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Sunday Times Books LIVE

Louis Greenberg

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Useless and arcane trivia

A large part of my day job involves updating and maintaining the content on a bookseller’s website. The 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded on Thursday so a few minutes ago, giving that web page the once-over, I corrected the spelling of Elfriede Jelinek, the 2004 laureate. Then I moved straight on to editing the blurbs of some books that will be featured on the site, including one called The Reverend Guppy’s Aquarium by Philip Dodd, a light-trivia book which discusses the people behind the names behind certain everyday words. In these five minutes I came across the most remarkable connection:

Elfriede Jelinek turns out to be the grand-daughter of Emil Jellinek who sat on the board of Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft between 1900 and 1909, and whose daughter, Adrienne Manuela Ramona, nicknamed Mercedes, gave the name to the car now often-used by politicians, compensators, the status-addled, the credit-heavy and folks who believe the rules of the road are below them the world-over. It’s a shame, she looks like a nice girl.

The upheavals of the early half of the twentieth century – helped along by a smattering of marrying-down and a twist of Jewishness – turned Elfriede’s rich Austrian patrilineage into a poor, landless, exiled and inevitably name-corrupted family in a matter of years, and the best-known mode of the family consequently from capitalist industry to intellectual communism.

It’s at bright-spark-in-a-dark-room, functionless, knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake moments like this that I remember that selling books, or being involved in the book industry from whichever angle, is not the same as as selling sheet metal, carrots, jeans, insurance or cars – luxury or otherwise.

Oh, I also learned that Etienne de Silhouette was a French chap who, after losing favour in the Court, resorted to making friends out of paper.