Tag Archives: The Guardian

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism? | Books | The Guardian

 

With its chatty gods and gentle giants, Gaiman’s good-natured version of the mythos lacks brutal tragedy at its heart

Source: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism? | Books | The Guardian

by Ursula K Le Guin

Any retelling of a tale from times long past must be an interpretation, a translation into language and concepts that the present audience understands. The original myth may have been told as uninterpreted fact, but later re-tellers are and must be conscious of who their audience is and the purpose of the telling. To what extent does this consciousness shape the choice of what’s told and the language that it’s told in? Interpretation may clarify, betray, reveal, deform.

For the Norse myths, we really have no original, only interpretations. Most of the material was first written down by a single monk a century or more after Christianity had outlawed and supplanted the “heathen” religion of northern Europe. Later came scholarly attempts to translate and present the stories so as to glimpse what the lost original versions may have been.

Then came use of elements of the mythos in drama and opera, free adaptations for modern readers, and the appearance of increasingly familiar tropes in books for young children, cartoons, graphic presentations, animated films, and so on. A luxuriant growth indeed from the few, fragile stems of medieval manuscripts, one of which lay hidden for several centuries in a barn in Iceland.

Their survival is remarkable, for the Norse tales are about as un-Christian as you can get: no all-powerful creator deity, no human virtue rewarded but courage in battle, and on the Last Day, no salvation for anybody. Their fascination for us may be this near-nihilism: a world created essentially by nobody out of nothing, an existence of endless warfare and the rivalry of brutal, dishonest powers, ending in defeat for all. In contrast, the classical myths retold to us through centuries of splendid verbal and visual art can seem pallid. The stark cruelty and essential hopelessness of the Norse stories suits the artistic taste of the last century, our hunger for darkness.

Neil Gaiman tells us that he first met the Norse tales in the graphic narratives that we go on calling comics or comic books, a stupid name considering the breadth of their subject matter. It is a medium well suited to the material: vivid, sparing of words, long on action, short on reflection though given to pithy wisdom. Heroes, shape-changers, battles, superpowers and superweapons – a half-blind wizard, an eight-legged horse, the battlements of Asgard, the Rainbow Bridge – all are perfectly at home in the world of comics.

Gaiman’s characteristically limpid, quick-running prose keeps the dramatic impetus of the medieval texts, if not their rough-hewn quality. His telling of the tales is for children and adults alike, and this is both right and wise, it being the property of genuine myth to be accessible on many levels.

The language of books loved in childhood retains an authority it is useless to question even when impossible to justify. I grew up with Padraic Colum’s Children of Odin, published in 1920, and the stories exist for me in the fine cadences of his prose. Gaiman’s version is certainly a worthy shelf-partner to Colum’s, and perhaps a better choice for a contemporary child reader, used to a familiar tone and a “friendly” approach.

Gaiman plays down the extreme strangeness of some of the material and defuses its bleakness by a degree of self-satire. There is a good deal of humour in the stories, the kind most children like – seeing a braggart take a pratfall, watching the cunning little fellow outwit the big dumb bully. Gaiman handles this splendidly. Yet I wonder if he tries too hard to tame something intractably feral, to domesticate a troll.

It all comes back to the matter of interpretation. In her 2011 book Ragnarok, AS Byatt used the Norse mythos to express her own childhood experience of world war and as a parable of the irrational human behaviours that result in mass ruin and destruction. Such interpretations are perfectly valid in themselves but don’t serve well as a retelling of the myths. They are more of the order of meditations on a religious text, sermons on the meaning of biblical stories. Gaiman does not use the Norse material this way; he simply tells us the story, and tells it well.

What finally left me feeling dissatisfied is, paradoxically, the pleasant, ingratiating way in which he tells it. These gods are not only mortal, they’re a bit banal. They talk a great deal, in a conversational tone that descends sometimes to smart-ass repartee. This chattiness will be familiar to an audience accustomed to animated film and graphic narrative, which have grown heavy with dialogue, and in which disrespect is generally treated as a virtue. But it trivialises, and I felt sometimes that this vigorous, robust, good-natured version of the mythos gives us everything but the very essence of it, the heart.

