Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Out of Bembo

November 15, 2011

I just got a copy of Out of Oz from the library, and the first thing I notice is that the typeface is back to the Truesdell of the original Wicked, rather than the always lovely but comparatively bourgeois and anodyne Bembo of Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men. I hope this means the book is as weird as the first one was.

Historical Writing

August 2, 2011

One more note on the previous post:

It’s not fair of me to expect the same level of juicy detail from ancient history as there is (or can be) in classical or modern history; there is simply more information about the more recent periods. As far as I know the Egyptians had no analogs of the wonderfully chatty and gossipy (and unreliable) classical historians, and although they were great record-keepers there just isn’t the same sort of detail we have about more recent times. But I’ll compare anyway. Here’s the sort of thing I love, from Strange Victory , by Ernest May (which I recommend!):

Canaris was a strange character. There were many such, of course, at the center of the Third Reich, but Canaris stands out among them…. Five feet four, with prematurely white hair, he detested tall men and, above all, tall men with small ears. The loves of his life were Seppel and Sabine, two dachshunds from whom he was almost inseparable. When traveling, he would require from his staff frequent reports on their apparent emotions and their bowel movements…

…[A]other possibility is anger over encroachments in his domain by Reinhard Heydrich, the head of Himmler’s security service. Outwardly, his relationship with Heydrich was cordial; the Canarises and the Heydrichs were neighbors and dined together. But Heydrich was thought repulsive by men who had no such reaction to Himmler or Bormann. Also, he was very tall and had small ears.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

August 2, 2011

For years I’ve loved ancient history without really knowing much about it. I’ve never been able to keep the Babylonians and Assyrians completely straight, let alone the Akkadians, and what any of them have to do with the Sumerians (my knowledge of whom comes primarily from having seen The Mole People at an impressionable age). I’ve never been quite sure of who the Hittites and Amorites and Mittanians and Chaldeans were. Those Sumerian city states have great names like Uruk and Ur and Lagash and Eridu but (apart from Abraham’s alleged origin in Ur of the Chaldees; doubtless he left to escape the mole people) I have no idea which is which or why we should care. The comings and goings of the MInoans and Mycenaeans and Achaeans and Dorians and other proto-Greeks are a mystery to me, providing only a little background for the Iliad and Odyssey and some half-remembered Mary Renault novels.

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And then there’s Egypt. Egypt is far more familiar to us American rubes than Babylonians and Assyrians and Mittanians. It’s hard not to be exposed to all sorts of things about Egypt, romantic things like pyramids and mummies and sarcophagi for cats and animal-headed gods and King Tut. Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter (“Mo-o-o-ossses…”) are deeply ingrained as my Platonic forms of Pharaoh and Pharaohess (Pharaoness? Pharessa?). But the ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for 3,000 years. That is a long time, half as long again as it’s been since it it became part of Rome until now, and apart from “Cleopatra was at the end” all that history is compressed in our collective unconscious into an undifferentiated mass of pyramids and mummies and sarcophagi for cats and animal-headed gods and King Tut and Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter.

So when I read about Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, a popular history of the entire civilization, I hied me to the library and found a copy. It serves its purpose well: I’m much clearer—well, somewhat less vague—on what the difference between the Old and Middle and New Kingdoms, and where Memphis was (and why), and who the Hyksos and the Sea People were, and even to a certain extent which king was which and which did what. I know now where the word “Pharaoh” comes from (“Per-aa,” or “Great House,” applied metonymically to its inhabitant) and why (awkwardness about what to call Hatshepsut—there was no such thing as a “Queen”). The book is easy to read, and it zips right along. If you’re looking for a summary of all of ancient Egyptian history, bearing in mind that a “summary of all of ancient Egyptian history” will necessarily be a few hundred pages, this is it.

