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Sunday, May 27, 2012


I am just happy Alexandre Dubosc exists

Because check him out.

I came upon his work on Colossal recently, and saw this:

And on his own blog, this:

And a lot more.

So now I am happy. People like this grace the world.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


First sentences: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

Little Women is, in many ways, an 'improving' book. It was not, though, written for moral ends; it was 'very hastily written to order', according to Alcott, and its improving aspects - mild for their day - were more a question of genre necessity than authorial aspiration. Alcott, working because her family needed the cash, went so far as to conclude her first volume by declaring that there might or might not be a sequel depending on 'the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama, called LITTLE WOMEN'; you can almost hear the sigh of relief as she lays down her pen and the shrug as she prepares to hand it over, the book written so fast you really can't tell if it's any good being an experience common to many writers. Still, there are many moments of more or less direct edification: moral uplift tends to provide a convenient plot structure, and the March sisters learn lessons big and small, are admonished by both family and circumstances, grow out of things, move towards virtuous womanhood. Proto-feminist as it also is, it's easy to forget this and be surprised by the didactic tone of some of its passages ... and the fact that we forget, and are surprised, and come back to the book in love despite the unfashionable nature of some of its lessons, is the book's masterstroke. Alcott chides gently, with an air of affection, and it's that affection that we remember the most. And more than affection: simple interest. The reality of the characters is what keeps them on the move, and what, in consequence, moves us.

The 'little women' - not quite women, not quite young girls - have lessons to learn, true. But what they are, from the very first page, is human - and human girls at that. For a book first published in the 1860s - a time of great political turmoil in its home country, we should not forget - there is a whiff of revolution about that, even in so hallowed a domestic sphere as the Marches occupy. Gender roles are not directly challenged, but we see four intelligent, self-willed, individual girls struggling to maintain their senses of identity in a world that imposes certain roles upon them. In other words, for all the didacticism of some of its chapters, its essential approach is not didactic but sensitive. It may prescribe and proscribe on moral and practical grounds, but it does not dictate personality. Within a strongly moral framework - which some personalities may find harder than others - character, selfhood and spirit are taken as a given. It speaks, in its naturalism, more subtly than an overt statement of principles, and therefore more memorably.

And perhaps its greatest saving grace is this: Alcott, in her own words, 'never liked girls nor knew many except my sisters,' nor did she entirely like the requirements of her commission: 'I do not enjoy writing "moral tales" for the young,' she wrote; 'I do it because it pays well.' The intensity of semi-autobiography is fired by the need for models - 'lively, simple books are much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need', she commented ... though again, it's worth remembering that the book was primarily written for pragmatic reasons: she needed to raise money, and her editor, Thomas Niles, approached her in the belief that she was a writer with the talent to fill a gap he had identified in the market. Alcott didn't like or know much about 'girls' - which is to say, she had no preconceptions about girlhood in general, and she certainly had no particular zeal to edify them. She'd toyed before with the idea of a book based on her childhood, and in the absence of any better ideas to fulfil Niles's condition, and with no clear notions of generic femalehood, she had to resort to what she could lay her imagination upon: accurate portraits of what she'd seen. And it's that particularity, the workmanlike integrity of a writer trying her best to fulfil a task that needs to be done as well as possible, that resulted in the book that she found read 'better than expected' because it was 'simple and true'. There just wasn't the time or the inclination to prettify - and in a culture where girls are oppressed from all sides by the tyranny of dainty falsehoods, oh, how we need unpretty stories.

So we start with Jo, wayward, ambitious, tomboyish and imaginative Jo, for whom the path to adult womanhood is going to be particularly hard. The door to the March home is opened to us by its least conformist member. The fact that the first name we hear is androgynous should not be overlooked for starters: the affectionate abbreviation of 'Jo' allows for a certain freedom of movement within the traditional roles. (Freedom that's physical as well as political, in fact, as witness her unladylike lolling on the rug; no crossed ankles and folded hands here. The informal atmosphere makes for relaxation of the body as well as of the conventions, and Jo enacts both in a conveniently direct manner.)

So much, so obvious, but it's also worth noting the fact that it's an abbreviation at all: it may be the most boyish name, but Beth and Meg are no more 'Elizabeth' and 'Margaret' than Jo is 'Josephine'. Of the March sisters, in fact, only the ladylike Amy keeps her full name, and after all, Amy is a hard name to shorten. What we hear is not only the flexibility of roles that a single-gendered community often allows, but intimacy: we are at home, hearing pet names first. We're not told their last name for some time, and in fact we quickly move into a conversation which both helpfully establishes more of their circumstances and personalities, and also borders, with an agreeable air of imperfection, on a mild quarrel. There are no barriers to entry here.

