From Balbec to Ballyba: Toponyms, Transportation, and the Etymological Imagination
Volume 3, Cycle 1
We are accustomed to reading modernist works in the light of actual cities, glossing literary setting as a somewhat faithful recreation of place. This tendency is not without cause: James Joyce famously boasted that if Dublin were to disappear, it could be reconstructed out of Ulysses. On the other hand, Virginia Woolf cautioned against the consolidation of map and territory, arguing that “we run the risk of disillusionment if we try to turn such phantom cities into tangible brick and mortar.” The examples to follow sever setting from the “experiential realism” of place, only to reconnect it to the built environment in novel ways.
I am going to approach the porous boundary between literary setting and urban geography via the toponym, a form of designation whose complexities are often overlooked. Fin-de-siècle innovation in public transportation not only revolutionized spatial-temporal perception, it also led to the widespread distribution of signage. The inauguration of the Paris Métro in 1900 and the expansion of the London Underground throughout the late nineteenth century created new urban spaces that appear in some of modernism’s most noteworthy works. These spaces, however, also exhibited their own topographical texts, which featured unique kinds of graphic experimentation. Edward Johnston’s typography for the London Underground helped popularize sans-serif, and was used to emboss station names onto placards, seating, passageways, and friezes. During the same period in Paris, Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau “Métropolitain” banners became exemplars of the style. The rapid growth of railway, omnibus, and tram networks in Ireland, Britain, and France distributed toponyms further afield, demarcating travel routes through lists of printed names.
I suggest here that a greater modernist fascination with place-names stems from nineteenth-century developments in infrastructure, which scatter toponyms throughout transportation networks. When names are distanced from the places they denote, the connotation of the sign becomes increasingly visible. Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett are limit cases, marking the respective upper and lower bounds, for how modernist writing widens the possibility of literary setting. By inverting the causal relationship between toponym and topography—allowing a place-name to determine a corresponding sense of place and not vice versa—both authors mirror how transportation technologies privilege designation over locale. While Proust’s etymological imagination enriches the connotative sense of his toponyms, which, in turn, inflects his narrator’s conception of unseen landscapes, Beckett (using his careful reading of Proust) achieves the near opposite effect, as obfuscated etymologies generate equally vague settings. I want to propose, ultimately, that place-names have a supplementary function in the age of rail-based transit. If, as historians of transportation argue, the “railroad caused the foreground to disappear,” speculative etymology becomes a technique for recuperating a landscape lost to the velocity and perceptual fatigue that came with new forms of travel (Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, 64).
The Underworld of Names
At least since Plato’s Cratylus, writers and philosophers have attempted to make names mean something more—to unearth a sense of place by looking closely at a place-name. John Stuart Mill offers an account of this process in A System of Logic (1843), when he claims that the names of places are denotative but not connotative. Turning specifically to the toponym “Dartmouth,” Mill argues that while this name may denote a town situated at the mouth of the Dart, if the river were to suddenly disappear, “the name of the town would not necessarily be changed.” This is certainly true; however, Mill passes too easily over what a strange entity “Dartmouth” would become. As the record of a vanished landscape, the toponym functions as a linguistic time-capsule, capable of storing specific types of information no longer present in the corresponding topography. This fantasy of nominal fossilization opens itself to imaginative inquiry. What other forms of sedimented knowledge can be uncovered through the analysis of toponyms?
When place-names are offset from the places they denote, affixed to railway boards and underground stations, it becomes easier to privilege connotation over denotation, to engage in the kind of etymological speculations we find in Proust and Beckett. In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin describes the Paris Métro as an “underworld of names,” devoting an entire section of his unfinished work to the “sensuality in street names.” As subterranean labels for above-ground places, the place-names in the Métro “have all thrown off the humiliating fetters of street,” the restraint of cartographical correlation, gaining quasi-animate embodiment as “misshapen sewer gods, catacomb fairies” (Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 84). In Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, a similar distance appears between name and place, as the standardization and dissemination of Underground signage makes visible a toponym whose topography is largely out of reach: “Beneath the pavement, sunk in the earth . . . large letters upon enamel plates represented in the underworld the parks, squares, and circuses of the upper. ‘Marble Arch–Shepherd’s Bush’–to the majority the Arch and the Bush are eternally white letters upon a blue ground.” On an urban journey from center to periphery, Tube stations become names without places, an experience of connotative sense without corresponding reference. London’s neighborhoods only become real, materializing out of their names, where you can afford to resurface. Proust makes a similar observation about the railway, which carries passengers from “one name to another name.”  As we shall see, when “Balbec” transports Marcel’s imagination, it is spatialized through the experience of modern transportation. Railway stations capture “the essence of [the place’s] personality just as upon their sign-boards they bear its painted name”—a name which, through etymological connotation, imposes an “outline” onto the place itself (Proust, Within a Budding Grove, 302).