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One of the highlights (I thought) comes at the very beginning of the Egyptian kingdom. Among the artifacts of that era, now a highlight of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo (and of Adrian Veidt’s—Ozymandias’s!—office in Watchmen) is the Narmer Palette. That’s “palette” as in a thing for mixing paints, in particular cosmetics; the ur-Eqyptians apparently used them as ceremonial objects in those days, a development of sacred face painting among in nomadic cultures or some such. The Narmer palette (apparently) commemorates the very unification of the Two Kingdoms of Egypt under Narmer, Egypt’s possibly mythical first king and founder of its First Dynasty. The obverse is full of Mespotamian motifs: the king as a bull destroying a walled town, those “serpopards” whose intertwined necks frame the pigment-mixing depression. The reverse is more distinctly Egyptian, with the now-human king wearing the crown of Upper Egypt. Although to my untrained and untrustworthy eye there is still some of Mesopotamia there—the king’s calf muscles look distinctly Assyrian to me, and I wonder how much those cows at the top (proto-Hathors, apparently) owe to Mesopotamian predecessors—the Narmer palette represents the very beginning not only of the Egyptian kingdom but of Egyptian, which (again to my untrained eye) remained remarkably consistent for millennia thereafter.

But this isn’t a perfect book. Reading it is a great first step in understanding Egyptian history, but all those kings still blur together. To some extent, I suppose that’s unavoidable—there were a lot of them, after all, and really I don’t know that there is always much to distinguish them. But Wilkinson’s (I hate to say it) somewhat cliched writing doesn’t really help. There are too many “brilliant demonstrations of the unite-and-rule concept” and “brilliant flashes of inspiration” and “brilliant but simple expedients.” I’m sure there is precious little that can really be said about any individual, king or otherwise, especially given Egyptian kings’ perennial habit of erasing all record of their predecessors, but I would desperately like more indivuating details, and anecdotes.

And I’d also like to know more about the Egyptian religion (or should that be religions?). Gods and priests and temples obviously permeate Egyptian history and life, but really all I can say I got from the book is that there were a confusingly large number of gods, whose cults were more or less important in various cities. How did those cults develop, and split and merge, and relate to each other in general? How did perceptions of the gods and details of their cults change over time? What did all those priests do all day, anyway?

So, definite thumbs up, but I am left wanting more. Which is certainly better than left wanting less—

Pride and Punctuation; or, Sense and Semicolons

October 28, 2010

As if it’s not enough that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford1, now we find that Jane Austen’s style was not her own, but rather the work of William Gifford, apparently the Best Editor Ever. Or so says Kathryn Sutherland, Director of the Jane Austen Manuscript Digital Edition. According to some of the many accounts (h/t: I first heard of this in a comment here),

"What I’m particularly interested in is that the manuscripts do not bear out that high degree of polished grammatical style for which Jane Austen is known"—what Ms. Sutherland calls "the exquisitely placed semicolon."

and

In particular, the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in Emma and Persuasion is simply not there.

and

One of her grammatical errors was the inability to master the ‘i before e’ rule and her works were littered with distant ‘veiws’ and characters who ‘recieve’ guests.

On other occasions she wrote ‘tomatoes’ as ‘tomatas’ and ‘arraroot’ for ‘arrowroot’, which according to Professor Sutherland reflect her regional accent.

‘In some of her writing, her Hampshire accent is very strong. She had an Archers-like voice with a definite Hampshire burr,’ she said.

For some healthy skepticism about such claims see Language Log and Austenblog, with good comments to be found at both. I don’t have much to add, just to reinforce that the only real specifics in the reports are about spelling and punctuation—in rough drafts!—which really don’t detract from her “polished grammatical style.” Unless, I suppose, you’re Lynne Truss.

It’s always nice when the evidence for these bold claims is easily available online; so I had a look for myself at this new Jane archive. I have to say it’s pretty neat: whatever the merit of Professor Sutherland’s claims, she and her colleagues seem to have done great work amassing and transcribing and presenting all these manuscript pages.

The first problem in deciding what to make of Professor Sutherland’s claims on behalf of Mr Gifford is that there is virtually nothing in these manuscripts to compare with published versions. That’s right, not only are these all rough drafts, there rough drafts of things that weren’t even published. Apparently she didn’t bother to keep either rough or fair copies of the ones that were published. The only exception is a bit of Persuasion, which looks to me to be very nearly identical to chapter 24, minus the very end, of the published version (at least as it appears here), with fewer commas and more dashes. It is fascinating to look at what she crossed out and rewrote. The most interesting bit is a passage about Sir Walter Eliot’s newfound respect for Captain Wentworth, pasted over in favor of what I think is a rather less piquant version. Perhaps she decided she had already been hard enough on the Bart., or more likely that it was a little repetitive with passages earlier in the book. But it is funny:

As he saw & conversed with Capt. W. more, saw his complexion by daylight — & perceived in conversation that his Teeth were as fine as ever. — he could not but feel that in any present comparison with Anne, Capt. W. must have the advantage, that he had lost much leſs of Youth & bloom than she had, and consequently might now

Back to Jane’s alleged unpolished prose and lack of “epigrammatic style,” I suppose that one could make an argument based on the style of all these unpublished (but hardly hitherto unknown) works as compared to that of the published ones, especially those that Gifford edited. [Which, by the by, do not include Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park]. Maybe that is what Professor S means to say, but if so I haven’t heard her say it.

Oh, and and typography! Or, um, not typography, but whatever you call the handwriting equivalent (I should really know the right word, shouldn’t I?). These manuscripts are full of long s’s, the things that look like a bit f’s but aren’t (they look like ſ, with no crossbar, or sometimes a little nub on the left; italic ones generally look like integral signs; and they are simply an alternate form of plain old “s”). Jane seems to have been much more regular than many printers in her use of long s, her rule being (as far as I can tell) just that ss is always written ſs. Anyway, I had never seen any manuscript long s’s before. It turns out that they look like f’s (surprise!) with the bottom loop reversed. That would make them quick to write, I should think, with no stroke reversals (is there a technical term for that?). Here’s the word “less”:

long-s

Neat, huh? Well, I thought it was interesting.

 

1. That’s ridiculous, of course. Shakespeare’s plays were written by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

"I killed a man in France"

November 30, 2008

The other day I blogged a bit about the differences between Wicked, the book, and Wicked, the musical, about how the play is somewhat…lighter than the book. Not that I’ve seen a whole lot of musicals based on books, especially complex and subtle books, but certainly that sort of dumbing-down isn’t unique to Wicked. My favorite example is from South Pacific. Yes, the play is one of the great classics of music theatre (and, in touch as I am with my inner Broadway-Loving Gay Man I still sometimes get songs from it lodged in my head1). But it lacks a certain gritty je ne sais quoi that pervaded James Michener’s book.

In both book and play, Emile de Becque fled France in his youth, having killed the town bully. From he play2:

EMILE. He could do anything… take anything. I did not like that, I was young. I stood up in the public square and made a speech. I called upon everyone to stand with me against this man.

NELLIE. What did they do?

EMILE. They walked away.

NELLIE. Why?

EMILE. Because they saw him standing behind me. I turned and he said to me “I am going to kill you now.” We fought. I was never so strong. I knocked him to the ground. And when he fell his head struck a stone and… [Shrug.]

And here’s the book:

“How did you kill him?” Nellie asked, surprised at her courage.

“With a knife,” Emile said, showing some satisfaction, even at that distance.

And I won’t even start with Lieutenant/Commander (book and play, respectively) Harbison’s attempted rape of Nellie…

 

1. Damn, “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” is there now… Couldn’t it at least be “Bali Hai” or “Younger than Springtime?”

2. Quoted from the libretto that was moldering in a box in my attic, A relic of my high school play one year. I played Henry, Emile de Becaue’s Polynesian servant. I had six lines, in French, a language I did not speak. Since then my theatrical experience has been restricted to playing various woodwinds in orchestras.

Michael Crichton, RIP

November 27, 2008

[Belated, but better late than never…]

My fond memories of Michael Crichton, who died a few weeks ago, long predate his latter-day status as reactionary alarmist. As a lad I saw The Andromeda Strain when it was first on TV, and, being nerdly even then, I was captivated. The alien virus plot—hm, come to think of it, maybe he was a reactionary alarmist even then—was (especially to a nine-year-old) clever and thought-provoking; the five-level super-sterile top-secret government germ-fighting lab (with computer-controlled lasers!) was as nifty as the Enterprise (for which I of course had “blueprints”); the pseudo-factual quasi-documentary style was impressive. And best of all, the heroes were brainy science guys (and one gal), just like I wanted to be. I was hooked.

