Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Wise Children

February 24, 2014

wise children‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’

Indeed! Angela Carter’s invocation of Jane Austen at the start of chapter four couldn’t be more appropriate; Wise Children is a wonderful, ebullient, rich, bawdy, optimistic carnival of a novel.

So we all thought at Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday. (All, except for one lady who thought it ‘too clever by half’.) We longed to go round chez Chance for a gin and a natter with winning narrator Dora toot sweet! Indeed, we felt a touch guilty for walk-talking the novel in North London, not far from Melchior Hazard’s swish Primrose Hill residence, rather than on ‘the bastard side of Old Father Thames’.

There was something about yesterday’s walk which was particularly wonderful. Perhaps it was because, in an attempt to avoid muddy patches and wind-exposed hill-tops, I led us on an unusually long loop. Perhaps it was thanks to the enormous tree that had blown dramatically across the path, which felt symbolic, in a Carteresque way, of an uprooted family tree. Or perhaps it was simply because Wise Children is an especially good book and we felt so exceptionally fond of Dora that it was almost as though she (and Nora, of course) were high-kicking alongside us on the Heath.

Dora Chance is the forceful narrator of the novel. We meet her on her seventy-fifth birthday, which is also the birthday of her twin sister Nora, the hundredth birthday of their father (though they are illegitimate and unacknowledged) – grand thesp Melchior Hazard, and it is Shakespeare’s birthday too. The novel takes place over the course of one day, from breakfast that morning to wandering home from Melchior’s centenary party that night, with Dora’s final exclamation:

What a joy it is to dance and sing!

In a feat of storytelling, Carter manages to contain over a century’s history of dancing and singing in this single day. We begin with Dora’s paternal grandmother Estella, born in 1870, a child actor on the provincial circuits, who came to London to be a Cordelia who married her Lear – Ranulph Hazard. They went to America, then all over the Empire: acting in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, America again – with everything from an ice-cream sundae to a township named after them in their wake.

Then we come to their (possibly illegitimate) offspring, twins Peregrine and Melchior Hazard. Melchior wound up in a Brixton boarding house, where, so Dora likes to think, her mother, who ‘emptied the slops, filled the washstand jugs, raked out the grates, built up the fires…’ and was only ‘a slip of a thing but she was bold as brass’, locked his door behind her and:

“Now I’ve got you where I want you!” she said. What else could a gentleman do but succumb?

And so Dora and Nora Chance were conceived.

One of the things I love most in Wise Children, is how time and again Carter rejects the role of wispy delicate woman, overpowered and badly treated by man. Their servant girl mother wasn’t raped by tough young Melchior, but took advantage of him! (I feel Rachel Cooke in her excellent column in yesterday’s Observer would approve.)

Elsewhere Carter rewrites the role of Ophelia. Beautiful young Tiffany – strewn with flowers, driven mad with grief at being impregnated and then  seriously, serially cheated on by her awful boyfriend Tristram (Melchior’s son) – is thought to have drowned herself in the Thames. So far, so Ophelia … but no, at the end of the novel she reappears, ‘as fresh as paint … sound in mind and body almost to a fault … our heart’s delight.’ Tristram begs her forgiveness, to which she replies, bluntly, “Fat chance,”:

“Pull yourself together and be a man, or try to,” said Tiffany sharply. “You’ve not got what it takes to be a father. There’s more to fathering than fucking you know.”

Then she strides off. Brilliant!

Grandma Chance is the owner of the boarding house and she brings up Nora and Dora, as their mother died in childbirth and Melchior disowned them. Rather being raised in a stifling patriarchy, they grow up in a carnivalesque family, surrounded by singing and dancing from the moment they’re born, in a house where people are either naked, in a nighty, or dressed up as pirates, and stray souls are made very welcome. Again, rather than suffering at the hands of the badly behaving man, the women flourish.

