Wednesday, March 18, 2020

'She Took a Real Scunner to Someone'

An odd set of circumstances involving a blog post I wrote more than thirteen years ago sent me back to Howard Moss’ collection of essays and reviews, What Is Missing (1981). I won’t go into that but will testify to the charms of this poet’s prose. I was in my office on campus, supposedly hard at work, when I started leafing through the book and Moss hooked me with several critical pieces and reminiscences. One is titled “Jean: Some Fragments,” devoted to his friend Jean Stafford, the novelist and short story writer who married A.J. Liebling (each became the third, final and apparently happiest spouse of the other). In it, Moss taught me a new and useful word. Here’s how the fragment begins:

“She was anecdotal in the extreme, turning everything into a story. This became, later on, and long before the stroke, somewhat edgy. A certain amount of complaining, of being the great-lady-offended had become habitual. Something on the order of ‘And do you know who had the nerve to invite be to dinner last Wednesday?’ And so on. But then it would turn out that she had gone to dinner, so that the point of the complaint seemed muddled.”

Moss is enjoying Stafford’s bitchiness, having fun turning her into the literary counterpart of Joan Crawford, while remaining loyal to a friend. He continues:

“Once she had taken a real distaste to someone, she refused any invitation, any offer of friendship. And she made enemies easily by being outspoken, opinionated, strict in her standards. Once she took a real scunner to someone, she rarely changed her mind.”

My spell-check software doesn’t recognize scunner, suggesting I revise it to scanner, stunner or, even better, skinner. The OED confirms the spelling, says the word was “originally Scottish and northern,” and defines it as “a loathing disgust. Now frequently in a milder sense: a grudge, repugnance, dislike, esp. in the phrase to take a scunner at, against, or to.”

Elsewhere in the Stafford piece, Moss lists some of the people Stafford “liked without qualification,” including Saul Steinberg, Peter Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen and Peter De Vries. In a satisfying echo, the OED cites the use of scunner in the 1974 novel The Glory of the Hummingbird by Peter De Vries: “He had taken a scunner to me . . . What had soured him on me . . . had been Jake's replacing him with me.”

1 comment:

Faze said...

Thanks for having written so much about Peter De Vries over the years.

I recently re-read "Blood of the Lamb" for the first time since the 1980s, and was shocked by several things: One was the realization I had lived for many years across the street from the very church that figures so prominently toward the end of the book; another was the sad fact that this book - and probably De Vries whole gently gender-ribbing oeuvre - is safer in its current obscurity than it would be aboveground in today's blistering critical atmosphere.