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Saint Jane

Hello there. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Life can interfere with my very best and well-meant plans, and such it is now. Two posts I have been thinking of writing remain figments of my admittedly feverish imagination. Meanwhile, I have had other things to do as well as think about.

These nettlesome intrusions have not prevented at least a tiny amount of effort on my part to become educated. I really want to do this! One of my many lacunae is 19th century English literature. Writers as diverse as Trollope and the Brontes are totally foreign to me, while Dickens is a chance acquaintance. My excuse for ignorance is that I am still, after more decades than I wish to concede, enthralled by the English renaissance, the renaissance full stop, and the classics. Euripides! Wow! That fellow strode the boards ahead of all others for about 2000 years. Two thousand! He had competition too – Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles among the Greeks, Plautus, Terence and other Romans. . .There is a post in this blog on the man, though perhaps not a very good one, but if you have not tried The Trojan Women, or The Medea, or the Iphigenia plays, or Alcestis* you too need some larnin’. Honest. Anyway I haven’t finished with the oldies, and keep telling myself to work up to the moderns. . .the 18th and 19th century moderns. Sheridan I know but. . .

So lately I have been schooling myself in the scandal of Jane Austen. When a film of Pride and Prejudice came out, I read the novel and was mightily impressed. It seemed to me – and still seems – that Austen showed herself to be the first truly modern writer. Her airy and concise style and her ironic detachment from the characters she created, made for a very good read. Her style stands up very well against later, more florid writers like Balzac, whatever their respective intellectual grunt

Lately I’ve decided to try some of her other works. Emma put me off and so did Northanger Abbey but I have got through Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility.

Were my first impressions^ justified? Well, yes. Austen wrote in a genre peopled by thousands perhaps and stands out. She still seems to me a pathbreaker. Naturally pathbreakers are riddled with faults – look at my books!**  The wrinkles get ironed out by those who follow and it can be easy to criticise in that patronising way writers  employ. Mark Twain ridiculed her though it is unclear if he really meant it***.

Certainly in a writing sense she does not conform to the rules of our time, and probably not of her own. As happened then, her books would likely be spiked if submitted to publishers today: on a superficial level they “tell, not show” well past a fault. To give a ccntrasting example, one of Graham Greene’s later novels, Monsignor Quixote, begins as a Spanish priest picks up a Vatican bigwig whose car has broken down, and while  waiting for it to be repaired, takes the man to his home for lunch. The larder is bare apart from horsemeat, and the priest tells his cook/housekeeper to serve it up.

The Vatican fellow eats the meat with gusto, and several weeks later the priest discovers he has been made a monsignor.

This is an example of “show, don’t tell”. Greene never tells the reader that the reason for this award is that the priest showed his humility in serving what he had to his guest.

Austen does this too, but it is harder to decide when she really means it. She tells, and tells, and tells so often that any attempt to say what she “really meant” otherwise inevitably runs into opposition. What rescues her for “modernity” is the ironic detachment she shows in the telling. She mocks and scorns characters, even nice ones.

There are some negatives; there always are. Reading her books one after the other shows a sameness that is pretty much a yawn really. Mansfield Park, her most controversial, is also her most overwritten – it is perhaps twice as long as it needed to be. Sense and Sensibility could also do with a trim. Nonetheless there are sparkling dialogues well worth the effort, and Sense especially, after a slow start, is a real ripper for the most part, before stuttering to a bizarre and unbelievable conclusion that had me thinking, Nonsense and insensibility.

In Mansfield Park and Sense Austen addresses the reader directly in what today might be seen as experimental and to her might have been an attempt at seeming to be reading to her audience, as she read her books to her family. It’s nice.

Yet to me the most attractive and intriguing feature of her style is a willingness to be really mean. Here for example, the Middletons, Sir John and his Lady, who have gone out of their way to provide the heroines a place to live, and want them to come visit, often:

“. . .they kept more company of every kind than any other family in the neighbourhood. It was necessary for the happiness of both; for however dissimilar in temper and outward behaviour, they strongly resembled each other in that total want of talent and taste which confined their employments, unconnected as such which society produced, within a very narrow compass. Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children, and these were their only resources.”

Well!

Lady Middleton gets both barrels a short time later, as the Dashwoods (heroines) visit the Middleton mansion:

“There was nothing in any of the party which could recommend them as companions to the Dashwoods, but the cold insipidity of Lady Middleton was so particularly repulsive, that in comparison of it the gravity of Colonel Brandon, and even the boisterous mirth of Sir John and his mother-in-law was interesting.”

