A Father Story: Chapter 3

Your Fervent Desire

I deliberately did not end chapter 2 by saying whether I would continue the story of the Favorite Daughter, aka Butterfingers, or whether I would move on to the other Favorite Daughters, aka Second FD and Third FD. Truth be told, I myself did not know.

Yes, I know that “I myself did not know” is extremely awkward, but it’s more accurate than “I did not know myself.” There has never been a time when I did not know myself. But English being as idiosyncratic as it is, occasionally an Indian American writer must dish out extremely awkward prose.

Still, I appreciate your attention to my prose, especially when it is extremely awkward, and when I make a spelling mistake.

Spelling

I was in three minds about whether to continue the saga of the Favorite Daughter (and given how much I know, I admit I was tempted). But since I was in three minds, I decided to forget about the Favorite Daughter and move on to the other two FDs.

Before I move on, I must draw your attention to a point that, at some point, may turn out to be crucial to this story. If it turns out not to be crucial to the story and you want to sue me for making a promise I did not keep, let me ask you to move your eyes back 43 words, to the word may in the previous sentence. The difference between may and will is akin to the difference between May and June.

To get to the point, the point is that at times people in three minds do decide. It’s only when one is in two minds that one cannot decide. Like Hamlet.
img_0778

No, I am not going to indulge your fervent desire for Hamlet. I have, out of goodness of heart, indulged it many times in the past, but this story is not about Hamlet and his father. Just because I titled it A Father Story and not The Father Story does not mean I can drag Hamlet and his father in to indulge your fervent desire for Hamlet.

And anyway, given your FD for Hamlet, you know already know that Hamlet is not about Hamlet and his father. It’s not even Hamlet and his stepfather – notwithstanding that his first lines relate to that lecherous, treacherous villain. (Which is the second kindest thing Hamlet can say about Claudius, the kindest being “A little more than kin, and less than kind.”)

Hamlet is about Hamlet and his mother. Nothing to do with an Oedipus complex. (He may be complex, but he can tell Gertrude from Ophelia.) Hamlet is about Hamlet and his mother because even though he must avenge his father’s death, when he finally does kill his father’s killer, it is to avenge his mother’s death.

Hamlet Act V scene ii

Chapter 3

 

The Plot Story: Prologue

Prologue opener

Every story has a beginning. Yeah, and a middle and an ending, I hear you sneering, and I must stop you right there. You cannot begin a story by sneering, regardless of what you think of its opening sentence. You weren’t sneering when he said “Call me Ishmael,” though you knew his name was Herman. And you proceeded to swallow his tale whole, like the whale swallowed Jonah. So there’ll be no sneering here, thank you. And absolutely no fleering, jeering, leering, or queering – all verbs in Webster, all bad things to do (especially here). Peering is allowed if your eyesight requires it, and cheering is required. Leave the steering to me and we won’t be veering. As it is, we’ve been careering off course thanks to your sneering, and I must return to the beginning.

Every story has a beginning, but I am not talking about the story proper. That must have a beginning and, as you were kind enough to point out, a middle and an ending. What I mean is that every story has an origin, a certain activating event that inspires or provokes the writer to write it. In the present case, what provoked me to write The Plot Story is a plot twist.

Having stated – and, you might have noticed, illustrated – the definition of plot in “The Definition of Plot,” I had planned to write the next few posts explaining and analyzing plot in a left-brain way, but the plot twist has thrown a spanner in the works. The spanner (which my fellow Americans call a monkey wrench) resulted in the left brain turning to the right, which resulted in my writing this story. In other words, one thing led to another.

*****

I cannot tell you the plot twist because no story – and here I do mean the story proper – begins with a plot twist. Even if what happens in the beginning appears to be a plot twist, it is not, because the plot has just got into motion and therefore cannot twist. Did you ever see anyone twist before they could dance? Apart from Elvis?

One such twist-like beginning occurs at a village fair one evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, when a man drunk on rummified furmity sells his wife and infant daughter to a sober sailor. Naturally, this can only happen in fiction. (The sober sailor, I mean. Drunken men doing terrible things to their wives and daughters is, tragically, among the facts of life.) The wife, being true to her vows, obediently goes off with the sailor.

The selling of one’s spouse to a stranger, strange as it is, is not the plot twist. It is only the beginning of the plot, the one thing that will lead to all the others. The morning after, the man wakes up sober and alone. It’s a relief not to have a wife and infant to deal with at this hour, but waking up sober sucks. To keep it from happening again, he vows not to touch the stuff for twenty-one years. Any sensible man would have kept off it for life, but it was already established last night that this man is not sensible. And it’s a clue that a major plot element will occur around the twenty-year mark.