The Norse myths were narrative expressions of a religion deeply strange to us. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are divine comedies: there may be punishment for the wicked, but the promise of salvation holds. What we have from the Norse is a fragment of a divine tragedy. Vague promises of a better world after the Fimbulwinter and the final apocalypse are unconvincing; that’s not where this story goes. It goes inexorably from nothingness into night. You just can’t make pals of these brutal giants and self-destructive gods. They are tragic to the bone.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 2017, book review

Philip Pullman unveils epic fantasy trilogy The Book of Dust | Books | The Guardian

Author’s new novel series is set in London and Oxford and overlaps with hugely popular His Dark Materials

Source: Philip Pullman unveils epic fantasy trilogy The Book of Dust | Books | The Guardian

Philip Pullman has ended years of speculation by announcing that The Book of Dust, an epic fantasy trilogy that will stand alongside his bestselling series, His Dark Materials, will be published in October around the world.

The as-yet-untitled first volume of The Book of Dust, due out on 19 October, will be set in London and Oxford, with the action running parallel to the His Dark Materials trilogy. A global bestseller since the first volume, Northern Lights, was published in 1995, Pullman’s series has sold more than 17.5m copies and been translated into 40 languages.

Pullman’s brave and outspoken heroine, Lyra Belacqua, will return in the first two volumes. Featuring two periods of her life – as a baby and 10 years after His Dark Materials ended – the series will include other characters familiar to existing readers, as well as creations such as alethiometers (a clock-like truth-telling device), daemons (animals that are physical manifestations of the human spirit) and the Magisterium, the church-like totalitarian authority that rules Lyra’s world.

The Oxford-based former teacher said he had returned to the world of Lyra because he wanted to get to the bottom of “Dust”, the mysterious and troubling substance at the centre of the original books. “Little by little, through that story the idea of what Dust was became clearer and clearer, but I always wanted to return to it and discover more,” Pullman said.

In a description that will resonate with the current political climate, he added that “at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free”.

But David Fickling, whose firm, David Fickling Books, will publish The Book of Dust in the UK jointly with Penguin Random House children’s books, warned readers not to draw too many parallels between the new book and the current political situation in the UK or US. “I think it is a really important book for now, not in an intellectual way, but in a storytelling way,” Fickling said. He said the book would “resonate on a psychological level” and added: “Some of the best people for telling us the truth about our times are our great storytellers and Philip is one of them.”

Exact details of the plot are a closely guarded secret. However, Fickling hinted that readers would not have to wait 17 years – the gap between the last volume of His Dark Materials and the first of The Book of Dust – before the new series would conclude. The BBC reported on Wednesday that Pullman had completed the first and second volumes already, and was working on the third. Asked when the second volume would be published, Fickling replied, laughing: “You need to ask him, but readers should know they have a big treat ahead of them.”

The puzzle of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College, Oxford, in her alternative universe, initiated the new trilogy. “In thinking about it, I discovered a long story that began when she was a baby and will end when she’s grown up,” Pullman said. Describing it as neither sequel nor prequel, but an “equel”, he added: “It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it. It’s a different story, but there are settings that readers of His Dark Materials will recognise and characters they’ve met before.”

Speaking to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, Pullman said the first book of the trilogy opened roughly 10 years before the action of Northern Lights, and the series “continues roughly 10 years after His Dark Materials”.

“So we see Lyra both as a baby and we see her in the second book as an adult; she’s 20 years old,” Pullman added. “There she can fully take agency of the story, so to speak.”

Dust, as described in the original series, has been equated to dark matter. It is expected that Pullman will incorporate the latest findings about the substance, which scientists say exists because of evidence of its gravitational impact on the motion of visible matter.

Though Pullman’s publisher would not confirm how this research would feature in the book, Fickling admitted that it had some influence. “He has a capacious mind and is sent nearly every scientific book before publication,” he said. “If you visit his house, you will see all these books that are way above everyone else, he doesn’t miss much that is going on.”

The quest to understand, use and destroy Dust is central to His Dark Materials. But as well as being analogous to dark matter, Pullman has said that it is a metaphor for the original story, which he based upon Milton’s Paradise Lost. In His Dark Materials, the Magisterium regards it as evidence of original sin, which must be destroyed before children emerge from puberty into adulthood when their daemons, the animal familiars that represent their spirits, take their final form.

“Dust is an analogy of consciousness, and consciousness is this extraordinary property we have as human beings,” Pullman told the Today programme. “The story I’m telling in this book is more about in terms of William Blake’s vision, his idea of a fiercely reductive way of seeing things: it’s right or wrong; it’s black or white.

