Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Category: prose

Peace, War, Honour, and Death

Peace, War, Honour, and Death – a fable

Honour 1It happened that War saw a beautiful woman, whose name was Peace. Desiring her, he took her away to live with him. But Peace was never happy, and when he asked her why, she answered that it was because she was cold, for though War is hot he can never pass his warmth on to anyone.

One day a knight, whose name was Honour, rode by.

“This man serves me,” thought War, and called out to the knight, “Sir Knight, take off your cloak and give it to my lady Peace!”

The knight stopped, took off his cloak, and unsheathed his sword. Having cut his cloak in two, he put one half of it around Peace’s shoulders to warm her, the other half round his own, and rode away. From that moment, to his name was added Martinus Martianus, Warlike, and the word Generous was written on the cloak about his shoulders, for it takes an act of generosity to give warmth to anyone.

Soon the knight found himself in a battle, as all of his kind do. There he met with impartial Death, as one day do we all, good and bad. Death caught the knight with his scythe and he fell. The knight’s halved cloak was not enough to soak up his blood, which flowed like a stream. The stream became a great river of clear water, known as Generosity, and it flowed through the desert known as Indifference…

You ask me why? It is because, little one, all things are held in the Great Balance, and it must be so. Time for you to go to sleep, for sleeping and wakefulness are held in the Great Balance too…

The Lost Manuscript of Aë

Ae

The Lost Manuscript of Aë – a fable

There was once a very rich man who had in his castle an incomparable collection of beautiful things. He loved them, and would spend hours in his galleries and libraries, and amongst his showcases. There were paintings before which he would stand, lost in the world that they depicted or suggested, whether the painting was an intricate interior, a landscape, or a mere splash of primary colour. There were ancient musical instruments which, when he plucked, struck, or blew them, released into the room tones that had never been heard for centuries – he had a lyre, for example, that was said to have been carried to hell and back by a minstrel looking for his lover. There were statues so beautiful that the urge to kiss their lips was almost irresistible – one of them was so beguiling that the sculptor had fallen in love with it himself, and gone mad when his love remained unrequited. There were books of poetry, philosophy, and fable that transported the reader between all the realms of Fun and Profundity. There were weapons that the heroes of the world had wielded in defence of the weak and in pursuit of the wicked – there was a bow said to have been strung by a demiurge and drawn by a demigod. There were machines that were marvels of ancient and modern invention – each one had changed the world when they had been introduced. There were jewels, royal regalia from the past, emerald rings that burned brighter than forest sunlight, jade necklets that seemed warm to the touch as though the emperor who had worn them had only just taken them off – the, scepters, orbs, diadems, and touchstones of the most enlightened princes and the most terrible tyrants.

There was just one thing he lacked, something which he coveted and desired beyond all else. He had heard of the vanished civilisation of Aë, which some men say flourished thousands of years ago and others say is legend. He had been told how their last artefact – a manuscript that contained everything that gave joy and wisdom – had come down through the ages, or indeed had never existed. Rumour had reached him that this manuscript, which had been lost, was now found, and was circulating amongst men, or was so in someone’s drunken dream.

If it existed, he had to have it. He called his most trusted employee to him, and charged him with the task of tracking down and obtaining the manuscript. His man set out and, to cut a long story short, found the lost manuscript of Aë. It is not recorded how he found it – some say he won it on the turn of a card, others that he seized it in a brawl with an inebriated sailor, others still that he found it hidden in a cave, and others still that he paid a Romany woman half his patron’s fortune for it. No matter how he came by it, he went out a boy and came back a man. And he gave the manuscript to his rich patron.

The rich man unrolled the manuscript. It was old, it was beautiful, it was in Aëan. The rich man looked around at his people – his servants, his employees, his acolytes, his friends whom he had gathered together to see his new possession, others who had simply come on the off chance – did anyone read Aëan? No, certainly not amongst them. But someone did know of a scholar of antiquities who was adept at old languages and undecipherable glyphs, and so he was sent for.

The scholar, with the rich man always in attendance, worked for months at the manuscript. Piece by piece he began to make sense of it, and piece by piece he told the rich man what it said. Yes, there was joy in it. Yes, there was wisdom in it. The rich man was glad. But eventually, when the scholar had translated some three-fifths of it, he sadly came to the conclusion that the manuscript, though old, was not Aëan. It was a fake.

The rich man was devastated. He was not angry with his employee, who had done his best, but he did send him out to see if he could find the real one. In fact he found two, both of which were also fakes. The rich man never did possess the lost manuscript of Aë, and one day he gave his entire collection to the nation, which dispersed it amongst its many museums. One spin-off, however, was a general interest in all things Aëan, a fashion for Aëan gew-gaws and imaginary robes and adornments, market stalls full of scrolls and parchments with supposed Aëan glyphs all over them.

