Author Archive: Georgina Parfitt

Quotation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

The culture of the epigraph and where it’s going next

Most people who sit down to start writing fiction have almost innumerable influences that they consciously or unconsciously draw on. In fact many of our best-loved pieces of work comprise more than one voice, and many are veritable patchwork quilts of voices, until it seems that our literary history has been collaborative from the very beginning.  Here are some of the ways writers have been confronting and honoring their influences over the past century and how the trend is evolving:

T S Eliot filled his opus poem The Waste Land with references to dozens of writers, Homer, Ovid,Saint Augustine of Hippo, Shakespeare, Hermann Hesse, Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker, to name but a few. Though it’s common practice to read the poem with the help of an annotated guide that contextualizes these references, the poem exists by itself unapologetic of its texture of borrowed voices. The references themselves are part of a complex network of influences. Shakespeare also read Ovid’s Metamorphoses for example, and Stoker was reportedly very influenced by Whitman and so on.

James Joyce made his Ulysses dense with references too and even with an annotated guide ten times the size of the work itself, the reading experience is at times hallucinatory, at times unintelligible. There is consequently a realm of stuff that lies behind and around the text itself, informing it and messing with it as we read. Different readers will have different reactions, not just because of how they relate to the story of Leopold Bloom in Dublin but because of their varying knowledge of the other sources.

More recently, Jorie Graham, in her collection Overlord takes her influences a step further. Overlord is not a typical collection; instead of a group of discreet, finished poems, it protests against finished-ness, presenting several “drafts” of some poems. Within one of these unfinished poems, “Disenchantment”, Graham reproduces a whole page of text from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Amid Graham’s reworkings comes Woolf’s unmistakable prose describing Mrs. Ramsey’s existential wonderings while observing the come and go of the lighthouse’s flare across the sea.

The epigraph is a form of this tradition that continues to be wide-spread and is as popular today as it was in the twentieth century. Many authors have dedicated their work to other writers by using quotes, infusing the story to follow with some quality of their admired contemporary or predecessor. Mary Shelley for example foreshadows her Frankenstein with this quote of John Milton:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me Man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”

Paradise Lost, X, 743-45
Shelley fills the opening of the book with the sense of mystery and grandeur that Milton created in his epic poem. Eliot’s aforementioned The Waste Land also has an epigraph, taken from Petronius’ The Satyricon, which, when translated from the Latin and Greek, means “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.” This epigraph, as well as a dedication to Ezra Pound, has been scrutinized in the same vein as the poem itself.

So we see that behind the orderly shelves of the library of world-changing books lies a labyrinthine other library, of influences and collaborations. A network so vast that we will never be able to consider it in its entirety. And this has huge implications for where literature goes next, with our increasing dimensions of virtual interaction and influence to draw on and a more collaborative online writing culture.

Winter Tales

The festive period is a time for storytelling. Narratives of Christmas, whether from the Bible or the flurry of films shown and released in December, or even from the longer and more sentimental commercials on television, will make the coming month a reflective and romantic time. Christmas particularly brings out our love of performance and stories read aloud.

The popular seasonal tale A Christmas Carol had the public interest at heart at its conception, and perhaps this is why it has become such a classic example of the oral storytelling tradition. The story of its creation and popularity truly embodies the Christmas motto “Good will to all men”. Originally trying to create a political pamphlet about the destructiveness of the New Poor Laws, Charles Dickens wrote the story with a practical moral in mind. And the result of the story’s popularity was a tangible increase in charity towards the poor in London from all kinds of people, most notably factory owners and people of influence in society.

Charles Dickens was a master storyteller. He was a rare breed among Victorian writers because he chose to give public readings, performing his own tales in town halls and meeting places. A Christmas Carol was performed by Dickens for the first time in 1853, after its fame was well and truly thriving. He read it in a town hall in Birmingham to a two thousand strong, paying audience. He continued to stage performances throughout his career and A Christmas Carol was the most loved – in fact, Dickens chose it for the final performance of his life, at St James’ Hall in London, to rapturous applause, and died shortly afterwards.

Dickens’ readings had become a significant part of his identity as an author and he influenced generations of writers to do the same – writers like Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote enjoyed reading their fiction to audiences and had charismatic stage personalities just like Dickens.  Firsthand accounts of Dickens’ performances describe them as dynamic one-man shows, in which Dickens seemed to embody many characters in one voice. The author Thomas Carlyle, a contemporary of Dickens’, wrote after seeing one of these performances, that it was “like an entire theater company … under one hat”.

He reportedly had many superstitious and strange rituals before going on stage. At his half-hour call, he would drink a glass of sherry with an egg beaten into it, for example. And he always surrounded himself with the same humble mise en scene, a rug, a reading desk and electric lights.

A Christmas Carol is still widely read and performed every December. Now, Gerald Dickens, the great great grandson of Charles Dickens, tours the world with his take on his ancestor’s lively readings and A Christmas Carol still draws in the crowds. Actor Clive Francis also regularly performs his one-man version of A Christmas Carol in London’s West End.

Here are some more popular titles to warm your cockles as December comes knocking or to try your hand at performing in your own front room:

Bleak House – though a little long for one sitting (it was originally published in twenty installments), this morbid classic, from Dickens again, is great for reading aloud because of its challenging array of characters.

The Woman in White – chilling in every sense of the word, this mystery by Wilkie Collins is a suspenseful thriller for a late night by the fire.

Twelfth Night – a musical tale of mistaken identities and romance from William Shakespeare. Full of fun comic distractions, this adventure in five acts is bound to get the whole family laughing.

Or click this link to choose from dozens of titles http://www.towerbabel.com/search/?q=christmas

The Draft

What we don’t say when we talk about war.

