We're so excited to announce Eley Williams's utterly delightful novel The Liar's Dictionary as BuzzFeed Book Club's February selection. The book follows two disillusioned characters: In 19th century London, lexicographer Peter Winceworth sneaks fake words into Swansby's Encyclopaedic Dictionary; in the current day, young intern Mallory is tasked with weeding out these fictitious entries, while also contending with daily death threats from an anonymous caller and coming to terms with her sexuality. It's a sharp-witted, big-hearted, hilarious story of meaning and purpose that lovers of language will relish.
Check out the first chapter below — and sign up for a chance to win a signed copy.
David spoke at me for three minutes without realizing 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 memorizing 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 70-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 coziness 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 behavior. 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 behavior, 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 fervor. 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 endeavor. With Swansby’s, decades’ worth of work was completely undermined and rendered inconsequential by an ultimate inability to deliver a too-optimistic promise.
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 endeavor.
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 10 minutes later and say of course that particular quotation belonged to Jean Cocteau. Another 10 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 19th century, Swansby House in London employed over 100 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 encyclopedic 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 19th 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 hemorrhaged 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 chiseled alphabetically into its marble index.
The unfinished dictionary, its grand hopes for a newly ordered world truncated, potential never fully realized, 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.
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.
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 story 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.
It was my job to answer phone calls that came every day. They were all from one person, and all threatened to blow the building up.
I suspected the calls were the reason for my internship: it was not as though Swansby’s had any money to spare to lavish on “experience-hungry” (citation needed) twentysomethings. My last job had paid £1.50 less per hour and involved standing by a conveyor belt and turning un-iced gingerbread men by 30 degrees. I did not mention this fact in my interview with David nor on my CV — at least being at Swansby’s meant no more dreams of faceless, brittle bodies.
To stop me going mad, I passed the time between calls by reading the dictionary, skipping through an open volume on my worktop. Diplome (n.), I read, “a document issued by some greater esteemed authority”; diplopia (n.), “an affection of vision whereupon objects are seen in double”; diplopia (n.), “an affection of vision whereupon objects are seen in double”; diplostemonous (adj., Botany), “having the stamens in two series, or twice as many stamens as petals.”
It was my job to answer phone calls that came every day. They were all from one person, and all threatened to blow the building up.
Use those three words in a sentence now, I thought. And then the phone would ring again.
“Good morning, Swansby House, how may I help you?”
“I hope you burn in hell.”
The nature of my duties had not been mentioned in my interview. I can appreciate why. On my first day in the office, answering the phone with no idea what was to come, I cleared my throat and said brightly too brightly, “Good morning, Swansby House, Mallory speaking, how may I help you?”
I remember that the voice newly lodged on my shoulder sighed. In discussion later, David and I decided that its speech was disguised by some mechanical device or app so it sounded like a cartoon robot. I did not know that at the time. It was a tinny noise, like something unhinging.
“Sorry?” I said. Looking back, I don’t know whether it was instinct or first-day nerves. “I didn’t catch that, could I ask you to repeat—”
“I want you all dead,” said the voice. Then they hung up.
On some days the voice sounded male, other times female, sometimes like a cartoon lamb. You might think that answering these calls would become commonplace after the first couple of weeks, as formulaic as sneezing or opening the morning post, but it was not long before I found this was my routine every morning: The moment the phone began to ring, my body cycled through all the physical shorthands for involuntary terror. Blood drained from my face and curdled thick in whomping knots along my temples and in my ears. My legs became weak and my vision became narrower, more focused. If you were to look at me, the most obvious effect was that every morning as I reached for the phone, gooseflesh and goosepimples and goosebumps stippled all across the length of my arm.
In our close-quarter cupboard that lunchtime, David kept his eyes on some shelving. “The call?” he said. “Did I hear it come through at ten o’clock?”
David unfolded an arm and, awkwardly, hugged me.
I muttered thanks into his shoulder. He stood back and re-realigned the label dispenser on the shelf.
“Come along to my office once you’ve finished with your—” he glanced at the now- empty Tupperware in my hands, apparently noticing it for the first time —“lunchbox.”
And then the editor-in-chief left the intern-on-guard to her cupboard and the apricity and the skylight. I stood there for a full second, then looked up Heimlich manoeuvre on my phone as I ate my remaining hard-boiled egg. It took four attempts to spell manoeuvre correctly, and in the end I let Autocorrect have its way with me. ●
Excerpted from The Liar's Dictionary by Eley Williams with permission from the publisher.
Eley Williams is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She is the author of Attrib. and her work has appeared in The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, Liberating the Canon, The Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books. She lives in London, UK.