The author cannot afford to spill ink on the intervening years (because ink is expensive and leaves permanent stains), so time flies. Next thing we know, the wife-of-yore shows up with a grownup daughter. The sailor has kicked the bucket (which presumably had no water or the sailor would still be alive), and the ladies need another man to feed and clothe them. And who could do this better than the mayor of Casterbridge? Luckily, the mayor is none other than the husband-of-yore. Even more luckily, there’s no monkey wench around or it would have thrown a spanner in the works.

Since the plot cannot come to nought yet, the mayor marries the sailor’s widow (who should never have been the sailor’s widow in the first place), and life goes on. The wife’s life goes on to the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, and this brings us to the plot twist.

Before remarrying, the husband-and-wife-of-yore had agreed to leave the grownup daughter in the dark about her paternity, for it would break her little heart to find out she was not the sailor’s girl. But once the wife is safely six feet under, the mayor is free to enlighten the girl. He’s paying for her food and clothes, after all; he might as well get some filial love in return. . . But on the very night that he does the enlightening, he finds a letter from the dead wife (written while she was alive, this is not a gothic tale) saying something to this effect: “Your daughter died three months after you sold me. This is the sailor’s girl. I kept it from you for a bit of revenge. Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.”

Now she is shrewd enough not to mention revenge (though that’s exactly what it was). I was just twisting her words for a bit of fun. Nor does she call him noble Hamlet (because he is neither noble nor Hamlet). I threw that in because I cannot begin my story without invoking the name of Hamlet. (Plus I wanted the Prologue to have at least one quote from Hamlet.) Even so, the last line of the letter is essentially the same as the last words of Laertes.

The plot twist leads to other things, including the arrival of the monkey wench, to throw a spanner in the works (it’s hard to throw a spanner all the way from Jersey); the appearance of the furmity-woman, to spill the beans in court (the beans are better with oaths and swearings); and the return of the sailor, to get his girl (turns out the bucket had water after all). It’s just one thing after another. The hero falls from prosperity to adversity and, because the author knows his Aristotle, stays there so the reader can have their catharsis.

A skimmity-ride (short for a skimmington-ride) and other interesting things happen before the reader can get to The End, but I can’t go into any of that. If I start telling other people’s stories, I’ll never begin my own.

*****

Every good story begins with an invocation, and The Plot Story is no exception. Much as I would like to invoke the name of the Bard, I dare not aspire to such heights for I cannot say that honor is the subject of my story. Nor do I dare invoke the name of the Inimitable, because I lack his great expectations. Lesser mortal though I be, I’m not fool enough to rush in where angels fear to tread. I will therefore invoke the name of someone whose first name is my last name in the singular: E. M. Forster.

Forster’s novels will never rank among my favorite books, but he has written one of my favorite books on the novel: Aspects of the Novel. He didn’t start out writing it, however. It was originally a series of lectures delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the spring of 1927. I’m glad the lectures got redelivered in book form, because I was not at Trinity College in the spring of 1927.

I first read Aspects of the Novel years ago, and to this day I’m grateful to Edward Morgan for helping me understand how plot differs from story. Story is what happened, he says, and I’ll say the rest in Edward’s words.

A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. . . . Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?” That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel.[1]

The element of causality is why, in “The Definition of Plot,” I had defined plot as one thing leading to another. . . And here you were, thinking I was making it all up.

I ought to hold that against you, but I won’t. What’s past is prologue. I’ll forgive you for what you were thinking while reading “The Definition of Plot,” but you’ll need to improve your opinion of me while reading The Plot Story. And if you won’t improve, you must at least trust me implicitly.

*****

To earn your trust (since I can’t earn anything else from you), I will tell you that The Plot Story will appear in monthly installments, published on or after the third of the month. But I must tell you upfront that I cannot tell you upfront how many installments you will have the pleasure of reading. When you see “Epilogue” in the title you may safely assume that you read the end of the story last month and are now about to read some concluding thoughts. I am not obliged to write you an epilogue, however. According to the Conventions of Literature (to which I am obliged more than I am to you), a story with a prologue need not have an epilogue. And vice versa, as you know from your friend “Ishmael.”

I won’t breathe a word about the story’s plot, so don’t hold your breath (which you should never do unless you’re happy with your epitaph, or you just wrote your epitaph). Nor will I disclose anything about the characters, conflicts, or other content – including the Table of Contents. Sorry if it sounds like I want to leave you hanging, but it’s part of the art of storytelling. And, you may recall, of storyreading.