“He said that was far too limiting and we should bring out truer human vision when we see things, surround them all with a sort of penumbra of imagination and memories and hopes and expectations and fears and all these things.

“It’s an attack on the reductionism, the merciless reductionism, of doctrines with a single answer.”

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003, Pullman noted that the Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, had taken more flak for the magic in her books than he had for his overt criticism of organised religion. “I’ve been surprised by how little criticism I’ve got,” he told the newspaper. “Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak … Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”

Leave a comment

Filed under 2017, author, new book

Writing tip Wednesday: “Writer and writing”

George Saunders: what writers really do when they write

A series of instincts, thousands of tiny adjustments, hundreds of drafts … What is the mysterious process writers go through to get an idea on to the page?

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

George Saunders

 

 

by George Saunders

 

1

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

2

A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture – the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To Linda.

What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so; in a split-second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal “Yes.”

He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.

An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.

And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.

3

Revising by the method described is a form of increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing. This, in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader. As text is revised, it becomes more specific and embodied in the particular. It becomes more sane. It becomes less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading. It loses its ability to create a propagandistic fog. Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room.

Is any of this relevant to our current political moment?

Hoo, boy.

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.

Or we could just stick with “Bob was an asshole,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.

4

What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.

But why did I make those changes? On what basis?

On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.

This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead.

Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.

Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion.

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.

5

I had written short stories by this method for the last 20 years, always assuming that an entirely new method (more planning, more overt intention, big messy charts, elaborate systems of numerology underlying the letters in the characters’ names, say) would be required for a novel. But, no. My novel proceeded by essentially the same principles as my stories always have: somehow get to the writing desk, read what you’ve got so far, watch that forehead needle, adjust accordingly. The whole thing was being done on a slightly larger frame, admittedly, but there was a moment when I finally realised that, if one is going to do something artistically intense at 55 years old, he is probably going to use the same skills he’s been obsessively honing all of those years; the trick might be to destabilise oneself enough that the skills come to the table fresh-eyed and a little confused. A bandleader used to working with three accordionists is granted a symphony orchestra; what he’s been developing all of those years, he may find, runs deeper than mere instrumentation – his take on melody and harmony should be transferable to this new group, and he might even find himself looking anew at himself, so to speak: reinvigorated by his own sudden strangeness in that new domain.

It was as if, over the years, I’d become adept at setting up tents and then a very large tent showed up: bigger frame, more fabric, same procedure. Or, to be more precise (yet stay within my “temporary housing” motif): it was as if I’d spent my life designing custom yurts and then got a commission to build a mansion. At first I thought “Not sure I can do that.” But then it occurred to me that a mansion of sorts might be constructed from a series of connected yurts – each small unit built by the usual rules of construction, their interconnection creating new opportunities for beauty.

6

Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems. A book has personality, and personality, as anyone burdened with one will attest, is a mixed blessing. This guy has great energy – but never sits still. This girl is sensitive – maybe too much; she weeps when the wrong type of pasta is served. Almost from the first paragraph, the writer becomes aware that a work’s strengths and weaknesses are bound together, and that, sadly, his great idea has baggage.

For example: I loved the idea of Lincoln, alone at night in the graveyard. But how is a novel made from one guy in a graveyard at night? Unless we want to write a 300-page monologue in the voice of Lincoln (“Four score and seven minutes ago, I did enter this ghastly place”) or inject a really long-winded and omniscient gravedigger into the book (we don’t, trust me, I tried), we need some other presences there in the graveyard. Is this a problem? Well, it sure felt like one, back in 2012. But, as new age gurus are always assuring us, a “problem” is actually an “opportunity”. In art, this is true. The reader will sense the impending problem at about the same moment the writer does, and part of what we call artistic satisfaction is the reader’s feeling that just the right cavalry has arrived, at just the right moment. Another wave of artistic satisfaction occurs if she feels that the cavalry is not only arriving efficiently, but is a cool, interesting cavalry, ie, is an opportunity for added fun/beauty – a broadening-out of the aesthetic terms.

In this case, the solution was pretty simple – contained, joke-like, in the very statement of the problem (“Who else might be in a graveyard late at night?”).