Is there a moral to this story?

A moral? Yes, never underestimate the power of bathos in fiction.

Ah.

I’m in a subjunctive mood…

I wasted a lot of time recently arguing with a blogger who had ‘learned the rules’ of English at school. My use of English was, according to him, ‘lazy’ because I broke some of these rules. No use my telling him I’m university-educated, that I have spent a lot of time examining historical texts and their linguistic usage, that I’m aware of every rule and rubric that the English language has been saddled with, and that I know full well which ones come from the natural eloquence of everyday speech and which ones were foisted on us despite that natural eloquence. No matter that I have followed and marvelled at the development of modern English from its Medieval roots to its present position as a vibrant, living World Language, with a host of attendant lects and sub-lects that handle every discourse, every social and ethnic specialness, every creative need. No, his schoolmarm knew better, and now so did he!

Aye, right.

Let me examine two of these rules and see how they stand up to scrutiny. Firstly, the question of ending a phrase or sentence with a preposition.

1“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” says Prospero at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the euphony of that phrase of feminine-ended tetrameter shines out of the dark of four centuries, reminding the audience of the essentially ephemeral existence of that redemptive fantasy and its characters.* Shakespeare was a genius of language; it was all he had to hold his audience with, in the days when CGI effects were not even dreamt of. And this phrase, shining like a candle, ends with a preposition.

Likewise the roll-call of drowned sailors making this wonderful piece of iambic pentameter:

‘Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon.’ (Richard III, 1.4.25)

But I over-egg the pudding, friends. Shakespeare ended sentences this way simply because that’s exactly how everyday English – the English of Kings and commoners alike – was spoken. So when King Henry V, wandering in disguise around the camp of the English army before the battle of Agincourt, is challenged to answer the question ‘Who servest thou under?’ he does not ‘correct’ his challenger’s question. And when, in As You Like It Rosalind asks Orlando ‘Who do you speak to?’ it raises no eyebrows, because it flows off the tongue of a native-speaker like water down a country rill. Moreover, as a king may not quibble at a question, and a well-bred lady may use a preposition as she pleases, a prince may speak of ‘the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to’ in his most famous soliloquy (Hamlet, 3.1.61-62).

2So, where did the rule to the contrary come from? Many consider that the attribution of Shakespeare’s usages not to one-part-observation one-part-inventiveness, but to ignorance and lack of education, started with John Dryden in the late 17c. Dryden was a scholar of Latin, and since in Latin it was impossible to end a sentence with a preposition, he decided it should be improper in English, usage or no usage.** Influential amongst his own circle though Dryden might have been, ‘Dryden’s Rule’ was not codified until the second half of the 18c, when Bishop Robert Lowth produced his A Short Introduction to English Grammar. 3But even he acknowledged that ending a sentence with a preposition was dominant ‘in common conversation’ and suited ‘very well the familiar style of writing.’ So not even Lowth would go as far as saying it should never be done!

Nevertheless, by the early 20c it became the norm amongst teachers of English in schools to preach up the banishment of prepositions from their natural place in colloquial speech. Notwithstanding that, the preposition knew its place better than the teachers did, and kept to it in every discourse except in the speech and writings of pedants. Even Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage referred to the preposition’s banishment as a ‘superstition’!

4At this point in the discussion of prepositions it is usual to cite Winston Spencer Churchill who, it is supposed, replied to a torturous memo from a civil servant, in which prepositions had been engineered away from the end of phrases to the extent that the prose resembled crazy-paving, ‘This is something up with which I will not put!’ However, nice though this piece of ridicule is, the story is apocryphal.

So, is it actually wrong to take prepositions away from the end of sentences? Well, no it isn’t. It is no more wrong than to banish them. As in all things to do with English usage the principle guidelines*** are: clarity, i.e. there should be no confusion, no ambiguity about what is meant; euphony, i.e. it should not sound ugly; emphasis, i.e. the placing of any word depends on how the phrase or sentence is nuanced, thus to say “Where are you going from?” can be used not only because of its colloquial currency, but because it may draw attention to the most important component of the question. 5Equally, when Abraham Lincoln drew the preposition away from the end of a sentence in his address at Gettysburg – ‘increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion’ – he knew precisely where the emphasis should fall in his rhetoric. Thus both are correct, in their own way, according to the context.

Clarity. Euphony, and emphasis are only guidelines, however, and I can think of many reasons why, for the sake of artistic effect, even they can be (carefully) discarded.

On to the next issue, the use of the double negative.