By the way, I speak metaphorically when I say “leave you hanging.” I would never leave you hanging literally. No, I’d take you off the tree and give you a proper burial.

_________________________

[1] E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927), 86.

Pardonnez Mon Français (or, The Benefits of Haldi)

Non, cher reader, je ne vous ai pas oublié. J’ai de très bonnes raisons pour ce long silence.

But first, my apologies to the francophone reader who knows I should have used excuser and not pardonner in the title. My French dictionary is right now louring upon me like the clouds upon a Shakespearean king’s House, but I’m not apologizing to it. It’s a Webster, not a Larousse. It has no right to lour upon me. Au contraire, it should be beaming gratefully at me for picking it up a Staples or Office Depot store closing sale and giving it a home almost ten years ago. It might have been pulped or donated to a thrift store otherwise. Instead, it has a seat on my Reference shelf, with prospects of seeing a certain French monument in the near future.

Eiffel Tower

Perhaps I should apologize to the anglophone, lusophone, hispanophone, or any other-phone reader who, understanding a little French, clicked on this post hoping to find some four-letter words that count as “French” in English. I’m sorry to disappoint you – unless you consider the four-lettered word 75% similar to the word word as a four-letter word.

Since I am kindly disposed towards you – don’t I often insert a four-lettered term of endearment before reader? – let me give you a clue. The four-lettered word in question has a five-lettered synonym, which has six letters in British English, thanks to u.

For the reader who is still scratching his head, let me give a clue about the clue. The five-lettered Am. Eng. version has a national holiday named for it (clue: first Monday in September). The six-lettered Brit. Eng. version has a political party named for it (clue: not that of Britain’s only female PM, who was in labor once but delivered twice).

Margaret Thatcher and her kids

As I was searching for images of Margaret Thatcher and her twins, I came across this tribute Meryl Streep, who played Thatcher in The Iron Lady, sent out when Thatcher died in April 2013. Naturally, Streep’s first adjective caught my attention.

“Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics. I was honored to try to imagine her late life journey, after power; but I have only a glancing understanding of what her many struggles were, and how she managed to sail through to the other side.”

Playing Thatcher was work for Streep, and I wish the work that kept me from you these many weeks had been as glamorous. Alas, it was a prosaic matter of coming up with descriptions for products with ingredients like methylchloroisothiazolinone. If you want to know more about that 27-lettered word, it has its own Wikipedia entry. Just for fun I searched for “methylchloroisothiazolinone images,” and you won’t believe— No, actually I believe you will believe. You’ve searched for images of 27-lettered words yourself. You know what’s out there.

No MethylchloroisothiazolinoneI had not intended to mention methylchloroisothiazolinone when I turned on my computer to write this post. You must forgive me, reader. I have been laid up with a cold and fever since the day after Thanksgiving, alternating between shots of NyQuil and DayQuil, and that’s bound to have affected my ability to think coherently. Perhaps the reason I have come this far is because I have also been drinking haldi milk.

For those who don’t know, haldi in milk is an Indian remedy for colds – haldi being Hindi for turmeric, that yellow spice that gives curry its color. The Wikipedia entry for turmeric begins with the sentence below. (The sentence has six hyperlinks, including one for the phonetic transcription. All of these, dear reader, bearing your sanity in mind, I have removed.)

“Turmeric (Curcuma longa) / ‘tɜrmərɪk/ is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae.” 

What I knew of turmeric before writing this post was that it has anti-inflammatory properties, it is rich in antioxidants, it helps prevents cancer, and it’s considered an antiaging agent because it combats free radicals. To make sure I was not omitting any of its many benefits, I searched for “benefits of turmeric” and found this gem from a book titled Indian Spices and Condiments as Natural Healers by Dr. H.K. Bhakru:

“Turmeric is aromatic, stimulant and tonic. It corrects disordered process of nutrition and restores the normal function of the system. It is a carminative, antiseptic, a great anti-flatulent, blood purifier and expectorant.”

Through that same article I learnt that the benefits of haldi include:
(i) Lowering cholesterol;
(ii) Controlling diabetes;
(iii) Preventing liver disease; and
(iv) Preventing Alzheimer’s (either I didn’t know that, or else I’d forgotten).

Please don’t rush off to your favorite Indian restaurant just yet. I have a story to tell you. I’ll tell it, you read it, and then we can part ways until my next post, which will most likely be written in the land of haldi (and other spices).

India spices

When I started writing this post, I had intended to share the ten Shakespearean plays I like best and why. You might have been surprised why some make my list and others don’t, but I’d have reminded you of what the 17th-century French mathematician-physicist-philosopher, Blaise Pascal, had said (“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point”), and I’d have begged your pardon for not including one of the four great tragedies. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, there’ll be no prizes for guessing which of the four great tragedies would top my list.

