Many reports of the death of Ursula LeGuin have gleefully quoted or paraphrased something she said in an interview given to the New York Times in 2015. She was asked: "What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?" She mentioned various kinds of thing she liked to read, and then said:
oh, give me a book and if it’s interesting, I’ll read it. Avoidance? At the moment, I tend to avoid fiction about dysfunctional urban middle-class people written in the present tense. This makes it hard to find a new novel, sometimes.
I know just how she feels. The average reader of 'quality' literature is most likely to be urban and middle-class, as is the average author. Writing a book about what you and your readers both know reduces the chances of misunderstanding and remaindering, so it is safer for the author. Adding the dysfunction, apart from its therapeutic effect, makes it easier to get some tension into the plot and keep things moving and offers certain rewards to the readers: they get to look down on their peers if they do not recognise the dysfunction as theirs, or to reassure themself that they are not living an unexamined life if they do. All without of risk of any real disturbance to their superficially comfortable and comfortably superficial existence, given that the dysfunctions addressed tend to be superficial and fairly comfortable as well. So there are rather too many of these books.
Nonetheless, I did enjoy the play "What's in a Name?", which is about dysfunctional urban middle-class people.
Superficially, the play revolves about the name to be given to a child. So let me start by complaining about the name of the play:
'Le Prénom' was the original title of the play written (in French, just in case the vocabulary wasn't a give-away) by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière. The version I saw was in German, and was called 'Der Vorname,' which means what it looks like it means. A simple English translation of this would have been 'The Name.' So why turn it into "What's in a Name?" in English? Admittedly, "The Name" would not have made it entirely clear that the name at issue was a given name, but in English that would be the presumption: if you mean surname in English, you tend to make it clear by saying surname. In French, things are the other way around: if you just say 'nom,' the presumption is that you mean the surname. So, while there would be obvious (I hope) problems involved in going for a pedantic description and calling the play 'The Forename,' 'The Given Name, 'The First Name,' or even 'The Christian Name' there was absolutely no need to avoid these by quoting Shakespeare out of context.
Be that all as it very well may, the plot of the play is fairly simple: urban middle-class people meet in an urban middle-class home for a Morrocan-style dinner. One of them (falsely) mentions the name he wants to give his son: Adolphe. The others object. Discussion ensues, with hilarity, at least for the audience. Just as the argument is dying down, the expectant mother arrives, and is asked if she agrees with the name. Which is not mentioned, so she says yes. More entertaining argument ensues. But things escalate and drift off onto subjects perhaps left better undiscussed, things are said that perhaps would have been better left unsaid, and by the end of the evening we know, among other things the following:
Pierre, who is officially an enlightened and supportive husband, in fact leaves his wife Elisabeth (known as Babou) with the greater part of the burden of organising the household and caring for their children, Appolin and Myrtille (no, really), although she also has a demanding job. As a result she is making no progress on her doctoral thesis. Vincent, Elisabeth's brother, thinks Pierre is a pretentious miserly snob. Pierre thinks Vincent is a vain egomaniac. Everyone thinks that Claude, Babou's childhood friend, is gay, as he finds out when he asks what nickname he is known by and gets a rather fruity answer. Babou tells Claude all her secrets, including the fact that her and Pierre's sex life is non-existent and that he sleeps on the sofa. She thought she was Claude's confidante and muse. Claude, however, has not told her that he is deeply in well-requited love with her and Vincent's mother, Françoise. But he had told Vincent's wife, Anna. When she encourages Claude to admit the name of the woman he loves, no-one has any difficulty in immediately assuming the name referred to is her own. Anna is always late, and thinks Pierre and Babou have given their children silly names. This is a subject about which they are sensitive enough to have thought that Vincent's claimed plan to call his son Adolphe was intended to mock their children's names. In fact the plan is to call the child Henri, after Vincent and Babou's father.
So by the end of the evening, when Pierre and Vincent, abandoned by Claude and their wives, finish off a bottle of bad rosé before bedding down in the sitting room, there are quite a lot of visible cracks to be repaired in the relationships that form the core of these people's lives. But we can be sure that they will be suitably papered over before long, although we are told (by Vincent) that nothing will ever be quite the same after Babou's Moroccan evening. We are also told that the child will unexpectedly turn out to be a girl, who will be named Françoise, after her grandmother.
The play premiered in 2010, got good reviews, and won various awards, and was turned into a similarly successful film in 2012. You probably didn't notice, since it was a French film.
Apart from the name referred to in the title, which no-one ends up bearing, the play at various points touches on or revolves around various people's names: the names of Pierre and Elisabeth's children speak volumes, as does Claude's nickname 'Reine-Claude' (Queen Claude, and a kind of plum.) The question of the name of Claude's lover provided a cliffhanger going into the intermission in the production I saw. And Vincent and Anne's decision (taken twice) to name their child after one of its grandparents tells us perhaps as much about them as "Appolin and Myrtille" tell us about their friends. It is also revealing that Elisabeth, who has sacrificed her ambitions for a family of questionable worth and has to work alone to shore up the façade of her crumbling home, that poor obliging self-effacing Elisabeth is known not by her own name but by a childish nickname.