The blogger I was discussing my usage with seemed to be too busy reading his own prejudices to read what I was actually saying about this. It all came about because I deliberately used a negative word to negate a negative phrase I had lifted from him. I was in fact using two negatives to resolve to a positive. He couldn’t get his head round that, he couldn’t cope with any idea except that two negatives together were ‘wrong’. Yet the concept of two negatives resolving to a positive is actually straight-down-the-line schoolmarm English! I’ll leave that point there, as it needs no embellishment.

6There is, of course the question of using a double negative as an intensifier. Now, do I need to quote Shakespeare and Milton to anyone? It is usual for anyone who hears a usage in English that they think is ugly, ‘lazy’, or just new, to shake their head, wring their hands, and lament “Oh, the language of Shakespeare and Milton!” The thing is, both of these writers sometimes used double negatives as intensifiers. Oh yes they did!

Viola says of her heart, ‘And that no woman has, nor never none shall mistress be of it,’ (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, 3.1.156-157) and actually I counted four in there!

‘Nor did they not perceive the evil plight in which they were,’ (Milton, Paradise Lost). This is an interesting example, as it has the common use of ‘nor’ as an intensifier at the beginning of a phrase. And by the way, yes, I spotted where Milton had placed his preposition. As I said, both are correct usage.

The difficulty that some readers have with such intensifiers is that, post-18c and the introduction of books like Lowth’s, their use has been identified with a lack of schooling. Whether that identification is a fair criterion to judge them is another matter. In my discussion with the blogger, I cited ‘African-American Vernacular English’ (AAVE), which is recognised by academic linguists as being a legitimate lect of English. Its usage is so ingrained, that it is not simply current but widely influential. Its origins are unclear, but it is probable that it drew its strongest characteristics not only from African speech-patterns but also from the speech-patterns of early English-American settlers. Certainly a very clear factor in its development was the generations-long deprivation of the African-American societal layer from formal education. However, in no way does that invalidate its legitimacy as a lect, in no way are its users inherently ‘lazy’ for using it. I find it highly ironic that ‘laziness’ should be an attribute so often applied to a people who for generations had to suffer slavery!

6In AAVE, as I said, the use of a double negative as an intensifier is very common. So, for example, when Ray Charles sang “I don’t need no doctor…” it was perfectly clear what he meant. Again – clarity. But my stubborn blogger again could not get his head round the fact that to use or not to use a double negative depended entirely on context, not on a supposed laziness or lack of education. Certainly not on my part.

So, is my own English usage ‘perfect’? Well, should I even be aiming for that? In this essay I have deliberately used colloquial forms which have been frowned at by generations of schoolmarms. I have used the singular they/their, I have ended sentences with prepositions, I have started sentences with conjunctions, I have mixed British and American criteria for double and single quotes, I have sprinkled this essay with all kinds of things that some readers may find questionable. But did you, at any time, not understand what I was saying? I doubt it. That’s because I know my English, I know what it does, I know how it’s used, and I know how to use it.

But no, my English has never been ‘perfect’. I headed this article ‘I’m in a subjunctive mood’. That’s because I have to confess that I wrestled with a particular grammatical issue for many years – the subjunctive.

In the English language, strictly speaking, verbs no longer have a subjunctive mood. English does, however, retain a few zombie elements of it, and for a long time I had a big, big blind spot about these elements. Were I to illustrate this by saying that, if I was you, I would read no further, then you would see what I was driving at. I said ‘Were I to illustrate this…’ and that is pure subjunctive, expressing something conditional. I said ‘if I was you’, which was pointed out to me by someone editing my work as being ‘wrong’. To my mind, the word ‘if’ was enough to carry the conditional sense, and the phrase ‘if I was you’ required no subjunctive form of the verb. However, I had never been pulled up on this issue until that editorial process. I checked up on the matter, and I found that ‘if I were you’ was generally regarded as being ‘correct’. Was this another of these arbitrary ‘rules’ that had been foisted on us in the 18c? That didn’t matter to me. What did matter was the question of register and discourse – for whom I wrote generally, and in what context. In that respect ‘if I were you’ would be better received, and actually I had to admit it sounded better to my ear when I spoke each over. It sounded right. It sounded right. It had the benefit of euphony, this use of a double – ha! – conditional.

Wonder of wonders, there’s a grammatical construction that you must double.

Interestingly, though, the way it had been put to me was that ‘if I was you’ was the way the idea was commonly expressed amongst users of English as a second language, in a particular country, and was regarded by many users of English as a first language in that country as the speech of the ill-educated. And there I think we have come full-circle!

__________

7* Humphrey Bogart’s final words in The Maltese Falcon – “The stuff that dreams are made of” – is in fact a misquotation. But that isn’t a problem, because there are many, many misquotes from Shakespeare, from the Bible, from other sources, floating freely out there. The English language is not poorer for them, it is probably richer.