Dora and Nora have dancing lessons and soon become high-kicking chorus girls, a career that eventually takes them to Hollywood, where they are Peaseblossom and Mustardseed in Melchior’s doomed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The descriptions of the Hollywood set of the Wood near Athens are spellbinding:

Daisies big as your head and white as spooks, foxgloves as tall as the tower of Pisa that chimed like bells if shook. Gnarled, fissured tree-trunks; sprays of enormous leaves – oak, ash, thorn, like parasols, or glider planes, or awnings … And rolling around at random underfoot, or stuck on buds, or hanging in mid-air as if they’d just rolled off a wild rose or out of a cowslip, imitation dewdrops, that is big faux pearls, suspended on threads.

Everything has been scaled up so that the actors look the size of fairies on screen. It is extremely surreal in reality in order to look real on screen. And yet, what on earth is reality in this context? It is The Dream, after all, and made in Hollywood, the ‘major public dreaming facility in the whole world’. It is a dreamlike landscape, for this dream of a dream, and like dreams, it is uncanny, beautiful and disturbing at the same time. Then, in a genius stroke of irony, it proves to be all too real, when Nora trips up and spikes her bottom on a giant conker and the wound goes septic.

The film flops; Shakespeare’s and Melchior’s Dream doesn’t work in Hollywood. Neither does the intriguing, sad character of Gorgeous George. He is first seen doing a bawdy show on Brighton Pier with great success. Next, he is imported to Hollywood to be Bottom in The Dream, where he fails rather unspectacularly. Finally, he is in the gutter outside Melchior’s hundredth birthday party, ‘some old cove in rags, begging’.

Gorgeous George is not just any old character. As Carter tells us:

For George was not a comic at all but an enormous statement … Displayed across his torso there was … a complete map of the entire world.

When they see him in Brighton, he strips almost naked (the vital bits are covered by a ‘gee-string of very respectable dimensions … made out of the Union Jack’) and sings God Save the King and Rule Britannia. ‘Most of his global tattoo was filled in a brilliant pink’ – the colour of Empire. So George’s downward spiral is that of Great Britain: it once ruled the world, lost to America, and now is reduced to begging.

Gorgeous George’s tragic trajectory mirrors that of the Hazards – from the paternal grandmother who acts in all corners of the Empire, through Shakespearean success Melchior, to his son Tristram who presents a third-rate television game show. It echoes the fate of the music halls and chorus lines.

‘Lo how the mighty are fallen,’ thinks Dora when she sees George in the gutter. Much has fallen, much dwindles, and yet, don’t forget, ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’ Carter tells us throughout that there is no place for tragedy in this book.

The British Empire has crumbled, but if it is represented by Gorgeous George – at his best a stripper-comedian – was it really so wonderful? Who cares about him, when we have Dora and Nora, who remain ‘The Lucky Chances’, happy, joyful, making-the-best of things, singing and dancing to the very last line.

It is a profoundly optimistic novel, made all the more so by these lines of downfall that run through it. Wise Children encourages you to laugh and make merry, not cry when disaster inevitably strikes. Fate deals a cruel hand, the trick is not to take it lying down. (Or, at least lie down and enjoy it!) Perhaps it sounds rather naf and daft when put like this, rather than guised in Carter’s rich, raucous prose. No doubt it’s best to read it for yourself. Do – and I’d love to know what you make of it.

PS. For those of you who want to venture beyond EmilyBooks, here is a humblingly brilliant article on Wise Children by Kate Webb, here are my latest crop of reviews for The Spectator, and here‘s a little something I wrote on the Daunt Books Festival for The Bookseller.

Angela Carter


A Literary A-Z

February 20, 2012

I can’t believe it’s been such a long time since the most recent instalment of my Literary A-Z. For those of you who’ve been waiting with baited breath since the battle of Rushdie vs Richardson, I can only apologise.


Kicking off with S seems a little unfair because S has to be Shakespeare. No room for manoeuvre there. If I had to pick my favourite Shakespeare, I’d choose King Lear. (I wrote about the Domar’s recent production here.)

But, for the sake of making it slightly more interesting, some other S authors that I’ve loved are Ali Smith, J.D. Salinger and – of course – Dodie Smith. My old boss used to publish Salinger’s books and told me that he was very tricky with his covers, never letting a picture on the front, insisting that the design be purely typographical. At school I thought Salinger’s collection of short stories, For Esme with Love and Squalor, was the best book ever. I read it obsessively, many times over. It was a love made defiant when told by my English teacher that it wasn’t substantial enough to be the subject of an essay. Pah, I thought, you just don’t understand. It was all deeply teenagerish and a little silly.