Certainly there are no barriers in what Jo says. Here we have our unladylike girl complaining - actually complaining, refusing to accept her lot with good grace. More, she's honest enough to be complaining about money, presents, material things: the kind of things that matter a lot to a kid, but which angelic children are not supposed to care about. The verb 'grumbled' is deftly chosen: neither entirely sympathetic nor fully condemnatory, it's a delicately observed description. Jo is grumbling: it's not exactly perfect behaviour, but it's not unnatural. Too, it suggests a fundamentally cosy atmosphere: grumbling is not the behaviour of someone deeply distressed. Jo's grumble allows us to identify with her situation - a Christmas without presents is indeed an easy woe to imagine - without either feeling ashamed for also liking to have nice things or getting too upset about it. (Considering her circumstances, after all, Alcott could speak from personal experience about the worries of poverty.)

It's interesting, too, that it's Christmas Jo's complaining about. This detail does several things at once. First, it locates us in time with a combination of the spiritual and the secular: the Marches are religious and virtuous, but when they talk about Christmas in private, it's the material aspects they're thinking of. Not only that: Christmas, its religious aspects aside, is the touchstone of family ritual in most households, the time when families celebrate together, develop their own traditions and customs, mark another year spent with each other. The intimacy of the family nicknames, Jo's stretched-out pose and the affectionately critical 'grumbled' is furthered by placing it in the context of that most familial of festivals.

So there are no barriers to the March home in the tone Alcott strikes. But the openness is not only that of tone - it's a simple sentence, simple in its vocabulary, structured as plainly as a sentence on the blackboard of a grammar class, with no verbal hurdles to leap. And it's also simple in its information: Jo's lament very quickly tells us what's what. The family has been accustomed to have presents at Christmas - otherwise the lack of them wouldn't be felt unChristmassy - but it won't be having them this year. The obvious conclusion, clear without having to spell it out, is that they have fallen on harder times. The story of Little Women is fundamentally a story of transition from youth to adulthood, but the context that shapes that transition is the story of the Marches' attempts to cope with, and essentially to transcend, their poverty. Finding meaning in non-material wealth is the name of the game here, and it would ring hollow and sink into obscurity if we didn't acknowledge right at the start that, however valid and uplifting that meaning may be, material wealth is still a nice thing to have and a frustrating thing to lack.

Alcott's style is very simple: no descriptive pyrotechnics are on display in this first sentence, no complicated phraseology, just a straightforward voice speaking directly to us. Perhaps influenced by the circumstances of its creation - Alcott recorded in her journal while writing that she did not 'enjoy this sort of thing', and was writing as fast as she could - Little Women is almost rough in its writing, each sentence getting the point across as quickly as possible with no more time for polish than Jo has for finery. In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could produce many infelicities, but Alcott's writing is transfigured by its fundamental honesty: with no time to elaborate, there is no time to falsify, and the run-on tone becomes the naturalism of a writer almost 'talking' to her readers. The imperfections of style - 'grumbled Jo, lying on the rug' is not a thing of particular rhythmic beauty, for instance - transmute into a sense of companionship, an author who doesn't put on airs. Daphne du Maurier, another author who knew the pressures of time, called her preferred domestic style a 'jam-a-long', and that's what Alcott is offering us here. We come in, sit down and listen, taking off our hats and coats in our own time: despite the pressures on the author, the style of the book is notably unpressuring for the reader, who can muddle along with the characters as best she can, and if she didn't wipe her feet before coming into this fictional world, well, neither did Alcott.

'We really lived most of it, and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it', Alcott wrote, and the hastily hammered out truth feels really lived. Alcott's subtlety lies not in her style but in the light precision of her observations, the naturalistic care of her choices, which add up to a picture complex not because of worked-up devices but because life itself is complex. Her renderings are lucid, almost ingenuous - but what she renders is what she sees, and what she sees is a room full of real girls. It's easy to read, but very few writers ever manage it.

*Note: quotations are taken from the introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition.