NyQuil and DayQuil are doing their number on me, dear reader, and my position has been getting steadily more horizontal with each successive paragraph. But I promised to tell you a story and you know I like keeping my word. In “Keeping My Word,” I had told you that I was keeping my word to a couple librarians to promote my events at their libraries. One of the ways I did this was by posting the flyer I had created (in Word) all over the cities of Pasadena and Sierra Madre. Well, all is hyperbole, but I certainly put in many flyer miles. My story takes place on one of those frequent flyer trips, outside a coffee shop in Pasadena.

Sharon Edwards ArtNight

I was walking to my car after posting my flyer at the back of the coffee shop (the only place they allow flyers to be posted). I’d had to get the barista’s permission because the manager was “at lunch,” and since they don’t serve lunch at the coffee shop, she was not on site (and therefore out of sight). But my story is not about the barista or her manager. It’s about a cute guy I found seated at a table, reading a book, outside the coffee shop.

Now I have a personal rule not to approach cute guys outside coffee shops, though I don’t mind bending this rule if they happen to be reading a book. I didn’t ask this cute guy what he was reading, which would come across as your standard pickup cliché. I merely asked him if he had read my book.

He looked up with a slightly bemused expression and I quickly showed him the book. He blinked, looked at it, and said he’d never heard of it. That’s no way to flatter a famous author, but I’m not a famous author so it didn’t bother me. Instead, I took it as an opportunity to give him the thirty-second promo spiel. He seemed to find it interesting, so I gave him another thirty seconds. And another. And perhaps another. By which time he had the book in his hands and was reading the back cover.

I invited him to ArtNight Pasadena and he said he’d try to make it. Then, out of curiosity, I asked him what he was reading. I’m passing this information on to you, dear reader, because I know how much you like puns. He was reading Just My Type: A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield.

Just My Type

As we were saying goodbye, I asked him his name. I know I should have done that when we said hello, but we never actually said hello. Our conversation had begun in medias res, like epics do.

Reader, it was an epic moment when he told me that his name is Hamlet. Here’s a picture to prove I am telling the truth. The camera never lies.

Sharon Edwards and Hamlet

Leavesdropping

In my last post, “Listless in Los Angeles” (August 1), I had listed five things we can do to not be listless. Since I like to walk my talk, I didn’t talk during my walk one day earlier this week. Or, to use the terminology I had used in “Listless,” I paused for a moment of stillness and silence while exercising. But such is the world’s resistance to walking the talk that the moment had barely begun when it ended with the sound of a man’s voice saying “My job has no value!”

It was said with such vehemence that my thoughts stopped in their tracks. I was walking in a garden and the man was on the outside. I edged to the hedge, parted the leaves, and dropped in on his conversation.

I was expecting a stocky, scruffy thirtysomething, but this guy was older, taller, and better dressed. For some reason his appearance generated in my mind the image of a nineteenth-century explorer staring across a thundering waterfall in the African interior. I hadn’t thought of David Livingstone in months, maybe years, but this man brought to mind that worthy pioneer – which, of course, brings to mind Hamlet.

Hamlet is the great eavesdropping play, except that people listen behind arrases, not from eaves. The word eavesdropper came into use almost four score years before Shakespeare’s birth, and the first recorded use of the verb is found in the 1606 comedy Sir Giles Goosecap (“We will be bold to evesdroppe”). The general consensus on the authorship of this anonymous play is that it was written by George Chapman, the chap also identified as the Rival Poet in Sonnets LXXVII–LXXXVI. Chapman’s Homer inspired Keats to pen a sonnet I love because of the imagery in the sestet:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Although I have never looked into Chapman’s Homer and felt like stout Cortez staring at the Pacific, I’m glad Bardolators didn’t change eavesdropping to arrasdropping because I’d have had to come up with a different title for this post. Arrantdropping might have worked as a pun, but I’m not arrant (though at times I’m a ranter).

The classic line on eavesdropping in Hamlet appears in the scene in which Hamlet talks to himself for the third time in as many acts. (Which, when you think about it, is not bad for the most talkative character in Shakespeare.) Hamlet is unaware that someone is listening to his soliloquy – from behind the arras, that is. The audience in front of him should be listening, but audiences can be perverse when it comes to listening to Hamlet’s soliloquies. So strongly do I feel about this that I call them “scullions” and “dull and muddy-mettled rascals” in my Hamlet story, “The Tiffany Lamp.”