There is, in fact, quite a lot in a name. Which can make them very hard to choose. Despite the fact that a lot of what is in a name in a particular place and time is general knowledge.
For example: if you want your son to find it harder to get a job in America, just call him Jamal, or Leroy. To shave a few percentage points off your child's educational achievement in England, you could have done worse a few years ago than call it Sharon, Tracy, Dean, or Duane. All names that are now dying out, because word got around.
It's rather harder to give your child an upwardly mobile name, because society holds punishment for those who do not know their place. You cannot send a Tarquin to a comprehensive school: what you save on school fees you will have to spend later on therapy.
The ideal name will fit into your child's perceived social class, while not being seen as pretentious by the less fortunate or as socially inferior by those to whose company the child may later aspire. It should not be commonplace and boring, but nor should it be unusual and cruel (the words are synonyms in school). It should be memorable but not striking, easy to spell, and everyone should be able to pronounce it.
All of which leads us to one inescapable conclusion: do not marry a foreigner. And if you do, do not have children.
Vincent and Anne thought they knew they were having a son. Apparently, people these days like knowing what the sex of their children is going to be. I don't really follow why, and neither does La Doña. So when our child was on the way, we asked not to be told. The only theoretical drawback of this was that we had to have both female and male names ready to welcome the sprog on the occasion of the sprogging. In practical terms, this was not a drawback: we took about half a minute to agree on 'Leah' for a girl, and then took some weeks to decide on 'Anthony, and call him Tony'. Which we would have had to do anyway, since he turned out to be a boy.
But before that happened it also turned out that we had not agreed on 'Leah' for a girl but on 'Lea.' Nice Jewish name, I thought, Biblical, I thought, will work as well in English as it does in German and you can't go wrong with the spelling. I thought. Well, welcome to Germany, home of Kristin, Kirsten, Christina, Christine, Karin, Kareen, and Karen, where it sometimes feels like no name is immune to misspelling and/or mispronunciation. (Maybe they should have stuck to the old Germanic names. You can't get Sieglinde mixed up with Gundula, or Adelheid with Waltraud. But I digress.)
The criteria for choosing both Lea(h) and Anthony/Tony, were all of the above plus the name had to work in both languages, while going well with a solid northern English surname. And we thought we had chosen well.
In comparison with some, no doubt we had. I know a young girl with two 'r's in her name whose mother is Vietnamese and can pronounce neither of them. Her sister's name is currently the most popular girl's name in the country, despite the fact that in most parts of Germany its pronunciation is identical with that of the dative form of the first person pronoun, leading to inevitable misunderstandings as to whether I should give the teddy bear or the wine to the person speaking or the child.
So we could have done worse. But we did not anticipate Tony being turned into an Italian ice cream seller (Toni) or an Italian non-ice cream seller (Tino), or into a duck.
Yes, a duck. Think of a cliché German from a film. You probably thought of a phrase involving 'we have' being pronounced 'vee heff.' One of the sad things about the German education system, apart from its failure to assist social mobility, is that children are still being taught that the 'a' in English is pronounced like an 'ä', which is to say like an 'e.' So at the school where Tony tried out being Anthony, Anthony turned into Enteny, and since 'Ente' is the German for duck, the rest is history.
Speaking of history: back to Adolf/Adolphe and 'Le Prénom.' Until the mid-twentieth century the name 'Adolf' had a long and unexceptionable history. It was originally 'Adelwulf' (in Anglo-Saxon 'Æthelwulf'), meaning noble wolf, and had over time been shaved down to a convenient two syllables. Benjamin Constant chose it as the name for his second novel and its eponymous hero in 1816, and in the play Vincent claims that this hero, rather than a famous Austrian crook, was the source of the name of his future son and heir. In this point he is not lying: he finds the book at the start of the play in the course of an investigation of Elisabeth and Pierre's over-dimensioned library while they are out of the room, and is struck by its title.
Benjamin Constant could never have imagined that the title of his book would undergo such a change in connotation. Any name is to some extent a hostage to fortune. But fortune may smile as well: The other day I met a little girl called Cassandra. By the time she has grown up, hardly anyone left alive will know why that was such a bad choice.
Maybe one day even 'Adolf' will get a second chance. In the meantime, if you get a chance, you could do a lot worse than see the play or the film Le Prénom/What's in a Name?. If you're going to write about the dysfunctional urban middle class, you should at least write well and be entertaining about it, and Delaporte and de la Patellière do a very good job of both.