Peter Handke commands one of the great German-language prose styles of the postwar period, a riverine rhetoric deep and swift and contrary of current. (source)

I find this phrase "contrary of current" unusual. After checking several dictionaries, it seems the adjective "contrary" is seldom, if ever, followed by the preposition "of". Here is an Ngram graph that shows the occurence of "contrary of" is significantly lower than "contrary to". "Contrary of current" returns barely anything besides the cited source on Google.

Can "of" follow "contrary"? Is "contrary of current" idiomatic?

  • 1
    Notice there are 3 adjectives applied to the current, not just one. That makes the use of "of" to connect the adjectives to the noun a bit more usual, even if it's still a bit of a flowery way to express the meaning. – The Photon Dec 25 '18 at 18:50

"Contrary of current" would be a usage so rarefied, unusual, and idiosyncratic that I don't think you could refer to it as "idiomatic". Nevertheless, I hear it as being acceptable to write (especially in a literary context). In other words, I don't think it is a typo, or poor translation, etc.

It has echoes of "fleet of foot", "slight of build", "long of tooth", and other expressions that come to us as "pre-approved" phrases through maybe Shakespeare, maybe folk aphorisms, maybe the Bible, etc. In this case the author may have just invented the phrase all by himself, but it ends up sounding good because he is a scholarly writer/poet/critic, or whatever.

So, yes, it sounds great to me, and yes, it is unusual. "Contrary of" is a combination I would not have thought correct, ever, but yet ... here, I like it.

  • The article would seem to be a NYT review of the translated version of a book. The article itself is written by a native English speaker, so the phrasing is intentional. – Andrew Dec 25 '18 at 19:34

"Contrary of current" is an odd phrasing because, for the meaning of contemporary, "current" is definitely an adjective. The author leaves it dangling, so we're meant to either reframe it as a noun ("things that are current"), or fill in the noun it modifies ("current style").

It's also possible the author metaphorically refers to the flow of water, in which case the meaning is more akin to "swims upstream" -- but if this is the case, it's still odd as most would add the definite article, "contrary to the current". Also, the metaphor of going against the current usually refers to the "stubborn desire to move in a particular direction, despite the extra effort", rather than "be unique".

In the context of the article, it works because it fits with this particular writer's style. There are any number of phrases which end with adjectives:

his talent has been inarguable

or with words that act as either nouns or adjectives:

it’s almost exclusively been a talent for the aesthetic

He’s the Handke-who-isn’t, the author’s epithetical double

This is the New York Times, so you have to expect that its articles (particularly those in the Arts section of the paper) will often be in a highbrow style to appeal to the paper's educated readership. I imagine the writer of this book review is himself an author, and used to creative wordplay.

  • Because of the "river" metaphor, " ... riverine rhetoric deep and swift ... ", I think the word "current" isn't used in the sense of "contemporary", but in its flowing-water meaning. Also, the phrase is "contrary of current", not "to". I think it means that the current flow of Handke's language is forceful and somehow untamed (?), or at least contrary to what is ordinary/common/expected. Whether my opinion is right or wrong, this is definitely advanced English, and not something an English learner, or even a fluent speaker, should lose sleep over. – Lorel C. Dec 25 '18 at 21:03
  • @LorelC certainly it might evoke the current of a river, as in "he swims against the current", but in the end there's not much difference between that and "he goes against what is currently fashionable" – Andrew Dec 25 '18 at 23:27

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