Monday, May 21, 2012


New ground rule

Remember how, a while ago, I ruled that it was okay to include 'spoilers' in any comments because I was trying to write in a (hopefully approachable) academic style rather than the reviews or fan essays that are commoner on the Internet? Well, now I'm ruling something else:

If you have a nitpick, please try to be interesting about it. And if you have nothing interesting to say except a nitpick, seriously, consider just letting it go.

Here's the thing.

There's a reason why I started doing these pieces. I do them because I love books, I love art, I love the literary use of language ... and because places where you can talk about them on the Internet are in disappointingly short supply. You can find fan essays a-plenty, sure, but I'm talking about discussions from a different kind of culture, the culture of literary study, the culture I've spent my life in and that I love so much. Those are not common on the Internet, and they're certainly not common in a chatty, accessible form on the Internet. I keep hoping I'll find places where such conversations take place, but fate and my acquaintances have yet to point me towards one.

So I decided to be the change I wanted to see, and I'm working hard on that project.

Nitpicks are not part of it. Nor are they going to be. And when they take over discussions, they actively undermine it.

I'm not saying that I don't want to be disagreed with or to have a serious mistake pointed out. Amaryllis, for instance, pointed out a serious and rather silly mistake I'd made in my essay on Antonia White's Frost in May, and I was happy to discuss it with her - in fact, I rewrote a whole paragraph in the light of her new information. But her comment wasn't just a nitpick: it was a piece of cultural and linguistic information that was relevant to the point I was making and interesting in its own right - that is, a piece of information that conveyed education and enlightenment beyond the mere question 'Is Kit Whitfield technically accurate in everything she says?' Which is not an interesting question, because the answer, I can tell you right here and now, is no. I don't know everything, I write these essays in my spare time, which between writing and raising a child is very limited and does not always allow for all the research I could wish, and so sometimes I make mistakes. I try to be as accurate as I can, and if I realise I've made a mistake I'll often try to correct it, but I have a pram in the hall and no copy-editor and sometimes mistakes slip through.

But there's a difference between 'I think the conclusion you draw here is incorrect because of this new and interesting piece of information' and 'I've double-checked your mathematics and your sums are wrong.'

The latter kind of nitpick is very common in fan discussions and non-academic conversations on the Internet. Fine, if you like that kind of thing, knock yourselves out. The Net is not short of places where you can do it. But I do not like that kind of thing, and I started doing this series precisely because I don't like that kind of thing, and it seems to take over most discussions of books. So I'm not having it take over here. That's just entryism. I don't hang around mathematics blogs complaining that their phraseology could be more elegant, because I know that's not the point of what they're trying to do, and because I respect other people's disciplines enough to let them pursue whatever point they deem fit without trying to turn the discussion into something else entirely.

I'd like to be extended the same courtesy here.

The point about the study of literature of the kind that fascinates me is that you approach a book on its own terms. For instance: I don't really care for the discipline of semiotics. It was a burden to me to have to study it as an undergraduate, and it often irritates me. But I decided to do a piece on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and in order to do it properly, I had to enter into the spirit in which it was written, which is to say that I had to accept semiotics as a valid position for the duration of the piece. And you know, I learned a lot by doing that. Resenting the obligation to study semiotics didn't teach me anything. Having a go at presenting it and giving it a fair crack of the whip, on the other hand, taught me how to enjoy the semiotic dance, at least a little bit. It let me wear someone else's shoes for a while and try out a few steps, and that broadened my mind and increased my pleasure in life. If I had spent the piece scanning Eco for technical inaccuracies - well, I doubt I would have found any, Eco being far more accomplished and erudite than I am, but whether or not I found any, I would certainly not have learned as much about semiotics as I did by letting go and getting into the swing of things.

In other words: I brought my own understanding and personality to the piece, of course, but I also tried to set aside those aspects of both that would have been contrary to its spirit.

The spirit of these posts is to try to learn interesting things by close analysis of single sentences. I would like that to be equally respected.

I don't mind people pointing out I'm wrong if they have something interesting to say. But people who jump in early to make comments with nothing more interesting to say than 'I have a nitpick' are not respecting the spirit. It's not that I mind having mistakes pointed out - heck, I like learning new things. But what I don't want is for this blog to become the nth place for nitpicking literalism of the kind that will discourage analytic commenters and kill the possibility for more discursive conversations. I want to cultivate the roses of discourse, which means I don't want the bindweed of nitpicks, and so I'm making a rule:

Please try to contribute to discussions in a constructive way. Which means: please don't try to turn them into mere fact-checking. If you want to contribute to the discussion and you're not sure how, by all means ask questions. But please keep the bindweed to a minimum.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


First sentences: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road.