I remembered an earlier, abandoned novel, set in a New York State graveyard that featured – wait for it – talking ghosts. I also remembered a conversation with a brilliant former student of mine, who said that if I ever wrote a novel, it should be a series of monologues, as in a story of mine called “Four Institutional Monologues”.

So: the book would be narrated by a group of monologuing ghosts stuck in that graveyard.

And suddenly what was a problem really did become an opportunity: someone who loves doing voices, and thinking about death, now had the opportunity to spend four years trying to make a group of talking ghosts be charming, spooky, substantial, moving, and, well, human.

7

A work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them. This intuitive approach I’ve been discussing is most essential, I think, during the first phase: the gathering of the pins. This gathering phase really is: conjuring up the pins. Somehow the best pins are the ones made inadvertently, through this system of radical, iterative preference I’ve described. Concentrating on the line-to-line sound of the prose, or some matter of internal logic, or describing a certain swath of nature in the most evocative way (that is, by doing whatever gives us delight, and about which we have a strong opinion), we suddenly find that we’ve made a pin. Which pin? Better not to name it. To name it is to reduce it. Often “pin” exists simply as some form of imperative, or a thing about which we’re curious; a threat, a promise, a pattern, a vow we feel must soon be broken. Scrooge says it would be best if Tiny Tim died and eliminated the surplus population; Romeo loves Juliet; Akaky Akakievich needs a new overcoat; Gatsby really wants Daisy. (The colour grey keeps showing up; everything that occurs in the story does so in pairs.)

Then: up go the pins. The reader knows they are up there and waits for them to come down and be caught. If they don’t come down (Romeo decides not to date Juliet after all, but to go to law school; the weather in St Petersburg suddenly gets tropical, and the overcoat will not be needed; Gatsby sours on Daisy, falls for Betty; the writer seems to have forgotten about his grey motif) the reader cries foul, and her forehead needle plummets into the “N” zone and she throws down the book and wanders away to get on to Facebook, or rob a store.

The writer, having tossed up some suitably interesting pins, knows they have to come down, and, in my experience, the greatest pleasure in writing fiction is when they come down in a surprising way that conveys more and better meaning than you’d had any idea was possible. One of the new pleasures I experienced writing this, my first novel, was simply that the pins were more numerous, stayed in the air longer, and landed in ways that were more unforeseen and complexly instructive to me than has happened in shorter works.

Without giving anything away, let me say this: I made a bunch of ghosts. They were sort of cynical; they were stuck in this realm, called the bardo (from the Tibetan notion of a sort of transitional purgatory between rebirths), stuck because they’d been unhappy or unsatisfied in life. The greatest part of their penance is that they feel utterly inessential – incapable of influencing the living. Enter Willie Lincoln, just dead, in imminent danger (children don’t fare well in that realm). In the last third of the book, the bowling pins started raining down. Certain decisions I’d made early on forced certain actions to fulfilment. The rules of the universe created certain compulsions, as did the formal and structural conventions I’d put in motion. Slowly, without any volition from me (I was, always, focused on my forehead needle), the characters started to do certain things, each on his or her own, the sum total of which resulted, in the end, in a broad, cooperative pattern that seemed to be arguing for what I’d call a viral theory of goodness. All of these imaginary beings started working together, without me having decided they should do so (each simply doing that which produced the best prose), and they were, it seemed, working together to save young Willie Lincoln, in a complex pattern seemingly being dictated from … elsewhere. (It wasn’t me, it was them.)

Something like this had happened in stories before, but never on this scale, and never so unrelated to my intention. It was a beautiful, mysterious experience and I find myself craving it while, at the same time, flinching at the thousands of hours of work it will take to set such a machine in motion again.

Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be – almost surely is – a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system. But there is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you – something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 2017, writing tip, Writing Tip Wednesday

How ‘Sherlock of the library’ cracked the case of Shakespeare’s identity | Culture | The Guardian

Literary detective Heather Wolfe reveals how her passion for manuscripts helped unravel mystery of who the bard really was

heather-wolfe

By Robert McCrum

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/jan/08/sherlock-holmes-of-the-library-cracks-shakespeare-identity?CMP=share_btn_link

Deep in the Folger Library, in Washington DC, Heather Wolfe says that studying Shakespeare makes an ideal preparation for the onset of Trump’s America. You can see her point: Shakespeare would have revelled in the mad excesses, the sinister vanities and the pervasive stench of cronyism and corruption surrounding the president-elect as America makes the painful transition from Barack Obama.

