Touching the past

‘Oh, you haven’t heard,’ said the librarian in the Duke Humphrey Library, the oldest and most beautiful part of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, with its carrels of deeply polished oak and panelled ceiling. ‘The new Bodleian is being refurbished – will take five years – ninety percent of western manuscripts are now in the Radcliffe Science Library.’ I stand with my jaw open. It’s a bit like saying the Crown Jewels are temporarily on show at Madame Tussauds. Naturally the book I wanted to see was part of the ninety percent.

I went to the Radcliffe Science Library. It hums and purrs with strip lighting and scanners and is boiling with undergraduates from all over the world, perhaps all over the universe. You wouldn’t turn a hair to see a rubbery beastie from another planet pass by on its way to periodicals. I went downstairs to the wing of the reading room now barricaded with electronic doors and designated ‘Special Collections’. My book was waiting for me.

I tried to settle at the desk on the typing chair with the angle-poise personal strip light to read by. The abundantly bearded man next to me had a hissy fit at two undergrads who were daring to speak to each other. The absolute rule of silence remains in Special Collections, even if the lights do whirr and the air-conditioning fizzes, and the reading room, from which we are separated only by open bookshelves, doesn’t have that rule. The burbling of young chemists, physicists and rocket scientists pours in like dry ice. There is something very wrong about housing humanities with science. I don’t wish to be a snob, but… That man, there, transcribing early music from an ancient manuscript should be seated on oak, not plastic.

I open my book. It is early twelfth century, a copy of Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah. Alas I cannot read the words – I’m only looking at the pictures – but the words are beautifully written on vellum. Anglo-Carolingian in style, apparently. The vellum was a calf in the early twelfth century. Forty years after Domesday, a herd of cows on land once owned by Anglo Saxons but no longer is slaughtered for meat and hide. The tanner went over and over these skins, stretched on a frame, with his knife. It would take the whole herd to make a book this size. I run my fingers down the skin – no one has asked me to wear white gloves – and feel the animal and the tanner and the scribe. There are pinpricks in the margins – I wonder if the scribe had a stick with nails poking through which he could press on each page, or is that kind of thinking the product of the industrial age? Perhaps it was part of his discipline to measure the lines on each page and do individual pin pricks to mark them. I sense the silence of the scriptorium – it would have been in Exeter cathedral, I think, and perhaps we can hear seagulls outside, and the wind from the sea playing round the cloisters.

Capital letters in red, green and blue, are populated by monsters from bestiaries, hairy apes and lion-eared dragons, serpents entwined disgorging green leaves and red flames; knotwork – lacertine ornaments in arabesque initials.

St Jerome made a commentary on Isaiah. Some Anglo-Norman scribes made a copy of it, and others came later to read the words and make corrections and glosses. Much later still, a scholar of this great library spent his days making bibliographies on filing cards – there are about fifty of them citing every mention of this manuscript in academic studies and journals. Another scholar devoted himself to writing out a list of catalogue numbers, all by hand, all now printed in facsimile. Stooped forms over wooden desks attempting the labours of Hercules. One man in the eighteenth century gave this manuscript a number; another in the nineteenth gave it another. One in the twentieth produced a book translating both series one into the other.

This book is consulted how often? Once a year? Meanwhile it dreams its dreams, wafting in the scent of some preserving fluid they’ve used on the vellum. One torn page has been beautifully stitched in green embroidery thread, so that the stitches look like leaves on the stem of the tear – now that was a repair our scribe would have appreciated.

And if he were with me, here, now, in this subterranean warren of laptop science, what would he think? I suspect that to him we would all be rubbery beasties from Planet Zog and he would dive under the desk with his hands clamped over his ears and his eyes tight shut while he called on the saints in Latin.

Superba scripsit, mmx


Tolstoy – a lesson in diction

For those of us reading War and Peace as part of ‘Team Tolstoy’ on dovegreyreader’s blog, here’s a little lesson in diction, as powerful as it is short.

