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One thing stood out for me, about the story, that I hadn’t fully realised from watching the old Gene Kelly movie. That was how the character Cosmo glues the story together, how he dominates it in some respects. Cosmo, in case your not familiar with the plot, is the sidekick and pianist of the ‘star’ of the show, and early on in the script that point is made. Don Lockwood is the star. Cosmo is the nobody. Don even lends him his coat, so that while Cosmo gets mobbed by the fans, Don can slip out of the theatre without being seen. But when Cosmo slips on the overcoat, the sleeves are way too big for him.
Even in the film, one can’t (or even cain’t) fail to notice Cosmo’s fabulous tour de force in the dance routine to the song ‘Make ‘em Laugh’, and to see the performance (brilliantly done by Stephane Anelli, in the Glasgow production) live on stage makes it even more so! I realised I’d been waiting for that song, but it’s not the only one Cosmo appears in. There are two others where he holds his own with the putative leads, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in the original filmed version. These are the songs ‘Good Mornin” and ‘Moses Supposes’. The two leads do, of course, get their duos, and the male lead, in what was – as with the Fred Astaire movies – a vehicle for the talents of the lead male dancer primarily, gets his extended ‘ballet’ – Gene Kelly’s term for the ‘Broadway Melody’ sequence, danced in the film with Cyd Charisse. And of course, there is the iconic, and eponymous, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ sequence, which in the stage show delightfully showers the front four rows of the stalls – we sat in the fifth, heh, heh.
Yet, Cosmo has something about him. When he is on stage he is orchestrating the actions of the ‘good guys’ in the faces of their adversaries. He comes up with the idea that will save the day, dubbing the songs of the brash Lina Lamont with the singing of the Debbie Reynolds character, Kathy Selden. He’s the one who thinks up the new title for the ‘talkie’ they are making, and the one who initiates drawing back the curtains on Lina as she mimes to the true heroine’s voice at the end. As a plot device, Cosmo is vital to the story, but I suspect he is more than that. He also the little guy who comes through, who makes good, who lives his life in the shadow of the great, but who, right from the start, when Don and he are Music Hall performers, is not overshadowed by them. The fact that he does so is not lost on us, for we are like him, or aspire to be and that gives him a potency on stage, and in the film, that doesn’t steal anybody’s limelight, but which is both palpable and reassuring.
Sidekicks and buddies, girlfriends and confidantes can be found in many stories. They are often wiser than the heroes they support. They are often long suffering. Look at Sam Gamgee in Lord of the Rings. But they are always valued, by the heroes themselves, and by us, in the penny seats.
At a Facets of Fiction session recently we got onto the subject of writing fear. Not the schlock-horror slasher chain-store massacre stuff, but that subtler, and not in the least comic slow-burn tension that you get in movies when the camera point of view tells you you’re watching through the eyes of some hidden predator.
There’s a particular favourite of mine, in literature, in the H G Wells novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and having cited this to the group I decided to go and read it again, in the deep darkness of later on! It’s the section of the story where Prendick, already unsettled by the appearance of M’Ling and other residents of the island has been driven out of the compound by the crying of the puma under the eponymous Doctor’s vivisectionist knife.
His unease increases as he encounters one of the beast people that Moreau has created, and then witnesses three more of them ecstatically reciting ‘the law’. A decapitated rabbit on the path adds to his sense of danger, but it is when he begins to realise that the light is fading, and that he has wandered far from the compound that Wells really turns up the tension. In the fading light, Prendick’s journey back, alone and unarmed, his head full of the images of the deformed creatures and the mutilated rabbit carcase, is tracked by one of the beasts. Prendick can see the creature through the thick undergrowth, but as the shadows deepen the tracking turns into a pursuit.
I had the pleasure of visiting the abandoned island of Mingulay a few years ago, not alone I might add, and neither was it entirely abandoned, for two ‘hunters’ were living on it, and spending their time shooting the local rabbit population, at the behest of Scottish heritage or some such body. The rabbits, in case you’re wondering, were, and probably still are, literally destroying the island. The open ground near to the ruins of the village was strewn with corpses, each neatly slit open, presumably to encourage the attention of scavenging birds, and my mind flashed back to Moreau’s island.
What’s interesting to me about this imagery and the way writers, and film makers use it, is how the power of the threat it implies is often in inverse proportion to the extent of the danger that is made explicit. What is hinted at, but not revealed is usually far more potent than what is shown. I call this the Trollenberg effect, in memory of a film I watched as a child. The Trollenberg Terror lived up in the mountains, shrouded in movie mist, and was terrifying, but when the jelly-blob of second-rate special effects was revealed you reached for the crying-with-laughter box of tissues. As with images, so with words.