Austen’s remarks are often said to be “gently mocking”.

Readers of this blog know that I am partial to a French writer, Celine, who was amazing for his insights and appalling for his beliefs. Celine got his shrewd perceptions of humanity from what are sometimes styled “petit bourgeois” origins. His family had a lace shop in an arcade in Paris and his father, who worked for an insurance company, was a wannabe all his life. Their son was sent to Germany and to England to learn the local language in a strategy designed to make him successful at business. Instead, he became a doctor and one of the most notorious authors of the 20th century.

Celine’s nightmare visions of the whole of humanity sprang from hatred and envy of those above, and fear and loathing of those below. Always on the edge of being tipped into the latter, careful not to offend and desirous of joining the former, the precarious existence of the petit bourgeois in early 19th century England is strikingly brought to life by Austen. Her main characters are genteel poor single women seeking to marry a man at least able to look after them, and having very little alternative. Austen’s caustic eye never fails to judge the landed wealthy and those associated with them, finding the good among them much more rare than the morally bankrupt. These last attain their status in a plethora of ways, from fornication, adultery, and blithe materialism  to profiting from slavery. Their code of values reeks of hypocritical sanctimony.

Much of the talk in Austen’s books revolves around money. No man is really eligible for marriage without a good amount of it, usually as interest income from some principal, and the fortunate woman endowed with the same is much admired and desired. So-and-so is “worth 20,000” or “has an income of 2,000 a year” is rating talk among would-be brides and their advisors.

Despite this trenchant critique of the English moneyed and landed classes of her time, Austen’s books have happy endings. The good do not die though they may get sick. They are rejected, but are lucky in it. They marry the right fellow after all. . .their morality sees them through.

Nice, innit? Austen thus ends up supporting and bolstering the society she otherwise ridicules. There is no hint that those caught up in the forms of servitude of the vast mass of English people – as servants in homes, workers in factories or fields, or desperate paupers – are anything but jolly glad to be alive; for the most part, they do not even exist. In Sense for example, the lovely widow Mrs Jennings takes two unmarried sisters from their country cottage to her home in London. They arrive, and dinner is served two hours later. Mrs Jennings has been in the country for quite some time, and whoever cooked the meal was.  . .was. . .was. . .doing what while she was away? The widow tries to find employment for a sister of one of her staff, giving her a glowing reference (as she does). That’s about it.

Throughout her books, things get done by this faceless mass, who when they are seen at all seem overjoyed to serve. Horses are fed and retrieved, coaches are driven, washing is washed, needlework needled, gardens are dug and maintained, entire villages belonging to the gentry are peopled, their tithes providing income for the lesser sons of the manse who get a “living” from preaching the virtues of stoic acceptance, or so one supposes.

As a backdrop, as the stuff of her narratives, then, “the system” of Austen’s novels stinks. The beneficiaries of its hypocritical values are almost universally excruciatingly  unworthy to receive its largesse. The exceptions cannot prove the rule. And yet – one and all, happy endings. The virtuous women who have resisted the evil that surround them do find the honorable man whose honesty and integrity saves them, and by implication, the world.

This is not a contradiction Austen can escape really. Yet her many admirers wish her perfect in every way, and flay any brave enough to think otherwise.

Of course the critics can get it wrong. Edward Said famously excoriated Austen’s “failure” to condemn slavery and the society it enriched, yet at least arguably Austen (who was known to oppose slavery) was showing in Mansfield Park that the slave-owning Bertram family whose estate owes its wealth and family its luxury to slave holdings in the West Indies was morally ruined by it. The heroine, Fanny Price, queries the patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram, about it, but receives no answer. It is not what is said by Austen that matters, but what happens – the family of four children corrupted by their ease and its source. The oldest son nearly dies and is a profligate wastrel; the two daughters are immoral quasi trollops, one eloping and the other running away from her husband with a man who had been unsuccessfully pursuing Fanny. Only the fourth, who escapes the clutches of an unworthy but wealthy woman, has the moral strength one can admire.

To my mind, that’s what counts. Wicked wealth has wicked consequences, yeah? Yeah. Showing not telling.

Austen’s reputation can need rescuing from her fans, too. Also in Mansfield Park is the single bawdy remark in the Austen “canon”. It is disputed.

Mary Crawford and her brother Henry come to stay in the parsonage of the Bertram estate. They had been living with their retired admiral uncle but he installed a mistress in his home after his wife died and it was no longer seemly for respectable people to stay. Of course not!