Plain-spoken and placed, A Thousand Acres begins. A story explicitly based on King Lear, down to the initials of many characters, but told from the viewpoint of Ginny (Goneril), A Thousand Acres is not a story of filial betrayal but of parental betrayal, cultural betrayal, a patriarchal society that makes life impossible for women, a male-farmed, polluted land that literally kills women - the gynaecological curses of Lear transformed into breast cancer and miscarriages - and the darker implications of Lear are brought forth into a graphic portrait of a parent still abusing his adult children. The novel functions both as a critical response to Lear and as a work in its own right, and is full of concrete detail: the land and customs of this part of Iowa are entirely self-contained, excluding other viewpoints in the novel and eclipsing the English background of the original play.

It's a bold thing to do: taking on Shakespeare is courting odious comparisons, and it's easy for a counter-reading of his play to come across as simplistic and didactic. The fact that Smiley succeeds is a remarkable accomplishment, and the fact that the novel can be read without needing to compare it to Lear is likewise impressive. A Thousand Acres is a gripping, eloquent and perceptive tale of a disintegrating family, and despite the long shadow of Shakespeare, it stands on its own substantial merits.

A novelist making such a bold move has limited space in which to set out her stall: if she doesn't look like she's going to do something intelligent with it in the first few pages, many readers will roll their eyes and cast the book aside. How does Smiley rise to this challenge?

The first thing that stands out about this sentence is its specificity: it speaks of locations ('County Road 686', 'Cabot Street Road') with an air of deep familiarity. Ginny knows these places - has known them all her life; they are the landmarks of her universe - and the lack of explanation with which she identifies them, simply saying her names, establishes her tone: she may describe the nature of her world when reflection upon it is important to her personal understanding, but she's not exactly speaking to an outsider. Or rather, she's not entirely speaking to us: we hear her, but the intimacy of place names gives us the sense of a voice that's almost speaking to itself, explaining herself to herself as an attempt to manage the enormity of events that will overtake her. She doesn't turn to address us; she thinks aloud, and we listen.

The place names themselves are also interesting - or rather, they're interestingly uninteresting. For a writer challenging Shakespeare, it's a gesture of immense confidence to give us a first sentence so full of boring phrases, almost an assertion of authority: Smiley is going to take her time establishing what she needs to establish and will not beg the reader's indulgence with linguistic bribes. The magnitude of Shakespeare doesn't cow her: this book will do what it needs to do for its own sake.

And what these names begin to establish straight away is the character of Ginny's culture. 'County Road 686' and the tautologous 'Street Road' are solidly literal-minded: whatever the beauties of the countryside, whoever named it - which is to say, whoever claimed and owned it, whoever had power over it - saw it as land to use, not to gaze upon. Names are functional, not evocative. Imagination will have little room to breathe here ... and with the disregard of imagination comes the disregard of doubt, of the right to question convention, of the emotional needs of those not powerful enough to impose their feelings on subordinates. Imagination is in short supply, and so, consequently, is empathy.

From a European perspective, at least, there's another layer to these names: they are comparatively modern. Roads have been built in an organised enough way to name them by number, for instance, rather than built and adapted and maintained higgledy-piggledy down the ages. Ginny will soon begin telling her family history, the dynasty that goes back a few generations to the purchase of land by great-grandparents. In other words, this literal-minded naming has been done by people still recent enough to exert a fairly direct line of influence, undiffused by the passage of centuries ... and it also gives us a family that's as limited in time as Ginny's world is in space. Three generations on record have preceded Ginny and her sisters: that is the family tree. With so few patriarchs to carry the load of history, each of them is proportionally magnified, ordinary men raised to the status of kings in their tiny realms. This world is temporally as well as geographically parochial, and force of personality will ring all the louder for it.

At the same time, Ginny's voice has a workmanlike ease with this use of language; note, for instance, the rural traveller's 'due north', a phrase for a land short on landmarks. She knows her way around, knows speeds and distances - and crucially, she speaks as part of the land. 'You could pass our farm': there us an us and a them, and she is firmly located as a member of this farm: for good and for ill, she is deep within her family.