In a similar vein, the Dublin United Tramways Company that crops up throughout Ulysses is used to think about the circulation of place-names. The opening of “Aeolus” comments on how transportation technology increases the visibility of toponyms. Offset from any kind of corresponding topography, Joyce’s list of names anticipates the noisy headlines that interpenetrate the episode. While preparing the manuscript for Dubliners, Joyce sparred with editor George Roberts, who took issue with the inclusion of real public houses, cake shops, and churches. He mocks Roberts in his poem “Gas from the Burner,” referencing P. W. Joyce’s well-known etymological study of Irish toponyms: “Do you think I’ll print / The name of the Wellington Monument / Sydney Parade and Sandymount tram. / Downes’s cakeshop and Williams’s jam / I’m damned if I do—I’m damned to blazes! / Talk about Irish Names of Places!” While Wellington, Downes, and Williams are potentially libelous eponyms, Joyce’s inclusion of Sydney Parade railway station and the Sandymount tram draws attention to a broader affinity between names and urban transit.
Several of the texts that have framed discussions of modernist space note a kind of opening between place-names and place in this period. In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre imagines a fictional Japanese philosopher critiquing the modern Western city: “Your streets, squares and boulevards have ridiculous names which have nothing to do with them, nor with the people and things around them.” Here the lack of linguistic motivation is both partial cause and symptom of a breakdown in spatial design. For Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the visibility of place-names in nineteenth-century station buildings evidences “the same process that attaches price tags to the commodities” (The Railway Journey, 193). If the railway journey’s landscape was characterized by what he calls perceptual fragmentation, the commodified place-name—and its disassembly into constitutive etymons—fills in the cracks left open by the technological conquest of space. For other theorists, minding the “gap” between toponym and topography becomes a political act. Modern urban place-names “detach themselves from the places they were supposed to define,” writes Michel de Certeau. In this argument, urban exploration is “determined by semantic tropisms,” because the meaning of words [le sens des mots] dictates how someone moves through urban space [le sens de la marche] (de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 105). Since names and streets both “hierarchize and semantically order the surface of the city,” a creative inquiry into connotation creates “liberated spaces that can be occupied,” spaces in which names cease to be proper (105).
Proust and the Etymology of Place
For Proust, names do not merely denote places, they are actively involved in how characters perceive topographical setting. Throughout the last section of Swann’s Way, “Place-Names: The Name,” the narrator frequently privileges connotation over denotation when imagining distant landscapes:
But if their names thus permanently absorbed the image that I had formed of these towns, it was only by transforming that image, by subordinating its reappearance in me to their own special laws; and in consequence of this they made it more beautiful, but at the same time more different from anything that the towns of Normandy or Tuscany could in reality be, and, by increasing the arbitrary delights of my imagination, aggravated the disenchantment that was in store for me when I set out upon my travels.
The special laws [lois propres] of the proper name transform its referent through an appeal to connotation. Fantasizing about the fictional town of Balbec, a place he has never visited, Proust’s narrator can distinguish “waves surging round a church built in the Persian manner,” “storms at sea,” and the “Norman gothic,” all from looking closely at the name, listening to its phonemes (Swann’s Way, 551, 554). These impressions reveal little about the place itself; rather, they preempt and predetermine how the town will be perceived in “Place Names: The Place.” Proust’s etymological modernism becomes a literary rebuttal to doctrines of the arbitrary sign. “Balbec” may not truly reflect Balbec, but the signifier bleeds, nevertheless, into the phenomenological perception and “disenchantment” of place itself.