Mary and the second son of the family, Edmund, flirt. She is worldly where he is not, having been in company of seafaring men who evidently have very different ideas about what is acceptable discourse, and she tells Edmund so in the following passage:

Of various admirals, I could tell you a great deal; of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies.  But in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used.  Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals.  Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough.  Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.

This is a very clever way of showing worldliness. Mary shows that she knows what “rears and vices” together mean while giving herself the ability to deny it. A surprising number of attempts to exonerate Austen (and in the process Mary) by Austenphiles seems to me to fail, though it is true that it is easy to be anachronistic. But hey – in this case, it’s what it says on the tin.

Austen puritans allege that their darling was highly moral and would not have written this with sexual intent. One counter explanation is that it refers to flogging, because buggery was a capital offence at the time, with more hangings for it than murders in the navy, while flogging was legal.

That won’t wash really. If flogging was meant, why was it a vice instead of a punishment? Unless. . .but that would never do. And if there were more hangings for buggery than murder, it just might be because there was rather a lot of it about. It would certainly be the occasion of jokes then as now. Austen had relations who were admirals and may be assumed to have a good knowledge of salty talk. She does not shy in Mansfield Park from writing of adultery, or in Sense and Sensibility of fornication.

And her purpose in this passage is to show a low character as Mary turns out to be. Austen is not approving of buggery any more than she is of adultery by Mary’s brother, or fornication by the jilting beau of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.

And and and! there must have been some purpose behind burning Austen’s letters and papers after her death. Her tongue was sharp and she may have had rude things to say about powerful people^^^, but she may just as well also have peppered her private correspondence with sauce.

Rule on, Saint Jane.

*Alcestis has been rendered into English by Ted Hughes. It is truly frightening.

^This is a joke. If you get it, you know more about Jane Austen than I do.

** OK, OK. Just having fun.

***Twain enjoyed jousting with his admirer and good friend William Dean Howells (Howells aptly called Twain “the Lincoln of our literature”), who was also an admirer of Austen. Twain took a very pointed stick to James Fenimore Cooper, trashing him for stated literary crimes, but only fulminates over Austen. His tongue may have been in his cheek.

^^^See Wiki for an example of Austen’s kicking against the pricks by satirising the librarian of the Prince Regent, an admirer.

 

 

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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You don’t wait ages for a post, and then. . .

. . .two come along in short order. Dear reader, how nice it is of you to pop along again after so brief a break.

If you have been reading my blog with the attention you surely have been paying to it, you will know that I have been slaving away on a new, apocalyptic novel, trying to beat the end of it all as threatened by practically everyone everywhere who has a grudge, and there are quite a few of those.

As I write, the Russians are bombing away in Syria hours before a ceasefire there. Whether they will stop is moot. The US Secretary of State, a man with hair that will go down in history as “muss-proof” if there is a history, says that if the Russians break their word – surely, they would never do that! – things will “get uglier”. How things can get uglier in that horrible war is hard to imagine, bu I guess they can.

Anyway I managed to complete my novel about the end of the human race before it actually self-destructed in five seconds like the tape in Mission Impossible,with Peter Graves*, and it  is now available. Smashwords, the e-publisher, offers it for the generous price of US$2.99. The title is The Living End.

Reader, it would be great if you read this book. I don’t want to spoil your pleasure even a tiny bit, if pleasure  is the right expression, and won’t tell you any more about it.

What I will say is that while good  writing is always hard, this book was enjoyable to write. As my own worst critic, I think it is well-written too. There is more though – there are “technical aspects” that were difficult to work out but exciting in the end. My aim, apart from providing a good read, is as I set myself when I first started out – to fulfill a serious purpose in a frivolous genre.

Put another way, I’ve got some sneaky bits in there.

One of the books that has influenced my writing is Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Among other arguments in that strange analysis of a cycle of Shakespeare’s plays, Hughes claims the great man wrote partly in a secret code, that there was a surface story that anyone could get, but that within that story were coded references to another, deeper theme, that were addressed to the members of an elect group. What’s more, this theme could even contradict the surface yarn. This idea is quite interesting and even inspirational, and with some of my books I have tried very hard to make this work, though the elect group in my case self-selects as readers who get it.

The Living End has that, or is meant to. Perhaps it’s too obvious, or so subtle no one can pick it. I wrote the thing so I can’t tell really.

Anyway give it a burl and see what you think.  In your millions! It’s ok! I don’t mind – honest!

