Reinventing the Renaissance: Jo-Ann Goodwin's Sweet Gum 
Saturday, November 24, 2007, 10:51 AM
We are by now quite used to a range of quirky modern – and postmodern – appropriations of canonical literature. Shakespeare, in particular, has been memorably updated in, for example, Baz Luhrmann’s iconic Romeo + Juliet and Michael Almereyda’s impressive millennial Hamlet.

Spenser’s Fairie Queene doesn’t seem like such an obvious candidate for reinvention, particularly not as a gritty urban thriller about a particularly unpleasant serial killer.

But this is the premise behind Jo-Ann Goodwin’s Sweet Gum – the title is itself a quotation from Spenser’s description of the Garden of Adonis and every chapter opens with a Spenserian epigraph.

The novel works brilliantly well even if you don’t know Spenser’s poem. It’s as gripping and (horribly) absorbing as anything by the best and nastiest mainstream thriller writers - Val McDermid is the parallel which springs to mind. Sweet Gum is also immensely stylish but in a totally unforced and unselfconscious way.

But the Faerie Queene allusions definitely add an extra layer of interest. Goodwin seems to respond to the implicit tensions in Spenser’s poems, the odd parallels between virtuous and wicked characters, the moral uncertainties surrounding what should be a clear cut battle between good and evil.

Although the hero, Eugene, is an avatar of Spenser’s Knight of Temperance, Guyon, he is also a rather successful drug dealer. And while it is perfectly appropriate that Sir Artegal, Knight of Justice, should be reincarnated as DCI Arthur Gale, it is more surprising – and disquieting – that Artegal’s trusty sidekick Talus appears in Sweet Gum as a gangster’s bodyguard. And beautiful Gloria Acrasiafi is simultaneously Gloriana, the Faerie Queene herself, and the evil enchantress Acrasia.

One of the novel’s nastiest characters (in a competitive field) is Eugene’s little nephew Nero, who is by turns associated with Ruddymane, one of Error’s monstrous brood, and the Blatant Beast who, as Spenser tells us at the end of the poem, is still at large in the world today …

But the best thing about Sweet Gum is the warm glow of smugness you feel when you spot the obscure allusions. I knew reading The Faerie Queene right through as an undergraduate would come in useful some day.

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Beowulf: the untold story 
Friday, November 16, 2007, 06:12 PM

I’ve recently been working on Neil Gaiman’s response to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most striking episodes in his Sandman graphic novels. So it was absolutely vital for my research that I go and see Beowulf, which Gaiman co-scripted. As my son Freddie (9) is doing Vikings and Norse mythology at school he clearly had to come along too.

I had read about most of the big changes in advance. Grendel is Hrothgar’s son, and his mother (played by Angelina Jolie) is nothing like the ugly hag in the original Anglo-Saxon poem.

Browsing on the internet I found a complaint by an English lecturer that the film had ‘mutilated’ the original. Although perhaps a few things didn’t quite come off I thought the really bold plot changes worked very well indeed, lending unity and mythic symmetry to a loosely episodic poem.

The way Beowulf loses his arm fighting the dragon, for example, takes us nicely back to the death of Grendel and suggests the way the hero has been contaminated. And the new emphasis on secret blood ties was reminiscent of the plots of Greek tragedy.

I also really liked the role played by Christianity within the film. The rise of the new religion subtly and satisfyingly accompanied the decline of the very Pagan warrior Beowulf.

But my favourite aspect of the film was its refusal to let go of the original story completely. From the point of view of the Danes and the Geats Beowulf had indeed slain an ugly hag, not formed an unholy alliance with a beautiful siren. The ‘real’ Beowulf has become a self flattering lie contrived by the hero himself and we see it acted out – in Anglo Saxon – by his admiring followers.

I was reminded by this palimpsest effect of Euripides’ parodic and self-conscious rewrite of the recognition scene from Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers in his own later Electra. And the repeated cries of ‘I am Beowulf’ and ‘you are Beowulf’ put me in mind of Seneca’s ‘nunc Medea sum’. It’s been said that Seneca’s Medea seems to have read Euripides’ version of the play. Gaiman’s Beowulf, rather similarly, appears to have written Beowulf.

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Tragedy in Transition: A new collection of essays from Blackwell (eds Sarah Annes Brown and Catherine Silverstone) 
Thursday, October 25, 2007, 10:13 AM
There seemed a time when Tragedy in Transition would remain permanently in transition. This was the first essay collection either of us had edited and I certainly hadn’t fully realised how many complicated stages would intervene between commissioning the essays and seeing the final result in print.

Although I do realise things could have been a lot worse. Only one contributor dropped out, all the essays were excellent, and, even though not everyone quite made the official deadline, everything was still collected in time to ensure the volume was out before the crucial RAE cut off point. And the whole project was really well managed by Blackwell.