Dr Wolfe is a willowy, bright-eyed manuscript scholar, a paleographer specialising in Elizabethan England who in certain moods of candour might put you in mind of Portia or perhaps Cordelia. She’s also a Shakespeare detective who, last year, made the career-defining discovery that is going to transform our understanding of Shakespeare’s biography. In the simplest terms, Wolfe delivered the coup de grace to the wild-eyed army of conspiracy theorists, including Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi, who contest the authenticity, even the existence, of the playwright known to contemporaries as Master Will Shakespeare.

Wolfe is an accidental sleuth. Her scholar’s passion is as much for old manuscripts as for the obscurities surrounding our national poet. Project Dustbunny, for example, one of her initiatives at the Folger Shakespeare Library, has made some extraordinary discoveries based on microscopic fragments of hair and skin accumulated in the crevices and gutters of 17th-century books.

DNA forensics aside, Wolfe’s role as a curator at the Folger is to bring her expertise to bear on the tantalising mass of documents that survives from the late 16th century. And yet, despite a heap of legal, commercial and matrimonial evidence, Shakespeare the man continues to slip through scholars’ fingers. Four centuries after his death, apart from a handful of crabbed signatures, there is not one manuscript, letter or diary we can definitively attribute to the poet, sponsoring the pervasive air of mystery that surrounds his genius. Indeed, the most intimate surviving Shakespeare document remains that notorious will, in which he bequeathed his wife his “second best bed”.

Before Wolfe arrived on the scene, all that scholars could be certain about was that a man named Shaxpere, Shaxberd or Shakespear was born in Stratford in 1564, and that he was an actor whose name is printed in the collected edition of his work published in 1623. We also know that he married Anne Hathaway, and died in 1616, according to legend, on his birthday, St George’s Day. The so-called “Stratfordian” case for Shakespeare rested on these, and a few other facts, but basically, that was it.

Into this vacuum, a bizarre fraternity, including Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and Sigmund Freud, have projected a “Shakespeare” written by a more obviously accomplished writer: Edward de Vere (the 17th earl of Oxford), Sir Francis Bacon and the playwright Christopher Marlowe, to name the leading contenders in a field that includes Sir Walter Raleigh, and even Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen herself.

In the absence of reliable data, a mountain of speculation has morphed into the weirdest fantasy, notably the 2011 film, Anonymous. Wolfe has no time for this. Speaking exclusively for the first time to the Observer, she says: “Without the evidence for other contenders, it’s hard for me to engage with this line of inquiry.”

Wolfe’s appetite for manuscript corroboration has led her into many dusty corners of the Elizabethan archives. It was this research instinct that first led her to reopen the file on the coat of arms granted to Shakespeare’s father, the small-town glover, in 1596.

John Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, was ambitious to rise in the world. He was certainly not the first Englishman keen to put his origins as a provincial tradesman behind him. Among his contemporaries in Stratford, he was a figure of fun for his social climbing. English class snobbery has a long pedigree. His son, who would continue the quest for official recognition after his father’s death, also attracted metropolitan disdain as “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”. In 1601, after his father’s death, Shakespeare the upstart returned to the college of arms to renew the family application for a coat of arms. He had made a small fortune in the theatre, and was buying property in and around Stratford. Now he set out to consolidate his reputation as a “Gentleman”. Under the rules that governed life at the court of Elizabeth I, only the Queen’s heralds could grant this wish.

A much-reproduced sketch for a coat of arms crystallised Shakespeare’s hopes for legitimacy in the antique jargon of heraldry: “Gould, on a Bend Sables, a Speare of the first steeled argent. And for his Crest, a falcon, his winges displayed Argent, supporting a Speare Gould …” The needy applicant also attached a motto: Non Sanz Droit (“Not Without Right”). All this, and much more, is buried in the archives of the college of arms in London.

Wolfe’s fascination with Shakespeare’s quest for a family crest grew out of her immersion in the manners and customs of late Elizabethan England, in particular the College of Heralds. These court officials were required to administer the complex rituals governing the lives of the knights, barons and earls surrounding Queen Elizabeth.