What can we learn of this farm in the first sentence? We have a pretty good idea from the title that the farm is a thousand acres in total; when contrasted with the helpfully simple arithmetic of the first sentence - from the road, the farm looks only a mile wide - we have a sentence freighted with implication. A thousand acres can be mistaken, from the outside, for a mere mile of landone. In other words, an outsider who does not stop to look in more depth is going to underestimate the situation here: there is, literally, a thousand times vastly more than meets the eye. The farm is physically isolated - the main thoroughfare shows little of it - and that little is not enough to understand. The contrast between respectable appearance and the exploitation it covers, exploitation that the neighbours don't want to hear about because they prefer the respectable exterior, will be a driving force in the plot, and we are warned from the beginning. Removed from each other, people can put on conventional faces and do terrible things in the privacy of their far-flung homes, and nobody wants to hear about it.

The sentence, in other words, has complex layers of tone. As an authorial statement, it is a direct announcement to the reader: I'm writing this book the way I think it ought to be written, trust me or take your leave. As an establishment of Ginny's voice, however, it's full of ambivalence. She speaks to an outside 'you' while maintaining the lack of explanation one would expect of a voice speaking to itself, leaving us to wonder whether 'you' means us or a generic 'you' imagined by a woman trying to get some perspective on her microcosm. She notes the literal view of her farm with the quiet implication that an outside view will be wrong, both literally and metaphorically. And when we contrast this subdued insistence on looking deeper with the clanking simplicity of the place names, we begin to see a portrait of a culture that cannot speak for itself, cannot identify itself, cannot be trusted in any externals: a culture heading for disaster because those who own it overlook the vital, quiet truths that cannot be summed up in a number or a name.

A Thousand Acres is eloquent but simple, its language rooted and particular, its complexity lying in its implications rather than its sentence structure. And even in its first sentence we see those implications begin to shift and whisper, in the voice of a woman struggling to explain to herself complexities too deep and dark to ever fully understand, equipped only with the language her deep, dark, incomprehensible beginnings have given her.

Monday, May 07, 2012


First sentences: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by William Weaver

'What is a first sentence?', said the jesting postmodernist, and he did not stay for an answer.

No, that's not the first sentence of the book. A jeu d'espirit which combines the pulpy thrills of a traditional whodunnit with the cultural analysis and constant intertextuality we might expect from such a notable semiotician, The Name of the Rose is full of texts within texts and narratives within narratives, referring this way and that with a light touch, resolute only on the certainty that laughter must not be suppressed and truth must not be enforced with too brutal a literal-mindedness. 'Faith without smile' is the root of all evil in this world, and the narrative teases and winks at us from the beginning.

The first thing we read, then, is a 'translator's note', describing the book to follow as a fourteenth century manuscript, giving a fictional history of its discovery and discussing, straight-faced, the difficulties of translation and authentication. This is the first sentence of the first section:

On August 16, 1968, I was handed a book written by a certain Abbe Vallet, Le Manuscrit de Dom Adson de Melk, traduit en francais d'apres l'edition de Dom J. Mabillon (Aux Presses de l'Abbaye de la Source, Paris, 1842). 

He even attributes this imaginary text according to the correct academic standards of bibliography, with publisher, place of publication and date all present and correct in their proper sequence. In appearance the sentence is orderly and systematic, as would befit a scholar, but in its effect, it destablises the text before we've had the chance to read a line of it.

Even were we reading in the original Italian, we would be called upon to accept the fiction that we're reading not a direct narrative but a translation of a translation with some scholarly detours and questions of sourcing along the way; any definite certainties recede before us, not to be grasped. In a story where a real, original manuscript proves to be cataclysmic in its effect on the scholar-monks, we are presented with a version of scholarship that only reveals more doubts, more difficulties, the more rigorous it is.

In other words, this sentence is packed with irony. It's partly an amiable parody, the neat pastiche of a scholar who knows his conventions*, but a sentence that looks so tidy while so thoroughly upending any expectation that we can trust the whole rest of the book ... well, that's a sentence that paces sedately and simultaneously capers. A trick only a verbal medium, relying on the unique capacity of words to convey multiple and contradictory meanings, could pull off. And it's that capacity that semioticians love, that the book will celebrate.