Speaking of silly teenagers, last night I happened to watch the DVD of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which many of you know is one of my all-time-favourite books. It was a rare instance of being almost enjoyable on film as on the page, thanks mostly to Romola Garai and Bill Nighy. The funny thing was that the film looked oddly like a Brora photoshoot, which, given they’re supposed to be an impoverished family and Brora cardigans cost upwards of £200 a pop, does seem peculiar. Particularly fun bits were the scenes shot in the RIBA building, which was dressed up as a thirties department store. Does anyone else love playing the London place-spotting game when watching anything on screen? Annoyingly the husband tends to get it about five seconds before me each time!

A brilliant S-link is that not far into the film of I Capture the Castle, everyone’s trying to get the Americans’ car out of the mud when James Mortmain (aka Bill Nighy) curses the storm’s ‘cataracts and hurricanoes’. Looking back through the book I can’t find these exact words; instead, Dodie Smith just writes that ‘he was freely damning the weather’. Well Bill Nighy evidently freely damned the weather in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear. One great S is brought into another great S. Splendid!


T is a little more tricky. Edward Thomas? Colm Toibin? Elizabeth Taylor? I’m going to confess that I’ve never got on particularly well with Tolstoy. I’ve begun Anna Karenina several times, and never got much past the ice skating episode. Perhaps I was just too young. (But I worry that I’ll never love the Russians because I always get so muddled with all the long names!) Some Tolstoy that I did enjoy was The Kreutzer Sonata, which Penguin published as a pretty little Great Loves edition.

I think I must go for Edward Thomas. However much I loved The Blackwater Lightship and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, ‘Adlestrop’ wins hands down every time. Even if he was quite horrid to his wife.


An impossible letter because I haven’t read anything by John Updike, who seems to be more-or-less the only fiction writer beginning with U.

Then again, I haven’t read any non-fiction by Jenny Uglow, but I suspect I’d enjoy her much more than Updike. I feel particularly fond of Jenny Uglow, in spite of the fact that I’ve not yet read any of her well-acclaimed biographies, or her book about English gardens. This is because as well as being such a successful writer, she is also a very well-respected editor. Editorial Director at Chatto & Windus no less.

When I was shuffling around at the bottom of the publishing food chain, trying to write a novel in the mornings before arriving at the sterile office, the thought that there were very successful publishers who also managed also to have writing careers was tremendously inspiring. It made me think that I might not have to choose between writing books and making them, that I could somehow do both. How I longed to bump into her, strike up a conversation and be given a cup of tea and taken under her wing! Needless to say I never had the courage even to say hello, and, when it became clear that one must be far more senior and important than me to go part-time in publishing and that I couldn’t go on forever doing all my writing very early in the morning and then being brain-dead all afternoon, I took a different path from Uglow and side-stepped out of publishing. But well done her, as there must have been a time when she stuck to her guns and said, no I’m not leaving, I’m going to make this work and do two things very well indeed. U goes to Jenny Uglow.

Thor 3D

May 9, 2011

‘What are you doing for the rest of your evening?’ asked the waiter in Byron, as we were paying the bill.

‘Going to see Thor 3D,’ I replied, excited, in spite of the meat slump that inevitably descends after a good burger.

‘Oh,’ he said.

‘Have you seen it?’ I ask.


‘And? Was it good?’

‘Well I read the comics you see, so I was bound to be a bit disappointed. But it was enjoyable, I guess, just not absolutely brilliant.’

So my expectations, as we went into the cinema, were somewhat lower than they had been pre-burger. But there’s something about going to the cinema that I find irresistibly exciting. First there’s the bigness – the huge multiplex screen, the vast seats, the gigantic drinks and popcorn; then there’s the thrill of the trailers – all those short, sharp clips, reducing films to their most exciting essence; and then that hush of anticipation as the film begins, the shuffling back in the seat, knowing you’ll be absorbed in entertainment for the following ninety minutes. And when it’s in 3D, there’s the added comedy of looking at each other wearing eighties shades in a darkened room, and the added wow of all those special effects dancing out in front of you.