An adjunct to the court, the College of Heralds was not exempt from its own secret feuds. In 1602, the internecine rivalry between Sir William Dethick, the Garter King of Arms, and another herald, Ralph Brooke, burst into the open when Brooke released a list of 23 “mean persons” whose applications for crests (he claimed) had been wrongfully preferred by Dethick. When “Shakespeare the Player” found himself on this list, his campaign for social advancement seemed in jeopardy. A bitter row broke out at court between two factions. Shakespeare himself became an object of ridicule. Another rival, Ben Jonson, in his satire Every Man out of his Humour, poked fun at him as a rustic buffoon who pays £30 for a ridiculous coat of arms with the humiliating motto “Not Without Mustard”.

It’s at this point in the story that Wolfe discovered “the smoking gun”. In the Brooke-Dethick feud, it becomes clear that “Shakespeare, Gent. from Stratford” and “Shakespeare the Player” are the same man. In other words, “the man from Stratford” is indeed the playwright. Crucially, in the long-running “authorship” debate, this has been a fiercely contested point. But Wolfe’s research nails any lingering ambiguity in which the Shakespeare deniers can take refuge.

Wolfe is circumspect about making extravagant claims. Speaking carefully, she says that her manuscript discoveries fill in gaps, illuminating Shakespeare’s character. “They point to someone actively involved in defining and defending his legacy in 1602, shortly after his father’s death.”

For Wolfe, it’s Shakespeare the man who breaks cover here. “He’s defending his legacy not only as a playwright but, most importantly to him, as a gentleman.” The derogatory references to arms belonging to “Shakespeare ye player”, she says, show that “he’s playing the same game as everyone else in the period, purchasing land in Stratford to support his case to ‘ancient’ gentility, rather than through his astonishing professional success”.

James Shapiro, bestselling author of 1599, who is persuaded by Wolfe’s discoveries, compares her to “a Sherlock Holmes of the archives”. Shapiro says that Wolfe “has had the intellectual independence to see what others have overlooked, the skills to make sense of what she has stumbled upon and the modesty not to trumpet the larger implications of those finds. But make no mistake: they are enormously consequential.”

For Shapiro, Wolfe’s work suggests future breakthroughs. “I doubt that these are the last archival treasures she will unearth. Her recent finds sharpen our sense of Shakespeare’s dogged pursuit of upward mobility. And it is one more nail in the coffin of those who can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that the glover’s son from Stratford was also the successful man of the theatre who left us so many extraordinary plays.”

Wolfe says she looks forward to “poking about” in the archives, and is convinced that Shakespeare’s identity no longer needs re-confirmation. “There is such a wealth of evidence out there that he’s the playwright.” She adds: “I’m sure there’s more untapped material waiting to be uncovered. Additional finds will certainly help us understand his life – as much as we can understand anyone’s life from 400 years ago.”

Leave a comment

Filed under 2017, author tribute, author write up

X-rays reveal 1,300-year-old writings inside later bookbindings

The words of the 8th-century Saint Bede are among those that have been found by detecting iron, copper and zinc – constituents of medieval ink

By Dalya Alberge

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/04/x-rays-reveal-medieval-manuscripts

Ancient book reveraled 100dpi_6x4_4c

Medieval manuscripts that have been hidden from view for centuries could reveal their secrets for the first time, thanks to new technology.

Dutch scientists and other academics are using an x-ray technique to read fragments of manuscripts that have been reused as bookbindings and which cannot be deciphered with the naked eye. After the middle ages manuscripts were recycled, with pages pasted inside bindings to strengthen them. Those fragments may be the unique remains of certain works.

Dr Erik Kwakkel, a medieval book historian at Leiden University, told the Observer: “It’s really like a treasure trove. It’s extremely exciting.”
Professor Joris Dik, of the Delft University of Technology, described the potential for finding new material with clues to the past as “massive”. The technology does not just make hidden texts visible, but legible.

Access to such “hidden libraries” has been made possible by macro x-ray fluorescence spectrometry (MA-XRF), which allows pages to be read without removing the bookbinding.

Bindings made between the 15th and 18th centuries often contain hidden manuscript fragments that can be much older. Bookbinders used to cut up and recycle handwritten books from the middle ages, which had become old-fashioned following the invention of printing. These fragments, described by Kwakkel as “stowaways from a distant past”, are within as many as one in five early modern age printed books.

