Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard
Ben Crystal
England
2016 edition

If the number of copies available in the state of Ohio is anything to go by, Shakespeare on Toast isn’t an overwhelmingly popular title. My local library didn’t have a copy, but fortunately—back in January when everything was still open—it was easily requestable from outside the system, as it has turned out to be one of the most valuable Shakespeare resources I’ve yet come across. Indeed, I’m tempted to say, “the only Shakespeare aid you’ll ever need!” although that might be overstating the case a bit. (After all, you’ll probably still need at the very least a dictionary.) But it does prove a very helpful resource, all shared in a light breezy style.

Crystal’s enthusiasm for his topic shines through the entire book, from his introduction of Shakespeare’s times in Act 1 to the more technical dissection of Shakespeare’s language and style in Acts 4 and 5. His excitement is such that at times while I read, I felt an impulse to read the complete works, immediately.  (Other obligations have prevented this, however.) He is not interested in who Shakespeare was (the authorship question is glanced over; Crystal considers it unimportant) but what he achieved. We are first given context for the times: what was Elizabethan theatre like? The staging, the costumes, the audience? Then the continued and universal relevance of the plays is touched on, before Crystal takes us into the heart of the matter, starting with the characters:

Many people hold that the main reason why Shakespeare has become so universally thought of as just plain brilliant is because of the characters he wrote. It wouldn’t be my first reason (which we’re coming to), but without doubt, he had a way of creating memorable and pretty fantastic characters that make most other writers’ creations seem amateur. (62)

Shakespeare’s characters are doubtless memorable. It is the reason I’ve seen previously for why Shakespeare was so great. It’s not a bad reason, but Crystal sees even more, and in laying out his explanation of Shakespeare’s genius, I feel like for the first time, I’ve finally been given a reason to understand why, of all the playwrights that have ever lived, it is Shakespeare that we continue to hold in high esteem.

There’s a growing number of people who feel that you can get rid of the Olde language, make it all fresh and modern, and it’ll stay the same.
It won’t, of course. Part of the problem with Shakespeare’s plays, as we saw earlier, is that the stories aren’t original. Nor are they flawless. Translate, update, adapt Shakespeare’s writing, and all you’re really left with is the story. Take the poetry away, and you very quickly realise you’re pulling at a piece of string that will make everything unravel. (79-80)

Starting with Act 3, Crystal lays out his argument that it is Shakespeare’s language that makes him truly great. At the same time, he shows us how to approach Shakespeare – not merely by reading the words on the page, but by understanding how Shakespeare used his dialogue to direct the actors and the settings, to convey meaning not merely through word choice and meter but through how he chose to disrupt the patterns.

This is the key to Shakespeare. Not in understanding Shakespeare – I hope I’ve made it clear that you can understand and enjoy Shakespeare without learning these literary terms and conceits – but in owning Shakespeare. Because what he did with this very popular style of poetry, this type of metre, was revolutionary.
He turned it on its head, made it do things that other writers didn’t, twisted it and played with it and broke every single one of the rules I’ve just explained to you, improvising like a great jazz player. (129)

Crystal is a Shakespearean actor and approaches his topic from that perspective. But instead of just privileging the performance over the written word, he provides his readers the tools to approach Shakespeare from the actor’s perspective—to allow us to see the play even when a staged version isn’t available. He also makes a compelling case for the First Folio as the edition of choice – despite its archaic spellings and mistakes. After all, it is the edition that was made by the actors who had performed Shakespeare’s plays with Shakespeare – and if anyone knew how to convey Shakespeare’s actual meaning it should be them.

There is also a brief discussion of the Sonnets, part of the larger explanation of meter. I imagine even the most basic high school classes cover iambic pentameter and English sonnet form in their units on Shakespeare; but mine certainly didn’t tell me this: Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and only one of them is in pure iambic pentameter. One of 154! Crystal compares Shakespeare to a jazz great, improvising on a theme. A friend of Crystal’s believes the reason Shakespeare wrote exactly 154 sonnets is because that is the greatest number of syllables a sonnet can contain. Who knows if it’s true, but it’s a fascinating idea to consider, and one I find greatly intriguing.

In the last portion of the book (excluding appendix-type material, here called “Props”), Crystal dives into a close read of a part of Act 2, Scene 2 from Macbeth. We see him apply the tools he’s educated us in, and the scene bursts to life. I can feel the tension, even without a recollection of what the full context is. This is what Crystal’s goal is, to enable those of us who are reading, rather than attending, a play to fully engage in it, even if we can’t see physical actors before us, and to enable us to own Shakespeare for ourselves. He leave us with one final bit of advice – and encouragement:

Despite the fact that he was as human, flawed and fallible as the rest of us, the one rule that has always guided me straight and true with a tricky bit of Shakespeare is this:

     There is always a reason for it.

