John Christopher 1922-2012 
Thursday, February 9, 2012, 07:46 PM
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John Christopher, the British sf writer, has died at the age of 89. I think I first encountered Christopher when I was about 9, and borrowed The Lotus Caves from the library. But it was the Tripods trilogy, which I discovered a couple of years later, which made a far bigger impact. This is the compelling story of young Will, who lives in a future world in which the earth is run by Tripods, machines controlled by alien invaders, the Masters, who have subjugated humanity through the mechanism of ‘capping’. This procedure takes place at puberty, and ensures obedience and compliance. But Will is determined to escape this fate, and wonders whether there is anywhere left on earth where people still live free. He manages to join a resistance movement, and becomes an undercover agent, working for the Masters in their ‘city of gold and lead’ where he discovers that still worse horrors are being reserved for humanity.

Christopher wrote several other memorable dystopian YA books, including the Prince in Waiting trilogy and the wonderfully depressing Empty World. But, after the Tripods trilogy, my own favourite is The Guardians. The future world of this novel is a little less grim than that of that of the Tripods, but still bad enough. Like many other near future sf novels it encourages the reader to think about existing class/culture divides by presenting them in exaggerated form. The country is split between The Country, in which the rich and nearly rich (and their servants) live out their lives in neo-Victorian tranquility, and the Conurbs where the poor and the poorish jostle together in overcrowded towns, their lives dominated by holovision, shopping and the odd riot. Rob lives in the Conurbs, but escapes to the Country in search of buried family secrets.

Also well worth reading is the profoundly depressing Death of Grass, one of two Christopher novels in my post-apocalyptic top ten, so described briefly here. Finally - if you are reading this because you googled ‘John Christopher’ do, if you haven’t already discovered it, and can get hold of a copy, read Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, one of the best ever sf novels about rebellion against conformity. It’s ridiculous that it’s been out of print for so long.

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What ‘you’ can do. 
Saturday, February 4, 2012, 09:53 AM
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Last semester, after listening to Ian Burrows’ excellent paper, ‘”What’s the Point?” The study of punctuation marks and other characters in early modern drama’, I started to look out for significant commas in all the Renaissance plays I was teaching, and elsewhere, despite not having previously given them a great deal of thought. I think Tory Young’s recent paper on second person narratives will make me similarly attentive to the word ‘you’.

‘You’ can be used to create such a range of effects. Many narratives will include the odd direct appeal to the reader. ‘Reader, I married him’, from Jane Eyre, is one of the best known examples. It’s a sufficiently vague apostrophe to make all readers, whether 19th or 21st century, feel included. But other narrators, though they may use the second person, clearly aren’t addressing us – perhaps because, like Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, they are writing in our future.

A more obtrusive example of a second person narrative, cited by Tory, is Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. Here we may at first feel that the narrator is speaking to us directly, and rather uncannily:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice--they won't hear you otherwise--"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed.

although gradually ‘you’ turns out to be less securely the ‘you’ who are reading the book, particularly if ‘you’ happen to female.

Tory analysed several other ‘you’ narratives addressed, not to us as readers, but to distinct imagined characters. Outside epistolary fiction, extended use of the second person is rare. One unusual example is Marguerite Duras’s The Malady of Death in which the narrator exhorts ‘you’, a man, to fulfil his desires with a woman. (Apparently it reflects the author’s wish to convert a homosexual man to heterosexuality.)

However this novel is untypical of ‘you’ narratives which are more usually associated with a fluid, open attitude towards both gender and sexuality. Thus in Ali Smith’s ‘May’ two lovers take it in turns to narrate the story, addressing each other as ‘you’, and it is impossible to say with certainty which sex(es) they are. (We heard how some readers adduce the fact the first narrator goes out to buy a drill as proof he is male, while others thought that this in fact proved she was female – because any man would have a drill already.)

It has been claimed by some that the second person creates an atmosphere of intimacy. But I agreed with Tory’s suggestion that, in fact, ‘you’ can have the opposite effect. This is slightly counterintuitive but is perhaps paralleled in the fact that some find 3D films - which ought to be more immersive - more distancing, more distracting, than conventional 2D.