Kwakkel added: “Much of what we’re finding is 15th or 14th century, but it would be really nice to have Carolingian material, so from the ninth century or even older. It would be great to find a fragment of a very old copy of a Bible, the most important text in the middle ages. Every library has thousands of these bindings, especially the larger collections. If you go to the British Library or the Bodleian [in Oxford], they will have thousands of these bindings. So you can see how that adds up to a huge potential.”

Experiments have found a fragment from a 12th-century manuscript that includes excerpts from the work of Bede, the 8th-century monk and scholar. The researchers were even able to disassemble multiple pages that had been pasted on to one another, making the text legible. In one case, they could read each of three medieval pages that had been glued together. Elsewhere, they found two fragments stuck together underneath the cover of a 16th-century binding.

Dik’s team originally developed the technology, in collaboration with others, to “visualise” hidden layers in Old Master paintings. In 2011, for example, they discovered a previously unknown self-portrait by Rembrandt beneath another work. Although faint and unfinished, it dispelled doubts about the surface picture’s attribution to the 17th-century Dutch master, to the excitement of art historians.

Now the technology has proved to be “equally efficient in the visualisation of hidden medieval inks,” he said. “A thin beam of x-rays is used to scan the object, charting the presence and abundance of various elements below the surface. That is how iron, copper and zinc, the main element constituents of medieval inks, could be viewed, even when covered by a layer of paper or parchment.”

The problem, though, is that the current methodology is painfully slow, with scans sometimes taking more than 24 hours. Faster techniques are being explored. Dik said: “Right now, we’ve shown that it works.”

The research has been subsidised by the Young Academy, a branch of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Last year it emerged that techniques had been developed to decipher ancient papyrus scrolls that were burned black and buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted 2,000 years ago. Vito Mocella, a scientist in Naples, found that they could read some of the scrolls without unravelling them by peering inside with x-rays.

Referring to Mocella’s technology, Dik said: “It’s different. The papyrus texts are hidden inside papyrus. We’re looking at stuff that is covered by something that is much thicker. Parchment and papyrus are quite different. Parchment is a much thicker, denser material.”

Leave a comment

Filed under 2016, books

Author turned bookseller

‘People are hungry for real bookstores’: Judy Blume on why US indie booksellers are thriving

At 78, the multimillion-selling author has begun a new career, opening her own bookshop – and joining a business sector that’s flourishing again in the US

By Alison Flood

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/20/people-are-hungry-for-real-bookstores-judy-blume-on-why-us-indie-booksellers-are-thriving

She might be a beloved and bestselling author of classic children’s books from Forever to Blubber, but Judy Blume says she wakes up every day “and I look to the sky, and I say, ‘whoever’s up there, I thank you for not having to write today’.”

Blume doesn’t have to write because, at 78, she has embarked on a new career: she’s an independent bookseller. Together with her husband, George Cooper, she has opened a small, nonprofit bookshop in Key West, Florida, where she’s working almost every day. And she’s loving it. She had planned “to take a gap year” after she finished writing and promoting her last novel, In the Unlikely Event. “I was going to relax and read and have this whole time with no pressure. And then bingo – the chance comes along to open a bookshop, and there you go. I guess I like that in my life … To learn something new like this, at 78, makes it all the more exciting.”

Judy Blume (left), author turned bookseller.

Judy Blume (left), author turned bookseller.

Blume and Cooper had been urging Mitchell Kaplan, founder of independent book chain Books & Books, to open a bookshop in Key West for years. He told them that if they could find a space, he would partner with them. They found a corner store, part of a large deco building, and with help from Kaplan and his team, Books & Books @ the Studios of Key West opened in February.

“We’ve done better than anyone, including Mitch, thought we could do,” says Blume, down the line from Florida. “It has been a very satisfying experience … Writing In the Unlikely Event took five years – it was very long and difficult and complicated. This is just a great change for me, and I am enjoying it so much.”

Customers, she says, “sometimes” recognise her – an author who has sold more than 80m books around the world – “and they’re completely taken aback, especially if I’m sitting there dusting the shelves. I’m pretty good at recommendations – I’m good in the kids’ department for sure. I read all the picture books when they come in. And I can lead people to what they want, although I’ve not read as many of our books as some of our volunteers [the store has two paid employees, as well as Cooper, Blume and a series of volunteers]. I’m trying really hard to keep up. It’s like Christmas every day, working here.”

Business for independent bookstores in America in general, is “going well”, Blume believes. “I just think people are so hungry for a real bookstore again. So many people live in places where there isn’t one … It’s not just us doing well. A lot of independent booksellers are.”