No matter how complicated, no matter how ostensibly random, how annoying, boring or just plain bad a scene or a line appears to be, there is always a reason for it being there.
You just have to find out what it is.
And I promise: the search is always worth it. (259-260)

Classics Spin #23

Question Mark - cover place holder

It seems like I was just reading for a Classics Club spin, and there’s another one. For this edition, I pared my list down to only books that are already on my shelves (after removing books I’ve already finished/am currently reading), seeing as I have a ridiculous number of unread books on my shelves and the library doesn’t seem likely to be open soon. (Considering they shut down even before the stay-at-home/non-essential orders.) Some of these titles are a bit lengthy, so I make no promises as to finishing this spin on time!

1. Homer: The Odyssey (Greece, c. 8th century BCE)
2. Carson, Anne, translator: An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
3. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
4. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
5. Anonymous: Njal’s Saga (Iceland, 13th century)
6. Anonymous: Nibelungenlied (Germany, 13th century)
7. Camões, Luís Vaz de: The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
8. Radcliffe, Ann: The Italian (England, 1797)
9. Poe, Edgar Allan: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
10. Dickens, Charles: Bleak House (England, 1853)
11. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers (England, 1857)
12. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Wives and Daughters (England, 1865)
13. James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (U.S., 1878-1908)
14. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)
15. Lawrence, D.H.: Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
16. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
17. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
18. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
19. Steinbeck, John: East of Eden (U.S., 1952)
20. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (Chile, 2004)

Title I’m most hoping to spin: The Sound and the Fury, since I want to read it soon, and this would be a good incentive, or Wives and Daughters since I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.

Title I’m most “afraid” of spinning: Well, none of them, actually! They’re all on my Classics Club list for a reason, after all.

Here’s to a good spin!

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Ficciones
Jorge Luis Borges
(1956 ed., Argentina)

In searching out my copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude (for a readalong I’m currently failing at) I found a sticky note on the front of the Spanish language edition. It my handwriting, “Read Ficciones first, then One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I don’t now recall why I wrote this instruction to myself. Was it a recommendation I ran across somewhere? Or was it the blurb on the front cover of my copy of Ficciones from Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, “Without Borges the modern Latin American novel simply would not exist”? I don’t know. Regardless, I had planned to read Ficciones this year anyways, in part for Richard’s (Caravana de recuerdos) 2020 Argentine literature event, so I pulled it off my shelf and began.

I’ve actually read the first four stories previously but was apparently not inspired to work further. For I find that Borges IS work—in a good way. These are not light afternoon garden parties of stories, they are morning lectures by an erudite professor. The more the reader puts in, the more they will be rewarded. The more the reader returns, the more there is to see.

An Argentinian by birth, Borges was of Spanish, Portuguese and English heritage. As a youth, his family moved to Switzerland and, after World War I, he traveled and lived throughout Europe for some years.  Over the years, his style would continue to develop, touching on fantasy, philosophy, and perhaps even, per some critics, containing the beginnings of Latin American realismo magico. (I see hints of it, but I’m hardly an expert.) It is evident from his stories that not was only was Borges well-traveled but well-read, on a wide range of topics. Returning to his work now, ­­eight years after my first attempt, I am grateful for the lapse of time, for it has given me the opportunity to encounter more of Borges’s references for myself—even if I am still woefully ignorant of many of them (i.e., Schopenhauer, who remains just a name to me).

As currently published, Ficciones is a collection of two volumes, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) and Artifices (1944; 3 stories added to 1956 edition). I’m not sure I can quite explain it, but I found tonal differences between the two parts. It seems to me that The Garden of Forking Paths is more experimental, while Artifices is more straightforward, but no, that doesn’t seem quite right either. Perhaps I was just getting more “used” to Borges by the time I reached the second half. There are themes the recur throughout both halves: fictional books, fictional authors, fictional lands, mirrors, multiplications, labyrinths, libraries. Many of his stories could be classified as a type of fantasy, but not the fantasy that gets all the press – far more philosophical; I think that’s the right word. (I’m hampered here by my near-zero knowledge of philosophy. I know about Plato’s cave and that’s about it. Adding to the to-do list. If you have recommendations of where to start, please share!) There also at times seems something mathematical about it all.

