Comma queen Mary Norris' Greek odyssey

by Diana Wichtel / 10 July, 2019
Setting a high bar in all her endeavours: Mary Norris. Photo/Josef Astor/Supplied

Setting a high bar in all her endeavours: Mary Norris. Photo/Josef Astor/Supplied

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A life dedicated to language and a long love affair with Greece have informed New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris’ books and see her delivering “pure porn” to the word nerds of New Zealand. 

It takes a uniquely gifted writer to make an article with the title My Life in Pencils a riveting read. Mary Norris, for more than 30 years a copy editor at the New Yorker, is such a writer. And pencil collector. She’s the author of the hilarious, instructive Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, about punctuation. Even the chapter titles – “If Less is More, Sometimes Fewer is Better” – entertain. “Pure porn for word nerds,” raved the Washington Post.

You don’t have to be any kind of nerd to appreciate Norris. The New Yorker pencil piece is a masterclass in the deployment of the eloquent detail: “My boss at the time, who had grown humpbacked in the service of the magazine …” There’s her quest to find the perfect softer-leaded, hard-to-get No 1 pencil: “The entire column of lead in every pencil was shattered. I had gotten a bad batch.” Romance? Here is the beginning, through an introduction by a colleague, of a lifelong love affair with the Palomino Blackwing 602. Its motto: “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed.” Irresistible.

She is also a born teacher, the kind with whom you are enjoying the interaction so much you’re not even aware you’re being schooled. See her New Yorker “Comma Queen” video series, some delivered from the beach near her summer cottage in Rockaway, Queens. Animals: do you use “who” or “that”? “If the animal has a name, it becomes a ‘who’,” says Norris from a desk on the sand. “For instance, ‘My cat, Norbert, who is asleep under the sofa …’” This isn’t just relative-pronoun nitpicking. Norbert and other animals are “worthy of personhood”. She ends with this definitive advice: “But do what you want, see if I care, we’re at the beach.”

Norris in person radiates the same mix of erudite precision and devil-may-care nonchalance. We meet at her hotel, where she is adjusting to autumn in May and the bald use of the word “toilet” for public ablutions in New Zealand. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, and a long-time resident of Manhattan, she grew up with more evasive terminology. “Ladies’ room, little boys’ room – it’s one of the great euphemisms.”

She’s in town for Auckland Writers Festival sessions, including a comma clinic that proved to be a lively, packed event. Since she’s here, I can’t resist. My partner insists on using commas when they are not required and no commas when they are. “Well,” she says, fixing me with her steady blue gaze, “all he has to do is do the opposite and he’ll get it exactly right.”
Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

She has edited a superfluous comma out of the copy of some of the best. She cites as an example a sentence she didn’t edit, from novelist James Salter. He writes of a character wearing a “thin, burgundy dress”. If you can substitute “and” for the comma, it stays. You wouldn’t write about a “thin and burgundy” dress. The comma should have been taken out. “It’s good to have some test if you’re in doubt,” she says, “and a copy editor must always be in doubt.”

Some writers of the calibre she has edited must have got grumpy over a disputed comma. “I have found, in general, that the best writers are very open to being copy-edited. They want to know what impression the prose is leaving. They also know that copy editors are there to make them look good.” Rules can be broken. “Richard Ford once insisted on a comma that I took out,” she muses. “Stephen King had his own idea of where the comma should be because he works by ear. Stephen King is really famous. Why should he be taking commas out because a copy editor at the New Yorker, where he’s publishing one little thing, is telling him what to do? People like that – if they feel strongly about it, you leave them alone.”

She seems so genial, so tolerant. Don’t be fooled. “I have two sides, a strict copy-editor side and a loose writer side,” she says. “When I took off that writer’s hat and put on the copy-editor’s hat, I would tolerate nothing.”

That changed when she wrote Between You & Me. “I’d been writing all my life and trying to get published, with limited success, all the while I was working at the New Yorker. When I finally got a book deal, I was by that time starved to be edited myself and really grateful to have an editor who could tell me what was wheat and what was chaff.” The process gave her more sympathy for the writers she edited. “Sometimes the person with a small job will try to keep her power intact. Like anyone who sells tickets at the railway station.” She’s been to Britain, then. “Ha, I have! I was thinking of Italy.”

She’s also been thinking of Greece, for years. Her new book, Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen, is a work of few rules. It’s a memoir, a travelogue and a love letter to the Greek language, both modern and ancient. The book anatomises a grand obsession and makes a good case for having one on the go. She writes rapturously about the Greek alphabet. “Nobody seriously translates ‘I am the Alpha and Omega,’ the words of the Almighty from the Book of Revelation, as ‘I am A through Z.’ The Greek alphabet is infinite.”

Norris was forbidden by her father to take Latin at school, so her thirst for ancient languages lay dormant until the early 1980s when, of all things, she saw the Terry Gilliam movie Time Bandits, in which Sean Connery played Agamemnon in a scene set in ancient Greece. She wanted to go there. She wanted to learn Greek. Amazingly, she convinced the New Yorker to stump up for lessons.

Her book is an odyssey in itself. She surveys the scholarship on the precise colour of the goddess Athena’s eyes. There are her own battles with body image – Athena sets a high bar. Her account of buying togs on the island of Kefalonia is a brilliant mix of female insecurity and New Yorker-bred grammatical perfectionism: “... emerging from the fitting room [I] said spontaneously to the salesgirl … ‘I’m fat’ – nailing the feminine ending on a difficult class of Greek adjective.”