It’s a good thing Hamlet is unaware of the eavesdroppers, or he might not have said all those great lines about mortal coils and bare bodkins. And he might have gone on talking to himself had Ophelia not entered to remind him of his sins. He tells her to get herself to a nunnery (where she will say many orisons, which is necessary because he is an arrant knave and his sins are many), and exits. Enter the eavesdroppers, the king and Polonius, who tells Ophelia, “You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said; / We heard it all” (III, i, 182-83). In an ironic twist at the end of that act, Polonius is killed while eavesdropping behind the arras in the queen’s bedchamber.

Back to the world of the living. When I parted the leaves to eavesdrop, I saw that the man was following a golden lab and being followed by a golden-haired lass. I took them to be his dog and his daughter. I admit I could be wrong about the lass, but the dogged way the man was following the lab could only mean that he was its master.

“I wanted to be an engineer,” the man continued. “I wanted to build things, you know? To be part of something bigger.”

Something bigger? I’d said something similar myself, and that very morning! I had to hear more. I sidled along the hedge, dropping leaves as I eavesdropped.

“Instead, I get paid a lot to do nothing.”

That’s better than getting paid nothing to do a lot, I thought.

The golden-haired lass mumbled something, which I’m still kicking myself for not catching because it made him laugh. But I doubt what she said was terribly funny, because the laugh was short and bitter. More like the yelp of pain the golden lab might make if someone stepped on its leg.

The lass pulled out her phone. The man was still ahead and didn’t notice. Moments later he amended his statement: “I get paid a lot to do nothing of value.

Getting paid a lot to do nothing of value is worse than getting paid nothing to do a lot of value. Work that is of value is its own reward. Ask any volunteer – including members of the Shakespeare by the Sea troupe who acted in Hamlet this season. But that’s not what I was thinking when I heard the amendment. Instead, my train of thought went something like this:

Surely he isn’t leading a life of crime . . . What he does must have some value to someone . . . His clients (if he has any) must value his services . . . His wife (if he has one) must value his paycheck . . .

Instead of satisfying my curiosity about his occupation and what others think of it, the man merely repeated himself: “I want to be part of something bigger.”

His voice had less bitterness and more yearning this time, and that’s when I got it. The issue was not the work’s intrinsic value or its value to others. The issue was the work’s value to him! Why did he think it lacked value? He’d said earlier that he wanted to be part of something bigger, but what would that look like to him?

Sadly, we’ll never find out, because that’s when my leavesdropping eavesdropping ended. I had reached the garden wall. The man, the golden lab, and the golden-haired lass were further up the open trail. Had I been on the other side of the hedge, and feeling brave enough for a potential rebuke, I might have said, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing what you just said. May I ask you something?”

If I had done this and if, instead of boxing my eavesdropping ears, the man had given me permission to fire away, I’d have asked him what he’d like to do. If he had been willing to engage in conversation, it might have helped him discover the “something bigger” and I might have persuaded him to pursue it. Who knows, our conversation might even have helped the golden-haired lass with her career choice, but don’t ask me how it would have helped the golden lab. If it were a brown dachshund, now . . .

Since money doesn’t seem to be a problem, the man would have a better chance at realizing his dream than most of us. But sometimes it’s more than the lack of means that keeps us from our dreams. Sometimes it’s a physical condition, or a personal or professional commitment that constrains us. And sometimes it’s an issue of the soul.

For those over a certain age (as this man certainly was), years of disappointment can lead to despair and then, means or no means, the beans and the bounce, the dash and the drive, the energy and the esprit, the go and the gusto, the pep and the punch, the sap and the snap, the vim and the vigor, the zing and the zip just aren’t there. Had we had the conversation, and had I noticed that something of this nature was holding him back, I’d have suggested someone he could talk to, someone who is adept at helping people overcome such obstacles.

The ideal end of the conversation that never happened is that the man would have lived happily ever after. At the very least, it would have let him lament his lot before a sympathetic audience. The golden lab was deaf to his master’s voice, and the golden-haired lass was already deep into her phone. My listening ear would have made a difference, of that I’m sure. For not everyone is like the Elizabethan sonneteer who, when in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, all alone beweeps his outcast state.

Sonnet XXIX

A Good Murder

A light rain was falling when I stepped off the number 25 at Newcastle-under-Lyme, but it was surprisingly warm for a mid-February afternoon. As I crossed the street that separates the bus stand from the town center, I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head and decided to leave my umbrella in my satchel. It wasn’t far to the library, and a little rain never did any harm. It might even do me some good, I thought, as I remembered last night’s skipped shower.

