cartridges and stacked columns of parcel tape. Noon. It can be a fine thing to snuffle your lunch and often the highlight of a working day. Many’s the time I’ve stood in Swansby House’s cupboard beneath its skylight lapping soup straight from the carton or chase-licking individual grains of leftover rice from a stained piece of Tupperware. This kind of lunch will taste all the better when eaten unobserved.
I popped a hard-boiled egg into my mouth and chewed, reading a dozen words for envelope printed in different languages down the side of some supply boxes. To pass the time I tried memorising each term. Boríték remains the only Hungarian I know apart from Biró and Rubik, named after their inventors—the penman and the human puzzle. I chose a second hard-boiled egg and put it in my mouth.
There was the usual degree of snaffling, face-in-trough rootling when the door opened and editor-in-chief David Swansby sidestepped into the cupboard.
It was only etiquette that gave David this title, really. He came from a great line of Swansby editors-in-chief. I was his only employee.
I stared, egg-bound, as he slipped through the door and pressed it shut behind him.
“Ah, Mallory,” David said. “Glad I’ve caught you. Might I have a word?”
He was a handsome seventy-year-old with a spry demonstrative way of using his hands which was not suited to such a small cupboard. I’ve heard people say that dog owners often look like their pets, or the pets look like their owners. In many ways David Swansby looked like his handwriting: ludicrously tall, neat, squared off at the edges. Like my handwriting, I was aware that I often looked as though I needed to be tidied away, or ironed, possibly autoclaved. By the time afternoon tugged itself around the clock, both handwriting and I degrade into a big rumpled bundle. I’m being coy in my choice of words: rumpled, like shabby and well-worn, places emphasis on cosiness and affability—I mean that I looked like a mess by the end of the day. Creases seemed to find me and made tally charts against my clothes and my skin as I counted down the hours until home time. This didn’t matter too much at Swansby House.
David Swansby was not a physically threatening presence and it would be unfair to say I was cornered by him in the cupboard. The room was not big enough for two people, however, and a corner was involved and certainly in that moment I was directly relevant to that noun becoming a verb.
I waited for my boss to tell me what he needed, but he insisted on small talk. He mentioned something mild about the weather and recent sporting triumphs and dismays, then mentioned the weather again, and when he had got that out of the way I began to panic, mouth eggfulsome: surely now he must be expecting me to offer some response or to vouchsafe or confess or at the very least contribute a thought of my own? I considered what would happen if I tried to swallow the egg whole or chew it and speak around it, act as if this was normal behaviour. Or should I calmly spit it, gleaming and tooth-notched, into my hand and ask David to spit out what it was he wanted, as if it was the most casual thing in the world?
David twiddled the handle of a label dispenser on a shelf near his eye. He straightened it a touch. This is editorial behaviour, I thought. He glanced up at the skylight.
“I can’t get over this light,” he said. “Can you? So clear.”
“Just look at that.” He switched his gaze from the skylight to his shoes in their weak pool of sunlight.
For my part, appreciative noises.
“Apricide,” David said. He pronounced it with fervour. People who work with words like to do this: enunciate with admiring flourishes as if a connoisseur and to show that here was someone who knew the value of a good word, the terroir of its etymology and the rarity of its vintage. Then he frowned, paused. He did not correct himself, but unfortunately I remembered this word from Vol. I of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. David meant apricity (n.), the warmness of the sun in winter. Apricide (n.) means the ceremonial slaughter of pigs.
You might spot a volume of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary mouldering somewhere as a prop book on a gastropub mantelpiece or occasionally see one being passed from church fete bookstall to charity shop to hamster-bedding manufacturer in your local area. Not the first nor the best and certainly not the most famous dictionary of the English language, Swansby’s has always been a poor shadow of its competitors as a work of reference—from the first printed edition in 1930 to today it has nowhere near the success nor rigorousness of Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. Those sleek dark blue hearses. Swansby’s is also far less successful than Collins or Chambers, Merriam-Webster’s or Macmillan. It only really has a place in the public imagination because Swansby’s is incomplete.