M R James, in his Whistle and I’ll Come to You Lad pulls a similar trick, dropping the hints that make our wildest imaginings run free. For the key to this is not what’s happening on the page, so much as what is lurking in our subconscious. Our fears are what scare us, and the good storytellers, in film or language, hitch a ride on those fears, knowing that they will carry them far further than will any horror that they imagine will scare us, or as the old blind monk said. once upon a time, to a character called ‘grasshopper': it is your fears that pull you down!
I’ve been involved in discussions with the editor of an anthology, who had accepted my story Perhaps Tomorrow for publication in next year’s edition…Don’t hold your breath: it won’t be there (though you should be able to read it in my forthcoming collection from Sentinel if all goes to plan.) Things don’t always go to plan, do they?
What I’d missed, actually I hadn’t looked for it, which we’ll get back to, was the House style! Always check out “The House Style”. It’s advice I’ve been given, have passed on, and have frequently overlooked! Let’s face it, we’re always tempted to believe that in our “special case” the story, poem, or whatever will be deemed so irresistible that “The House Style” will be chucked out of the attic window, or locked in the basement for the duration. It probably won’t be.
In this case though, I’d simply not considered “The House Style”, and sent my story off with thoughtless insouciance. The acceptance was nice, but also, potentially more useful, in that it came with the offer of some editorial input.
The input came through, a few notes added down the side of the digital manuscript. All referred to the lack of “speech marks” in my MS.
Those of you who have read/read my stories, will know that speech marks “are a thing of the past for me”. I gave them up several years ago. It has become my House Style to do without them. I got the idea from George Moore’s novel Heloise and Abelard (Doubleday, 1921 – I think). He wasn’t the first I’d encountered who did without them, only the first I’d consciously noticed. James Joyce, of course, doesn’t use them, nor Cormac McCarthy. There are others too.
I had to explain to the editor, who tried to persuade me to relent, saying that “they would make the story ‘stronger’”. Personally, I find them “bloody irritating”, but that’s as may be. Being a reasonable sort of chap – “Ho, ho, ho”, I hear you say – I ran the quandary past a few writing friends. The first, who shall be referred to as “the nameless one”, was circumspect. “How would you feel about translation?”, he said. Translation, like adaptation, is fine… but you’d have to put ‘translated by’ or ‘adapted from’ as the bye-line. I ran this past my editor, mostly because I found it rather amusing…but the editor did a “Queen Victoria”, and wasn’t at all.
So, I asked another writer for an opinion, whom I shall refer to as the “nameless two.” ”Read this,” I said, and after they had, “and tell me if you think it would benefit from ‘speech marks’”. They thought not. The sentence “You don’t use ‘speech marks’” cropped up.
In for a penny, I asked an artist friend of mine what she thought. Okay, we’ll call her “nameless three.” She got almost as upset as I had. She’s a visual artist, and could see that the inclusion of “them” would profoundly alter the reader’s perception of the text, even before a single word was read.
The editor had been busy too… garnering other “nameless ones,” the one I saw concurring with the “stronger” theory, and also putting the finger, or thumb, on the point about “House Styles” I referred to earlier.
This was the comment that made me realise it was my “House Style”, because up till then I’d let myself react by playing the game of giving “my reasons in writing.” I’d explained about George Moore, and how reading his “speech-mark-less” text had been a bit of a struggle, and that I rather liked that – because it made me pay attention, and wanted to go for the same effect; that and the fact that I think “speech marks” rather isolate what’s being said from the narrator telling the tale – as if there really were other people in there who were actually talking, which is “Not What I Want To Do!”
But beyond all that, it struck me, eventually, that though explanations of the ways that writers and other artists work can be interesting and instructive, you don’t have to justify it them anyone but yourself. You do sometimes, however, have to accept the consequences of your beliefs.
My nameless three interlocutor had one other interesting observation to make, one potentially of more use than anything I’ve written above. It was that “when you make something you are going beyond what you know you are doing” – actually that’s me paraphrasing.
I hope this little blog has been worth waiting for.
Movie buffs will be aware how storytelling in film has evolved over the years. Old movies seem slow and over elaborate in their expositions. The camera cuts to a gun, then to a character’s face pulling a stereotypical expression, and back again. This might be repeated several times, nudging the reader towards understanding. Eventually we shall get the idea that the character is thinking of picking up the gun, or that another character will!