In Mimologics, Gérard Genette pushes back against Roland Barthes’s assertion that Proust’s names lead to “the essence of things,” arguing, instead, that the author fails to enmesh place-name and setting. Explicating “Balbec,” he writes that while it may be possible to hear a Norman and Persian influence in the toponym’s “sonorities,” “it is more difficult to find in this name an echo of the storms.” In examining the phonetic sense of Balbec rather than the word’s etymological associations, Genette misses the storms that he seeks. “Bal” conjures the French balayer, meaning to sweep along or blow away, associated with storms through the idiom tout balayer sur son passage. It also has a sense of overwhelming size, tied to oceanic words like baleine (whale). The suffix “bec” is a common place-name suffix, meaning beak, mouth, spout, or lip, used to describe points and capes abutting water. Take, for example, riverside towns like the French Bec-de-Mortagne or the English Weedon Bec. This sense of “bec” descends from the Old Norse “bekkr,” a word for stream. Note also that “Baal” is a common name for the Semitic god Hadad, lord of thunderstorms. Within the toponym, Proust’s narrator finds an imaginative setting that extends beyond the borders of its corresponding topography—a setting that will not live up to his expectations when he visits the place itself.
Etymological speculation peaks during Sodome et Gomorrhe, when Brichot explains the counterintuitive logic behind place-names glimpsed from a train carriage. The narrator sees signs for “Fiquefleur,” “Honfleur,” and “Harfleur” and assumes that the suffix –fleur comes from the word for flower. Similarly, when he encounters the place-name “Bricqueboeuf,” he naturally concludes that the place once had something to do with beef. “But the flower vanished, and also the beef, when Brichot (and this he had told me on the first day in the train) informed us that fleur means a harbour (like fiord), and that boeuf, in Norman budh, means a hut.” Just as his initial fantasies of Balbec led him imaginatively astray, the narrator once again faces disappointment as -fleur and -boeuf are not the suffixes he suspects. Like a “Dartmouth” no longer located near the river Dart, these place-names are perversely polysemous, containing origin stories in the fold of every morpheme.
Proust’s narrator is not alone in his desire for correspondence between a toponym and its topography, for it reflects a much older tradition. Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century Etymologiae chronicles how the similarities between objects in the world are etymologically mirrored by proximity between those objects’ names. From the perspective of landscape, the medieval Irish tradition of dinnseanchas, or the lore of place, creates similarly motivated relationships. Comparable to Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, the dinnseanchas turned place-names into historic texts, whose etymologies contained a cultural inheritance. By uncovering the hidden meaning of a name, one could supposedly reveal a forgotten memory of the place itself—a feature no longer present in the visible landscape. It is no coincidence that this form of etymological inquiry occurs on a train car in Proust. “All early descriptions of railroad travel testify to the difficulty of recognizing any but the broadest outlines of the traversed landscape,” writes Schivelbusch (The Railway Journey, 85). Speculative etymology becomes a supplemental technique for filling in the details of these outlines, regaining a sense of topography by means of the toponym.
Beckett’s Obscurant Imagination
In his early study of Proust, Beckett describes speculative etymology as a mirage of imagination that—upon visiting a place or learning of its true linguistic heritage—becomes replaced by the mirage of memory. “Balbec had still the mystery and beauty of its name, before reality had replaced the mirage of imagination by the mirage of memory and explained away . . . by the etymology of Brichot and the appeasing contempt of familiarity.” Churning in Proust’s wake, Beckett uses etymology for near opposite ends. If Proust’s toponymic fantasies expand the possibilities of setting beyond the delimitations of place, Beckett withholds toponymic connotation to create literary settings of deprivation, obscured within the mirage of memory. In a well-known passage from Molloy, Beckett hints at the names Balbec and Parma—toponyms that get extended treatments by Proust—but ultimately turns away from denomination.
And now it was a name I sought, in my memory, the name of the only town it had been given me to know, with the intention, as soon as I had found it, of stopping, and saying to a passer-by, doffing my hat, I beg your pardon, Sir, this is X, is it not?, X being the name of my town. And this name that I sought, I felt sure that it began with a B or with a P, but in spite of this clue, or perhaps because of its falsity, the other letters continued to escape me.