*Peter Graves was the bad guy in Stalag 17, the Oscar-winning prisoner of war drama. He was also the brother of James Arness, who starred in Gunsmoke and appeared in it over an astonishing length of time. Arness was very tall – 6’7″ in old style measurement if memory serves me right – so during the D-Day landing in WWII was given the task of jumping out of the landing craft to see how deep the water was. How Arness must have loved his commander! He was wounded and ended up back in the US having surgery, and was released from hospital in Iowa City, Iowa on the day I was born there. You read it here first!

Arness’ role as “Marshall Dillon” in Gunsmoke was mocked in another TV western, Maverick, starring James Garner. Garner went on to star in the prisoner of war film to beat them all, The Great Escape, slyly erasing Arness’ brother’s dubious claim to infamy. Conspiracy theorists – don those tinfoil hats!

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Suddenly…

…yes you wait ages for a post and then another pops in just as you had moved on to something really exciting. OK, I know you weren’t waiting and am just making myself feel a bit better.

This book I have maybe almost finished, or almost got ready to bin – did not have a title when I wrote the first draft of this post. It does now. The ones supplied by my intrepid readers somehow didn’t fit, or not fit in the right, Trainspotting, kind of way and I had to wait till one popped into my head. From there it needed to work its way onto the tip of my tongue, and then – shazam! This is my post, and I’ll say this if I want to say it – it is sure to be greeted by wild cheering throngs mounting tickertape parades as an astonished planet reels from…OK, enough.

Someone I have a high regard for read one of my earlier books and termed it “weird”. Well, it is. My books are both like and unlike the thriller genre they have till now flitted around in and as they buzz near the edges of definition and desirability, they reveal that they are, truly, a bit strange – unlike their peers while (still my post, OK?) meeting the requirements of the genre. That is part of my “schtick”, to be the same and not the same. So far, it hasn’t worked for me, even a little bit. I don’t write that way – it is how things turn out as I work them out, and write them. This writing lark is a mystery to its practitioners, or it is to me. But even if by design, the crowds in the earlier paragraph have turned up only to turn up their noses and buzz off home.

This one however while moseying along contentedly in thriller country, somehow roamed a bit farther into very dark forests of the imagination to come out in new territory for me, and the crowds might turn up to take a second sniff. It is – depending on how you like to define things – a ghost story, paranormal, and/or ridiculous. It really is weird, even to me. I thought so as I was working it out, thought it while I was writing it, and I think so now. All the same, I think its weirdness is not at all bad.

The idea of writing a ghost story came from something almost unrelated that happened to me in Scotland last year. Then before I ever thought of a plot, I read a number of books and stories featuring ghosts, including one by Thorne Smith (his first Topper book; I had already read the second, and Night Life of the Gods, my fave), and a Douglas Adams special with a ghost who had something of the quality I think is natural. I watched films with aliens and ghosts. I read and/or reread stuff about metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls, and reincarnation…and the religions and philosophies surrounding these fascinating ideas. And while I was thinking about these things, I was also reading and thinking about the Romans, the Huns, the Goths, Edward Gibbon, Attila for it was he, the Holocaust and the “war in the East”, and my favourite writers – Euripides! Yes! Alcestis*…if you haven’t read the Ted Hughes version of this you really should…but also Medea…! And Shakespeare…Hamlet! Ghost dad tells the kid he’s not making it…and finally, and really importantly, Dostoevsky. As I have written, “Bobok”, a short story, was in my head…but along with that the appearance of the Devil in Brothers Karamazov. Wow!

Wait! There’s more! Celine’s last trilogy gets its impetus from a whole boatload of ghosts, in the first part, Castle to Castle! Charon’s boat, the one who ferries the dead across to their place…the passengers have to go get money before they are allowed to board** but when they do, that Charon whacks them with an oar, splits their heads in two when he doesn’t just mash them up into gruesome glop! Celine knows some of the crew…and has a chat…it’s all fine…kind of…

So you see, even if I go into the serious literature part of the universe, where I actually fear to tread as a writer at least until now***, ghosts abound…evil creatures with them too…deceptive Devil in old clothes and no teeth…and my ghosts? Are they informed by this pantheon of greatness and frivolity? Yes, they are. Do they measure up? Aw…so far, I don’t think so. But I haven’t finished, quite yet.

And the title? Here it is! Attila’s angels…it worked its way from my brain, jumped onto my tongue, and then flew out onto the page! No need to write! Ghosts!

Must get out on the balcony to watch the parade^…have to fix a bit of the book but the title works for me, so I hope it works for you…

Thanks for reading.