Today, the movie would be much more subtle, giving the most oblique, and briefest of hints. Michael Caine, giving a TV masterclass many years ago, did a close up on his face, and invited us to watch again. I’ll swear he didn’t move the minutest muscle, but I knew he was thinking something different to the time before! We have learned how to ‘read’ movies in the years since D.W.Griffiths found the montage and the jump cut in Dickens.
Has something similar happened to the way we ‘read’ stories? And, consequently, the way we might write them? Quoting Charles Baxter (introducing Short Fiction International), the editors of Flash Fiction Forward (Norton,2006) say that ‘readers process information much more quickly now’. This, rather than dumbing down, they tell us, is what has made flash fiction so popular. We pack so much more in than we used to.
Reading Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune, another of The World’s Thousand Best Stories, (Hammerton,c1933) I was reminded of this, for here is quite a short story, just short of five pages, that if retold today would almost certainly be shorter still. In fact, it struck me that a writerly sort of exercise might be to do just that, and re-write it for the modern reader.
As with much in writing – for the amateur writer – the process is what interests, rather than the product, and my process began with looking for the bones of the story under its layers of Third Republic flesh, and bombazine.
Paul Arène was a disciple of Zola, but the editors here have chosen what they infer is an atypical comic story to represent him. Trophime Cogolin, the protagonist, subsequently referred to as Trefume (what’s in a name?), is the last in a family that has dreamed of inheriting the eponymous fortune of the almost mythical Uncle Sambuq, who has decamped to America, never to be heard of again. The story of this fortune has sustained the family for years, and one day a letter comes from the French Embassy in New York informing Msr. Cogolin of his uncle’s death. Another letter, he is sure, will follow, outlining the fortune. It does not.
So, he plunders his savings (he is only a poor fisherman) and sets off for New York. To avoid his pestering the ship’s steward points out two other travellers on the boat, who might be able to answer his questions about the city. These two, however, studiously avoid his advances. The steward, for amusement’s sake, has told them that Trefume is in fact a famous French detective, on the trail of thieves who have just pulled off a massive robbery in Paris.
A hundred years of popular literature (plus cinema and TV) have indeed improved our processing, for it was at this point that I felt I could predict the rest of the story! Stories aren’t all about finding out what happens next though. They are about enjoying the way we find out. (See C.S.Lewis, In Other Worlds for a discussion of this).
Disembarked at New York, Trefume, unable to speak English is lost. Where can he find that fortune? Then he spots one of the two passengers, and determines to speak with him, whatever it takes. It takes a chase through the streets, until the fugitive, exhausted, seeks refuge in a bar, where Trefume confronts him. In a delightfully non-specific conversation the man confesses to the crime that the steward has told him about, and Trefume accepts a hundred thousand francs, believing it to be his share of Uncle Sambuq’s fortune.
It’s rather a neat little story. I wondered if I could pull out of it specific sentences that would tell it.
1 The Trefumes lived happy and contented, patiently awaiting the time when they would have their share of the millions amassed by Peter Sambuq.
2 One morning, when Trefume was least expecting it, he received a letter from New York.
3 “The Ambassador doesn’t say anything about the fortune,” observed Trefume’s better half, wiping her eyes.
4 At length their anxiety reached such a pitch that Trefume announced his intention of undertaking a journey to New York -
5 He travelled to Havre and embarked on a vessel bound for New York.
6 “Here!” he said, pointing to two of the passengers; “those are the men to help you.”
7 Two or three times, when he thought the moment opportune, he approached them hat in hand and attempted to speak to them in his best French, but he was met with a scowl and a growl which made him retire.
8 “Well, I wouldn’t mind betting that this man is Jean Ernest, the cleverest detective in France, who is on the track of the thieves and has disguised himself as a fisherman from the south.”
9 Poor Trefume looked for them in vain; they got off the steamer unobserved by him, and he was left to find his way about New York as best he could.
10 He had just reached the end of the street when he saw one of the Americans to whom the under-steward had referred him on the steamer.
11 “I know what you have come to New York for,” said the man.
12 “My fair share, of course!” replied the Frenchman.
13 “Now you have this on condition that you go back in the Bretagne”
14 “Done!” exclaimed Trefume.
If these are the bones of the story, what does the fleshing out, and dressing of it give us? The clue even might be in the stripped back extracts.
In number three, for example, Trefume’s wife wipes her eyes. In number seven, Trefume has a ‘hat in hand’ and is met ‘with a scowl and a growl’. These are not vital pieces of information. The first two could be removed and we would understand as much of the story. The third could be replaced with the simpler statement that he was rebuffed.
