On Friday I stood on a stepladder and signed my name on the walls of Diogenes Vertag in Zurich: deep in their gluey, papery smelling archive rooms. I was in Zurich to present the german language version of The Pink Hotel at the annual Diogenes sales conference. With the signatures of titans like Paulo Coelho and Ian McEwan terrifyingly nearby, I took a deep breath and hoped not to misspell my name. (It’s happened a stupid number of times before – an extra “n” while autographing a book, a missed “t” on a birthday card – like I’m not in charge). But this time I nailed it: Anna Stothard, March 2012.
Names worry me. Personal, but shared. Ours, but we don’t choose them. Meeting strangers I repeat names in my head like a mantra until the syllables – Kati, Ruth, Vinny, Catherine, Philipp – sound like a nonsense poem, but hopefully a poem I remember. I live in fear of forgetting names. “What’s in a name?” asks James Joyce in Ulysses (I visited his grave last week, in a cemetery so close to Zurich zoo that you can hear lions roar if you come to the grave at feeding time). “That is what we ask ourselves in childhood when we write the name that we are told is ours,” he answers.
Shakespeare’s Juliet answered the same question: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Of course the sound of “anna” didn’t develop from the smell and sight of Anna, while the word “rose” was presumably inspired from a sense of the flower. The word “rose” was given to roses when they already existed while I grew into the word Anna over time, scrawling then name I was told is mine over and over through my life until I (just about) owned it.
The protagonist of The Pink Hotel doesn’t own her name. Her future self, the book’s narrator, doesn’t mention one. The best character names summarize and hint: Pip, Tintin, Havisham, Gandalf, Philip Marlowe, those wide voluptuous vowels of Madame Bovary, the meandering creepy “humm” of Humbert Humbert, the ethereal noise that “Lyra” makes in your mouth, and the spit of the words Fagin or Becky Sharp. With The Pink Hotel, I knew my character wasn’t going to own herself enough to deserve a name, she’s too ghostly and uneasy to own much of anything as she starts her journey.
Whenever I stand up and read from The Pink Hotel, as I did at the Diogenes conference in Zurich last week, I feel briefly as spectral and willful and brazen and nameless as my character, who only begins to piece together shards of an identity – a taste here and a wish there – during a blisteringly hot summer in Los Angeles as she trawls through remnants of her mother’s disastrous life. It’s a peculiar, and not entirely pleasant feeling, turning momentarily into a character who does not embody herself enough to deserve a name.