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, the question of how to commemorate such an anniversary challenges cultural and political leaders. Things have certainly never been the same since. Never such innocence, as Philip Larkin wrote. The subject of war haunts the literature of our century. It can be seen as a collective effort, a confession, an acknowledgement of shared suffering. But as we look to the past again, to find what we have learned, we might also find things we have missed. As first-hand knowledge of the Great War becomes impossible, we try to get closer to our works of art, by choosing to look at what they didn’t say.

In Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the protagonist serves in the ambulance corps during the Italian campaign. His love affair with nurse Catherine Barkley ends in her death during childbirth. Through his career, Hemingway edited himself down a lot to suit his publishers, removing superfluous words and creating the spare style for which he became famous. A Farewell to Arms is a fair example of this editorial rationing. Though perhaps for a different reason than style, the book’s final line was revised over 30 times. These missing lines vary in sentimentality and cynicism, including one particularly grave version – That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” Hemingway had also written a list of possible titles for the work, including “In Another Country and Besides”, a quote from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, which conjures the sort of foreignness, and the inexplicability, of war itself.

Our interest in preserving these lost lines (they have now been included in a special edition of the novel) seems to come out of more than just curiosity about the creative process in general, it seems to be amplified by the subject matter.

Earlier this year, a draft of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Atrocities” was auctioned at Bonham’s Auction House – the winning bid was higher than even experts predicted, at £13,500. The draft shows that much of the poem’s confrontational and blunt language was softened for the printed version. The line “How did you kill them?” became “How did you do them in?” in the published poem for example. The euphemism covers up the immediacy and honesty of the description of murder. Though some might see the two versions as fundamentally identical and with the same condemning attitude, for a poet, the dilution of “kill” into “do them in” is a significant modification.

Some drafts serve to show us how rewrites can also make the work closer to the truth of war. One of the most well-known, and revered, poems to come out of the First World War was Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”, which exposes the untruth of the Latin motto that claims it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. With such a declaration comes a pressure to mould each line of the poem to that purpose and provide the reader with a bodily experience and we can see in Owen’s early drafts of the poem, that the most evocative words often came out of a series of modifications. Gargling became gurgling became goggling became guttering in this draft, the final word carrying to the reader the sound of water draining from a pipe, the shallow, inevitable sound.

hemingway

Many drafts like this exist. They help us to visualize the unpublished, underside of the canon of war literature. There are innumerable lost poems that loom in our imaginations too when we let ourselves imagine them. And it is perhaps this shadowy, vague sense of things unsaid that writers like Owen, Sassoon and Hemingway aimed to give their readers in the first place.

 

Deciphering Lewis Caroll

How to invent, from the mind that made Alice in Wonderland

Charles Dodgson, the man behind the pen-name Lewis Caroll, has inspired millions of children and adults with his wordplay and absurd characters. But his inventions were not solely literary; he also occupied a mathematical world that served his fiction no end.

Dodgson was born in 1832, in Cheshire, England. He went to Oxford University and continued for many years there as a lecturer of mathematics. Over the course of his writing life, he pursued many other talents, even professionally, including inventing and photography. It was his ability to think beyond formal constraints that gave his work its magical quality.

The Nyctograph

Dodgson was always having ideas at night, and, in the candle-days of the eighteen hundreds, he would often have to lie in the dark with his thoughts instead of writing things down. So, he invented the Nyctograph, an object especially for night-writing. It was a sheet of card gridded with cut-out squares. The first version of nyctography involved Dodgson simply writing letters inside the cut-out squares and then moving the nyctograph along to make his night-writing more legible but he found it still didn’t have the desired effect, so he encoded his writing into symbols.

Chess

On the surface, chess is a restrictive arena, a grid of black and white squares with pieces that move in predetermined directions, but to Dodgson, a master at the game, chess could become a world of invention. He took his travel-board on train journeys and in his diaries wrote of how it livened up his days. He often played with children to teach them, including Alice Liddell, the young friend who inspired Alice in Wonderland. In these games, he used to make stories with the pieces, turning kings and knights into real men, who fought and schemed against each other. Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, is formed around the idea of a chess board.

The Alphabet Cipher

In Dodgson’s lifetime, cryptology went through an important phase of its history, between the invention of Morse code in 1835 and Charles Babbage’s solution to the polyalphabetic ciphers during the Crimean War. Ciphers were a popular wartime tool. Amid the height of Dodgson’s creation of the Wonderland series, he published his Alphabet Cipher, a square table, each row and column being the traditional alphabet, by which one can follow a row and a column to a common point and find a new letter, the cipher.

Memory Techniques

Dodgson made up his own version of the Major System, a code for memorizing numbers. He converted each number into a series of consonants and phonemes, which could then spell out words. For example, if he wanted to remember the dates of the Oxford colleges, for the purpose of giving an entertaining tour or hosting a visitor, he created a little rhyme. For St. John’s college, founded in 1555, he would recite “They must have a bevel, to keep them so LEVEL,” referring to the college’s famously level lawns. V and L were the consonants assigned to the number 5, being the Roman numeral symbols for five and fifty.

 

Dodgson’s biography brings up a question of influence. How can the creative mind be nurtured by maths? Can thinking in numbers, codes and logic provoke inventiveness of a kind never dreamed of by words alone?

Many other writers have used the constraints of mathematics, logic and puzzles to create some of their most fantastical work. Try the Fantasia Mathematica, compiled by Clifton Fadiman in 1958, for mathematical stories from some of literature’s most inventive authors from Plato to Poe. This unusual canon shows us that perhaps math shouldn’t be seen as an eccentricity in fiction, that we might be surprised what can happen when we think inside the box.