With the notable exception of works such as Murphy (1938) and Mercier and Camier (1970), Beckett frequently couples namelessness and placelessness. As Molloy hints, if he could only recover the name of his town, flesh out the letters after “B” or “P,” then the place might leap into view. Instead, deadened by habit and time, Beckett’s scarce settings reflect what he calls “a compromise effected between the individual and his environment . . . the guarantee of a dull inviolability” (Proust, 7-8). In some ways, Beckett’s toponyms present an inversion of the Adamic fantasy: rather than naming things into existence, his characters’ anomic aphasia revokes the illuminating possibilities of connotation. For John McGahern, toponymic refusal is the equivalent to taking “the image out of art,” reducing the landscape to abstracted ornamentation. This is not to say that Beckett is insensitive to the toponym’s evocative powers. In a 1936 letter to Mary Manning Howe, he anticipates an unseen poem being “rich in place names.” A year later, he reports to Thomas McGreevy that (like James Joyce) his brother has bought P. W. Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, and “knows a lot already about Celtic etymologies”—a knowledge Beckett garnered through the acquisition of similar books (The Letters, 487).
When toponyms do appear, Beckett teases the etymologist. On the geographic front, take, for example, the region known as “Molloy country,” composed of “Bally” and its constituent parts. Here again we find a nod to Proust, as bal- inherits connotations from Balbec’s first syllable. Instead of the French landscape, some scholars hear an Irish topography in the place-name, as “Bally” evokes “Baile,” a common word for town. This impulse toward linguistic repatriation should be balanced with Molloy’s own warning: “when the icy words hail down upon me, the icy meanings, and the world dies too, foully named” (Beckett, Molloy, 29). While “Bally” has etymological affinities with Irish, as perhaps the most generic and widely-used topographic prefix, it is a word that offers little descriptive content. The subsequent suffixes that Molloy appends to Bally, –ba and –baba, sound more like infantile language than national designation, recalling the denomination of his mother as “Ma” or “Countess Caca” and his father as “da.” In a subversion of syntactic intuition, adding –ba to “Bally” creates “Ballyba”—a denotation of “Bally plus its domains” (Beckett, Molloy, 14). Appending the same suffix again to create “Ballybaba,” however, illogically denotes an area even smaller than Ballyba: “the domains exclusive of Bally itself” (14, 139-40).
To enclose Molloy’s landscape within a specific countryside devalues the indeterminacy of Beckett’s toponyms. This indeterminacy is mirrored by an etymological uncertainty that frustrates attempts at speculation. Recall Beckett’s evasion when Theodor Adorno insisted that the character “Hamm” derived from Hamlet: “Sorry, Professor, but I never thought of Hamlet when I invented this name.” Similarly, when Hans Naumann wrote to ask if Molloy includes an Irish tradition, Beckett invoked W. B. Yeats to offer a winking reply of neither acceptance nor denial: “I had no need to drink at the magic foundation to be able to bear living outside it.” In Beckett’s cunning silence we find the Anglophone meaning of “bally,” a euphemism for bloody, which carries a sense of that which has been confounded, dashed, and blasted. Like the connotative implications of the neighboring “Turdyba,” the place-names in Molloy lead the confounded etymologist into the mire.
One of Beckett’s more genuine etymological gestures can be found in the radio play All That Fall (1957). Reminiscent of the opening of Watt (1953), where a tram stop becomes the location for Mr. Spiro’s anagrams, the railway setting at the end of Beckett’s play serves as a sonic backdrop for etymological speculation. The text records Maddy Rooney’s walk to meet her husband, Dan—a name possibly shared by Molloy’s father—and their subsequent return home. When she arrives at the “Boghill” railway station, she learns the train had been delayed, and then Dan tells her about his trip to the toilet. “I got down and Jerry led me to the men’s, or Fir as they call it now, from Vir Viris I suppose, the V becoming F in accordance with Grimm’s Law.” Grimm’s Law refers to a rule for the translation of consonants between languages, which he wrongly employs to trace the Irish word for “man” back to a false Latin origin. While the signage is partially a result of the Free State’s reinstatement of Irish as a national language, I want to suggest this amateur philology is equally inspired by the railway setting. At the end of the play, it is revealed that a child lost its life on the train tracks, causing the “unheard of” fifteen-minute delay to the train (Beckett, All That Fall, 28). The velocity of modern transportation comes at a cost, which Mr. Rooney tries to mitigate with a turn to etymology.
Proust and Beckett both utilize scenes of public transportation to think through questions of speculative etymology, the latter in the wake of the former—for these settings reveal a historical and material correlate to modernism’s linguistic preoccupation with place-names. This is not to say that an exploration of etymons is a solely modernist or technologically-contingent activity. William Wordsworth’s Poems on the Naming of Places from the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads are concentrated precursors to this type of thinking, while works by Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, John Montague, and Don DeLillo become its successors. And yet, for Proust, Beckett, and other modernists, the toponym serves as a rich site of etymological experimentation, intensified through innovations in transportation, which differentiates setting from place by widening the space between connotation and denotation.