The figures back her up. At BookExpo America last week, the American Booksellers Association announced that for the seventh year in a row, its bookstore membership has gone up, to 1,775 members operating in 2,311 locations, up from 1,401 members operating in 1,651 locations in 2009. The lion’s share of these are independents, says the ABA: in 2015, sales for independent booksellers were up just over 10%, and are remaining strong in 2016. In the UK by contrast, the Booksellers Association recorded 894 independent bookshops in 2015, a decrease of 3% from 2014. A decade ago, there were more than 1,500.

“Independent bookselling in the US is continuing not just to grow, but to thrive,” says ABA chief executive Oren Teicher, who attributes the growth to various factors: the localism movement, “which is exploding, and we are benefiting from that”; booksellers “getting smarter at using technology”; publishers’ increasing acknowledgment that “customers discover books in bricks and mortar locations [so] our colleagues in publishing have figured out that they need bricks and mortar stores as much as we need their books”; and the growing role of the bookseller as curator, in a world flooded with new titles.

The “resurgence of print” has also helped, says Teicher. A recent report in the UK revealed that in 2015, sales of printed books were up by 0.4% to £2.76bn, while ebook sales fell for the first time in the seven years the Publishers Association has tracked them, down 1.6% to £554m in 2015. In the US, the Association of American Publishers reported last month that while overall sales for consumer books were up 0.8% to $7.2bn (£4.9bn) in 2015, ebook sales declined, down 9.5% in adult books and 43.3% in children and young adult titles.

“Five years ago in the American book business, there was a widespread panic that somehow digital reading was going to replace physical books and they would be a relic of some other time and place. Fast forward to today, and I think digital reading has levelled off and calmed down slightly. It’s going to be a piece of our business, but print books aren’t going away. We’re living in a hybrid world,” says Teicher.

Added together, these ingredients make “the recipe for our success”, says Teicher. “But there is still a very modest margin in books, and people have to work really hard. We have significant challenges before us, clouds on the horizon that could interfere with our success.”

These range from pressure on wages and rents, he says, to the “1,000lb gorilla” – the continued growth of online shopping. “But independents are extraordinarily resilient,” he says. “If I had a penny for every time we’ve been counted out, I’d be a pretty rich guy today.”

Leave a comment

Filed under 2016, author, bookstore

Some current mysteries to consider

The best recent crime novels – review roundup

by Laura Wilson

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/19/the-best-recent-crime-novels-review-roundup?CMP=share_btn_fb

The Ex book coverA pleasingly suspenseful mixture of legal thriller and whodunnit, Alafair Burke’s latest novel, The Ex (Faber, £12.99), introduces us to lippy, take-no‑prisoners New York City district attorney Olivia Randall, who receives a panicky phone call from the teenage daughter of her former fiance, Jack Harris, begging for help. Harris, whose wife was killed in a mass shooting three years earlier, has been charged with triple homicide, which the police are treating as a revenge attack because one of the victims is the father of the boy who shot his wife. For Olivia, representing Jack is a way to make up for the hurt she caused him in the past, but his alibi is flimsy and there is corroborating evidence, and she begins to wonder if he may, after all, be guilty. Burke’s writing has always been intelligent and often funny, and her female protagonists sharp and engaging – The Ex is her best yet.

Other books in the round-up include:

Icelandic author Ragnar Jonasson’s excellent debut novel, Snowblind, was widely praised for its distinctive blend of Nordic noir and golden age detective fiction. Nightblind (translated by Quentin Bates, Orenda Books, £8.99), also featuring police officer Ari Thor Arason and set in Siglufjörður, an isolated fishing village hard by the Arctic Circle, certainly lives up to the promise of its predecessor.

A Masterpiece of Corruption (Constable, £19.99) is the second of LC Tyler’s novels set during the Interregnum and featuring law student John Grey. The year is 1657, and a case of mistaken identity results in Grey, who has republican sympathies, finding himself in the middle of a plot by the Sealed Knot, a secret royalist association, to assassinate Oliver Cromwell in order that Charles Stuart may return from exile to take his place on the throne.

To see these and the other books being offered, go to http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/19/the-best-recent-crime-novels-review-roundup?CMP=share_btn_fb

Leave a comment

Filed under 2016, books