** This is precisely why splitting an infinitive used to be considered incorrect – it was impossible in Latin, so it should be improper in English. See? Modern linguists consider that to be a silly, unnecessary rule, and I’m with them!

*** Inasmuch as rules are for the blind obedience of fools and the guidance of the wise.

 

 

My Gothic spring continues…

The manuscript of KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE is open in front of me, and my collection The Last-but-one Samurai and other stories is currently being edited. Meanwhile Angélique Jamail has featured another of my Gothic poems from 2010 on her blog…

candlelight

Claire Pellucida – a Fable

castleOnce there was a town. In the middle of the town stood a castle, and in the middle of the castle stood a high tower, and at the highest point of the tower was the chamber of a princess. Her name was Claire Pellucida, and the people of the town loved her, because she was pretty, and her eyes shone. They found her wise, because they would come to her and ask her what she could see from the window of her chamber, and she would tell them the most wonderful things. And the town itself was called Pellucida, in honour of its wise and pretty princess.

One day the people of the town assembled in the courtyard of the castle, and called up to the princess. “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the north.”

The princess looked to the north, and said, “Far away I see mountains, with summits and pinnacles as sharp as needles. There are trees growing there, that are of solid silver, and on them hang fruits and berries that are pearls and hard diamonds. There is a river of clear crystal, like ice, that flows with such slowness. And in amongst the silver trees I see the glint of the eyes of ermines and foxes; and above the trees, on snowy wings, fly white birds like eagles, with silver beaks.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the north laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There are no such mountains to the north of here, no such trees, nor birds, nor animals, nor a crystal river!”

But the people of the town believed their princess, and one day, when Claire Pellucida had grown into a beautiful young woman, they assembled in the courtyard of the castle and called up to the princess. “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the east.”

The princess looked to the east, and said, “Far away I see a forest, standing stark against the rising sun. The trees are an army of gigantic soldiers in a livery of black and dark green, and they roar in the wind, brandishing their long spears angrily, because they cannot march upon us.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the east laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There is no such forest of roaring giants to the east of here.”

But the people of the town believed their princess, and one day, when Claire Pellucida had grown into a handsome matron, they assembled in the courtyard of the castle and called up to the princess, “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the south.

The princess looked to the south, and said, “Far away I see a land where the sands ripple as the sea does, and the mountains are like children’s bricks, stacked chequered – white limestone, red sandstone, pink granite. And the trees wave in the breeze, like many-fingered hands, and amongst them step lithe girls and boys in linen robes, gathering the amber fruits that hang on them.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the south laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There are no such mountains like children’s bricks to the south of here. Nor are there such waving trees with amber fruit.”

But the people of the town believed their princess, and one day, when Claire Pellucida had grown into a stately old woman, they assembled in the courtyard of the castle and called up to the princess. “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the west.”

The princess looked to the west, and said, “Far away I see a peaceful sea of liquid silver, where the sun shines like copper. There is an island on that silver sea, and a great city on that island, with tall towers of yellow-veined marble, on which the copper sunlight glints, and shines, and dances. And upon that silver sea sail great golden dhows.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the west laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There is no such silver sea to the west of here. Nor is there such and island city, nor golden dhows.”

But the people of the town still believed their princess, as they had always done.

The night after she had looked to the west, and told the people of the town what she had seen there, Princess Claire Pellucida was wakened by a great glow outside the window of her chamber. She rose from her bed, and looked out of her window, to the west. There was the silver sea, the copper sunset, the island with its city of yellow-veined marble; and more marvellously, a silver river was running from the silver sea right to her castle. And on that silver river was a great, golden dhow. And on that great, golden dhow stood tall mariners and fine ladies, all dressed in saffron cloaks sewn with golden-thread. There were circlets on their heads of interwoven white gold and yellow gold, and torques of copper round their necks and wrists, and rings of gold upon their fingers. And they saluted and bowed, and called out to the princess.

“Princess Claire Pellucida, come down and sail with us to the island in the silver sea; for the island city with its towers of yellow-veined marble, has need of a queen to rule it.”

So Princess Claire Pellucida came down from her chamber in the highest point of the tower, in the centre of the castle; and she sailed away with the tall mariners and fine ladies, to the sunset, to the silver sea, to the island city with its towers of yellow-veined marble. And there she ruled as their Queen for ever.

But that is not the end of things.

The next morning, the people of the town of Pellucida gathered in the courtyard of the castle, and called up to their princess. But she did not answer. One brave townsman entered the castle, and climbed the tower, and from the window of the chamber at its highest point, he called sadly for five of his friends to join him.

In the chamber, the six men stood, and looked down at the bed, on which lay Princess Claire Pellucida. She lay smiling and peaceful, as though she slept, and in her face the six men could see the fleeting prettiness that had been there when she was a girl, the beauty that had been there when she was a grown woman, the loving gentleness that had been there when she was a matron, and still, still the stately splendour of their dear princess in old age lingered also. But they knew that she was not sleeping. She had left them, and was dead.