So, by the time Thor 3D was beginning, I’d forgotten all about the burger boy’s scepticism and was once again somewhat childishly over-excited.

Now, unlike the burger boy, I haven’t read the comics, but I wasn’t coming to Thor devoid of any cultural references. From the age of around six to twelve, I was quite obsessed with ancient myths. I had this brilliant book called Gods Men and Monsters, which related stories from the Greek myths, with fantastic, epic illustrations After a year or so my parents discovered there were other books in the series, and, over time, I collected several, including Druids Gods and Heroes, from Celtic mythology; Gods and Pharaohs, from Egyptian mythology; and, yes, you’ve guessed, Gods and Heroes, from Viking mythology. (Sadly these books are all now out of print.) So I had dim memories of Thor and his hammer Mjölnir, the mischievous Loki, and the beautiful rainbow bridge Bifröst.

And, of course, my humble childish imaginings were nothing like the high-tech mythological world which floated out of the cinema screen. The latter was far more impressive. Bifröst looked magical and beautiful, and both Asgard – the realm of the gods – and Jotenheim – the realm of the frost giants – were imaginatively and convincingly rendered.

So I saw the film with a tiny bit of half-baked childhood knowledge of the Norse myths, but I also saw it with a tiny bit of knowledge of Shakespeare. And director Kenneth Brannagh, one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors, has brought a great deal of the Bard’s influence to the film.

The epic register in which the Gods speak goes almost unnoticed until it is contrasted with usual speech when Thor is ‘cast out’ to Earth to comic effect:

‘You dare threaten me, Thor, with so puny a weapon?’

This leads to him being tazered by the (quite annoying) Darcy, ‘What? He was freaking me out.’

‘This drink, I like it. Another!’ says Thor, before smashing his coffee cup on the floor of the diner.

Again, Darcy responds, ‘This is going on Facebook. Smile,’ snapping him with her mobile phone.

Let me fill you in a bit of plot – Odin is King of Asgard, and Thor, his son, is successor to the throne. On the day of Thor’s succession, frost giants from the enemy realm of Jotenheim mysteriously breach Asgard’s defences and disrupt the ceremony. Thor, arrogant and keen for battle, decides to go to Jotenheim, with his brother Loki and The Warriors Three, to cause trouble, and ends up starting a war between Asgard and Jotenheim after a long-held peace. Odin rescues them, but is so furious with Thor for his arrogance that he strips him of his strength and his hammer, and banishes him to Earth.

Coming back to the contrasting registers of the language of the Gods and the humans, we can see the language of Earth-dwellers makes Thor’s language sound ridiculously bombastic and elevated. Thor must lose his pride, grow humble, see himself as a man, before he can be a true, worthy God, and this is reflected in his speech. But just as the register of mortals makes Thor’s language seem silly, the register of the gods makes that of mortals seem weak, thin, pathetic, sarcastic. I’d much rather talk like Thor than Darcy. There’s far more beauty in the epic language of Shakespeare than the feeble language of Facebook.

There were a few phrases that struck me as particularly influenced by Shakespeare. When Odin is about to banish Thor to Earth, Thor tells him, ‘You are an old man and a fool.’ This is not a million miles away from ‘Old fools are babes again,’ or ‘I am a very foolish fond old man,’ from King Lear.

In both Lear and Thor, the King is old and weary and seeks to pass on his Kingdom. And, in both, he is disappointed by the actions of his children. Lear banishes Cordelia and Odin banishes Thor. As soon as Cordelia has lost favour with her father, her two sisters, Goneril and Regan, turn against her: ‘Prescribe us not our duty,’ says Regan, sharply. And Loki, Thor’s brother, wastes no time in turning against him, visiting him on Earth to tell him painful lies about their father Odin. This is also similar to the subplot in Lear, in which Edmund tells his brother Edward that he has enraged their father.