Crichton wasn’t exactly a great writer, but then, most bestsellers aren’t written by great writers, and his prose was certainly sturdy and serviceable. His great gifts included a rare ability to work meticulously through details and present them in a completely understandable way. His plot devices were often wildly imaginative, but always tethered to reality. Not only did Jurassic Park give you resurrected dinosaurs, it convinced you that resurrected dinosaurs were entirely possible, probably even inevitable. Even Crichton’s wilder plots and weaker books—I’m talking about Sphere here—had a certain weird plausibility to them, and were chock full of interesting ideas.

For Attention To Detail I don’t think one can beat The Great Train Robbery. I’ve just reread it (having decided to read something by Crichton in memoriam, and that being the first of his books to hand), and I enjoyed it as much as when I first read it thirty years ago. I’m not sure whether it’s a novel chock full of seamy Victoriana, or an essay about seamy Victoriana in novel form. I also don’t know how closely it follows the real robbery, but that hardly matters. The mechanics of the robbery, fiction or not, are fascinating, the criminal slang (doubtless dumbed down, insofar as it is accurate, or else it would be completely incomprehensible) is atmospheric, the discourses on criminals and prostitutes and London life in general wonderfully lurid.

And Crichton himself directed the movie of The Great Train Robbery. I haven’t seen that in years, but I remember liking it as much as I liked the book. How not, with Sean Connery at the height of his suavity as the master criminal, Donald Sutherland as his sidekick, and mind-blowingly gorgeous Lesley-Anne Down as his mistress? I’ve just talked myself into seeing it again; on the Netflix queue it goes.

A Lion Among Wicked Men

November 26, 2008

lion-among-men Zipping through the new books section of the library last week I came across Gregory Maguire’s A Lion Among Men, subtitled “Volume Three in the Wicked Years” (from which subtitle, new to the series—and from the fact that it introduces more threads than it seems likely to resolve—I conclude Maguire plans more Volumes in the Wicked Years). I’m now halfway through reading it aloud to the child. If you think the Wicked books are wholly inappropriate for reading aloud to one’s children, well, you’re right, but there it is.

As you’ve gathered from the title, the focus of the book is the Cowardly Lion, named Brrr, previously seen as a cub in Wicked. Brrr is (no surprise) not exactly a coward in the way of Burt Lahr, but more naive, dandified, and depressive. He comes by his sobriquet through his accidental involvement in the bloody suppression of a miners’ strike (emerald miners, that is), from which he acquires both fame and shame, as he only gradually realizes.

The story is framed by Brrr’s interview with Yackle, the mysterious crone and oracle from Wicked, on business is a Court Reporter for Emerald City magistrates, a position he seems not to have taken entirely voluntarily. She interrogates him more effectively than he interrogates her, and the bulk of the book is thus his life story, or parts of it. We also learn a little (to start with) more of her history. Meanwhile, the Clock of the Time Dragon lurks nearby…

I still haven’t figured out what I think of Maguire’s writing. I don’t mean whether it’s good—it’s very good—I mean whether I like his archly ironic juxtaposition of vaguely fantastical language with informal modern idiom, the dialogue that leaps from (intentionally) pompous fantasy-language to Victorian guttersnipe to street thug to modern American slang. Here’s the beginning of Brrr’s interview with Yackle:

It’s been a long time since I have seen Death this close up, he thought. This is Death refusing to die. She’s a centerfold for a mortuary quarterly.

“I was quite a looker in my time,” she said. Was she reading his mind, or only being smart, to know that she must be hideous?

“Oh had they invented time as long ago as that?”

“A comedian,” she observed. “I come back from the very gates of death to be interviewed by a vaudeville wannabe.”

“Let’s get started.” He flipped open his notebook. At the top of the page he wrote a note to himself: Interview One. Don’t Vomit.

And from Yackle:

“You want the three historic segments of my earthly life? I’ve lived through a good deal of these modern times, if you can call it living. I’d arrived, preaged and preshrunk, a crone at birth, just at the end of the Ozma regency, before Pastorius was deposed by the Wizard and the infant Ozma was secreted away, probably murdered…

“Following the Wizard’s abdication of the Throne, the brief and blameless twin interregnums—first of Lady Glinda, that bottle blonde, and the of the so-called Scarecrow, who came to power and left it again faster than a pile of autumn kindling responds to a winter torch.