It was suggested (presumably by OUP publicity department, who offered free copies to ten lucky winners) that the Maude is the BEST translation. As we had to wait a month for it to arrive (it was only published this week) I did the first leg of the epic journey with my old yellowing Edmonds translation (Penguin). The Maude arrived on Monday but I thought I’d finish Part One in the Edmonds before swapping. However, when I read this morning a particularly lively scene in the last chapter (25), out of curiosity I went to Maude to compare the two. Here are both versions. I’m not telling you which is which.

Version 1

...Prince Andrei encountered Mademoiselle Bourienne smiling sweetly. It was the third time that day that she had thrown herself in his path in a secluded corridor, with the same ecstatic and artless smile.

‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ said she, for some reason blushing and casting down her eyes.

Prince Andrei looked at her severely, and his face suddenly showed irritation. He did not speak but stared at her forehead and hair, not looking at her eyes, with such contempt that the Frenchwoman flushed scarlet and turned away without a word. When he reached his sister’s room his wife was awake and her blithe voice could be heard through the open door babbling away. She was chattering on in French, as though anxious to make up for lost time after long repression.

Version 2

Prince Andrei met Mademoiselle Bourienne smiling sweetly. It was the third time that day that, with an ecstatic and artless smile, she had met him in secluded passages.

‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ said she, for some reason blushing and dropping her eyes.

Prince Andrei looked sternly at her and an expression of anger suddenly came over his face. He said nothing to her but looked at her forehead and hair without looking at her eyes, with such contempt that the Frenchwoman blushed and went away without a word. When he reached his sister’s room his wife was already awake and her merry voice, hurrying one word after another, came through the open door. She was speaking as usual in French, and as if after long self-restraint she wished to make up for lost time.

How much there is to learn about writing good fiction from this short extract! In fact here in a nutshell is the difference between brilliant and merely adequate writing. One version is truer, no doubt, to the original in word but the other is truer in spirit.

I’m sorry if this is turning into a comprehension test, but I need to ask some questions of you!

1. Which passage painted the scene most vividly in your mind? What words did the magic?

2. It is a rule of good style that sentences end with strong words. Which are stronger: ‘artless smile’ or ‘secluded passages’? ‘Irritation’ or ‘face’? ‘Babbling away’ or ‘open door’? ‘Repression’ or ‘lost time’?

3. Good diction depends on choice of words and the order of sentences (see earlier posts). Doesn’t ‘blithe’ and ‘babbling’ do the work of ‘merry voice, hurrying one word after another’, and do it particularly well by changing the order of phrases?

OK, by this time, and despite my disguising the Maude by translating the French sentence into English, it’s going to be obvious where my preference lies. One is undoubtedly academically (ugh, two adverbs!) superior to the other; but the other is sublime in style.

David and I are reading W&P on the lectern David built in the throne room. As I was carrying both versions back to my study to write this, I passed him on the way. ‘Have you started this?’ I asked, holding up the Maude.

‘It’s rubbish! The paper’s rubbish, the typography is crap and it won’t lie flat.’

‘But what about the translation?’

‘Oh, I haven’t got that far.’

So, would anyone like to buy a book? It’s fresh, new and has a pretty yellow ribbon. Virtually unused. As Plato teaches us, beauty can be in ideas as much as in appearances, and I’m sticking with my forty-year old smelly, yellowing and glorious Penguin.

Great radio

I’m listening to a great programme on history and literature, coming from Cheltenham Literary Festival and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Repeated tonight at 9.30, or available as a podcast. Sebastian Faulks was particularly interesting.

‘In a special programme recorded at the Cheltenham Literature Festival Andrew Marr talks to Bernhard Schlink, author of ‘The Reader’, about his latest novel to be translated, which pits youthful idealism against the reality of terrorism. Margaret MacMillan explores the uses and abuses of history, while Peter Snow tries to unpick the man from the legend in his biography of Wellington. Sebastian Faulks explores the history of the novel, and discusses the challenges in both historical and contemporary fiction.’

Tolstoy – October soiree

All those who joined Team Tolstoy on will be at Troika Stop One today, enjoying Lynne’s post which, quite rightly, focuses on the characters. Tolstoy is the master of character. I’ve read W&P twice before and, I think, each time I’ve been on the final draft of a novel. It’s a wonderful companion at that stage. As you write and edit and feel the temptation to let something pass, Tolstoy whispers to you, tune it up, tune it up, you can do better.

