I recently reread some of my favorite Roald Dahl stories. One in particular, “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” is about a computer that effectively learns the writing styles of various authors, and is able to churn out stories in these various styles better and faster than the real authors. In the story, some authors try to fight their cybernetic replacement. But eventually all of the authors cave in to the inevitable, signing contracts which specify that in the future they will no longer write, but will simply license their work from the computer.

The most fiendishly clever passage occurs when the Grammatizator’s inventor is explaining its workings to one hapless but fascinated writer:

“There’s a trick nearly every writer uses, of inserting one long, obscure word into every story. This makes the reader think the man is very wise and clever. So I have the machine do the same thing. There’ll be a whole stack of long words stored away just for this purpose.”


“In the word-memory section,” he said epexegetically.

What I find lovely about this passage is the effect of the insertion of that one word “epexegetically” (which means “by way of additional explanation”). Its appearance changes the entire meaning of the story. Suddenly it is being suggested that you are not merely reading a story by Raoul Dahl, but rather one that has been written by the machine which is being described – a machine which has replaced Roald Dahl himself.

Of course we know this cannot be true. After all, the machine is merely a fiction that exists inside the story. And yet, as an intellectual concept, the impossible inversion is successfully planted in our minds. I find this concept completely delicious – like the joy I felt the first time I ever saw one of M.C. Escher’s impossible waterfalls.

Can anyone think of other examples in which an author calls into question the very existence of the author?

5 Responses to “Epexegetically”

  1. Ally Reeves says:

    Almost. There are some interesting shifts in narrative and approach to the reader/author relationship in Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” that you might enjoy. I think there is even a mention of a conspiracy that author’s styles are being copied and replicated by other authors or machines that mimic their style.

    In any case, it’s quiet interesting. I have never had a book make me so aware of the experience of reading and what expectations shaped my willingness to invest time in a book. “..A Winter’s Night…” confused me, frustrated me, surprised me, and then left me to coast along in an enlightened reader’s zen.

    Enjoyed your post.

    More about ” A winter’s night…”


  2. […] in his wonderful short story “The Great Grammatizator”, which I I talked about a while back, to the decision by the music group REM to name one of their albums “Eponymous” — […]

  3. Hepzibah Reader says:

    Actually, when Dahl has his character, Adolph Knipe (a fascinating name in itself) use the word “epexegetically”, he is talking to his boss: Mr. Bohlen, whom he needs to convince to finance the building of his story writing machine, not a writer of stories. I did enjoy your thoughts.

  4. admin says:

    @Hepzibah: Yes, I completely agree that Adolph is speaking to Mr. Bohlen. My point was that the hidden message conveyed by the use of that word is not a message from Adolph Knipe to Mr. Bohlen, but rather a message from Roald Dahl to us — the readers.

    The use of that word in that context is a sly suggestion to us by Dahl that the very story we are reading has actually been written by the Great Grammatizator.

  5. NADINE V. says:

    I’m reading “Roald Dahl short stories” too and I’ve just read ” The Great Automatic Grammatizator”. I wondered about the word “epexegetically” because I couldn’t find it in my dictionary (English is not my mother tongue) so I was happy to find your article about the story and especially a definition of that word in it.
    I’ve appreciated that fiction too and it’s logical in a way that this special word appears just after the moment the author explained that point about complicated words.
    I don’tknow other stories of that kind but Roald Dahl is a very special writer, isn’t he? I like his stories very much.
    Thank you for having thought to write an article on this topic.
    Nadine V.

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