Why tell us how these things happened, or were done? Because, it’s no surprise, they give us pictures in the mind, images from our stock piles of what we have seen. We have files of hats in hand, and scowls and growls, and tearful faces, and from them we select the ones that we think most appropriate.
The very fact that Trefume is a ‘fisherman from the south’ gives us an image, and not the same one, I venture, that ‘a banker from the north’ would have given us. In an essay on adaptation Joseph Conrad is quoted, talking about the effect his trying to achieve in words: ‘I want you to see.’ Words convert to imagined, or more accurately, recycled images. Even words we do not know, for things we can only imagine, such as we get in sci-fi writing, trigger recollections of experiences we have actually had. There is nothing else in there.
Yet there are also, within these fourteen sentences and fragments that I have pulled out of Arlene’s story, phrases that we would not need, if writing for a modern audience. Take number ten, for example. The phrase ‘one of the Americans’ would not need the rest of the sentence these days. We would never take it to mean one of all possible Americans. That definitive ‘the’ tells us quite clearly who is being referred to. Eisenstein, writing about D.W.Griffiths’ debt to Dickens for the montage and the jump cut, points out that these techniques had been used in told stories for a long time, but also that early cinema producers were not confident that they would be understood when used in shown stories. As we become more familiar with the techniques of storytelling, can those jump be wider, and higher? And does the whole story undergo a similar evolution? When we look at a rainbow, we don’t need it to touch the ground at either end to know that it is a rainbow.
In the case of number fourteen in my selected sentences, it might well be that a modern writer would choose to end the story there, but the original goes on for four paragraphs. Do they add anything to the story? Is there any new revelation, or a re-contextualising of what we have already been told?
The first sees Trefume accept the pocket book full of money, which he checks. He asks himself for an explanation – which is fine, for him, but we’ve already had it! The paragraph ends: ‘Only one thing was clear: he had succeeded in getting a good slice of Uncle Sambuq’s fortune and was now a rich man’.
There is nothing in this that we have not already grasped. But is it possible that the writer did not trust his readers to have grasped it? Did the punch line to the joke need to be repeated, to be restated, just to be on the safe side?
The second paragraph has the American wait with him, buy a ticket, and see him off on the boat. I don’t think my contemporaries would bother with that. Would readers really ask, “and did he go back?” or “and what happened next?” I’m not sure we care what happened next!
The third paragraph simply explains that ‘Master Trefume, having had the good fortune to be taken for a detective, became the heir of Uncle Sambuq, who had died penniless in a hospital a few weeks before’ – just in case you ‘adn’t grasped zat, you stupid woman!
The fourth, and longest of the quartet, tells us that Trefume never really understood what went on, that later in life he would declare that Americans were ‘far ahead’ of others ‘in business matters’, and it ends with: ‘See how quickly they settled that little matter of Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune.’
That final, comic-ironic flourish is a proper ending for the story, but I venture it wouldn’t be the modern writer’s choice.
‘“Done!” exclaimed Trefume’ is the real comic punch. But if you want to go for the later ending, emphasising Trefume’s misunderstanding of what has taken place, you would need to set it up with something, following his acceptance of the deal. Perhaps the fourth of those paragraphs alone would suffice.
I think what is going on here, and what differs from modern practice, is not merely long windedness (which we can still do today, I hear you say), but the need to point up for the reader the ‘signficances’ of the story, to say ‘this bit’s important’, ‘this bit’s funny’, and most of all ‘and this is why it is’. We chuck the reader in at the deep end these days. Here’s what happened. You decide what’s important. We may get ‘here’s what some of the characters thought about it’ too, and we might get what the author thinks, but the long repeated stares of the early films have been replaced by glances, and the theatrical make-up is now a nuance of the lighting.
There are other elements to consider: the context in which the story was written includes perceptions current at the time, of what was normal and what exotic? Perceptions of America underpin this story, specifically the expectation that one would go there to ‘make a fortune’. To what extent would this be true now? To what extent was the writer being ironic then? To be a comedy the idea has to be both widely held, and widely dismissed. It has to be believed to be a common delusion. Would it still be? Could the story be cast into a past of which this would be believed to be the belief? Isn’t that what Arène himself was doing? The story is set in 1848, when he was five years old. In trying to re-write it I set my story vaguely in a past that might have been around when I was five! How old was he when he wrote his I wonder? He died younger than I shall.