She writes valiantly about her romantic adventures as a young woman in her thirties on her own in Greece. On a boat to Cyprus, she tries to explain in Greek to a handsome young chief petty officer that she is travelling alone. “… don’t say that”, he tells her. “I had said something like, ‘I am a travelling c---.’” She winds up in his cabin. “There ended – at least, for me – a dry spell.” She wakes to find herself locked in, “for safekeeping”. Goodness. “There were things that I left out, too,” she says serenely. “Somebody told me that your adventures in the Aegean come back to bite you. I guess I was trying to have it both ways, to be an adventurous single woman and also a sexual being.”

The occasional critic has disapproved. Words such as “girlish” get used.

Sean Connery as Agamemnon. Photo/Supplied

“‘Girlish’,” says Norris, trying it for size. “That’s not a bad word. Athena can be girlish. Some of the words that have been, perhaps, critical have been okay with me.” Vivian Gornick’s New York Times review complained that it was a cliché to go to the Mediterranean and … “Have sex with the natives?” says Norris, laughing. “The reviewer in the New York Times seems to be under contract to include something negative. My friend [American writer] John McPhee calls that ‘the bird-shit paragraph’. Any review, you get two-thirds or four-fifths of the way through it and they throw something down.”

She’s not remotely defensive about it. “Because that is what happened. I was not like one of the people whom I found out about in Greece, women who do come to just have a bacchanal. I did find myself chased a lot and it was novel and I kind of enjoyed it, I admit, to an extent. Nobody pays very much attention to me at all now and that’s fine, too.” She has quite an infectious laugh.

These picaresque sections of the book remind you of those vintage movies where the librarian takes her hair down and her glasses off. “Exactly! Librarians have not liked this book too much,” she says, sotto voce. You don’t want to upset librarians. “They were all over Between You & Me.” Greek didn’t get such a good review. “I was disappointed because I thought this is the book where the librarian takes down her hair and has a good time.”

She also writes about her brother (performance artist and singer-songwriter Baby Dee) transitioning from male to female. “To go through that with him was very hard because of my feeling that he was rejecting our common childhood. I grew up with a brother, not a sister, and Dee was trying to negate that somehow. Well, Dee was just trying to do what Dee had to do and I had to cope with it somehow.”

Baby Dee. Photo/Supplied

Greek mythology to the rescue. “I found the Antigone story. There’s also Tiresias, who goes from being male to female, and Tiresias knew what he was doing, so there’s something to that.” Life and language: this experience has informed her writing about pronouns. “The language changed in the 20 years since Dee’s transition, so I had to adjust it to be sensitive to people’s feelings now. You have to keep adjusting and I think that’s right and good.”

The book includes her family’s central tragedy, the death of Norris’ toddler brother when she was a baby. “Much of this book was really hard to write and I would say that chapter was the hardest to get right and certainly the hardest to revise over and over again. Hard to copy-edit, hard to proofread.” Even skills as finely honed as hers can only take you so far. “Whenever I had to do anything for that chapter, I just could write off the rest of that day.”

Painful things don’t get less painful for writing about them. “No. But having the privilege of writing about them for publication is cathartic. There were a lot of places in the book where I was able to come to terms with something. The chapter about Aphrodite and beauty and swimming is a case in point.” She swam at a deserted beach – “Yes, Reader, I stripped again” – and, of course, another traveller came along as she air-dried herself on a rock. He didn’t care. “The only nude art I resembled was a portrait by Lucien Freud,” she writes. “But nothing terrible happened – my encounter left no residue of guilt or shame.” Bravo, Reader wants to shout at that point.

Not that Norris, raised a Catholic, is in any way pious about it, but the book also charts a spiritual odyssey. “Yeah, despite my disillusionment with the one holy Catholic and apostolic church, I do have a spiritual impulse.” She used to describe herself as an atheist, then an agnostic. “Now I think what I am is a pantheist. I think that everything has something of the divine in it. That’s what Greek does, from ancient through Byzantine … They shifted all of their myths somehow into Christianity. All of those saints represent some god or goddess.”

The Parthenon in Athens. Photo/Getty Images

The Parthenon in Athens. Photo/Getty Images

At the heart of the book is a sort of pilgrimage to the famous 11th-century Byzantine monastery of Dafni in Athens. It was shut to visitors at the time, but, as Norris writes, “If you can’t open a door it might as well not exist.” With the help of a guide, she found herself in the monastery, amid work to repair earthquake damage to its magnificent mosaics. In the dome is a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator. “Getting to practically touch that Christ in the centre of the dome – that was very moving and it had very little to do with organised religion. There were no monks in that monastery any more,” says Norris. “The church is a work of art.”

The book records another pilgrimage, to the villa in Kardamyli, on the Mani Peninsula, where English writer and fellow philhellene Patrick Leigh Fermor lived until his death, aged 96, in 2011. The villa had blue doors and, once again, it was a mission to be allowed in. “Oh, a locked door infuriates me,” she says. So, when the Listener’s photographer decides to take Norris to Auckland’s historic St Matthew-in-the-City Anglican church and pose her around the back against a locked door the colour of, possibly, Athena’s eyes, it could scarcely be more fitting. Norris doesn’t try to break in.

It occurs to me that she has set herself an extremely high bar in all her endeavours and obsessions, from quality pencils to the splendours of ancient Greece to the particular grammatical rigour of the New Yorker. “Yeah, I had to come to New York. I had to come to the busiest, biggest city,” she says, considering. “It’s probably why I’m not married.” Can ordinary life ever really live up to such perfection? “Once in a while,” she says. “Once in a while. I always look for those moments.” Well, she has a genius for conveying those moments when she finds them. And for reaching back millennia to what remains valuable and pleasurable and healing to the human spirit. “All of the myths and the epics and the geographical places themselves today, they’re just all full of guides and therapy, of things that you can learn,” she says. “These things have happened before to other people. You are not alone.”

Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen, by Mary Norris (Text, $35).

This article was first published in the June 29, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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