Apart from the desire to get away from the Keele campus, I also wanted to find out if the Newcastle library had a better copy of Of Human Bondage than the one I’d found on the university’s bookshelves. A lifetime of reading and half a decade as a professional copyeditor and proofreader have damaged my eyes, and I can no longer read books typeset in what is known in publishing as tight leading. The line spacing of Keele library’s only copy of Of Human Bondage was too close for comfort, so I didn’t borrow it.

Of Human Bondage

For some reason this book had been on my mind for the past two weeks, and I wanted to give it a second chance. The last time, several years ago, something had interrupted me before I could finish the first chapter, and my interest in the story vanished. I never picked it up again. And now here I was, making my way through the cobbled lanes of a quaint English market town more than five thousand miles from LA, with Somerset Maugham’s famous title reverberating in my head.

The guy at the downstairs counter, who was yawning when I stepped through the library’s automatic door, blinked when I asked him where I would find the book. After I had repeated myself (in response to his blank stare), he pointed to the ceiling and said, “Upstairs.”

It isn’t right, I thought, as I went to the second floor. This is a famous book, written by one of the best known English writers of the twentieth century, and one would think it would be among the classics downstairs. Then it struck me that I hadn’t seen any classics on the shelves downstairs.

The upstairs counter was manned by two women who were carrying on a conversation with a balding man in a faded blue jacket. The older woman was slim and stylishly dressed, every bronze-tinted hair in place, jewelry coordinated perfectly with her fuchsia blouse. The younger woman was tall and thickset, her greying hair hanging limply about her broad shoulders. She had a large, placid face, and she was wearing a light grey blouse that gave her complexion a washed-out look. Unlike her colleague, she didn’t have on a spot of makeup.

“What was the title again, duck?” asked the fuchsia woman.

I repeated myself (again).

“A classic,” remarked the man in the blue jacket, looking into the distance with a dreamy expression. “Also a film with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis.”

Of Human Bondage Film

“Oh dear, let me see, where would we find it?” The fuchsia woman became red with fluster, wringing her hands and fiddling with her pink necklace. She peeped under the counter and lifted a stack of papers, as if the book might be hiding there.

In the meantime, the other assistant turned calmly to the computer and typed something. She then looked up and announced, “We have one copy in Staffordshire.”

One copy in all of Staffordshire?

“Crying shame, isn’t it?” She shook her head, as if to acknowledge that I had a reason to be shocked. “But the library has limited shelf-space, and we can only keep books that are in demand. People don’t seem to be reading literature anymore.”

“It’s the same story everywhere,” I replied, and I wasn’t trying to pun.

“I’ll take a look inside,” said the fuchsia woman, scurrying away in her purple heels. I turned back to the woman in grey, whose pale face had suddenly become magnetic. Our conversation moved to current reading trends, which favor action-based potboilers filled with sex and violence. The man in the blue jacket wandered off to a free computer terminal.

“I read the book many years ago,” said the woman in grey. “I enjoyed it.”

“I haven’t read it,” I confessed, “but I want to give it a shot. I’m picky about what I read.”

“Me too,” she said. “I definitely prefer the classics. But mind you, every now and then I will read something light. Nothing like a spy novel or a good murder.” She clicked her tongue with relish, as though she was thinking of a glazed Danish pastry.

The fuchsia woman returned to the counter. “I’m sorry, duck, but our only copy is at the Stafford branch, and it’s checked out. It’s due in two weeks. You can put a hold on it for fifty p.”

I decided to wait until I saw what the copy was like before parting with my fifty pence. Perhaps I would even find a readable copy at one of the Newcastle thrift stores between now and then. I thanked the women and made my way downstairs.

The rain was falling harder now, so I pulled out my umbrella when I stepped outside the library. As I began walking in the direction of the Oxfam store, still smiling at the library assistant’s turn of phrase, a line from my favorite work of literature came to mind: “Murder most foul, as in the best it is.”

Could it be that the Ghost of Hamlet’s father was telling me that there’s no such thing as a good murder?

Ghost of Hamlet

My Favorite First Words

At the end of the post on Diderot and The Last Judgment (March 1), I had said that within a worldview such as Diderot’s this life is “the be-all and the end-all.” The phrase comes from the Shakespearean tragedy with my favorite first words uttered by any Shakespearean character, popularly known as The Scottish Play.