At the same time, there's yet another literary joke at play. The novel nods to many pulp thrillers - most brazenly, appropriating much of the character of Sherlock Holmes for its detective monk 'William of Baskerville' (geddit? The joke is as blunt as the device is pulpy, suiting its tone to the genre). And here, in the history of pulp, we see the ancestors of the 'found manuscript' technique: it may be a play on uncertainty, but it's also a nod to the 'found manuscripts' so beloved of Gothic novelists looking to heighten the suspense with an air of verisimilitude. (So popular, in fact, that Jane Austen parodies it in Northanger Abbey with Catherine's discovery of mysterious papers that turn out to be a set of laundry lists.) The 'found manuscript' technique is handled here in a way that's both old and new, tossed in as a familiar trick from thrilling tales and juggled into immediate doubt. There is even, perhaps, a national joke: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, the first of the famous Gothics, boasts the full title 'The Castle of Otranto. A Story. Translated by Willliam Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto.' - in other words, it's the work of an Englishman pretending to present the work of an Italian. The Italian Eco with his English detective-hero flips this national pretence neatly on its head, cocking an affectionate snook at his predecessors.

So, that's the first first sentence. There follows a 'Note' explaining what Adso means when referring to different hours of the day as 'Matins', 'Lauds' and so on, requiring us to understand (with the proviso that the 'canonical hours' 'varied according to the place and the season', so let's not get too certain here) the foreign mindset that begins its day at 2.30 in the morning and finishes at 7pm. We are helpfully introduced to the strange custom, encouraged to look through unfamiliar eyes - as long as we understand that our understanding can only be approximate.

So, after that, have we earned entrance to the book proper? Not entirely, we fear, because the next section is entitled 'Prologue'. It begins thus:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Bookish Adso's first words to us are a quotation, not personal speech. But the choice of quotation is telling: in a story all about the play and war between texts, we begin with an assertion that the Word is divine, absolute truth. Adso quickly moves on to lament, still in intertextually Biblical terms ('But now we see through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments') that the truth is in fact unclear. He holds the conviction that the Word is true, but does not know what this truth may be; William, his mentor, moves further, questioning the very possibility that truth may reside in the word at all. Not to mention the fact that in this context, we can hardly fail to note that this sentence is itself composed of words - that this character is composed of nothing but words, that this whole book is composed of words, assembled in a novel that's not so much self-contained as part of a literary continuum to which it endlessly gestures. The very word 'word', in other words, already begins to take on multiple and uncertain meanings. What, in this context, does the word 'word' actually mean? We cannot be entirely sure, because words in this philosophy resist such fixity.

To a religious, then, this assertion of faith is a touchstone because it belongs to an unquestionable text ... but the story will show in gruesome detail just how much one must question oneself and others in the light of this text, even if one believes in it. The sentence may proclaim that 'the Word was God', but it's a proclamation whose clarion certainty has the same effect as the scholarly attribution of the first first sentence: it looks neat and clear, but in its context, it immediately raises more questions than it answers.

And finally, we move to what Adso considers the story proper, beginning on 'First Day':

It was a beautiful morning at the end of November.
After the elaborations of scholarship, philosophy and theology, the narrative disarms us with a simple sentence that could come out of the most guileless storybook. There are texts and texts, and straight narratives must have their place alongside scholarly ones if we are not to become too rigid about the truth. Having blown us this way and that with the winds of semiotic ambiguity, the novel suddenly seduces us with familiar storytelling - familiar to us from pulp genres, that most cosy of forms. From here, events will be Gothic in the extreme, while interwoven with modern linguistic complexities for good measure.

And since we're talking of difficult places to start, it would really be remiss of me to omit the title - which is, after all, the pre-first sentence of the book. In the original Italian, the title is 'Il nome della rosa', so 'The Name of the Rose' is a faithful translation. Teasingly, however, we will have to read to the very last sentence before we will know why it's called that:

I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.

Or in English, according to Wikipedia at least, 'Yesterday's rose endures in its name, we hold empty names.' The title, in fact, is a warning that the sign is not the signified, that words exist and last beyond that which they represent, and may, in consequence, be meaningless. Or at least, of questionable meaning. Fittingly, for a book so full of references, the title loops the whole novel in a circle, so its Alpha and Omega become references to each other.

Texts, in other words, are thrown together, reflecting and interacting, imitating and referencing. Sentences proclaim and disavow in the same short space; meaning shifts in endless, contradictory tension. We have no definite starting point, and we can't entirely trust any of the possible options; we must dance into the text if we aren't going to stumble.