*Hughes’ version of this is amazing and when you consider his life, it is even more amazing.
**The old Greeks put a coin, known as an obol on the tongue of the departed to pay for their passage…Celine was riffing on this.
*** Next time, I’m thinking…
^Don’t have a balcony, but there is a deck…

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Storm splashes out of teacup, washes over saucer, stains tablecloth, trousers and reputation

Yes, The Tempest…Shakespeare’s one.

Because relatively little is known about Shakespeare, it is easy to pour imagined realities into his work and breathlessly assure all and sundry that they really are true. The controversy about “who really wrote” the plays and sonnets and other poems springs from this and those who follow this blog will know my opinion on that. Just to save any new readers some time if not fun, I am not among those – Shakespeare, often with collaborators, wrote the plays and the rest.#

Inside the plays though, in the area of “what is this about?”, there are plenty of opportunities to wax lyrical with fantasies, or as journalists often say, “interview your typewriter”. It is one of the things that makes Shakespeare fun. Chasing down various angles of interpretation and other aspects is a bit like a detective story. Indeed a detective story writer, Josephine Tey, arguably rescued the reputation of Richard III, the one whose bones were recently discovered under a carpark in Leicester.##

One of my fantasies is about the “real life” model for Prospero in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s next to last work. I’ve used some of this in Savonarola’s Bones, a light novel I wrote as an experiment in some other things. But I left a lot out, and not wanting it to go to waste, here is the argument rendered much more full.

Most scholars think Prospero was based on one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, John Dee and it would diminish Shakespeare’s creative imagination to think that Prospero wasn’t at least partly modeled on this magus who was an amazing character.*

Dee however was influenced by another school – the so-called Hermetic tradition associated with the Florentine renaissance and two figures there: Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

I reckon Shakespeare modeled Prospero at least partly on Pico. This is my little “discovery” and so far as I know no one else has ever suggested it.

Is it piffle?

Maybe.

Here are my reasons.

Pico’s family ruled the tiny principality, Mirandola and had connections with the rulers of Milan (the Sforzas) as well as other ruling families. Giovanni was much younger than his two brothers and while not the ruler as sometimes supposed, he was among the few of the emerging aristocracy of the time to get totally sold on philosophy. He studied in Ferrara and elsewhere and fetched up in Florence, where he immersed himself in Hermetic philosophy at the “court” of Plato as funded by the ruling Medici family and organised by the priest Marsilio Ficino. He was also a friend of the renegade reformist monk Girolamo Savonarola..

During the renaissance Pico was famous. Nowadays he is still remembered for his Oration on the Dignity of Man. But he’s not known today for the magus stuff, The Heptaplus and other Cabalistic writings that were later to influence Dee. Even so, his devotion to “philosophy” as it was then understood was widely admired.

The connection with Shakespeare comes via Sir (Saint) Thomas More. More was a figure in the Henry VI plays as a sheriff of London who quelled riots of 1517. In real life he also resisted the break with Rome under Henry VIII, was tried for treason and beheaded.

Despite the fact that More was on the outs with the Tudors and hence Elizabeth there were several attempts to make a play out of his career. Perhaps hoping to escape censure a group of writers including Shakespeare shared responsibility for a revision of a script previously knocked back by the censor or Master of the Revels. There is no evidence it was ever produced and in retrospect it seems a naive indeed pious hope that even a non-Tudor monarch (James I) would allow production..

The revised manuscript survives. While some disagree it is usually accepted that it contains the  only example of Shakespeare’s dramatic work in his own hand.(“Hand D”).

We can take from this that Shakespeare was more than vestigially familiar with the martyred More.

Today’s More’s Utopia is the only one of his works to be at all familiar, even to educated people. But his collected works begin not with one of his own books, but with a translation of Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola’s biography of his uncle Giovanni.

Ah.

So there are reasonable grounds for supposing that Shakespeare knew of Pico, and was familiar with his life as recounted through More.**

There is more! Like Dee, Pico acquired a large library and his nephew was grateful that he inherited the books on Pico’s death. Tellingly, Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest is named Miranda, and it is a coinage of Shakespeare’s, like Imogen***

So there is more to Pico than Dee, really, in “Prospero-speak”: Like Prospero he was of a ruling house, with connections to Milan; and he was so struck by philosophy he abandoned all other pursuits. He had the secret books. He wrote extensively about white magic, the stuff of the magus. And Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, has an obvious “Mirandolic” connotation, given that this was a name Shakespeare created for his character and as we know a number of Shakespearean names have reasons behind them.

Yeah, but so what?

Pico died, apparently poisoned, in 1494, a little more than a century before The Tempest was written, but the Hermetic tradition he followed was still current. Dee studied and wrote in Hermeticism, for example. So did the Italian monk Giordano Bruno.