I found myself reflecting that two of Ovid’s major works are written in the second person. The Ars Amatoria is a kind of advice manual for lovers (both male and female) and the Heroides is a collection of ‘letters’ by legendary women to their lovers. Having heard Tory’s talk I’d be interested to go back to the Heroides and try to spot examples where ‘you’ is used ambiguously – denoting both us, the real readers, and the more obvious narratee – Aeneas, Odysseus etc. Exhortations to the reader to remember, for example, might refer equally well to the lover’s memories of real events or to our memories of earlier treatments of the same mythical material.

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The Limits of Allusion #5: The Malcontent and The Tempest 
Sunday, November 13, 2011, 09:49 AM
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I recently read The Malcontent for the first time since I was an undergraduate. The influence of Hamlet on Marston’s play is unambiguous – and unmissable – but I also spotted some possible links with The Tempest.

Now if these links are more than chance ones, then Shakespeare must have been drawing on Marston, as The Tempest, unlike Hamlet, was written after The Malcontent. Somehow it seems easier to think of Marston being influenced by Shakespeare than vice versa – but Shakespeare was attached to The King’s Men, the company which took over the play, so is seems perfectly possible that echoes of The Malcontent might have found their way into his own works.

The plot is complicated. ‘Malevole’, the malcontent, is really the usurped Duke Altofronto. His main antagonist is not the original usurper, Pietro, but the much more villainous Mendoza, who wants to usurp Pietro in his turn. The first scene proper (the play opens with a metatheatrical induction added later by Webster) introduces Pietro, impatiently demanding that Malevole (heard offstage) come out and stop making a racket.

Pietro, Come down, thou rugged cur, and snarl here;
I give thy dogged sullenness free liberty : trot about and
bespurtle whom thou pleases.

Mal, I'll come among you, you goatish-blooded
toderers, as gum into taffata, to fret, to fret ; I'll fall like
a sponge into water, to suck up, to suck up.

Pietro then describes him as a ‘monster’ and compares him with Lucifer. There seem to be some parallels between this relationship and Prospero/Caliban – interestingly such a parallel would work to remind us that Prospero is a usurper (of Caliban’s isle) as well as a usurpee. (Logically one might expect Malevole to be the Prospero figure.) Later, again like Caliban, Malevole is embroiled in a plot to murder the Duke (on behalf of evil Mendoza) although he only pretends to go along with the plan, and alerts Pietro to the danger.

Towards the end of the play, disguised as a hermit, Pietro has to give an account of his own death to Mendoza:

Oh, then I saw
That which methinks I see: it was the Duke,
Whom straight the nicer-stomached sea belched up.

I was reminded by this of Ariel’s words:

Ar. You are three men of sinne, whom destiny
That hath to instrument this lower world,
And what is in't: the neuer surfeited Sea,
Hath caus'd to belch vp you:

as well as of other various reports of (supposed) drownings and rescues in The Tempest. Is it farfetched to hear an echo of Marston in Miranda's 'O, I have suffered. With those that I saw suffer'?

Pietro is much more like repentant Alonso than the more villainous Antonio, and he is treated gently by Malevole when he finally reveals his true identity:

Pietro. Pardon and love. Give leave to recollect
My thoughts dispers'd in wild astonishment.
My vows stand fix'd in heaven, and from hence
I crave all love and pardon.

Mal. Who doubts of providence,
That sees this change? a hearty faith to all!
He needs must rise who can no lower fall:
For still impetuous vicissitude
Touseth the world; then let no maze intrude
Upon your spirits: wonder not I rise;
For who can sink that close can temporise?
The time grows ripe for action: I'll detect
My privat'st plot, lest ignorance fear suspect.

The mood, the sense of events coming to a head, the relationship between the two men, seems close to that in the scenes towards the end of The Tempest when Prospero reveals his identity and seeks reconciliation. It is tempting to find some significance in the word ‘maze’ – ‘maze’ and its cognates loom large in The Tempest.

Even the most villainous character, Mendoza, is forgiven at the end of the play, despite the fact that, like Caliban, his enemies have little hope he will improve, as neither nature nor nurture have made him avoid evil:

Pietro. Ignoble villain! whom neither heaven nor hell,
Goodness of God or man, could once make good!