And how much of the enjoyment of the story, the experience of reading it, is in the actual way it is written, rather than in what it is ‘about’? To what extent can a story be changed in the former dimension, without changing in the latter?
Re-writing ‘classic’ or at least earlier stories emphasises the art of the telling, and the question of why the story might be told, something that’s worth flexing a muscle on if we’re going to be fit to tell our own stories.
There’s much to be interested in, in both the films and the surrounding extras, including the useful printed history of the production that accompanies the dvd. The presence of John Steinbeck, taking the role that Maugham himself was able to take with his own stories. The presentation makes the connection between the two productions clear, with Steinbeck introducing both the series and the individual films as did Maugham.
Seeing Steinbeck on film was as interesting as seeing Maugham. He adds, intentionally, a gravitas to the whole proceeding – something subtly different to what Maugham added. Sitting behind, or casually upon a desk in a book lined study, he presents a solid, respectable, and essentially serious mien. Fox wanted O.Henry to be taken seriously, despite his undeserved reputation as a literary lightweight.
Perhaps in pursuit of this, the books in front of which they film Steinbeck carry the titles of O.Henry stories, in gilt lettering on their broad, leather spines. There is an unintended comedy here, which Henry himself would not have missed, for while those spines are novel-wide, the stories they purport to contain are often only a few pages. This doesn’t prevent Steinbeck from lifting down the relevant volumes and leafing through them until the camera zeroes in on the first page of the story, from which he begins to read…
This is a direct steal from Gainsborough, or should I say, homage to? There is something about visual humour that does not always translate into pictures! O. Henry’s stories are often visually comic, and his words stimulate our imaginations to create those images. When someone tries to to replicate them in actual images it is not a simple equation. What words evoke, when seen in reality, may not evoke the humour that was in the words. A classic example of this must have been the late 20th century TV adaptation of Peter Mayall’s A Year in Provence. It was, sadly, often ‘the way he told ‘em’, and in at least one of these adaptations O. Henry’s tale suffers a similar fate.
I’m thinking of The Ransom of Red Chief. This is a screwball tale of two incompetent kidnappers who seize a brat-like child who runs rings around them, and whose father they have to bribe to take him back. It cries out for filming, and there have been several subsequent films on the same theme, but without any reference to O Henry! But Fox knew they had a porker on their hands with what they turned out, and the film was dropped from the original 1951 compilation, being put back in only in a nineteen sixties TV re-run. Even the bear, which cover notes point out was of a species not native to North America, seems to walk through the piece as if under sedation. Of course, it may well have been, but were the actors too?
If you’d like to read the story but don’t fancy the 100 tale edition of his work, look out for the TravelMan edition (short stories on single sheets, folded like traditional road maps).
My favorite was The Cop and the Anthem in which a tramp, played with relish by Charles Laughton, seeks to get arrested so that he might spend the winter months in a warm and well fed custody. His plans go awry, despite his attempts, but turn out all right in the end, or not. I don’t want to give too much away. It’s worth saying though, that Marilyn Monroe gets a walk on – should that be a sashay on? – part, at a little over a minute, but star billing with Laughton and his sidekick who are present throughout the film.
O.Henry’s tales are tight little vignettes, famed for the twists in their tales. It is difficult to adapt them without being faithful, and in some ways pointless to do so if they are! Unless of course, you’re aiming for an audience who can’t read them, or who can’t imagine what they are reading. One of the twistiest of tales is the famous The Gift of the Magi and Fox capture not only its sugar sweet sentimentality, but also its powerful denouement in which the Christmas gifts of a poverty struck married couple are complementary in an unexpected way. Unexpected of course, only if you have been living on Mars, for the story had become the American Christmas Carol for the generations between of Henry and my own. This story also features on the Travelman sheet along with Red Chief.
The Clarion Call with Dale Robertson and Richard Widmark is remarkable for Widmark’s riveting performance as a deranged hoodlum, played so far from the credible character that the story requires as to undermine the dramatic integrity of the whole. Yet, undeniably, a masterpiece of acting, in the wrong place.
The fifth film is The Last Leaf in which a drunken and failed artist pulls off a minor miracle and finds his true worth at the end. Despite the crude outline of the story, this has nuances of character and motivation that make it worthy of the original.
We can judge the success of the series, perhaps, by the fact that Fox went on to make no more, whereas Gainsborough got three bites at Somerset Maugham’s cherries. I think there is an affinity between the short story and the film, but in these O.Henry adaptations, I don’t find the best of evidence for it.