Bruno was another of those renaissance characters whose lives today seem rather odd. He grew up in what is now southern Italy and made a name for himself with memory systems, which were popular in an age when books were relatively rare. He could recite vast slabs of texts. But he also wrote philosophical tracts as he traveled throughout Europe.

His real interest was in the Cabala and other Hermetic notions, and he pursued these to the point of death, since he was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, fervently believing that if he could only talk to the Pope all would be smoothed over.

Bruno lived in London for a while, staying at the home of the French ambassador. It is possible that he knew Shakespeare, and certainly was a part of the many secret circles then fizzing about the city discussing religious, philosophical and scientific ideas. The character Berowne in Love’s Labour Lost is commonly taken as modelled on Bruno (which means Brown in Italian). Some think Berowne is a mocking portrait, others a sympathetic one.

Bruno’s crime was to believe in the writings of one Hermes Trismegistus.(this last meaning thrice great) a philosophical guru who was alleged to have lived at the time of Moses and who was believed to have predicted the coming of Jesus. The evil in this was to attach Christianity to other religions. It seems Bruno hoped to resolve the schisms that had taken place in 16th century Europe between Rome and various stripes of breakaway churches by placing all of them under the umbrella of Hermes.

From the point of view of Rome, this was and could only be heresy. Bruno has never been absolved and when on the four hundredth anniversary of his death half a million people demonstrated in the Eternal City at the site where he was burned at the stake demanding he be pardoned, the Church was unrepentant.

In England, the perspective could be a bit different. Hermeticism could be regarded as a means of peaceful resolution of the schism between the Church of England and Rome, as Bruno meant it. And at a time when being a Catholic in England was risky that was no bad thing.

There is some evidence that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. A Catholic tract signed by his father John was found hidden in the roof of John’s house in Stratford in the 18th century. Many scholars have joined dots of various sorts to show Shakespeare to be a “recusant”.

One of these, Richard Wilson^, argues that while a Catholic, Shakespeare nonetheless was a faithful servant of the English and then British Crown and that the secret message of his works was actually one of tolerance and acceptance.

If this be true – frankly, I have no idea – when Prospero abandons his books at the end of The Tempest, he is not just leaving his power behind as he returns home to Milan. Shakespeare can be taken to signify to his fellow closet Catholics that the Church of England is there to stay and they should give up their dreams of restoring “the one true faith” in the sceptred isle.

The Tempest is dated at 1609, and its first publication was in the Folio of 1623, where it is the first entry. By the end of the 17th century Hermeticism and with it white magic had been dealt heavy blows: Newton may have spent decades studying alchemy, but the scientific method had really won out by 1700. And for poor Bruno and Dee, and Pico, and Ficino and all their fellows, possibly including Shakespeare, the Hermetic manuscripts, so prized evidence of a grander faith uniting the peoples, had been shown a post-Christian forgery.^^

After all this, was it worth it? Possibly not. I am not a Shakespeare scholar but a Shakespeare lover, and I have used this somewhat tortuous argument in abbreviated form in my novel Savonarola’s Bones, as I used Troilus and Cressida and an argument that is less tenuous in Kaos. Even so, it is a long way from the posturings of those who think someone else wrote Shakespeare.

There is much more to The Tempest than this, which is a bit like a footnote but with some more important implications. Colonialism, imperialism, classical learning and “classicism”, the “tabula rasa”, racism, and more get amazing airings from the scented literary breath of the greatest of all writers at the height of his powers. It is true as I have written elsewhere that Shakespeare was published in his lifetime and shortly after because plays are not only to be seen, but to be read, and were thought of in that way then.

Still, when seeing a good production of this one, the play really is the thing.

Thanks for reading.

 

#See my post “Charles’ secret spell on the throne”.

##Tey’s novel is Daughter of time. For more Shakespeare detective work that turns a text into a marvel, try the Arden editions. Among my favourites are Frank Kermode’s edition of The Tempest, Harold Jenkins of Hamlet, and David Bevington’s of Troilus and Cressida. Each is a masterpiece in its own right.

*See Wikipedia

**More’s translation, the first item in his complete works as if he was the author, is available online. It seems that when Pico was born a flame appeared on the wall above the bed.

***From the online site “Behind the Name”: Meaning, Origin and History of the Name Miranda. Derived from Latin mirandus meaning “admirable, wonderful”. The namewas created by Shakespeare for the heroine in his play ‘The Tempest’ (1611). It did not become a common English given name until the 20th century. Imogen by the way is thought to be a mistake for the existing Innogen..