I don’t know whether people are endeared to an almost-complete dictionary because everyone enjoys a folly, or because of the Schadenfreude that accompanies any failed great endeavour. With Swansby’s, decades’ worth of work was completely undermined and rendered inconsequential by an ultimate inability to deliver a too-optimistic promise.
If you asked David Swansby about the nature of Swansby’s as an incomplete project and therefore a failure, he would draw up to his full height of circa two hundred foot and tell you he would defer to Auden’s quotation: that a piece of art is never finished, it is just abandoned. David would then check himself, escape to a bookshelf and come back ten minutes later and say of course that particular quotation belonged to Jean Cocteau. Another ten minutes would pass and David Swansby would seek you out and would clarify that that line was actually first and best said by Paul Valéry.
David Swansby was a man who liked to quote and did so often. He was at pains to show he cared about quoting correctly. He would also not think twice about gently upbraiding people who misuse the verb quote in place of the noun quotation to which I would say, pick your battles, but I was only an intern.
I nodded once more. The egg in my mouth was Jupiter, the egg was my whole head.
Maybe the nation is fond of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary because it holds artistic or philosophical allure as an unfinished project. Not in the way David wanted to style it—Swansby’s is not the textual equivalent of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi or Gaudí’s Sagrada Família. You could certainly admire the work that went into it. Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary spans nine volumes and contains a total of 222,471,313 letters and numbers. For anybody who has the time or patience for mathematics, that is approximately 161 miles of type between the dictionary’s thick green leather-bound covers. I did not have the patience for mathematics, but on this internship I certainly had the time. When I was starting my role at Swansby House, my grandfather told me that the most important quality of a dictionary is that it could fit in your pocket: that would probably cover all the important words anyway, he said, and would be slim enough to go with you wherever you went without distorting good tailoring. I wasn’t sure that he understood what was involved in an internship (“Did you say internment ?” he hollered down the phone, to no real response. He tried again: “Interment?”) but he seemed pleased for me. Never mind a bullet—the nine volumes of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary (1930) first edition could probably stop a tank in its tracks.
In the nineteenth century, Swansby House in London employed over a hundred lexicographers, all beavering away in the vast premises. Each worker, famously, was gifted a regulation Swansby House leather attaché case, a regulation Swansby House dip ink pen and Swansby House headed notepaper. God knows who bankrolled this operation, but they certainly appreciated uniform brand identity. The prevailing myth is that these lexicographers were corralled fresh from university, recruited for well-funded positions to bring about the British encyclopaedic dictionary. I thought about them occasionally, these young bucks probably younger than me, plucked from their studies and put to work on language in this same building over a century ago. They were under pressure to bring out the first edition before the Oxford English managed it, because what are well-defined words and researched articles if they are not the earliest to be acknowledged as great? David Swansby’s great-grandfather presided over the operation from the mid 1850s. He had the forename Gerolf, which always struck me as worth another round of spellchecking. His heavily bearded, patrician portrait hangs in the downstairs lobby of the building. The word be-whiskered was made for such a face. Gerolf Swansby looked like his breath would be sweet. Not bad breath, just not good. Don’t ask me why I would think that or could possibly guess just by looking at a portrait. Some things just are possible to know to be true for no good reason.
I had been on this internship for three years. On my first day, I was given a rundown of the company’s history on my tour of the building. I was shown the portraits of its initial sub-editors and funders who had vied to keep the business going both before and after the wars. It all began with Prof. Gerolf Swansby, a wealthy man who seemed to attract unctuous funding for his lexicographical enterprise. By the late nineteenth century, he had accumulated enough for building works to commence at an address overlooking St. James’s Park. The property was built for purpose, and for its time was state-of-the-art, designed by architect Basil Slade and fitted with features such as a telephone, electric lift and synchronome master clock which used electrical impulses to ensure that all clocks in the building kept uniform time. Prof. Gerolf Swansby named the building after himself. The “state-of-the-art” lift was designed in order to go down to the basements of the building which housed huge metal steam presses, bought and installed from the outset by David Swansby’s be-whiskered great-grandfather to sit in readiness for the dictionary to be completed A–Z and go to print. From the beginning, the enterprise haemorrhaged money.