Last year I (and the daughter) saw Wicked, The Musical (alas, in its touring incarnation, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel being long goine). It was, thought I, nothing like the book. The book was subtle, sad, disturbing, and deeply, deeply twisted, weird to the core. The play was none of those things. It was a musical about a green girl and her boyfriend, with (SPOILER ALERT!) a tacked-on happy ending. It only vaguely hinted at the intricate politics of Maguire’s Oz, at its complex societal structure, and above all at the otherworldly strangeness of it all. The characters themselves were (inevitably, in any transition from book to musical) flattened into caricatures: Glinda became a simple society airhead, Elphaba herself a bit of a wisecracker. The acrobatic flying monkeys were good, though, I’ll give it that.

A pretentious typographical note. Wicked (at least the edition I read) was set in  Truesdell, a reconstruction of a lost Frederic Goudy typeface, one of his more “hand-carved” designs. It’s a strange-looking font, that put me in mind of Grimm’s grim Fairy Tales, of kobolds and gremlins and dangerously mischievous faeries,  of ancient signs carved in walls of long-abandoned caves. It gave an already-strange book an even stranger affect. It may have been a bit much, but I liked it. I must be in the minority there, though, as the publishers changed the typeface for the sequels. Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men are set in Bembo. Now Bembo is a very fine typeface—one of my favorites—but it seems somehow earthbound after the creepy excess of Truesdell.

The Late George Apley

May 26, 2008

I married into a Boston Brahmin family. My parents-in-law and their set have an accent—and a way of life, really—I didn’t know still existed. My wife, although she herself resolutely avoids all Brahmin manners, had for some time been pestering me to read John P. Marquand‘s Pulitzer-Prize-winning satire The Late George Apley, that I might better understand her people, and because she thought I’d like it. As usual I finally gave in to the pestering, and as usual she was right.

The novel is in the form of a biography of George Apley, a recently deceased (recently in 1933), very proper Bostonian. This biography Apley’s son has commissioned Will Willing, an old family friend and distinguished author, to write, based on Apley’s letters and other papers, with special instructions not to produce the usual anodyne eulogy:

How would it be if these letters should tell the truth about him? Not that I insinuate you do not always tell the truth — I mean that on this occasion you may leave matters in the record which your conscience and loyalty might otherwise blot out.

Apley was born in 1867—making him, unbelievably, a contemporary of my grandfather-in-law (they bred very late in that family)—into a family that had made a great deal of money first from clipper ships and then from mills. In a sort of synecdoche for the progression of New England economic life, the family went from daring entrepreneurs to flinty industrialists to—well, not much of anything, really. Apley becomes a lawyer (Harvard-educated, of course) and his father and uncle, finding him too soft for mill management, find him a sinecure at a convenient law firm. Here Apley seems to practice very little actual law, instead leading a life mostly dedicated to fulfilling a myriad of social obligations, attending functions of his many clubs, serving on innumerable committees, and engaging in obscure disputes with family, fellow club members, and in one disastrous case, a wily politician.

The humor—and tragedy—of the novel lies in the fact that Apley really doesn’t want to do anything of the sort. From his youth he finds his family and his society have determined his entire life for him:

He once said of himself: “I am the sort of man I am, because environment prevented my becoming anything else.

After college he travels to Europe and England and finds only Bostonians. Much later he buys a lake island in Maine as a rustic getaway, only to have his wife and sister follow him and establish a set of rules and traditions as ridiculous and annoying as Boston’s social conventions. The only way a proper Bostonian can escape Boston is to leave it physically and never return, and that Apley cannot do.

More seriously Apley is not allowed to marry the only woman he really loves, an Irish—and hence utterly unsuitable—girl he meets at Harvard. Instead he pleases his family by marrying the woman they have long had in mind for him, the daughter of an impeccable (and infuriating) family.

And of course Apley internalizes all of his society’s strictures. In time he becomes one of Boston’s leading men, fighting to preserve the traditions that have so utterly trapped him. He is disappointed in his own son for not having proper respect for Boston society, and for committing the appalling sin of moving to New York.