^Secret Shakespeare (2004).

^^For Bruno see Frances Yates Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic tradition. A lot of, by and on Pico can be found there also. Yates has also written on memory systems and other aspects of Shakespearian interest. Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being is also interesting. Some people still believe in Hermes.

 

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Snowflakes of the mind = dandruff

This blog is about writing, and this is the fifty-third post. I think. There have been more false starts for this one than any previous post, and I was beginning to think that writer’s block had descended with a gigantic crash on my poor head, scattering my wits in a shower of inconsequence.

What’s been happening since the last one that I’ve managed to get up on the net is that I have been been reading a lot of background stuff and doing a lot of thinking for my new book, which is slowly coming together in my mind. At the same time I’ve been trying to finish a post on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida I promised you, dear reader, and myself, after finishing my previous book, Kaos.

The two are related. Kaos prompted me to look further into one of the key themes of that book, carrying over from earlier ones. But rather than opening terrific vistas for my serene gaze, I’ve kept tying myself into knots. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means thinking something difficult through to the point that it is no longer difficult, even if the solution is Alexandrian, perhaps especially!

It feels quite strange to have Troilus and Cressida exercising such a profound influence on me as a writer and as a person. Many people do not even know this play exists, but for me it’s right up there with Shakespeare’s other major works, and if I’d like to do some sort of homage to the bard by dealing with it in a non-fiction format, every re-reading* sends me reeling. Ha.

The play first really grabbed me when I was testing a book on Shakespeare by poet Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the goddess of complete being. This is a wild book, lauded to the skies and dismissed in equal measure. Since there are so many unknowables about Shakespeare down to the sequence of writing of the plays** I decided to read them in the order Hughes reckoned, and hit on Troilus.

Hughes’ idea was that in a sequence of his plays Shakespeare explored a “tragic equation” about men specifically, who adopted or rejected the feminine in their natures with explosive results, finally to resolve this dilemma in The Tempest. 

Well, I’m not sure about any of that, but this idea is definitely provocative, and if Hughes nor anyone else could really prove the authorship sequence, he made a plausible case, and reading them in his order buttressed many of the points in his larger argument.

Hughes was careful to say that whatever the merits of his vision of Shakespeare’s exploration of this tragic equation, it did not and could not exhaust the merits of Shakespeare’s work. Just so with Troilus and Cressida. Every time I have seen it, and read it, there has been more and different in it than I’d previously realised. Nothing I or anyone else can say will explain all that matters of this “amazing” play.*** That’s part of what greatness means – the wells of genius never run dry.

What spurred me to write of the play in Kaos, then, has been given more fuel for an even bigger bonfire of this particular vanity. As I have been frustrated and irritated by my failings in working up this post new material throws itself across the path of my imagination. A lot of this is new/old material, reaching back to the ancients, but there is plenty of the modern too.^ The new book is going to be a new book in a range of ways, and if it takes time to digest all that I need to do to make it work, well, fine.

Meanwhile that post on the play still glows incandescent in more than one draft on this site. It needs to come out. It will.

Thanks for reading.

*I’ve also seen it three times: once in Stratford in the mid-1980s, when I did not understand it, and twice in Scotland in the early years of this century.

**And more – the sonnets were published in 1609 but there are many views about when they were each written, and rewritten to come into the corpus as they were published. Meanwhile there is a great deal in Hughes’ book not even glanced at in this post. Anyone interested should give it a go.

***As judged not just by me but by the editor of by far the best edition, David Bevington.

^To me modern is post-1900 or thereabouts. You choose your own date; I don’t mind.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Blast off!

Dear reader – if you are heartily sick of my unending witterings about the ins and outs of something I have not actually been doing, I really do not blame you, even a little bit. These thoughts of mine have been interesting to me, and truly, they have helped me clarify what I am doing, right and wrong, and in the recent past, where I have been going wrong. At least I think this is true. The touchstones of my sensibility have got quite a decent rubdown in the process. For me, as a writer, all this is good. For you, as a reader, it may be really dubious.

Anyway recently I put e-pen to e-paper on the third version of Kaos. It is not a “draft”. It is a new book. The previous two versions sit quietly on my desktop, glowering. They know when they’ve been mistreated, and they are there, ready to rub salt into any wound they can detect, and there are plenty of those.