But, when it comes to Loki, another Shakespeare play comes to mind. Othello. A play in which Brannagh has played the antihero. Thor has the same nobility as Othello, the same phenomenal success in battles, the same ‘true and open nature’. And Loki shares many traits with Iago. Loki could say of Thor, just as Iago does of Othello, ‘In following him, I follow but myself.’ They are both cleverer, craftier than their heroic counterparts, spinning their complicated webs of deceit to bring the others down. Coleridge famously described Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’, and, similarly, it is hard to see what it is, beyond jealousy and a plot twist about his birth, that is truly behind Loki’s malignity.

Iago has fascinated audiences, readers and critics alike for hundreds of years. I’m not sure Brannagh has pulled off quite the same feat with Loki, but he has definitely created an ambiguous, complicated character – played with quiet magnificence by Tom Hiddleston – that gives this blockbuster far more subtle depths than most.

The perils of sending a message

March 14, 2011

We live in an age in which everyone is sending messages to everyone else all the time. Telephone calls and text messages; Facebook and Twitter; emails and instant messages … there have never been so many different ways to communicate.

Before all this technology, the only alternative to saying something face-to-face was to write a letter. Penn a note, seal it up and then dispatch it with a messenger … maybe it only sounds really fun because it’s so old-fashioned. But, whethere it’s fun or not, it has definitely served as an excellent literary device.

Letters can hold absolutely vital information so, in novels, a great deal rests on keeping them out of the wrong hands and delivering them safely. Letter-related plots tend to go along the lines of: X writes a terribly important letter to Y, but Y doesn’t get it in time. Or Z sees Y reading it and that ruins everything. Or Z reads it instead of Y …

‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.’

It’s such a marvellous opening to Howards End. And there are several letters in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – the one which reveals to Henchard the secret of Elizabeth-Jane’s birth, and the incriminating stash of love letters between him and Lucetta. Of course, Bleak House sees Dickens using a stash of love letters too. Even Ian McEwan uses a, now infamous, letter at the start of Atonement.

Too many novels make use of letters for me to list them all here. But let’s not forget plays and, let’s certainly not forget Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet must make the most tragic use of this plot device. When Friar Laurence tells Juliet of his plan, for her to take a ‘distilling liquor’ that will make her assume a ‘borrowed likeness of shrunk death’, vital to its success is that ‘Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift’.

And Romeo expects these letters, asking his man Balthasar, ‘Hast thou no letters to me from the friar?’ But the messenger fails to deliver the letter to Romeo and Friar Lawrence laments:

‘The letter was not nice, but full of charge,

Of dear import, and the neglecting it

May do much danger.’

And we all know how it ends up. All because the message didn’t get to Romeo.

Nowadays, there are still plenty of opportunities for a message intended for someone to be read by someone else. How many of us have accidentally sent a text about someone to that person instead of to the friend to whom they meant to send it?!

But at least messages don’t go astray as they used. There’s no messenger running around delivering very important sealed letters and so there’s no opportunity for the messenger to get waylaid. Instead, someone makes a phonecall, or sends an email, or a text message. The message is instantly delivered. Yes, ok, there’s a very slim chance that the message might get lost somehow. The email could go into the Junk Mail folder, or the phone number’s wrong. But I don’t think it would really be believed in a novel.

But now we have so many different ways of communicating with each other, how do we pick which one to use? Why a facebook message rather than an email? Why a text message over an instant message?

If, for instance, you’ve had dinner at a friend’s house, how do you thank them the next day? Does a text message seem a bit flippant? Is a postcard a bit OTT? A phonecall would definitely be weird. Would an email be too formal? And, of course, what seems like the right choice for you, might well not seem right to them.

And, now we’re so used to instantaneous communication, when should the thank you be sent? A text the next morning? What if you forget until teatime? And if you send a postcard, that means there’s going to be a whole day’s wait – will the host spend that day thinking that you’re rude? Once, on the way home from a dinner, the host sent me a thank you text. Had I already left it too long?

Dating brings a whole new dimension to this quandary. In Jane Austen novels, Mr Darcy (or the equivalent) always turns up at the young lady’s house. Or he might send a letter confessing his love. When I was younger, if a boy liked you, he’d get your number and then phone you up to ask you out. This was pre-mobile phones, so the chances were, he’d speak to one of your parents, or big brothers, first. It must have been terrifying. Now, it comes down to no more than a text message. ‘Do U Want2C a film on Fri night? x’ (Although I think anyone who asked me out in text-speak got an automatic rejection.)