But even that is not the end of things.

The six men carried her, with great sadness and reverence, down to the townspeople, and they all processed solemnly out of the town, and laid the body of the princess – as was their custom – a mile away, in the great, open wilderness that surrounded the town for mile upon mile, for the wild beasts and the birds to devour.

But even that is not the end of things.

The townspeople continued to tell stories to their children, of all the wonderful things that the princess had seen from her chamber in the castle tower, and of all the things she had told them. The children believe the stories, and worshipped the tower where the princess had lived. They told the same stories to their own children. These children did not believe them, but still they told the same stories to the next generation. The children of that next generation believed nothing at all, except what travellers from the north, from the east, from the south, and from the west told them.

And who knows if that is the end of things!

golden 2

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I’m thinking of putting together a collection of my short stories – most of which you have not seen here on the web site, and presenting them for publication. What do you think? If you would like to read through the short stories that I have published so far on this web site, please click here.

M

‘Crocodilism’ – a dem⦁n’s definition

crocodilism, n.

 

  1. The political principle whereby a state claims or occupies smaller states, territories, or disputed regions; extended to any corporation, body, or individual who appropriates possessions by virtue of their proximity rather than by any recognised right.

 

  1. The practice of girls walking in a long column of twos whilst holding hands; extended to the progress of any slow-moving procession of objects close together.

 

  1. The practice of weeping or making any pretence of woe for the purpose of entrapment; extended to the general philosophy that such pretence and the gaining of an advantage by it is acceptable.

 

  1. The worship of Sobek.

 

  1. The deliberate eating of something considered by others to be unnatural or unacceptable.

    “Thes forsothe among polutid thinges shulen be holde, of hem that ben meued in erthe; a wesil, and a mouse, and a cokedril, eche after his kynde.” Leviticus 11:29 Wycliffe version (1395)

 

  1. The practice of a philosophy where captious or sophistical argument is used; extended to any deliberate use of trick questions.

    “A woman sitting by the side of Nilus, a Crocodile snatched away her child, promising to restore him, if she would answer truly to what he asked; which was, Whether he meant to restore him or not. She answered, Not to restore him, and challeng’d his promise, as having said the truth. He replyed, that if he should let her have him, she had not told true.” Thomas Stanley, The History of Philosophy vol. II, viii, 57 (1656)

 

  1. The affectation of flattery, clemency, or any other favourable behaviour by a person holding any power or influence over others.

 

  1. The habit of removing irritations from a person from whom one wishes to gain favour.

 

  1. The hoarding and bringing into use of things past their time of practical usefulness.

 

  1. The condition of being all mouth and no ears.

[I recently rediscovered this introduction to a poetry project. I thought it might be worth popping here. M.]

 

The split infinitive: advice to and entertainment for writers

To split or not to spilt, that is the question. If the object of splitting is an infinitive, my rule is simple – split it or don’t split it, but have an eye to ambiguity, to the verb you want to qualify, and to euphony. Nobody in her right mind would correct the world’s most famous split infinitive, that of Starship Captain James T Kirk, because to do so would be to disturb its ringing prosody, even though its sense would be as solid as a rock despite the change.

If all fails, say it another way.

Henry Watson Fowler is often granted the last word on the subject, and I’m going to quote him in full here, not because I regard him as authoritative, but because this is one of the wittiest pieces of writing on the subject. I chuckle to myself whenever I get to the place where he uses ‘readier’ and I want to yell “More readily!” – I suspect that he did that deliberately. Although he does come down very heavily against avoidance of the split infinitive where such avoidance is obsessive to the point of fetishistic, he is gracious enough to quote one of the ugliest splittings ever.

Let me give you a word of warning – don’t use Fowler, or any other source, as a bolster for your own prejudices. ‘Magister ipse dixit’ is never a good argument. I try not to, and I’m one of the most consistent contributors to grammar debates on Facebook that I know; I find them difficult to resist. Here he goes:

HWF

HWF

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.

(1) Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes. ‘To really understand’ comes readier to their lips and pens than ‘really to understand’; they see no reason why they should not say it (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point), and they do say it, to the discomfort of some among us, but not to their own.