Yes, he’s a little old fashioned in the leisure he affords himself to paint a scene and the characters in it. Take the death of Count Bezuhov. You learn exactly where everyone is standing: which side of the door, underneath the icons, by¬† the invalid chair, etc. We know what they wear, how they look, their expressions. Modernism demands a sleeker, less cluttered narrative. As in the theatre, where the stage used to be fully-propped to convince us that the story is real, these days the scenery is merely implied. But there is still so much to learn from the old master.

I read and re-read the death of Bezuhov while I was writing about the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico in The Rebirth of Venus. I didn’t come anywhere close, but without doubt I improved on the previous drafts. The ‘culture of aspiration’ works as well in writing as it does in society. If we can see the peaks of mountains, we go up higher than if we can’t.

So what does it take to write character like Tolstoy? [I say character, because we would be ill-advised to write stories like Tolstoy – you’d never get past first post if you set your first hundred pages in a series of salon parties where nothing happens with regard to plot, or if something is happening, some subtly emergent thing, we’re now too bludgeoned by Hollywood’s dramatic openings to notice it.]

First, take your time and be there. Close your eyes and imagine the scene. Visualise the surroundings – see them, hear them, feel them, taste them. Then see – and hear – your people. Stuck now? Then go out and get some models.

War and Peace, about the 1812 war, is set sixty years earlier than the time of writing. Therefore Tolstoy made the characters up, but I have no doubt – do you? – that he was basing them, at least archetypally, on people around him. ‘One of them was a sallow, clean-shaven civilian with a thin, wrinkled face, already advanced in years though dressed like a young man in the height of fashion. He sat with his legs up on the ottomon as though he were at home, and having stuck the amber stem of his pipe far into the side of his mouth was spasmodically inhaling smoke and screwing up his eyes. This was an old bachelor, Shinshin, a cousin of the countess, famed in Moscow drawing-rooms for his biting tongue.’ How many boring salon visits did Tolstoy endure by mentally taking note of what was said, and how it was said, and who by? An aristocrat himself, he stands outside his circle like Pierre; unlike Pierre, he notices everything with a kestrel’s keen eye. And he’s not averse to putting in the beak when opportunity arises.

I love that scene where the Rostovs are having an open house to celebrate Natasha’s name day, and the countess never speaks to anyone about anything other than herself. She’s the sort of person whose head I would like to hold under water until her hair dye runs and her curls fall out. And when the last long-suffering visitor finally leaves, what does she say? ‘What manners! I thought they were never going.’ [chap 9].

That form of snobbery is still with us today and is probably eternal. That’s Tolstoy’s art: to find, identify and express those traits which we are all familiar with, in ourselves and in others. It makes W&P a deeply psychological novel and explains its enduring popularity.


1. Go through the first twenty five chapters and copy out or highlight everything that is said about Pierre who, as I’m sure we’re all finding, is something of a dolt. How do we know that? What words did Tolstoy use to make us form that opinion?

2. In whatever you’re writing, take one character and find someone you know who is similar, who may even have been the source of your inspiration. Now write a pen portrait of that person. Don’t worry about sentences: brainstorm words and phrases. Note the exterior and the interior – the legs up on the ottomon and the biting tongue.

With thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the photo, and the excellent article on War and Peace.

St Francis Day

When I started this calendar theme, it wasn’t with the intention of reminding lapsed atheists of the saints, but to get into the rhythm of the agricultural/liturgical year that we have lost in the post-industrial world. Nevertheless, I’m a great believer in serendipity, and if a friend just happens to mention that tomorrow is St Francis’s Day, then I must act. Or rather, blog.

And so it is. October 4th is the feast day of the patron saint of animals and the environment. So go hug a tree, stroke the cat and collect fallen leaves for their sheer beauty. And make a few notes of what is going on in early October.

Here we still have spider webs shrouding the plants, beaded with dew. The trees are turning in colour and the first leaves to let go are spinning slowly to the ground. The birds are beginning to sound lonely.

Happy autumn, one and all, and to you, Brother Francis.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

From ‘The Canticle of the Sun’