Macbeth, Act I, scene 3
Thunder. Enter the three witches
38 lines later . . .
Enter Macbeth and Banquo
MACBETH: So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

Macbeth was the first of the four greatest Shakespearean tragedies I read, but I still get chills when Macbeth first walks onstage and says those opening words, which unconsciously echo what the witches had said in scene 1 (“Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air”). Macbeth is setting himself up – rather, the Playwright is setting him up, and he is letting us know that he is doing this through the device of dramatic irony. (Hamlet’s first words also contain dramatic irony, but we don’t yet know why Claudius is “less than kind” so the first of Hamlet’s many words are a shade less thrilling. And not as chilling.)

What the Playwright doesn’t tell us is whether Macbeth has somehow opened himself up to the forces of darkness before the play begins. My own opinion is that he has, although perhaps unknowingly. I get this from the text. Even before we see him we are told how Macbeth killed a rebel: “he unseam’d him from the nave to the chops, And fix’d his head upon our battlements.” This is a savage way to end someone’s life, even when it’s done in battle. Violence opens a person to the forces of darkness, which is why I believe that Macbeth has made himself the witches’ target.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the witches target Macbeth because they know his tragic flaw (ambition) and what it will lead him to do. The prophecy will tempt him to get the throne by foul means, which will throw Scotland into a bloody civil war, and the forces of evil seek only destruction – of human beings and of nations.

David Garrick Macbeth 1768

David Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard as the Macbeths, 1768

Immediately after his encounter with the witches, Macbeth learns that their first prophecy has been fulfilled: he is informed that he is now the thane of Cawdor. The news prompts him to philosophize on “the imperial theme.” The soliloquy tells us that murder has already entered Macbeth’s thoughts, but the thought of actually murdering Duncan “yet is but fantastical.” Perhaps to drive it from his mind he will say:

If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me
Without my stir.

Macbeth might have become “king hereafter” without resorting to regicide. The king might have died peacefully in his sleep or been killed in battle, but Macbeth wrests the crown by shedding blood because he has:
(i) The tragic flaw of ambition, which won’t let him wait.
(ii) An ambitious wife, who won’t let him wait. (He was rightly called “Bellona’s bridegroom” earlier in the play. Lady M. has all the qualities of the goddess of war.)
(iii) The opportunity. Duncan visits the Macbeths at Inverness and all Macbeth has to do is reach for his dagger and “murder sleep” (a euphemism if ever there was one). Compare this with how hard it is for Hamlet to kill his king.

Incidentally, that’s not because of Hamlet’s inability to act but rather his inability to rush into an act he knows is wrong. When he does kill his king, it will be when he himself has been mortally wounded, and at the king’s behest. It’s one of the many reasons why Hamlet deserves to have flights of angels sing him to his rest, whereas Macbeth’s body is merely dragged away by Macduff (the other big Mac in The Scottish Play).

Charles_Kean_Macbeth_1858

Charles Kean and Mrs. Kean as the Macbeths, 1858

Macbeth’s final words have never thrilled me quite as much as his first, not even when I was nineteen and reading the play for the first time. He has become so deeply entrenched in evil that by the time of his famous exchange with Macduff, I want him to die.

But the last time I saw the play (last summer), the actor playing Macbeth didn’t feel the same. He had been fairly controlled until then but lost all sense of proportion (or is decorum the right word?) when Macduff says he was “from his mother’s womb Untimely ripp’d.” Between “Before my body I throw my warlike shield” and “Lay on, Macduff,” this Macbeth engaged in all manner of vaudeville buffoonery, even dragging himself across the stage to throw one last dagger at his nemesis. Instead of high tragedy this Macbeth ended inches above farce. One almost wished Lady Macbeth back to life, because she had been played to perfection.

Atheists like Diderot would have agreed with what Macbeth says when he is told that his wife is dead, that

All our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. . . .
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more

For anyone who does not believe in the afterlife, this life is the be-all and the end-all, as Macbeth says in that key soliloquy in Act I, scene 7, when he expresses doubts about murdering Duncan. If there were no consequences, and no afterlife to consider, says Macbeth, then he might as well do the deed and do it soon.

But that’s such a prosaic paraphrase of the soliloquy that has two of the most poetic lines in all Shakespeare, the lines that conclude this passage:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all — here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come.

My Favorite Bare Bodkins

My last post, “Word Pressure” (March 20), brings me to what was to have been my first post. But first, a confession about the confession in my first blog proper, “The Fire Thieves” (January 23). In that blog I had confessed that I’d told three people that my first blog would be about my favorite character, but my muse deserted me just when I needed her (what’s new) and I had to write about Timon of Athens and Pale Fire and Brush Up Your Shakespeare! instead.