On the face of it they can be nicely produced too. This was one is. But in the first 8 pages of text I found two mis-spellings and a completely wrong word, and two paragraphs repeated. When does nit-picking become the recognition of a job badly done?
And should we expect our readers to be alert to these mistakes? And should I call them ‘minor’ mistakes? After all, they are the mistakes that I noticed as mistakes (and so was able to discount, if not ignore). They are a distraction though, taking attention away from the story, and in a sense, from the writing itself, because looking for more errors can become an irritant. Then there is the issue of the ones not noticed. How many of them have there been, and how unimportant are they?
And if we aren’t alert to them, these minor oversights and errors, what else aren’t we alert to? How about the nuances of the story? The beauties of the language (all those neat turns of phrase that might turn out to have been unintentional, to have been typos even). To what extent is the act of reading an act of faith? To what extent has that faith been undermined, shaken, by noticing a mistake on every second page out of the first four pages turned?
When I sold second-hand books for a living I encountered quite a few self-published war memoirs (and one or two peaceable ones). They too often had what are at core, proof reading issues. Proof reading is notoriously difficult. One of the best ways to discover typos and the like is to go through your work over and over again until you’re sure there aren’t any, and then – and this is the crucial bit – send the manuscript out to a publisher. The better the publisher the better it works. Magically, almost as soon as you’ve hit send, certainly before the manuscript has thumped into the bottom of the post-box, you will notice one or two that had previously escaped your gaze.
Another sure fire way is to wait three, or four, or ten years, and look at that perfect version again….If all else fails, get published, and that will provide the final crop; but not one on every other page fGs! Having said which, I have a ‘corrected’ version of James Joyce’s Ulysses which reckons to have corrected 5,000 errors in my Bodley Head edition. That’s several per page, if my maths is correct – which it sometimes isn’t. I still read the BH edition, btw.
A deeper malaise I found in many self-published war memoirs was the inclusion of repetitions that were not mere matters of proof reading or typography, but of editing, and of storytelling. Incidents were sometimes re-told, or referred to before and after the re-telling. Links that might better have been left to the reader to make. Worse still, and this is often a feature of fictional stories, the writer seemed to have no idea of what was important and not important, interesting and uninteresting, relevant and irrelevant to the story. Everything, it would seem, had been put in, significant or not, as if the writer himself (it was usually a him in the books I sold) did not know what mattered about the story, or why it was worth telling, why it might be worth reading.
I’ve known of authors reduced to tears, or rage, by what they have thought of as the cack-handed way their books have been adapted for film and TV. Often a frustrated rage or weeping, as they have been contractually bound never to reveal such negatives about the project. And publication is a sort of adaptation, one that, through the offices of a good editor and eagle-eyed proof-reader, will make a story come alive beyond the hopes of its creator. Badly handled, it can set in print, which is equivalent in terms of the life of the author to being set in stone, those glaring mistakes and errors that will cut the author like knives each time he sees them.
One of the English teachers at my Secondary School told me about Walter M Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz. That would have been in the mid nineteen sixties. I read it, and lost my paperback copy sometime later. The novel cropped up recently in a discussion at LitCaff in Carlisle, which got me to recalling.
Throughout the decades between one thing had stuck in my mind – and this I’m afraid, will be a spoiler to begin with – that was the way Mrs Grales’ extra head comes to life as Rachel, while her original head withers away and dies. I read it again this week, in a new hardback by SF Masterworks (2012).
The novel is constructed in three major sections, set in a single place over eighteen centuries of time. The place is a monastery in a post-apocalyptic desert in what was once Utah. In the first section the Abbot struggles with a novice who has found remains from the time of the nuclear holocaust, remains that will eventually validate the claim of the eponymous Leibowitz to sainthood.
In the second another Abbot contends with a visiting academic, and a practically minded Brother, who together represent the re-birth of Science and Technology, based on the Leibowitzian remains – known as ‘the memorabilia’. The third Abbot lives to see his technologically advanced world destroy itself once more, and to experience that miraculous transformation that stuck in my mind.
The reborn Rachel not only comes to life, but also she comes as free of ‘original sin'; as one who is innocent of the knowledge which that act of disobedience ‘cursed’ mankind with. As such, it is she who administers the last rites to the dying Abbot, who is unable, both physically, and implicitly, morally to so do for her. This scene which stuck in my mind, is not the last of the book however, for in a short following chapter, the Abbot’s protégée, brother Joshua leaves earth with a group of other monks (plus women and children) to set up a new evangelical colony.