The stories that attract me the most are the ones that have a non-fiction styling about them. The reviews of books that don’t exist (but that sound wondrously interesting). The memorials to authors who never walked this earth. The journalistic account of events that aren’t even possible, or couldn’t have possibly been observed. There is something delightful in the matter-of-fact tone in which they are written. It is something that suggests to me as well the idea of the absurd, of humor sprinkled throughout, even when the stories themselves may relate terrible things.

While there is much that could be said on these—and if I were to do this again, I’d perhaps write up something on each story as I go—for now, I’ll leave it with some thoughts on some of my favorites.

“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” (1939)

It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide–word for word and line for line–with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

I found “Pierre Menard” to be on the surface one of the most absurd in its concept. It also may be my favorite. It is written as if it is a defense, published in a literary magazine, of the late (fictional) author Pierre Menard, whose most notable work, in the mind of the unnamed critic, was to write portions of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but from his own head, not by copying it down. It seems a mind-boggling impossibility, and yet, it leads to some wonderful ideas regarding literary criticism and contextualization. Taking the concept at face value—had a Pierre Menard really produced Don Quixote in the early twentieth century, there truly would have been a completely different critical and contextual response to the work as compared to its seventeenth century counterpart. How could there not?

 The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.

And at the same time, in its concluding paragraph, it reminds us that in our responses at readers, we read as if these very possibilities were so, for rare is the reader who only ever reads a book in relation to only what was written before without knowledge of all literature that has come after. Many wonderful ideas to consider.

 Menard (perhaps without wishing to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading: the technique is one of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions. This technique, with its infinite applications, urges us to run through the Odyssey as if it were written after the Aeneid, and to read Le jardin du Centaure by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique would fill the dullest books with adventure. Would not the attributing of The Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce be a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual counsels?

 “The Circular Ruins” (1940)

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though supernatural. He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.

Of all the stories in the collection, “The Circular Ruins,” perhaps comes closest to our typical pop culture definition of “fantasy.” It tells the story of a man who determines to dream a man into physical being. I am reminded of the myth of Pygmalion, only our creator here seeks to create not of the substance of the earth, but of his mind. His process, his efforts, his results are laid out carefully, suggesting what could almost be called a realistic progression. It is a metaphor of creation, perhaps of the writing process, or any other art form, but perhaps it is a meditation on the ideas of religion and the many creation stories as well. Often, throughout his stories, Borges seems to venture into the realm of religion, but with a skeptical eye.

“The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941)

The last story of the first collection, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” seems at first a straightforward narrative. But as with so many of Borges’s stories, the payoff is in the conclusion. Never assume you know where you’re going until you get there (err…at least if you’re reading as inattentively as I am often guilty of). As with so many of the stories, themes of labyrinths, infinity, circularity recur. Did we have a concept of multiverse before Borges?

Then I reflected that all things happen, happen to one, precisely now. Century follows century, and things happen only in the present. There are countless men in the air, on land and at sea, and all that really happens happens to me.

“Death and the Compass” (1942)

In my notes, I call this a “proper mystery,” though perhaps that could be said of more than one of Borges’s stories. It is simple in its solution, though complex in its deduction. Like other stories in the Artifices half, I found it more straightforward to read. The narrative however, of a detective following a wickedly clever crime, meets me at my fondness for traditional detective fiction, but with the unmistakable markers of Borges still here: a multitude of references (he must have been so well read!), labyrinths, mirrors, Kabbalah, mysticism.

“The End” (1953) and
“The South” (1953)

While “The End” is earlier in the Artifices half of the  collection, the final story of Ficciones is “The South.” And yet it seems fitting for the order to be this way. “The End” is an imagining of the last chapter of Argentine epic Martin Fierro, while “The South” recounts the injury and recovery of a man who has just received a new copy of The Thousand and One Nights. At first, there seems no relation between the two, but as he recovers, Juan Dahlmann travels to the south of the country, the landscape begins to sound like that of “The End,” and we begin to see that perhaps the earlier story illuminates the conclusion of “The South.” Otherwise we are left with only a bit of foreshadowing to inform us. Unless of course, the seemingly straight-forward narrative of “The South” is not as it seems. Tantalizingly, there are several possibilities as to the actual nature, and truth of, the story, and the vagueness in which Borges leaves us seems a fitting end to the collection. (As a side note, with at least two stories in Ficciones referencing Martin Fierro, I have concluded that reading that epic poem needs to move up my “to read” list.)