My confession about this confession may not seem like much of a confession to anyone who knows me or has read Pioneer Boulevard (or my last post) or attended one of my author talks. But I think it’s a matter of integrity to fess up that in that first blog proper I did write about my favorite character. If you read it you’ll find Hamlet there. This post will be about my favorite character in my own book, but because she is patterned upon my favorite character, you’ll find that great Dane here as well.

Branagh as Hamlet

Kenneth Branagh with a bare bodkin, 1996

This post is inspired by the epiphany-triggering question I was asked at the Hastings Branch author talk on January 7. I had considered referring to the audience member who asked me this question as Tarun to protect his identity, but I realized that the pseudonym would not protect his identity. Tarun is the Hindi word for young, and any Indian reading this post would have figured out that I’m referring to Young, the reader who reads my blog faithfully and posts comments that keep my mind on its toes. For this, and for his epiphany-triggering question at Hastings Branch, this post is dedicated to him.

Young’s question was about my favorite character, whom I’d been waiting to be asked about since my first author talk (at the Pasadena Central Library on July 20, three weeks after Pioneer Boulevard was published). At that reading a friend I had invited asked me about her favorite character (Gertie in “Some Sunny Day”), but my favorite character had her fifteen seconds of fame only when I talked about her to fill an awkward silence during the Q&A session. Well, she got more than fifteen seconds whenever I talked about her, but nothing was enough for her. She insisted that she deserved more.

“I’ve given you countless hours of writing pleasure,” she whined after the South Whittier reading. “And I’ve helped you do something about that obsession of yours.” (She was referring to my Hamlet obsession. I wish I’d never told her about it, because she flings it in my face whenever she wants her way.)

“You certainly have, Delia darling,” I replied gratefully. “Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks.”

“Words, words, words,” she retorted ungratefully. “You owe me much more than thanks.”

“I know, Delia darling,” I re-replied placatingly. “You think I don’t want to talk about you? But no one asks me about you. I can only answer the questions—”

“The questions?” she re-retorted implacably. “Doesn’t that remind you of the question? That is, the question of what you owe me?”

“Yes, Delia darling, it does,” I re-re-replied, my voice softer and humbler. “I owe you much more than I’ve been able to give you.”

“Then isn’t it time you suited the action to the word?” she re-re-retorted, her voice louder and prouder. “Or will you just stand by like not-a-mouse-stirring and say the time is out of joint and let conscience make you lose the name of action?”

Before I finish relating that conversation, there’s something I must tell you about Delia. She thinks that because she was patterned upon my favorite character she can quote him for any little thing. She doesn’t always quote him accurately, but I am unable to correct her. Unable and unwilling. You see, I have pampered her. No, let me call a spade a spade. I have spoilt her rotten. So although I am her creator, I am putty in her hands. 

“You’re right, Delia darling. It’s time I suited the action to the word.” My suiting the action to the word, I am ashamed to admit, involved an underhand move.

Hamlet Olivier

Laurence Olivier with a bare bodkin, 1948

Three days before the Hastings Branch talk I received an email from Young telling me his copy of Pioneer Boulevard had arrived. He said he could attend the Hastings Branch talk, and asked me if I like Christopher Marlowe. My underhand move is in my reply:

I did read Marlowe at college but where Elizabethan drama (or drama) is concerned, I am a one-man woman. So it won’t surprise you to know that my favorite story is “The Tiffany Lamp.” I am not reading from it on Tuesday, but I hope the excerpt I do read will provoke a discussion. Please come prepared to ask a question, to fill an awkward silence. Preferably something that occurred to you while reading one of the stories.

I was hoping that by telling Young that my favorite story was “The Tiffany Lamp” he’d rise to the bait (or fall for it), read the story before the author talk, and ask me about Delia. He read the story alright, but nothing prepared me for the question he asked:

Would you say that Delia, like Hamlet, is the tragic figure in her own story?

I was speechless (for a moment). I had never seen Delia as the tragic figure in her own story. The protagonist, yes, but not the tragic figure. To me she is the child whose diapers I have changed. How could I see her as anything else after that? I haven’t had real children, but I imagine that no mother sees her child as a tragic figure, no matter how great they grow up to be (or not to be). I’m guessing that Mary Arden Shakespeare never saw her firstborn son as anything other than the baby whose nappies she changed from April 23, 1564 (or April 26, when he was christened) until she had him potty trained.

Tennant as Hamlet

David Tennant with a bare bodkin, 2009

That is only conjecture, of course, but please don’t tell me if you find out otherwise. If Mary Arden Shakespeare saw William differently, it will force me to see Delia in a new light and I’d rather let her remain the spoilt brat she is. I didn’t say that in my response to Young’s question, but he reads this blog so he knows now.

Bare Bods