One of the things I most enjoy about teaching Tragedy is the chance it offers both students and academics to transgress the period boundaries which confine so many papers/modules – to write about tragedians from 5th century Athens, Renaissance England and 21st century America within a single essay. Tragedy in Transition takes full advantage of this freedom, and I’ve certainly learnt a great deal from all the (very different) essays collected in the volume.

Introduction: Tragedy in Transition: Sarah Annes Brown
1. Trojan Suffering, Tragic Gods and Transhistorical Metaphysics: Edith Hall
2. Hardcore Tragedy: Ewan Fernie
3. Tragedy and Disgust: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
4. Tragedy and the Sign of the Eclipse: Anne C. Henry
5. Jonson's too Roman Plays: From Julius Caesar to Sejanus and Catiline: John Henderson
6. Neoclassicisms: Raphael Lyne
7. Tragedy and Exile: Jennifer Wallace
8. Narratives of Tragic Empathy: Prometheus Bound and Frankenstein: Vanda Zajko
9. Tragedy and Childhood: Peter Hollindale (formerly of the University of York)
10. Parricide versus Filicide: Oedipus and Medea on the Modern Stage: Fiona Macintosh
11. 'Suffering into Wisdom': The Tragedy of Wilde: Alison Hennegan
12. Tarzan of Athens: Wilson Knight and Wole Soyinka: Neil Rhodes
13. Postmodern Tragedy?: Returning to John Ford: Mark Houlahan
14. Tragedy and the Future: Rowland Wymer
Afterword: Ending Tragedy: Catherine Silverstone

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Terry Pratchett's Making Money: The Rise (and Fall) of Discworld 
Sunday, October 14, 2007, 12:33 PM

Some Spoilers!

The Discworld series took a little while to get into its stride but before too long TP was producing the novels, and the characters, which would ensure his continuing cult status - Mort, Wyrd Sisters and Guards, Guards are among the best of these early books.

There are many good reasons for Pratchett’s success. His witty, inventive novels can be appreciated on different levels, and thus appeal both to children and to more sophisticated readers – A.S. Byatt, for example, is a fan. Although some of the humour is very broad, he can write with surprising subtlety about complex topics such as the nature of government or gender roles.

One of the most impressive things about Pratchett is his refusal to stick with tried and tested formulae. Rather than offering his readers the mixture as before, he has genuinely developed Discworld over the years. Night Watch (2002), although the 29th in the series, was in my opinion perhaps the best so far, as well as one of the darkest.

The next in the series, Monstrous Regiment, kept up the high standards of its predecessor. Once again Pratchett takes risks. The story is set in the country of Borogravia rather than in the city of Ankh-Morpork and (a fact that clearly irked a section of Pratchett's fanbase)its characters are almost all female.

It is therefore a great pity that the last three Discworld books have been so very disappointing. Going Postal was acceptable, Thud was unmemorable, and the latest effort, Making Money is very routine, perhaps the very weakest of the series so far. Despite a few funny moments Pratchett seems to be writing the jokes on automatic pilot and, given that it is now clear that the next novel, Raising Taxes, is to be a direct sequel, I don’t have high hopes for the series’ recovery.

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Yes to Tesco on Mill Road 
Sunday, October 7, 2007, 09:24 AM
There has been much local agitation on Mill Road (Cambridge) about a proposed new Tesco store which, it is claimed, will jeopardise the many small individual shops in the area.

But although some of these businesses are indeed excellent – such as Al Amin, Black Cat Café and Andrew Northrop Butchers – others are not. And some of the worst shops are those which Tesco would be most likely to threaten, dreary Kwik-E-Mart chains of various sorts selling overpriced and poor quality food and wine.

One message on an ‘anti’ site was complaining about the ‘gentrification’ of the area. I found this objection baffling as the kind of small independent shops which campaigners are so keen on are themselves the a reflection of Mill Road’s rising house prices and increasingly middle class home owners.

In fact I’m sure that many older, more traditional, residents, who perhaps don’t care for health food shops, trendy cafes, Italian delis and hippy bookshops, would be very pleased to have a Tesco round the corner, particularly if they don’t have access to a car.

And I expect that many of those against a Mill Road Tesco regularly drive to an out of town supermarket. Why shouldn’t the same opportunity be extended to less mobile residents?

Finally, it’s by no means always the case that big chain stores drive out small, individual shops. Recently a new business on Mill Road used better stocks, aggressive marketing and competitive pricing to drive out a long established rival. The victor was independent Mr Stacey’s Most Excellent Video Emporium – and the loser was Blockbuster, the world’s largest chain of DVD rental stores.

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