The novel’s genius lies in the oblique way much of its story is told. Mr. Willing, our narrator, is himself a proper (and pompous) Bostonian, and shares none of Apley’s doubts about society. These he considers deplorable lapses in an otherwise stellar character, and he includes them only reluctantly, at the insistence of Apley’s son. The chapter describing Apley’s college love is subtitled “Dealing with a Subject Which Would Not Ordinarily Be Discussed in a Work of This Nature.” Telling information is revealed only in throwaway sentences. Here is all we ever hear of Catharine Apley’s appearance, in a letter from Apley’s father:

… her position and yours in the scheme of things are such that there will be none of the frictions due to divergent backgrounds, which might occur for instance in a New York and Boston union. You have shown the good sense, too, to realize that beauty is only skin deep and that there are more important elements in the holy bond of matrimony.

The novel paints a vivid portrait of the early twentieth-century Brahmins, living in shabby grandeur, lamenting and resisting progress at every turn, taking highly principled stands based on principles only they understand. They are utterly convinced of their own superiority that they are genuinely confused and offended if accused of snobbery; the other side of that, though, is that they view themselves as enormously responsible to their community. And above all they are bound to rigid standards of behavior. John Apley laments:

Lord knows there are peculiar enough eccentric types but even these conform to a definite pattern of eccentricity.

For those of us who have lived in Boston, it’s also interesting to see an earlier stage in the city’s physical and cultural evolution. During the course of the book the Charles River Basin is created and the T (not yet called that, of course) is built: “eventually Boston would be twelve minutes, instead of an hour’s distance, from Cambridge.” Culturally this was the era when the political power of the Brahmins waned and that of the Irish Bostonians waxed, when the Cabots and Lodges gave way to the Fitzgeralds and Curleys. This Apley cannot completely understand.

I see that the novel was made into a play and then a movie, starring Ronald Colman. The IMDB gives the movies tagline as “Stop apologizing for sex, George Apley…you didn’t invent it!” It would be difficult to imagine a less relevant tagline for the book. It’s far deeper, and funnier, than that.

Semi-colons, then and now

May 6, 2008

Via Language Log, here’s a blog post/article by Helen DeWitt about the horrors of copy-editing, or rather of having one’s work copy-edited. The experience sounds hellish, and makes me glad I’m not an actual writer who might some day have to endure that indignity. It’s also makes for entertaining reading, so by all means check it out it right now.

I write about that here because of the hook, and indeed the title, Cormac McCarthy & The Semi-Colon:

[McCarthy] said at one point he had a job, he was working for someone who was writing a book that included excerpts from 18th-century writers, and he was given an assignment: Go away and fix the punctuation. So he read the texts. The writing was wonderful, he said, but the punctuation, there were semi-colons cluttering up the sentences, so he started on an essay, a piece by, it might be, Swift, and he went through and fixed the punctuation, and he gave it back to the professor who said that’s just right. So he realised that punctuation was very important. He doesn’t like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things

Is that shocking, or what? Well, it shocked me. From what (very little, admittedly) I’ve seen of his writing, McCarthy does not strike me as someone who would take kindly to having his own punctuation “corrected.”

Like Ms. DeWitt, l like 18th-century punctuation, in 18th century texts. Punctuation is part of the language1, and changing it changes the style and character of the writing. The exact interpretations of commas and semi-colons have clearly changed a little since Swift’s time, but any confusion and distraction they cause us moderns is (to me) very minor compared to the violence wrought by removing them altogether. And at least in my experience it takes about a minute of reading to get past the distraction.

I freely admit that this line of thought of thing pretty quickly gets into murky areas. What about modernizing spelling, for example? Is that as important to the style as punctuation? And how abut typography? Are those long S‘s2 important to the gestalt of the day, or just annoying? How about the general equivalence of u’s and v’s in older typography? The abbreviation of “the” as “ye 3?” Capitalization and italicization practices? 18th-century orthography and typographical conventions are probably close enough to our own that those are minor points, but how about Shakespeare? The older the writing, the closer reading (or editing) it becomes to reading/translating a foreign language—by the time you get to Chaucer’s Middle English it is a foreign language—and I don’t pretend to have a line to draw

Anyway, I recently ran into an actual example of de-styling 18th-century prose. Inspired by an article in The New Yorker, I’ve started reading things by Royall Tyler. It’s great stuff, about which I hope to write much more later. For now I’ll say that I started with The Bay Boy, an uncompleted semi-autobiographical novel. I thought when I read it that it seemed awfully un-18th-century—the average sentence length was too short, and there just weren’t enough commas and semi-colons. I also worried that it might have been a bit bowdlerized—having also read the “shockingly blasphemous” (Jill Lepore’s words, from that New Yorker aritcle) poem The Origin of Evil, I knew what Tyler was capable of.