I recalled this last scene a few chapters before I reached it, for it too has a striking image, that of a monk knocking the dust of earth from his sandals as he enters the ship.
Neither of these two scenes though, dominated my second reading of the book. What had not struck me so forcibly before was the uncompromising religious fundamentalism that stands behind the story, a fundamentalism that seems to go hand in hand with a type of misogyny. For the fact is, that for the first two thirds of this book there is barely a reference to the female of the species, and there are no female characters driving, or even responding to the action.
Late in the story there is a ‘lady reporter’ who stands as a token rather than a symbol, and whose role might as well have been taken by another male character. There are references, though very few, to Eve. It is not until Mrs Grales sudden appearance in the third part of the story that we get a female character: ‘the bicephalous old tomato woman’.
It is not simply that Miller is blaming the ills of the world on ‘men’. Rather, he seems to me at least, to be saying that ‘women’ simply aren’t part of the equation. The reference to ‘sisters’ at the monastery in the final section does not develop into any of them having even a single statement to make about any of the religious ideas that the book not so much examines, as promotes.
The two headed Mrs Grales is perhaps the most important character in the book, in that she becomes the born again Rachel, ‘preternatural,’ without sin, guilt, or knowledge. Her presentation is odd, to say the least, with a music-hall accent somewhere between Hollywood Negro, and West Country Rustic. I’m always sceptical of sins of the flesh that are referred to as ‘naughties’. More interestingly, she is never approached and scrutinized by the figure of the ‘pilgrim’, the Wandering Jew, Benjamin, who has haunted the book right from the very start, seeking ‘the one’, whom I take to be the second coming. The Abbot, in his three manifestations is also important, for he develops and articulates the religious ideas upon which the book is founded, ideas which are, I believe, its agenda.
These ideas culminate in the third Abbot commanding an irradiated woman (and her child) to suffer the painful fate God has given them, rather than take the euthanasia offered by the state. It is not his disapproval of the possible cynicism of the state that prompts his command, but his belief that the pain of the world is intentional, and that we avoid it at the cost of our immortal souls. (This idea was briefly touched upon in a Radio 4 discussion earlier this week).
‘As a priest of Christ I am commanding you by the authority of Almighty God not
to lay hands on your child, not to offer her life in sacrifice to a false god of expedient
Here is an as uncompromising fundamentalism as you will find anywhere, in any monotheistic religion. I don’t think Miller was being ironic. Neither do I think his suppression of a female voice throughout the book is accidental. In the world he has created (or observed?) it is the male voice that has been heard, that has uttered and brought forth the world in its repetitive, unavoidable disasters.
But what Miller’s third Abbot also gives us is a recognition that the hope offered by the religion he represents has died, at least so far as this earth is concerned.
‘…the least hopeful note of all comes…..from the Vatican……Pope Gregory
ceased to pray for peace in the world.’
The Catholic church, on behalf of its God, has ceased its ministry.
The birth of Rachel, the female mutant head of Mrs Grales, is only vaguely redemptive.
‘He did not ask why God would choose to raise up a creature of primal innocence
from the shoulder of Mrs Grales, or why God gave to it the preternatural gifts
of Eden -‘
‘He had seen primal innocence in those eyes, and a promise of resurrection.’
I doubt we can disentangle the fictional and imaginative from the remembered experiences of this World War Two bomber, who is said to have felt guilt at his involvement in the bombing of Monte Cassino. I’m not sure we would benefit anyway from such knot-picking. The book raises questions about belief, and as much about our belief today, and tomorrow (if there is one) as about any past, fictional or factual, or that blend of the two which Henry Ford called ‘mostly bunk’, and which Churchill reminded us, is written by the ‘winners’, that we call History.
On reflection, after having read, I felt that the biggest hole in Miller’s grim universe was that left by the absence of any reference to human love. None of the characters seem driven by their feelings about other human beings, except where those feelings are of hatred. They are male characters driven by anger, fear, and hatred of the ideas and consequent actions of other male characters. Told, as it is, through the eyes and minds, predominantly, of the three Abbots, the only love referred to is the love of God.
‘Hear then, the last Canticle of the Brethren of the Order of Leibowitz ……
V: Lucifer is fallen.’