The Name of the Rose is a difficult book to analyse, not because there's nothing to say but because there's too much: its cerebral ramifications are so numerous, so tight-packed and quick-moving, that there's no way my typing fingers can keep pace with my echoing brain. But this, in itself, is the point. It's a book that may delight the well-read critic, but it's not really written to be analysed: it's written to be, in a learned sort of way, grooved on. The rhythm of its references is so rapid and complex that it would slow us to boredom to unpack each of them in full detail as we go, and to be bored would be to miss its essential spirit: instead, it pushes us into a new way of reading, a state of mind in which words are at once quotations and mere sound, where books are an unravelling universe, where understanding is fluid. This is a book that enacts its philosophy as it expounds it, and that manipulates us into becoming, at least until we close its covers, semioticians ourselves.

I believe there's value in analysing first sentences; they're our entry point to a book, and we can learn a great deal from them. But it's refreshing, and indeed amusing, to remind myself that even avoiding a first sentence can be an entry point! In this case, I yield: Umberto Eco has outfoxed me and I have no shame in owning it. I do believe that's what he set out to do, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge his success. Ridentem dicere verum quid vetat.

*One might compare it, for instance, to the wonderful ghost stories of M.R. James, another scholar-author who creates a witty and cosy world with his erudite parodies of the academic context - which he then disrupts with the inexorable introduction of thin-skinned, cold-knuckled monstrosities crawling across the pages. A scholar having fun at his own discipline's expense is not to be underestimated.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012


First sentences: Frost in May by Antonia White

Nanda was on her way to the convent of the Five Wounds.

Plain and simple. Frost in May - one of my favourite books - is a chilling, elegant, delicate semi-autobiography, the story of Nanda, child of a middle-class convert to Catholicism, placed for her father's social aspirations into an aristocratic convent school. What will follow is an education that the nuns themselves proudly proclaim is designed to produce 'soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.' 'And do you know,' asks the Mistress of Discipline, 'that no character is any good in this world unless it has been broken completely? Broken and re-set in God's own way?' Nanda will face a journey of inexorable pressure that reaches a terrible conclusion. The writing - smooth, limpid and clear - passes no comment, merely shows, with the same grace that the nuns pass their fearful judgements, what happens and what effect it has on this child.

So despite the book's literary excellence, we have no elaborations of style here. It's a straightforward placing, telling us who and where we shall focus on. The first word is the central character's name, and we shall see everything through Nanda's eyes: Nanda is as much a location as the convent. Likewise, describing 'the convent of the Five Wounds', no mention of its physical location, has a great immediacy: Nanda knows where it is - or at least, the people sending her there do - so we don't need to be told. It's marked out not by its address, but by the fact that it's 'of the Five Wounds' - that is to say, it's distinguished not from other schools, but from other convents. It's the convent of the Five Wounds, not the convent of the Incarnation or the convent of the Holy Name: already we are approaching the world on Catholic terms.

And we are approaching it through Nanda, who is not quite Catholic enough - a 'raw convert', and just as importantly, not aristocratic in a place of delicate snobbery. The first thing we hear is her name, and her name is important.

First, it's a semi-autobiographical novel, so we can consider how it relates to White. While the book was published under the name Antonia White, which the author adopted as soon as she reached adulthood, this was not her childhood name. 'White' was her mother's maiden name; her father's, and her own in childhood, was the shamingly earthy 'Botting', a name she was eager to shed. (Much of her emotional life was dominated by the fact that she adored her insensitive, intrusive father and was embarrassed by her wayward, vain mother, so the fact that she forsook the name of the one to take the name of the other is a measure of just how much she hated being Miss Botting.) This shedding continues into Frost in May: Nanda is spared an embarrassing surname, and becomes the quietly equivalent Nanda Grey, a name evocative of simplicity, but also of complexity, of halfway status. White was never quite comfortable with her new surname, feeling it rather a blank, but 'Grey' conveys less blankness and more ambiguity - or more precisely, ambivalence, the emotional tone that drives Frost in May.

Moving to Nanda, though, the name we begin with, it's worth remarking that White's name was never, in real life, Antonia. In childhood, her name was Eirene, chosen by her classicist father, and which embarrassed her as much as 'Botting' with its unnecessary beginning E and its bathetic contrast to her surname. Boyish in childhood, she was nicknamed 'Tony' by her mother, and adopted that as her name; 'Antonia' is an elaboration of that nickname. With an author so in flight from her original name, we can imagine that the choice of 'Nanda' was seriously considered.