This process has been interesting to me partly because the “storyline” of this book is quite clear to me, and was before I started the first version. The characters were there; the events were there; the “moral” or premise was there…and it was a stultifyingly boring endeavour as it worked out. Version one ran out of puff about 45,000 words as I recall, and what puff there had been in the last little while was artificial and “stort in a porm” as Spooner might have it. The second go didn’t get very far; I was wandering in a fog, stumbling over obstacles whose nature was unclear to me, so I stopped where I was at some point and waited for the air to clear.

This time, I think, is different – maybe. It’s more than 10,000 words, and some of those are sadly very ill-chosen. I got off the track too and had to go back a few thou to hook back into it. But it has the right feel so far, if I am able to keep the different aspects of what I am trying to do in my head.

The big deal about all of this to me is structural. I want to cast a new light on what happens, so that the reader is left with a particular set of impressions that enable her or him to – to – to – BE CONFUSED. No, that’s not quite right…to make up her or his own mind about the meaning, not to have me force feeding it to them: for me, that’s the ultimate aim of readers being engaged, that they will make my book their book, own it properly.

When I first started writing, I was in thrall to Ted Hughes, the then poet laureate of Britain, and widower of another (American) poet,Sylvia Plath who’d killed herself*, but most importantly author of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. I admire  this book a great deal many years later, and something Hughes argued about Shakespeare I have tried, in my own fashion, to work into my novels.

What he said was that the Bard had a dual or multi-level approach in his “great period” that allowed the groundlings – the common herd – to enjoy his plays on one level, while there were clues to a deeper meaning meant to be picked up by the inner circle of the cults he was involved with. The England of the time was apparently awash with these wee beasties; there were “circles” exploring and/or espousing all manner of interesting theories about life, the universe, and yes, everything!

Among the movers and shakers of this demi-monde was one Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk whose memory systems were his calling card, a sort of parlour trick. Bruno could reel off vast slabs of text – twenty or thirty pages at a time – from his system, which early in his career opened doors for him in Italy, including an audience with the Pope. But he went on, and on, and in his urge to heal the rifts in Christianity through a sort of new religion based on the works of a certain Hermes Trismegistus, who was meant to have lived even before Moses, he ultimately found himself on top of a burning stack of wood in a square in Rome. Four hundred years later half a million people went to that square and demanded that the Pope pardon Bruno for his alleged transgressions, a demand that was spurned. Anyway Bruno was flitting around London in the early 1590s and was spreading his enlightened views through these various groups. It is said Shakespeare satirised him as Berowne in Love’s Labour Lost.

Bruno was far from alone. “Magi” peopled London, and Europe throughout the renaissance, and they had a curious relationship both with religion and with science. Shakespeare’s Tempest, often cited as his crowning achievement, shows the magus in full flower. Frazer’s Golden Bough, a twelve volume examination of the rise of religion through magic, could just as easily have been written on the rise of science through magic: Bruno was after all a monk, and his ideas about the universe (largely cribbed from the classical Lucretius’ On the nature of things) were in aid of something grander and larger even than controlling nature: it was all about knowing God, coming face to face with our Creator.

The renaissance took this hidden knowledge seriously, aped the Greeks in their mystical cults, and people like Shakespeare developed literary techniques to slake the thirst.

Well, my idea from the first of my books has been to employ a dual-level, or multi-level approach: there must always be more, and the “more” has to have some distinguishing characteristics. The story must be a good one, a “page turner” as some people say, without any particular moral or philosophical dimension, even when (as with my novel The Russian Idea) philosophy is a part of the plot. That book to me is a bit of a failure because there is too much of this, and it gets in the way of the rattling good yarn that is the basis of my approach to writing.

But that can never be all there is; it has to be in aid of something, and I want it not just to be there for readers, but to be opaque…clear but not clear. My views on race, and religion, and tolerance, and politics and so on are my own, and of course I would like readers to share them – but I am not insisting, and not beating anyone over the head with them. Instead I am saying, or trying to say, “These things matter. What do you think about them?” in ways that are intended to provoke a response, a wrestling of the imagination, by my er possibly far from adoring public.

It is not clear just now if I actually have a public, so it is more than faintly presumptuous of me to think I have a purchase on this writing arena. But I would like to, and a great deal of the trouble I have had with Kaos relates to this: to create a “rattling good yarn” that is morally and philosophically compelling in a secondary way – pick it up if you like, or pay absolutely no attention to it if you don’t and you can still enjoy the read – is in this case proving to be a mighty big  ask.

But I’m asking it of me, and this time maybe I’m getting somewhere. We’ll see…thanks for reading…It’s Christmas just now so have a good one.

*His next wife also committed suicide. There is a great deal that is troubling about this, and must have been to him.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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