It seems that the age of the phone call has been superseded by the age of the text message and email. It’s odd, really, that we’ve moved away from this form of spoken communication back to written.

I wonder why we prefer expressing ourselves in writing. As anyone who’s ever sent a text message to someone they fancy knows, a hell of a lot of time can go into its composition … and into analysing any message from a potential date. Should I write ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’ or ‘Hello’, or none of them? Should I ask a question so they have to reply? What does he mean by two kisses at the end?

I’m slightly ashamed to admit to having spent an entire evening helping a friend compose a text message, only to then spend the whole following day waiting with her for a response.

And that’s another thing key to written communication instead of spoken. One has to wait for a response. The ‘conversation’ can be drawn out over a whole week. Especially when one takes into account the rules of playing hard to get, not replying within a day, teasing everything out in a noncommittal way. It would be so much easier to phone someone up and get it all sorted out then in a five minute call. So much easier, but so much less ambiguous … and so much less fun too.

Unless, that is, the feeling isn’t mutual. How long can one wait for a response to a text message or an email before accepting the rejection? Most of us tend to invent excuses rather than take it as a no. I don’t think it sent properly. I think he said he was on holiday this week. Maybe his phone got stolen. It must have gone into his junk mail.

Perhaps it is our literary heritage of written communication that comes into play here. We are very used to reading novels and plays about letters going astray, messages being intercepted, something preventing the sound completion of an act of communication. Rather than accepting the fact that we’ve been ignored or rejected, it’s much kinder to pretend that our message has gone astray. Even if the chances of that actually happening – when it’s a text message rather than a letter – are slim to none.

But, because we now send each other messages all the time, via so many different media, we are all much worse at responding to them. If someone gets one message a day, chances are, they’ll reply. If they get a hundred, chances are, they won’t. Yes your message was delivered, yes it was probably read, and yes it was ignored, or overlooked, because it wasn’t quite important enough.

Of course, if this is in the context of dating, then forget it – they’re not interested. But perhaps we need to be a bit more lenient to friends, colleagues and others who don’t reply when they ought. I’m sure we’re guilty of the same thing ourselves.

Or, failing that, maybe the answer is to go back to writing letters. At least for the important things in life. That way, if one doesn’t get a response, one can tell oneself that it really could have got lost in the post.

A literary Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2011

My favourite Valentine’s Day story is that once I was sent a Valentine from someone who then went on to murder someone.

Yes, it’s true.

But I always feel a bit uncomfortable after telling the full story, as though I’m exploiting someone who was clearly a very troubled soul. So, I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with second-best.

In my second year at university we were introduced to Middle English literature. It wasn’t a case of their waiting until we were already firmly in the grasp of the institution before springing this strange not-quite-English language on us. It was because the first year had been taken up with Anglo Saxon. After all the heavily Germanic Old English, Middle English was a walk in the park.

Most of our Middle English course revolved around an enormous blue book of Chaucer. Yes there were The Canterbury Tales – I remember a particularly awkward tutorial when our rather eccentric tutor turned scarlet and giggled about his use of the word ‘queynte’. (No it doesn’t translate as ‘quaint’.)

But as well as The Canterbury Tales, we looked at Chaucer’s dream poems. This was a surprise and a delight. For not only are the poems quite short, they’re also nuts and really quite brilliant.

Now the funny thing about reading Middle English is that I find the voice in my head is forced to sound particularly peculiar, taking on a strange West Country-cum-Irish lilt. After a few hours of sitting at a desk reading all these odd poems to myself I got quite a shock at the following moment in The Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day

Unlike ‘queynte’, ‘seynt’ does rhyme with quaint. Woah, it was an odd moment. Here I was in this strange dream-world, led by Scipio Africanus, having passed through the temple of Venus and come out into a parliament of birds. And then a mention of Saint Valentine’s Day! Three words which even in my West-Country-cum-Irish voice sounded very anachronistic.