(2) To the second class, those who do not know but do care, who would as soon be caught putting their knives in their mouths as splitting an infinitive but have only hazy notions of what constitutes that deplorable breach of etiquette, this article is chiefly addressed. These people betray by their practice that their aversion to the split infinitive springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others; for they will subject their sentences to the queerest distortions, all to escape imaginary split infinitives. ‘To really understand’ is a s.i.; ‘to really be understood’ is a s.i.; ‘to be really understood’ is not one; the havoc that is played with much well-intentioned writing by failure to grasp that distinction is incredible. Those upon whom the fear of infinitive-splitting sits heavy should remember that to give conclusive evidence, by distortions, of misconceiving the nature of the s.i. is far more damaging to their literary pretensions than an actual lapse could be; for it exhibits them as deaf to the normal rhythm of English sentences. No sensitive ear can fail to be shocked if the following examples are read aloud, by the strangeness of the indicated adverbs. Why on earth, the reader wonders, is that word out of its place? He will find, on looking through again, that each has been turned out of a similar position, viz between the word be and a passive participle. Reflection will assure him that the cause of dislocation is always the same — all these writers have sacrificed the run of their sentences to the delusion that ‘to be really understood’ is a split infinitive. It is not; and the straitest non-splitter of us all can with a clear conscience restore each of the adverbs to its rightful place: He was proposed at the last moment as a candidate likely generally to be accepted. / When the record of this campaign comes dispassionately to be written, and in just perspective, it will be found that … / New principles will have boldly to be adopted if the Scottish case is to be met. / This is a very serious matter, which dearly ought further to be inquired into. / The Headmaster of a public school possesses very great powers, which ought most carefully and considerately to be exercised. / The time to get this revaluation put through is when the amount paid by the State to the localities is very largely to be increased.

(3) The above writers are bogy-haunted creatures who for fear of splitting an infinitive abstain from doing something quite different, i.e. dividing be from its complement by an adverb; see further under POSITION OF ADVERBS. Those who presumably do know what split infinitives are, and condemn them, are not so easily identified, since they include all who neither commit the sin nor flounder about in saving themselves from it — all who combine a reasonable dexterity with acceptance of conventional rules But when the dexterity is lacking disaster follows. It does not add to a writer’s readableness if readers are pulled up now and again to wonder — Why this distortion? Ah, to be sure, a non-split die-hard! That is the mental dialogue occasioned by each of the adverbs in the examples below. It is of no avail merely to fling oneself desperately out of temptation; one must so do it that no traces of the struggle remain. Sentences must if necessary be thoroughly remodelled instead of having a word lifted from its original place and dumped elsewhere: What alternative can be found which the Pope has not condemned, and which will make it possible to organise legally public worship ? / It will, when better understood, tend firmly to establish relations between Capital and Labour. / Both Germany and England have done ill in not combining to forbid flatly hostilities. / Every effort must be made to increase adequately professional knowledge and attainments. / We have had to shorten somewhat Lord D——’s letter. / The kind of sincerity which enables an author to move powerfully the heart would … / Safeguards should be provided to prevent effectually cosmopolitan financiers from manipulating these reserves.

(4) Just as those who know and condemn the s.i. include many who are not recognisable, since only the clumsier performers give positive proof of resistance to temptation, so too those who know and approve are not distinguishable with certainty. When a man splits an infinitive, he may be doing it unconsciously as a member of our class 1, or he may be deliberately rejecting the trammels of convention and announcing that he means to do as he will with his own infinitives. But, as the following examples are from newspapers of high repute, and high newspaper tradition is strong against splitting, it is perhaps fair to assume that each specimen is a manifesto of independence: It will be found possible to considerably improve the present wages of the miners without jeopardizing the interests of capital. / Always providing that the Imperialists do not feel strong enough to decisively assert their power in the revolted provinces. / But even so, he seems to still be allowed to speak at Unionist demonstrations. / It is the intention of the Minister of Transport to substantially increase all present rates by means of a general percentage. / The men in many of the largest districts are declared to strongly favour a strike if the minimum wage is not conceded.

It should be noticed that in these the separating adverb could have been placed outside the infinitive with little or in most cases no damage to the sentence-rhythm (considerably after minersdecisively after powerstill with clear gain after besubstantially after rates, and strongly at some loss after strike), so that protest seems a safe diagnosis.

(5) The attitude of those who know and distinguish is something like this: We admit that separation of to from its infinitive is not in itself desirable, and we shall not gratuitously say either ‘to mortally wound’ or ‘to mortally be wounded’, but we are not foolish enough to confuse the latter with ‘to be mortally wounded’, which is blameless English nor ‘to just have heard’ with ‘to have just heard’, which is also blameless. We maintain, however, that a real s.i., though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality. For the first, we will rather write ‘Our object is to further cement trade relations’ than, by correcting into ‘Our object is further to cement …’, leave it doubtful whether an additional object or additional cementing is the point. And for the second, we take it that such reminders of a tyrannous convention as ‘in not combining to forbid flatly hostilities’ are far more abnormal than the abnormality they evade. We will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial; more than that, we will freely admit that sufficient recasting will get rid of any s.i. without involving either of those faults, and yet reserve to ourselves the right of deciding in each case whether recasting is worth while. Let us take an example: ‘In these circumstances, the Commission, judging from the evidence taken in London, has been feeling its way to modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India and at the same time to meet reasonable Indian demands.’ To better equip ? We refuse ‘better to equip’ as a shouted reminder of the tyranny; we refuse ‘to equip better’ as ambiguous (better an adjective?); we regard ‘to equip successful candidates better’ as lacking compactness, as possibly tolerable from an anti-splitter, but not good enough for us. What then of recasting? ‘intended to make successful candidates fitter for’ is the best we can do if the exact sense is to be kept, it takes some thought to arrive at the correction; was the game worth the candle?