 See Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, and Other Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 69.
 Virginia Woolf, “Literary Geography,” in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ed. Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1986), 1:32-36, 33.
 Robert Alter, Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), x.
 For three distinct takes on this speed-up, see George Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings, ed. David Frisby and Mike Featherstone (London: Sage, 1997), 174–86, 175; Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (1977; rpt., Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 171; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (London: Blackwell, 1989), 240.
 See Sheila Taylor, The Moving Metropolis: A History of London’s Transport since 1800, revised by David Lawrence (London: Laurence King, 2001), 282, and Allan Haley, ABC’s of Type (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1990), 58.
 See Meredith Clausen, Frantz Jourdain and the Samaritaine: Art Nouveau Theory and Criticism (Leiden: Brill, 1987), 186–87.
 For a history of the railway in France, see Allan Mitchell, The Great Train Race: Railways and the Franco-German Rivalry, 1815–1914 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006), 3–36, 85–119. For an account of how London was affected by these developments, see Steen Eiler Rasmussen, London: The Unique City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982). For a general treatment of the intersection of urban planning and transportation in European capital cities, see Thomas Hall, Planning Europe’s Capital Cities: Aspects of Nineteenth-Century Urban Development (London: E & FN Spon, 1997). Transportation has been surprisingly undertheorized in discussions of literary place and period, leading the editors of a dedicated volume on the subject to write, as recently as 2015, that “research on transport in literature is rare” (Transport in British Fiction: Technologies of Movement, 1840–1940, ed. Adrienne Gavin and Andrew Humphries [London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015], 1).
 John Stewart Mill, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Connected View of the Principle of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1882), 1:32.
 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 84, 517.
 Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (London: Penguin, 1992), 55–6.
 Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 302.
 See James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Random House, 1986), 7.1–5. For an account of this scene and its relationship to colonial identities, see Andrew Thacker, Moving through Modernity: Space and Geography in Modernism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 125.
 See James Joyce, The Letters of James Joyce, ed. Richard Ellmann (New York: Viking Press, 1966), 2:315.
 Quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 336.
 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 156.
 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 104.
 Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright, (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 550-51.
 Roland Barthes, New Critical Essays (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 67.
 Gérard Genette, Mimologics, trans. Thaïs E. Morgan (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1995), 252.
 See OED Online, June 2017, s.v., “beak, n.1”; and Huguet, Dictionnaire de la langue française du 16e siècle, June 2017, s.v., “Bec., n.1.”
 Margaret Gelling, Place-Names in the Landscape (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1984), 14.
 Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 679.
 See The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. Stephen Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 17–29.
 See Alex Houen, Terrorism and Modern Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 248. For more on these poems and their relationship to Irish modernism, see Maria Tymoczko, The Irish Ulysses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 159–66.
 Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York: Grove Press, 1970), 26.
 Samuel Beckett, Molloy (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 28–9.
 Quoted in Seán Kennedy, “Introduction: Ireland/Europe…Beckett/Beckett” in Beckett and Ireland, ed. Seán Kennedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1–15, 11.
 Beckett to Howe, The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929–1940, ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 358.
 For an account of Beckett’s etymologies, see Dirk van Hulle and Mark Nixon, Samuel Beckett’s Library (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 195.
 See, for example, Patrick Bixby, Samuel Beckett and the Postcolonial Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 178, as well as Emile Morin, Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 61.
 See Alan Graham, “‘Godforsaken hole called … called …’: Place, Nation, and Spatial Crisis in Beckett’s Fiction and Drama” Irish Studies Review 24, no. 2 (2016): 159–74, 163.
 Quoted by Siegfried Unseld in an address to the Second International Beckett Symposium in The Hague, April 8, 1992, cited in James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 428.
 Beckett to Naumann, The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941–1956, ed. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 465.
 See OED Online, June 2017, s.v., “bally, n.1.”
 See Samuel Beckett, Watt (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 21.
 See Beckett, Molloy, 14.
 Samuel Beckett, All That Fall: A Play for Radio (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 33.
 Brynhildur Boyce, “Pismires and Protestants: The ‘Lingering Dissolution’ of Samuel Beckett’s All that Fall,” Irish Studies Review 17, no. 4 (2009): 499–511, 502–3.