Why Nanda? The simple answer is that it maps neatly: just as 'Tony' could be seen as a pet form of 'Antonia', 'Nanda' is actually a pet form of 'Fernanda'; her full name is Fernanda Grey, though she's only called that on introduction to the nuns. A pretty name, an unusual one - a name that reflects the force that places her into the convent in the first place: a father with aspirations. Rather an elaborate name for an English schoolgirl, and notably, a name that's fake Spanish/Italian in a school that has actual Spanish/Italian girls in it. 'Catholicism isn't a religion, it's a nationality,' remarks Nanda's perceptive friend Leonie, and what these girls share is their faith and their class, not their homeland. 'Fernanda' has an air of embarrassing pretention, false exoticism among the real thing. Mr Grey's aspirations do his daughter no favours: she may be indoctrinated by this setting, but she will never really fit in.

[The following paragraph has been amended in the light of some observant remarks made in the comments by Amaryllis. The original paragraph, with its silly mistakes, can be seen pasted into the comments.]

In a convent school, it's also worth noting this: 'Fernanda' is not a saint's name*. It's a feminine form of 'Fernando' or 'Ferdinand', and there was a St Ferdinand, but in Nanda's case, this was not the reason it was chosen. Named before her father's conversion, it has more of an air of insular exoticism, a gesture to cultures he did not, at the time of her naming, expect her to meet. And small markers of status can make a big difference in an environment as close as a boarding school. White remarked of her own experience, 'I had none of the Catholic manners and graces. I wore neither scapulars nor miraculous medals under my serge uniform; I could not boast of having been dedicated to Our Lady and dressed exclusively in blue and white for my first seven years; I had not even a patron saint.'** Nanda's friends, meanwhile, have such thoroughly Catholic names as 'Rosario de Palencia' (as in 'rosary'); her best friend Leonie's name may be, Amaryllis points out, a gesture towards the domains of St Ferdinand, king of Castile and Leon. Their surnames are even more significant; Leonie's name, Wesseldorf,  'to Catholic ears had some of the glamour of Medici or Gonzaga', and 'There were Wesseldorfs and Palencias in every embassy in Europe.' Their names, unlike Nanda's are properly Catholic and aristocratic - and they're also authentic. Leonie de Wesseldorf has a French first name and a German surname because she's half-French half-German; Rosario de Palencia is Spanish, but Fernanda is English, and the English girls have names like Clare and Marjorie, which at least have the glamour of authenticity. Nanda's name is not Catholic enough, not aristocratic enough, not unpretentious enough for a school where she will be surrounded by the real thing. It will never be specifically mocked, but it is not a good introduction for her.

It's also notable, though, that the elaborate 'Fernanda' has been shorted. 'Nanda' is endearingly babyish: it could just as easily be a small child's attempt at pronouncing 'Amanada'. While intelligent and earnestly determined on being grown-up, Nanda really is a young girl, nine years old and far more vulnerable than she realises. There's a sweetness to her name that forms a stark contrast to the name of the place she is going: the convent of the Five Wounds. White based the convent on her old school while changing all the names, and her choice of 'Five Wounds' is interesting. The original convent boasted the much warmer-sounding title of the 'Sacred Heart'; of all the substitutes White could chosen, she settled upon one of the most ominous-sounding. A Catholic of the convent's kind would, of course, laugh at the silly Protestant misconception that would consider such a choice of name morbid, but White was an author who chose her words carefully. The convent is named for wounds, and by the close of the story, it will inflict one on the tender-sounding Nanda.

White never could bring herself entirely to reject her schooling, too alive to its compelling and uplifting aspects and too honest and self-doubting to dismiss them. Frost in May, for all its simplicity of style, is a book of passionate ambivalence. The opening sentence, then, begins to chart the only possible course through this ambivalence: an unadorned account of events from the viewpoint of a single individual. It contains very little but the names of the two central characters, Nanda and the convent, balanced at opposite ends, echoing opposite associations, ready to collide - with the Five Wounds having the last word. We have little to analyse except those names ... but when the book will tell us everything through the study of character, that is a great deal.

*Family story: my mother's name is Niamh, which is not a saint's name. The priest objected on the grounds that this was depriving her, and pressed her parents to give her a saint's name as well (for instance, to call her Mary Niamh and then address her as 'Niamh' as planned). My grandfather, an exceptionally stubborn man, refused point-blank: he wanted his Irish daughters to be named in the Irish tradition, and that meant a single given name. The issue was only resolved when he declared that she'd either be baptised Niamh or she wouldn't be baptised at all. Faced with this dire threat, the priest gave in.

**Quoted in Antonia White: A Life by Jane Dunn, from whence the other biographical information is also drawn.


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