After this inconclusive discussion, in which, however, the author’s opinion has perhaps been allowed to appear with indecent plainness, readers may like to settle the following question for themselves. ‘The greatest difficulty about assessing the economic achievements of the Soviet Union is that its spokesmen try absurdly to exaggerate them; in consequence the visitor may tend badly to underrate them.’ Has dread of the s.i. led the writer to attach his adverbs to the wrong verbs, and would he not have done better to boldly split both infinitives, since he cannot put the adverbs after them without spoiling his rhythm? Or are we to give him the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that he really meant absurdly to qualify try and badly to qualify tend?

It is perhaps hardly fair that this article should have quoted no split infinitives except such as, being reasonably supposed (as in 4) to be deliberate, are likely to be favourable specimens. Let it therefore conclude with one borrowed from a reviewer, to whose description of it no exception need be taken: ‘A book … of which the purpose is thus — with a deafening split infinitive — stated by its author: “Its main idea is to historically, even while events are maturing, and divinely — from the Divine point of view — impeach the European system of Church and States”.’

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

Fairy folk, writing advice, and no borders!

My publishers recently had a couple of little display stands at the Fairy Folk Market in Murray Street, Pretoria, SA. The hawk-eyed among you will spot my first novel, Lupa, featured on the shelves.

fairy folk 1

fairy folk 2

I must confess I keep forgetting it’s summer down in South Africa!

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I recently came across this piece of writing advice from Ernest Hemingway. It’s good advice, and I find that unconsciously I have already been following it…

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time. Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work. The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along.

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Something else I came across recently was this art ‘installation’ by Indian artist Shilpa Gupta. Basically she has created rolls of ‘incident tape’ on which the words ‘THERE IS NO BORDER HERE’ are repeated. The tape can be brought into use anywhere – anywhere the public can see it – wrapped around and along fences, suspending a miniature globe, in short stretches almost as a single slogan. But the main installation at art galleries is in the form of a paragraph of what can be fairly called concrete poetry, in the shape of a flag. Gupta is drawing our attention to the arbitrariness of lines on a map, to things that divide one human being from another.

there-is-no-border-here

The exhibition in which Shilpa Gupta’s work is displayed is currently in Scotland, and I would like to get along to see it. (I’m grateful to Paul at Bookseeker Agency for the photograph, taken at Glasgow, I believe.)

Jayhawkers, rougarous, and violent death: a review of Samuel Snoek-Brown’s ‘Hagridden’

(warning – this review contains plot spoilers)

hagridden_book_coverHagridden
Samuel Snoek-Brown
Columbus Press, OH, pp.241

Samuel Snoek-Brown will possibly turn out to be one of the best storytellers of the 21c. There’s a modernist feel to his storytelling, very often his plots don’t resolve, but rather give the sense that a process – a life – is going on, and that we have witnessed a part of a greater whole. The psychology of his characters is seldom explained but always clearly displayed, as readers have already seen in Boxcutters, his slim book of short stories. Now we have his first published novel, Hagridden, to consider. According to Sam, Hagridden isn’t the first novel he has ever written, owning up to other attempts when he was much younger, saying “they were books I had to write in order to learn how to write this one”. Teethcutters, you might say!

Hagridden is the story of two women who eke out an existence in the Louisiana bayous towards the end of the American Civil War. One way they survive is to murder fleeing soldiers of both sides and sell their weapons and accoutrements to a corrupt storekeeper. When a neighbour, a comrade of the younger woman’s dead husband, returns to his hut having deserted from the Confederate army, their existence is thrown out of kilter. Aficionados of Japanese film will instantly recognise that Hagridden owes a huge debt to Kaneto Shindo’s movie Onibaba (1964). This debt has never been a secret, although it is not directly acknowledged in the book. However, this is not the first time that a tale from medieval Japan has been transferred to 19c America, and it is not simply an adaptation of Onibaba; not only has the tale moved in time and location, but it has also switched media. There are also differences in the plot beyond that, some subtle, some very obvious.

