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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

I am holed up on the couch with tea, willing my cold to vanish most hastily. It will most likely be better by tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm getting a lot of reading done.

Book #37, Grace Tiffany, Will

Another Shakespearean fictional biography. There's definitely a mini-Renaissance of the damned things underway--to which, of course, I am doing my best to contribute.

This is not a bad book, and the writing, overall, is rather pleasing. I am in particular enamored of this paragraph, which I found rather well-done:

In the year 1600, eighteen died of the smallpox in Stratford, and twelve of consumption. Fifteen women perished in childbirth, and nineteen of both sexes were done in by typhus, scurvy, vomiting, or distraction. Twenty-four bled to death. One died of fright, and three from grief. The other forty-two lay down and did not get up anymore because they were tired. Of these last, John Shakespeare was one.

But I'm going to fuss at it, for a bunch of reasons, several of which are probably linked to the writer's irresistible urge to rewrite the prose of another.

Unfortunately, I felt that the characters were somewhat shallowly drawn and a bit one-note, and she's doing the whole somewhat predictable Emilia Lanyer/Henry Wriothesly thing, and... I dunno. In parts, it reads like historical fanfiction; I'm not sure I would have gotten the good of it, in other words, if I didn't know the story all ready and have that grounding and background. The writer is connecting the dots between well-known bits of speculation or (occasionally) historical fact, but the narrative doesn't strive for enough beyond that, and some bits are truly random. Such as the sort of occasionally-mentioned Elizabethan serial killer turning out to be  Edward de Vere (who in the real world had been dead since 1604, but never mind that), although the subplot is handled entirely off stage, and I'm not sure what it's there for, other than... well, I'm not sure what it's there for.

Also, Shakespeare's confrontation with Bacon, in which Bacon keeps dozing off? Just odd.

I was actually less frustrated by anachronisms than I feared, although. No coach from London to Stratford in 1590. I'm willing to let the chronometer go, I guess; they were in use on the continent by 1500 or so. Also, Tiffany has the absolutely terrible habit of rabbiting on for about a page and a half about a character we've previously been introduced to, upon their reappearance, without telling us who she's talking about. Which distracts me from actually paying attention to the narrative, because I'm busy looking for the Distinguishing Characteristic that will tell me who this woman or that man might be. It's either meant to build tension or it's intended as reinforcement for the themes of malleable identity informing the book, but either way it was coy and it annoyed me.

Another thing. ...it just doesn't feel Elizabethan. It's very low-mud, for one thing. Also, I'm not sure I'm willing to buy Shakespeare as a republican, and a secret anti-monarchist. cryptoCatholic, you might get by me. But....

She did make me like Southampton, though, which is pretty impressive, as he's rather one of the villains of my book. And you get to disliking people, when you write them one way or another. But I liked this fellow, all sly wit and easy forgiveness. Her Jonson, Alleyn, and Kyd are more or less caricatures, however, and I kept thinking her Marlowe has promise, but, yanno, he doesn't last long.

There's also an issue of the conflicts in this book being muffled, sometimes gravely so. Which I do think is an actual flaw of the book, rather than the baggage I'm bringing to it. There's a lot of potential for drama in this story; and it's all underplayed. (for example, if you're going to go to the trouble of setting up a frustrated homoeroticism between Shakespeare and Southampton (some of the best scenes in the book are the internalizations here, BTW) and have Wriothesly-as-drag-queen (which I thought was just wonderful) I would suggest that it is a mistake to (a) not have Wriothesly using Will's affections later, just prior to the Essex revolt, and (b) to dismiss any relationship between Wriothesly and any purported dark ladies as just a big misunderstanding.)

In fact, a lot of the conflicts in this book are summarily executed by a sort of random forgiveness. And I wanted more, I think. More depth, more of a narrative and thematic thread binding the story together, more passion. The last line with its transformation is wonderful, but she never makes me believe that the transformation is necessary. I don't buy the alienation and obsession that would make it necessary; perhaps because I am told it frequently enough, but I don't feel it.

And that might be part of the problem with writing Artistically Tortured Will. History, what little we have, gives us a shrewd and reasonably well-adjusted individual. The antithesis of this romantic notion that great artists must be greatly troubled. Will Shakespeare seems to have been a hard-working fellow with an eye out for the main chance, who made a lot of money (not writing plays, but owning playhouses and making similar investments) and cheated a bit on his taxes. It's hard to reinvent him for the post-Byron tastes of a modern audience; we're better off with Marlowe or Jonson or Kyd. Oh, and by all accounts he was a pretty good actor, not the lousy one portrayed here.