Before a single edition of the Dictionary was printed, before they had even reached the words beginning with Z, work came to an abrupt halt. All this early, costly industry on Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary was interrupted when its lexicographers were called up and killed en masse in the First World War. Every day I walked past a stone memorial to these young men on the side of Swansby House, their names chiselled alphabetically into its marble index.
The unfinished dictionary, its grand hopes for a newly ordered world truncated, potential never fully realised, was considered an appropriate memorial to a generation cut short.
I get that. It makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, for various reasons, but I get it. The dictionary exists in an incomplete published form as a sad, hollow, joyless joke.
The original presses were melted down to make munitions for the World War. On my tour of the premises, I just nodded at this detail. My mind was solely on the fact that I would finally be making a living wage.
David and I worked in shabby offices on the second floor of Swansby House. Given its prime location close to St. James’s Park and Whitehall and its wonderful period details and space, the lower floors and large hall of the building were leased out as venues for launches and conferences and weddings. It was all kept pretty plush and impressive for visitors, and David employed various freelance events managers to add marquees and banners and floristry according to various clients’ various tastes. The uppermost storey was not open for events—while downstairs was kept spick and span, its brass fittings polished daily and dust kept at bay, the abandoned higher floors above our offices were untouched and unused. I imagined there must be enough dustsheets up there to keep a village of ghosts in silhouettes, with cobwebs hanging from the rafters as thick as candyfloss. Occasionally I heard the scuttle of rats or squirrels or unthinkable somethings running above my office ceiling. Sometimes this caused plaster to drift down onto my desk. I did not mention it to David. He never mentioned it to me.
The rooms we used were sandwiched between the prospectus-ready, glossy and celebratory eventeering of downstairs and these ghost-rat, deserted upper floors. Our offices had been reupholstered in a drab, blank, modern fashion: my room was the first one that any lost visitor might come across if they made their way up the stairs. It was next door to a dingy photocopying room, then there was the stationery cupboard, and finally David Swansby’s office at the end of the passage. It was the largest, but still felt cramped with books, filing cabinets and document folders.
These rooms were all that was left of the vast Swansby scope and ambition. I counted myself lucky that I had an office of my own, however tiny. The sole employee in such a large, formidable house. I should have felt glad to have the run of a place, even one that was state-of-the-art and now slipping into disrepair.
You may know the expression weasel words—deliberately ambiguous statements used in order to mislead, performing a little bait and switch of language. I think about weasel words whenever I hear the phrase state-of-the-art. Which art, and what state? For example, “my office has state-of-the-art air conditioning” as a phrase does not specify that disrepair is technically a “state” and that the art in question might refer to “weird humming from a box above your head that drips rigid yellow sap into the printer every two weeks.”
The idiom weasel words apparently comes from the folklore that weasels are able to slurp the contents of an egg while leaving the shell intact. Teaching your weasel how to suck eggs. Weasel words are empty, hollow, meaningless claims. My reference and CV for this internship contained some weasel words concerning focus and attention to detail, as well as a misspelling of passionate.
Reading Group Guide
1. Have you ever browsed through a dictionary the way that’s described in the preface? If so, what unique words did you find?
2. At the beginning of the novel, Winceworth muses that “there should really be a specific word associated with the side effects of drinking an excess of alcohol.” Is there a feeling or sensation you feel there should be a specific word for?
3. When David tells her about mountweazels, or made up words, Mallory points out that “all words are made up.” How do you think made up words become “real words”? Can you think of any recent examples?
4. Why do you think Mallory has stayed at Swansby’s for so many years?
5. The Liar’s Dictionary has two protagonists, one from the past (Winceworth) and one from the present (Mallory). What do you make of the relationship between these two characters? What traits do they share?
6. The book contains many lesser-known definitions for familiar words. Was there one definition that particularly surprised you?
7. What do you think is the strongest factor in Winceworth’s decision to include “mountweazels” in the dictionary?
8. What was your favorite mountweazel?
9. Mallory reflects on some more nontraditional “dictionaries” she owns, such as The Language of Flowers. Do you think of books like this as “dictionaries”? Why or why not? What do you think are the most important characteristics of a dictionary?