The Civil War is a very powerful element of the USA’s national myth as well as of that nation’s actual history. The stiffness of 1860s daguerreotypes from which uniformed, bearded men stare out was taken forward into film and TV – Gone with the Wind, North and South, Gettysburg – with gallant officers, plantation ladies, and stoical slaves. Largely forgotten in popular culture is the devastation to lives on the periphery. That is where Sam Snoek-Brown sets Hagridden. The two women have been brutalised by poverty, and their consequent violence is graphically described. Sam doesn’t pull any bayonet-thrusts in his descriptions, he doesn’t let the reader look away at any time, forcing a confrontation in which not every reader will feel comfortable. There were times as I read when I wanted to beg for mercy, not for myself and my own sensibilities, but for a character. In the end, it was almost a surprise to learn who did and who did not survive. Mercy, however, isn’t an option, as the book is driven along by the worst in humanity, in nature, and in superstition. There is only one act of kindness in the book, and that seems to be nothing more than a device to allow two of the central characters to survive a little longer.

Hagridden is almost an amoral book. In fact I would guess that this is deliberately so, making its amorality a moral stance in its own right. Characters are allowed their own morality, as when one of the women rationalises the sins of murder and lust:

I ain’t talking about killing nothing. They’s bad and then they’s bad. What we do we do to survive and they ain’t no sin in that. But lust? Whoo girl, you got to look out for that they lust. Worst sin they is. Sinners what lusted after the flesh in this world, they turn to animals in the next. Crawl round on all fours like dogs and the brimstone burning off they knees, the skin off they palms. Some say rougarous is lusters coughed up from Hell to walk the earth.

werewolfA ‘rougarou’ (Fr. loup garou, werewolf) is what gives Hagridden its superstitious, supernatural element, although there is a mundane explanation to this creature’s appearance in the story. However the appearance of the second (or is it third?) rougarou is almost too convenient, almost that of a deus ex machina, and not the novel’s most convincing episode.

From the quoted passage above, it can be seen that much of the dialogue is written with a distinct ‘eye-dialect’. There are also what I call ‘fixers’ – usages which establish a time and place in a story. In the case of Hagridden, the fixers are Cajun-isms, notably the way characters address each other casually as ‘sha’ (chère), ‘vieux’, ‘petites’, and ‘boo’ (beau). They don’t always work, as when ‘boo’, normally said to a man, is addressed to the older woman (p.14), or when the ungrammatical ‘ma petit fils’ is used(p.158). Such solecisms may exist in the vernacular of Louisiana – I speak a little Louisiana French but am no expert – yet they look wrong on the page. As a general point of style, direct speech is not marked by any form of quotation marks. This meant that I had to look consciously for where speech started and ended. But this wasn’t a chore, and in fact it concentrated my attention, making the text as a whole feel very taut. Some readers might find the use of the word ‘nigger’ unpalatable, but if it was there in the actual speech of that time and place then it has to be there in this novel.

Human-on-human is not the only brutality of the novel. Greater than the violence and murder done by the characters on each other, and than the supernatural terror of the werewolf stalking the bayou, is the force of nature. A hurricane and tidal surge threatens to wash away everyone and everything, including the story (pp.193-200). One of the most compelling passages of the book comes here, as two characters watch an oddly-juxtaposed procession of domestic objects, animals, and people float by them in the flood. It is surreal, almost nightmarish.

Sam Snoek-Brown has been praised for his meticulous research while writing this novel. Although I have queried some details, I could see as I read that he had indeed paid a great deal of attention to historical authenticity. This was obviously something he wanted to achieve, an integral part of the exercise of writing the novel. I don’t want to belittle that achievement, but to me it wasn’t over-ridingly important. What was more important was the novel’s plausibility, its power to make me suspend disbelief and follow the story to the end. He achieved that with an expertise that made it seem easy. That’s the mark of a craftsman-author. This novel may be read ignoring my quibbles, and on that basis I recommend it fully.

MM
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Hagridden official web site

Juggernaut!

From my longest short-story, The Last-but-one-Samurai:

“I believe that there is a barbarian land, where they have an annual festival in which they propel a large, heavy statue of one of their gods down a hillside. It is left to chance or fate where it careers. It strikes a rock, and either bounces aside down a new, destructive path, or dislodges the rock, which then tumbles with it in a terrifying avalanche. Onlookers marvel, and wonder when it is going to stop dead. Eventually it strikes a more solid obstacle, and its tumbling is arrested – the onlookers breathe again – but no! It teeters for a moment, as if making up its mind whether to settle back, and then plunges onwards, causing more and more destruction. What I am trying to say is that my story has been like this, and whatever I thought, as I lay my gear down amongst that of the forty-six, there was more insanity to come. The statue of the god was about to tip over again, and carry me down with it!”