‘Valentine’s Day’ sounds so modern to me. It is tied to pink cards, heart-shaped boxes, red roses with their prices madly inflated. Since working in the bookshop, Valentine’s Day seems particularly commercial. I’m sure I sold more cards yesterday than any other day of the year. (And most of them were pink. Or red.) In the past week or so we’ve shifted several books of love poems, or love stories, or love letters. It feels like a funny sales-filter which privileges books with red or pink covers.

But, funnily enough, I haven’t sold any Chaucer. (Now there is a marketing dream for a publisher. Just give The Parliament of Fowls – plus perhaps another few dream poems – a pretty pink cover, write a blurb saying that it’s the first ever Valentine’s Poem and watch its February sales soar.)

It’s hard to convey quite how odd I felt when coming up against Seynt Valentynes day in The Parliament of Fowls. The world of Chaucer with all its courtly love, and where Southwark is a stopping off place en route to Canterbury rather than the closest tube to the Tate Modern, was a very long time ago. How could this commercial card-fest possibly be rooted in this bizarre occasion where birds come together to choose their mate?

But really it was just the first of many odd clashes of symmetry that assailed me as I continued to study English. Such as thinking about Shakespeare’s Fool and then watching Fellini’s La Strada, or – and some might see this as a sign of pre-Finals madness – watching an episode of Friends and thinking that really it’s very similar to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

It started off my very studenty feeling that ‘Everything’s connected man. It’s all so Roland Barthes. It’s all so intertextual.’

I think I’ve nearly grown out of it. I’ve definitely grown out of calling everything ‘liminal’. Thanks for those who put up with me during that particularly trying time. But, for those of you who, like me, still get a geeky thrill from moments of intertextuality, Valentine’s Day and Valentines (as in love letters) are also mentioned by:

Shakespeare in Hamlet (Ophelia says it)

John Donne in his Epithalamion

Elizabeth Gaskell in Mr Harrison’s Confessions

Edgar Allan Poe in A Valentine (title gives it away rather)

I’m sure there are more.

So have a very happy Valentine’s Day. And if you’re at a loss for something to do. Well, one can always do worse than read a bit of Chaucer.

(Sorry, I warned you this was only second-best.)

King Lear

January 10, 2011

I’m sorry this post has been a long time in coming. I was ill, then it was Christmas, then I was away … but enough excuses. Now I’m back, and here it is.

Just before I was struck down by ’flu, I was lucky enough to see King Lear at the Donmar. Even before the rave reviews appeared in the papers, I knew that Jacobi – who I last saw in his award-winning role as Malvolio in the Donmar West End’s Twelfth Night – acting Lear in the confined space of the tiny Donmar Theatre would be truly extraordinary.

Lear is my favourite Shakespeare. Perhaps spending so much time on it at A-level ingrained it into me, so that, although I’ve always had an atrocious memory for lines, now when I hear Lear there is a wonderful soothingness in the familiar beauty of the language.

corky arms … crack your cheeks … looped and windowed raggedness … burst smilingly …

It is heaven to hear them trickle into my ears, especially my favourite question ever:

Dost thou squinny at me?

Alongside the comforting familiarity of such beautiful words lurks the rather more traumatic memory of lying in bed at 6 a.m. on the morning of my Shakespeare final at university, desperately trying to memorise them. Scribbling away on pages and pages of notepaper any quotations that might be useful for the unknown questions that would be seen in three hours time. The terror and frustration at consistently forgetting a word or muddling up their order, cursing my brain that seems only ever to remember the gist of things when what was needed more than anything was perfect minute detail.

I’m not sure why, perhaps it was because of all that time spend on Lear at school, but while studying Shakespeare at university I kept coming back to it. Whatever aspect of Shakespeare I was thinking about, whichever plays I was scrutinising, Lear always reared its head. It was the lethal still centre at the heart of a whirlpool, the other plays swirling around its centrifugal pull.

And if Lear is the centre of Shakespeare’s vortex, then at the centre of Lear is the storm, the moment when Lear’s madness breaks.

Blow winds and crack your cheeks!