Miller’s text copyright dates from 1959. There are other books of that period which take a similar tack. Post-apocalyptic stories were common throughout the post-war period of nuclear stand-off, known in its own time as ‘The Cold War’. Frank Herbert’s The Dune Trilogy (dated to 1965), though it spun off into other themes as it developed beyond the first three novels, was in part a discussion of the relationship between political philosophy and religion. The less well known, Hiero’s Journey (Sterling E Lanier, Panther,1975) tells of a monk’s quest from a post-apocalyptic abbey in Canada, but his story ends with the finding of a book entitled ‘Principles of a Basic Analog Computer’, which is offered as the panacea to those post-apocalyptic conditions. A conclusion further from Miller’s would be hard to imagine.
Based on a journey apparently taken in 1959 it is a first person account of an Englishman among the shepherds of Provence, making an annual trip, on foot, with 3000 sheep, from the coast near St Tropez, to the Alpes de Provence, some 9 days inland.
Not only his story, the account is laced with the stories that the shepherds tell, one each night, as they camp, and a couple at the end, where the flock has dispersed over the summer grazing of three mountain pastures. The tale told is contemporary, but the told tales are medieval. The sheep herders have cars that meet them with supplies at various points on the route, but the characters in the tales they tell are Barons and peasants, troubadours and Magicians. Their enemies are magical creatures, wicked relatives and neighbours, and Saracen invaders.
The structure of the collection as a whole reminded me of Boccaccio, with its tales within tales, and tellers of tales being told of. The themes though, are deeper, and often archetypal rather than domestic. Many concern falls from grace and redemption, and with the eventual passing, and returning, of all things, over time. Restless and dissatisfied men, and some women, some rich, some poor, make or squander their fortunes, their wisdoms, and their happinesses. The stories themselves are sometimes of stories, stories which are told of stories within them.
By turns De Larrabeiti made me laugh, and cry, and think myself wise, and suspect myself of having been a fool. The device of the medieval, traditional tellings has meant that the overall telling has not aged as it might have over the quarter century since publication, though contemporary English has.
There are so many levels of belief and disbelief to consider in a collection like this. Did the journey really take place? Did the shepherds really tell these tales? Were the tales they allegedly told really medieval? How much was fiction, how much fact? And behind all that, the question, who cares? For it is a story, and the truths of stories are in their fictions. Pete Morgan’s poem Ring Song, has a couplet: ‘and the story was told to a poet/and the poet passed on the story’.
It’s hard to pick favourites from a collection like this, but The Ruins of Grimaud and Malagan and the Lady of Rascas would be among mine. The former tells of a proud Baron who will not offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to a Saracen Prince. There’s a seam of what these days we would call bigotry that runs through the stories, and prejudice against the ‘other’ is strong in this story. It’s result is to bring ruin, mutilation, death and loss to the protagonists, and to their peoples. The theme is common in the wider collection. The latter story has a more fantastical disaster in mind, for here the proud Baron has a spell cast upon his wife that will make her unattractive to any potential lover while he is away crusading. The spell cannot be lifted until his return, with the magician who wove it. The baron, however, comes home alone, and finds that although his wife is still loved, admired and respected by all her courtiers and by the common people, despite the magical infliction, he is revolted by her. Unhappiness for all follows, until Malagan the magician, who has not died on the battlefield, comes home, to punish the Baron for abandoning him, to atone for his casting of the initial spell, and by inflicting upon the Baron the same curse to allow the situation to restore itself in a strange and unexpected way.
A similar denouement takes place in the tale of The Plane Tree and the Fountain, though the lead up to it here involves the consequences of a Baron failing to carry out his duties to those of whom he is overlord. Overlordship, responsibility, love and jealousy run through the medieval tales, and why would they not? The social arrangements within which they operate may have changed, but the human motives that create and challenge the institutions of state, and those of personal relationships are still with us.
The linking tales, like Boccaccio’s before, are short introductions to the ones that will follow, but they too are character studies, for each shepherd, and one or two others along the road, tell a tale that reveals something about him or her, to contrast with or complement the thumbnail sketch that the author has given us of the teller.
Another magical tale is The Curse of Igamor in which an evil Baron uses the local population’s fear of that eponymous curse to suppress them. A troubadour comes to town, and troubadours, in these tales, are always men (well, nearly always!) who bring truths that are both liberating, and challenging, and are often the triggers for change in both individuals and societies. Here the troubadour tells a tale, of a tale in which the evil baron of the overarching tale becomes the victim of his own curse. But the people do not believe in it sufficiently, and the troubadour is whipped and beaten for his troubles. One brave citizen helps him, and learns that unless tales are believed in they can be if little use, and that it is the troubadour’s job to be beaten, again and again, until they are believed. Which is an appropriate point at which to turn aside and reflect in a week that has seen journalists jailed for the tales they have told.