I think this is the thing, actually, that truepenny was talking about with regard to the autodidact vs. the university wit over on glass_cats recently. Dr. Tiffany is a professor of Shakespeare, and her book, in fact, reads in one regard much like other Elizabethan novels I've read by academics. Not that they're bad, but... the characters interact like academics interact, not like writers interact. Which isn't a very specific critique, but it's something I've noticed. Also, they invariably dismiss Ned Alleyn as a pompous windbag and a bad actor, ignoring the fact that he was the theatrical draw of his age.

Gratuitous use of an intriguing Elizabethan color name noted in this work: "goose-turd green." No Dead Spaniard; perhaps the fad has passed. (Mine, FWIW, are Isabella and inciannomati) It's de rigeur; every author working in the 1500s must mention at least one odd color name.


That is shiiiny.

And I suspect I will be fine. It's just a headcold.* And I have drugs.

Which I shall take more of.

*This is what I get for flying across an ocean, running my ass off, spending the week on trains, and not sleeping enough, while eating in restaurants.
Well, obviously you make de Vere a serial killer because he WAS one.

Or he would have been, if he'd thought of it.


The gratuitous dissing of Alleyn puzzles me, unless it's because what he's famous for is being able to carry off rhetorical bombast (e.g., Tamburlane), and they've (a.) decided that must mean he was a scenery-chewing ham and (b.) sloppily transferred acting style to character trait.

There's a whole animadversion here about the academic refusal to understand Senecanism, but I shall spare you that.
Heh. Stick to choirboys, man. The amusing part is that he was apparently a serial killer after he was dead.

(a) and (b)--Yes.

He would have made a good V. *g*

Are you sure I can't tempt you to divert?
this romantic notion that great artists must be greatly troubled

The Romantics have a lot to answer for.

They really do. Including an unfortunate spate of literary characters with clubfeet, I do imagine.
I think this is the thing, actually, that truepenny was talking about with regard to the autodidact vs. the university wit over on glass_cats recently. Dr. Tiffany is a professor of Shakespeare, and her book, in fact, reads in one regard much like other Elizabethan novels I've read by academics. Not that they're bad, but... the characters interact like academics interact, not like writers interact.

I'm currently reading an assortment of North American prehistory novels for a class, and it was astonishing to see the difference between the ones by the archaeologists who decided to write novels, and the one (only one in the set) by archaeologists who took up novel-writing professionally. For starters, most of the former couldn't write casual dialogue if you gave them a tape-recording to copy from. (Do they think no one in prehistory used their linguistic equivalent of contractions? Does non-contracted dialogue sound more "primitive" or something?) The stiffness is appalling. Also -- and this is more a gripe against Ella Cara Deloria than the rest, since I just finished Waterlily -- the characters' actions seem motivated by the opportunity to illustrate some interesting tidbit of cultural information, not by any legitimate internal purpose. Which probably connects to the utter plotlessness of most of these books; they serve more as biographies of their fictional main characters, thereby allowing the writer to show you many aspects of prehistoric life in something like a graceful manner, than anything with direction.

Put up against those, the Gears' People of the Silence was a breath of fresh air. A little distracted in its plotting, perhaps, and occasionally too fond of description, but at least it was a novel rather than an informational essay masquerading as one.
Yeah, gah, I'm familiar with those. The vast majority of the Marlowe novels I've read do exactly that--and now we will proceed through the last two months of Kit's life, hitting the high points, to illustrate this author's theory about who killed him and why--and it drives me crazy.

This book is, at least, a novel. And it's trying, I think, to do something pretty interesting with a discussion of identity and inspiration and obsession... but I don't think the author commits enough to pull it off. It skips the surface rather than plumbing the depths.

I really need to read Burgess' Nothing Like the Sun one of these days--because in A Dead Man In Deptford, he pulls off one hell of a *novel.* Not a fictionalized biography (though a good biography can certainly become literature, too--The Devil and Sonny Liston as an example) but a novel.

A brilliant one.
Dr. Tiffany is a professor of Shakespeare, and her book, in fact, reads in one regard much like other Elizabethan novels I've read by academics. Not that they're bad, but... the characters interact like academics interact, not like writers interact.

This is actually the same issues I had (similar) with her Ariel way back when...
:-P Well, at least it's not just me.
the characters interact like academics interact

what, too much assault & battery, flagrant sexual immorality, and plagiarism? Can't be boring, though, can it?

(I think in academia, academics interact a bit too much like academics interact, too.)
Well, yanno, flagrant sexual immorality, that's par for the course in the art world too....
My father used to constantly use the term "goose-turd green" when I was a child. It made quite a vivid impression upon me and I had no idea it had Elizabethan origins, but then, we are from Appalachia.
got a real evocative quality, h'ain't it?
BTW, did you know that Appalacian English, along with Lowland Scots, is the closest living remnant we have to Elizabethan English as she was spoke?