Pro. A Deuill, a borne-Deuill, on whose nature
Nurture can neuer sticke: on whom my paines
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost

If The Malcontent is just one of the many texts behind The Tempest its influence perhaps lay in its moral ambiguity, an ambiguity which is reflected in the way both its malcontent hero and its evil villain seem to have something in common with Caliban.
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The Limits of Allusion #4 
Saturday, October 8, 2011, 09:51 AM
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I was reading a discussion of Sandys’s Ovid (1626) by Liz Oakley-Brown in which she draws attention to his use of the word ‘cleaving’ in the translation of the tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Salmacis, the desiring nymph, prays to be united with the reluctant youth, and they are metamorphosed into a single androgynous being:

Her wishes had their Gods. Euen in that space
Their cleauing bodies mix: both haue one face.
As when wee two diuided scions ioyne,
And see them grow together in one rine:
So they, by such a strict imbracement glew'd,
Are now but one, with double forme indew'd.

As she points out, it’s a felicitous word choice as it can mean both to split and to stick fast. He is doing his best to split, whereas she is clingy. These lines made me think of Milton’s description of good and evil in Areopagitica (1644):

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world.

Milton is known to have drawn on Sandys’s translation of Ovid, and I wondered if there was some memory of Sandys’s hermaphrodite at work here – particularly because the word ‘cleaving’ also has the same double-edged force in Areopagitica, describing two opposites (good and evil) which are yet complexly intermixed. Milton’s reference to the apple’s ‘rind’ seems slightly superfluous, and that perhaps strengthens the case for seeing these lines as a faint echo of Sandys’s image of the shoots, ‘scions’, which cleave (together) and then cleave (apart).

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Early Modern Exchanges 
Sunday, September 18, 2011, 09:11 AM
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This conference saw the launch of MHRA Tudor and Stuart Translations. I’m co-editing the two Ovid volumes (with Andrew Taylor) and participated in a panel discussion arising out of the series. In ‘Ignotum per ignotius? – Editorial issues in Redoing Douglas’s Translation of the Aeneid (1513)’, Gordon Kendal discussed the particular problems posed by Douglas’s wayward spelling, which he has chosen to regularise. Gordon made a suggestive comparison between the roles of editor and translator, and it is certainly true that editing raises some knotty problems which demand subtle and creative solutions rather than just the mechanical application of a set of guidelines. In the case of Douglas, for example, the process of modernisation is complicated by his use of Scots – and Gordon described how he tried to establish an appropriate balance between English and Scots usages, reflecting (though also regularising) Douglas’s own rather miscellaneous use of the two forms.

Fred Schurink’s paper, ‘The Continental Source Editions of Early Modern English Translations of Plutarch’s Moralia’ convincingly argued that it was important to get away from a simple two way model of reception (classical writer/English translator) and take more account of mediating influences from the Continent. The effect of this mediation can be seen in different ways. The most obvious evidence is linguistic – Fred offered the example of Thomas Elyot, clearly following the Latin translation of Guarino in places, rather than the original Plutarch. More subtly, the mediating translator might affect the whole publishing context of any later translation - thus when Blundeville presented his English translation of ‘The Learned Prince’ to Queen Elizabeth , he echoed Erasmus’s earlier gift of a Latin version of the same work to Henry VIII.

My own paper, ‘The Early Modern Myrrha’ also examined the way in which a range of sources in different languages might contribute to a translation. I discussed three early seventeenth-century versions of Ovid’s tale of Myrrha’s incestuous passion for her father Cinyras. These bore traces of several earlier texts – other episodes from the Metamorphoses (including the tale of Myrrha’s ancestor Pygmalion), Golding’s much earlier English translation, and Shakespeare’s popular treatment of the tale’s ‘sequel’, Venus and Adonis – Adonis was the son of Cinyras and Myrrha. I also suggested that one of the poets had added a new character to the story, a satyr called Poplar, who could be seen as a kind of avatar of the poet (Barksted) himself.

He falls in love with the erring Myrrha, and, at the end of the poem, before metamorphosing into the tree which bears his name, ‘vanished so,/ As men’s prospect, that from a mirror go.’ This rather unusual comparison is just one of the hints which encourage the reader to associate the satyr with his creator. The rather unruly, hybrid, shapeshifting Poplar seemed like a good emblem for the Renaissance translator, who typically wove together several different source texts to form a new whole.

Overheard: ‘Why is it always women who talk about the really filthy stories?’

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