How astonished I was when these greatly-anticipated words were rasped low, echoing in an amplified whisper through the Donmar rather than being shouted over the crashes and booms of a theatrical storm.

When I was much younger my cello teacher told me that it was good to be able to play loudly, but to get someone to really listen you must be able to play softly; you have to make them lean forwards in their seats, craning their heads, straining their ears. And so, in Lear, we listened, spellbound, to this powerful quiet, this hissing entropy at the centre of the play’s destruction.

It is these unexpected moments that remake a play like Lear. An audience for Shakespeare already knows the story, and that must be a terrific problem for directors and actors. There can’t be a new twist, a new character, a new subplot … it’s all there already, written down hundreds of years ago and has already been read, performed, seen countless times.

And the audience will rely on the fact that they know what’s going to happen. There’s an inevitability to watching a Shakespeare play – especially one with so great a tragic arc as Lear – he will fall, his world will fall apart … this is what will happen and there is cathartic pleasure in watching it unfold.

So perhaps it is down to the director and actors to trip up the audience. To throw in something unexpected, to make them lean forwards to hear the words anew, or to make them lean back and gasp in surprise.

Ian McKellen’s Lear was renowned for the moment when he got completely starkers. Germaine Greer’s article about it for the Guardian is reliably ascerbic. I bet few people (other than director Trevor Nunn) had thought of ‘unaccommodated man’ in quite such graphic terms before.

And the Almeida’s production of Lear, back in 2002, to which I was taken on a school trip, conveyed the storm by the wooden panels of stage set falling down with terrific ‘crack’s and crashes, and rain pouring in on the stage for half an hour. It was wonderfully dramatic; we were all stunned.

Both these were visually astonishing. (It seems crude to say impressive.) But what I so admire about Jacobi’s Lear is that the astonishment lies in the way he speaks the words. The set was markedly stark, the costumes stayed away from opulence, the only props were the occasional letter or sword (and some rather simplified stocks for Kent). It was a bare performance in a much more impressive way than McKellen’s, stripping everything down to language rather than to the naked body.

I was stunned to hear those lines whispered, and I was grabbed even earlier by Jacobi’s scream before he uttered with dread certainty ‘I shall go mad.’ Lear’s madness risks becoming something of a refrain, ‘the King goes mad … when Lear is mad … do not make me mad … O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heav’n! / Keep me in temper; I would not be mad.’ But here, the piercing scream, the frankness of his line, brings a whole new horror to it.

Another resonance Jacobi brought to Lear’s madness was his terrific anger. Jacobi is so furious in the early scenes of the play that it brings the now-American sense of ‘mad’ as in ‘angry’ to the play. Being ‘beside oneself with anger’ is a meaning of ‘mad’ from c.1300, only thought of as an Americanism in the late eighteenth century.

And it is this anger – his temper, his tantrums – that made me think of Max from Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

After all, Max, like Lear, makes mischief, and – albeit in his imaginary world – is King of the Wild Things. The anarchy of his Wild Rumpus surely has a parallel with Lear’s storm. Isn’t Where the Wild Things Are, like Lear, about the creation and then dissolution of worlds?

As Jacobi is an old Lear, not far off his years of ‘fourscore and upward’ stipulated in the text, it seems particularly pertinent to think of him in relation to a child. Max’s madness, his mischief-making, his anarchic fun is so joyful. His chaos is celebratory – a wild rumpus – and when he’s had enough of it he can return home to comfort and normality. Lear’s is destructive and tragic, spiralling rapidly out of control. And Shakespeare denies a happy resolution, despite dangling it so tantalisingly with Cordelia’s return.

‘Old fools are babes again’, but I bet Lear wishes that his mischief, his madness, had only such brief and contained consequences as Max’s. If only he could go home again and find his supper waiting for him, still hot.

Perhaps most foolish of all was my Shakespeare tutor at university. At the end of a big, grand, black-tie dinner, which involved port and snuff and all those other Oxbridge trappings, we all retired for coffee and a game of charades. My tutor proceeded to enact the following clues:


Two words.

He draws a crown around his head.

He leers at each of us in a truly creepy way.

So we can comfort ourselves with the thought that at least Lear wasn’t leery in his old age, just mad.