Enigmatism by James Mortmain

published 1937    Section 2

[The Child has been taken to a Montessori Nursery

Eve Veronica Carol Olwen Enid Ida Daisy Sylvia Ianthe Heather Erica Cassandra 

Tremendously important, says Vev, adjusting his spectacles. That narrative in names. He has ordered them, without consciousness

See. Look at the girls, are they different from me? Are they looking at me? Do they know what I’m thinking, is this thinking or saying, is it different? Coat’s the same, dress is different. Shiny shoes and ribbon. White socks. They’ve got eyes too. Do they do the same as me? 

She’s like a teddy, I like to play. We play. I pull her dress. I pinch her. She shouts! Teddy doesn’t shout. She’s different from me. I look the same to her? 

I need a sleep now. 

He has taken in enough for one session, says Vev. Let him sleep. As he sleeps, he will internalize this pivot.

observations: James Mortmain’s first book, Jacob Wrestling, was published in 1920, and - with its mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry - helped change our expectations of literature. Critics and students argued over the meaning of the third dream, and the notorious ladder chapter - is it significant that apparently Mortmain wrote much of Enigmatism in a space that was only accessible by ladder? This is the cover of the first edition:

Mortmain then suffered a monstrous case of writer’s block, and produced nothing at all until the late 1930s, by which time his adoring public had given up on, if not quite lost interest in, him - he had been in prison briefly, was widowed and then remarried. And then came this book, which begins with the words THE CAT SAT ON THE MAT repeated over and over, and seems to be following the thought processes from soon after birth of someone learning to speak and read. 

Enigmatism has been taken up by scholars interested in child language development, who argue that Mortmain was drawing on fledgling studies of Child Language Acquisition. The po-faced Russian character, Vev, who emerges to offer nonsensical commentary on the book’s content, is thought to represent the noted psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, whose work on children’s development in society was very influential. Theorist Ardnassac Zapot, in a paper for the International Conference of Theoretical Critics (ICTC), goes so far as to say: 
‘Vev’ is the prototype for the narrator figure in later postmodern fiction: he is a cipher for every attempted act of reading or understanding; doomed to fail in his analysis of a world that refuses to be simplified. 
A feminist critic might say: always the male narrator(s), always the female who is other. (Typically, a book with a female narrator simply will not be taken so seriously.) 

Enigmatism’s actually an easy and entertaining read – full of puzzles and jokes and the comic strip sections called Pigeon’s Progress, with the bird Homer leading us through. But it’s almost too easy, and we worry that we’re missing the point, that we’re not clever enough. But today, I think we have got the point. 

Links on the blog: Mortmain has his own connection with this book. In a certain sense, Enigmatism is contemporaneous with Fleur Talbot’s Warrender Chase

The photos are from PerryPhotography. With thanks also to BNS for help with the theory.


  1. I haven't heard of this author at all. It all sounds quite surreal, from the subject matter to the the author's last name.

  2. It puts me in mind of the unusual book Pathetic Ulcerates by Ted Dimoshi (pen name for Dido Metish).

  3. Sounds unique - like Bowie in the music world, say. Who - so I heard yesterday - will sing Germany's Eurovision entry this year. Amazing!!

  4. What? Bowie singing Eurovision song. What? Heroes? I will watch it. Please remind me.


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