And indeed I now have confirmation! The Bay Boy was a reworking of the first part of The Algerine Captive, of which I found a facsimile edition. A couple of chapters are virtually identical between the two, and so provide a comparison. Here are a couple of passages, illustrating both stylistic dumbing-down and omission of classical references so as not to confuse us benighted moderns. (Caveat: I don’t know what changes Tyler himself might have made, but I strongly suspect nothing in these examples). First, a few passages from the modernized Bay Boy:

The same afternoon a tall, raw-boned man called me to the door, immediately collaring me with one hand, and holding a cart whip over my head with the other. With fury in his face he vowed he would whip the skin from my bones if I ever struck Jotham again. Aye, he would do it that moment if he was not afraid I would take the law on him…

Fatigued with the vexations of my school, I one evening repaired to the tavern and mixed with some of the young men of the town. Their conversation I could not relish, as the subject was race horses. I thought of famous horses in Greek history, but they had never heard of them…

I was about retiring, fatigued and disgusted, when it was hinted to me that I should wait on Miss Mina home. I declined. Rumors were spread about me throughout the town…

And the far more robust original:

The same afternoon, a tall raw-boned man called me to the door: immediately collaring me with one hand, and holding a cart-whip over my head with the other, with fury in his face, he vowed he would whip the skin from my bones if I ever struck Jotham again: ay, he would do it that very moment, if he was not afraid I would take the law of him…

Fatigued with the vexations of my school, I one evening repaired to the tavern, and mixed with some of the younger men of the town. Their conversation I could not relish; mine they could not comprehend. The subject of racehorses being introduced, I ventured to descant upon Xanthus, the immortal courser of Achilles. They had never heard of ’squire Achilles or his horse; but they offered to bet two to one that Bajazet, the Old Roan, or the deacon’s mare, Pumpkin and Milk, would beat him, and challenged me to appoint time and place…

I was about retiring, fatigued and disgusted, when it was hinted to me, that I might wait miss Mima home; but as I could recollect no word in the Greek which would construe into bundling, or any of Homer’s heroes who got the bag, I declined. In the Latin, it is true, that Æneas and Dido, in the cave, seem something like a precedent. It was reported all over town the next day, that master was a papish, as he had talked French two hours.

I am giving serous thought to seeing if I can spend a day at the Vermont Historical Society perusing Tyler’s original manuscripts.

1 Of the written language, that is, but we’re talking about writing here. Written and spoken languages are obviously different—in interesting ways—but I’m not competent to say much about that.

2 Long s looks like the letter f, but doesn’t have a whole crossbar, just a nub on the left side, or nothing at all: ſ.

3 That “y” was originally a thorn (þ).

Brideshead Revisited, Revisited

May 3, 2008

The trailer for the new film of Brideshead Revisited does not, I fear, fill me with hope.  It appears to be dominated by Emma Thompson’s Lady Marchmain, by raging passions, and by, um, a score heavy on the drums and electric guitar.  It has admittedly been a while since I read the book, or saw the wonderful 1981 miniseries, but if I recall correctly the dominant themes were not so much passion and controlling mothers as change, decay, and the passing of old ways.  And a certain amount of Catholic guilt.

The trailer is also completely devoid of humor, which is barely conceivable in anything adapted from a book by Evelyn Waugh, one of the funniest writers in the English language.  Brideshead Revisited might not be the vicious satire of Scoop or Vile Bodies, but it’s hardly humorless.

But I’m sure I’ll see the movie anyway (although frankly I thought it sounded more interesting when the cast was to include Jude Law, Paul Bettany, and Jennifer Connelly).  Trailers don’t necessarily have much to do with their movies (see these examples!), and in this case admittedly Emma Thompson is the marquee star, passion is more interesting to most people than decay, and, well, actually I can’t explain the guitar.