These are not stories to be rushed through, but rather to be savored, meditated on, digested slowly. They are stories to return to as we grow as readers, to find ever something new, enjoy an ever better understanding. Looking back on the stories as I write this, I find that I want to return to them again, now, yet I think perhaps leaving some time to pass first, may be of infinite value, for how I may change as a reader, and in my understanding, can only promise new richness to come.

I read Ficciones as one of my Classics Club selections, for Richard’s 2020 Argentine Literature of Doom Event, as my selection “A Classic in Translation” for Back to the Classics and for Reading the Classics Challenge.

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

I’ve had a handful of posts drafted for weeks now that I just haven’t made the time to post. I seem to go in fits and bursts with blogging; though, I am happy to report that the reading is still going strong – so many good books already this year! I’ve resolved to start to play catch up, but before I start, I feel a compulsion to deviate a moment.

It’s a strange time. “Surreal” is the word I keep using, for it doesn’t seem real–for so much to be shut down, for the world to seemingly come to a virtual standstill. This is a thing of movies, not real life.

But COVID-19 IS real, and the precautions we are taking–trying to take–are necessary. Fortunately, I haven’t been too impacted yet; my work has yet to directly be influenced (though I anticipate a slow down in new projects while everyone just tries to keep up with things) and working remotely has long been an available option. I’m fortunate, I know, but when I see all the articles or lists of “things you can watch/listen to/read” during these times of “social distancing,” I confess my first thought is “how do you have time?” Of course, this is as much because I’ve never been one to be out and about as it is because I’m still working full time. But if I did want to fill some time–or if I were to make a recommendation–I think Agatha Christie is a good place to start. I find something so comforting–like “coming home” when I read an Agatha Christie, or watch one of the TV adaptations. (I’m particularly fond of the David Suchet Poirot series.) The formulaic nature, the knowledge that it all works out in the end, these are soothing in trying times.

The Secret Adversary
Agatha Christie
1922, England
Tommy and Tuppence

The second of Agatha Christie’s published novels, The Secret Adversary introduces us to the lively Tuppence Cowley and solid Tommy Beresford. Childhood friends, they meet by chance in post-war (1919 – post Spanish Flu, for that matter!) London, both down on their luck and in search of a job—and more importantly, the money that goes with one. Despairing of finding any, they impetuously decide to form The Young Adventures Ltd. and advertise to take on adventures on behalf of others. But before they get as far as submitting the ad copy, an adventure falls in their laps. However, when Tuppence cautiously tells the potential client, Mr. Whittington, that her name is “Jane Finn,” he grows agitated and sends her on her way with £50, thinking it a ploy and trying to buy silence. Curious, Tommy and Tuppence decide to investigate further and advertise for information on Jane Finn. What follows in response to their ad is a delightful romp across post-Great War London and adventure plenty, for the detectives and reader both.

Although there is mystery at the heart of the story—where is Jane Finn? And who is the illusive Mr. Brown who seems to be pulling so many strings and determined to overthrow the current government?—the story feels more like a thriller to me than a strict mystery novel. Perhaps this is because the adventures are so fast-paced, the detectives so green, and the dangers so present on-screen. But in the end, in honest detective-novel form, our heroes solve the crime, and in dramatic fashion. For a change of pace, I nearly had it solved as well! I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, the wonderful 1920s English slang, and the utterly charming Tuppence and Tommy and look forward to more of their adventures.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Agatha Christie
1921, England
Hercule Poirot

Not only is The Mysterious Affair at Styles Christie’s first novel, it is the first Hercule Poirot mystery. Set in the countryside during the First World War, it is a wonderful coincidence–one that likely enables a terrible crime to be solved correctly–that Poirot happens to be a war refugee living in the neighborhood and that a friend from the pre-war days, Hastings, is staying at Styles House, where the crime occurs. Hastings will prove the Watson to Poirot’s Holmes – though I must say, he strikes me as quite the inferior Watson. He prides himself as an observer and yet he never quite seems to get it–not merely in the detection of crime (for which we could all be given fails, as clever as the mastermind is here), but he doesn’t even seem able to recognize the truth of ordinary interactions between people, including those involving himself. It can be a bit frustrating for the reader at times, although perhaps this is intentional, to allow us a little feeling of superiority even when we fail spectacularly at solving the crime (err…as I always do, at least!)

There are all the ingredients of a typical Poirot novel: a country house setting, a small cast of suspects, a difficult case that the police can’t get right, red herrings, even a set of locked doors posing difficulties. Poirot performs his typical work of genius in neatly uncovering the solution at the very end. And yet–it didn’t quite feel “right” to me. Somehow, I didn’t feel as at home at Styles as have with later Christie novels.  Perhaps this is the reflection of it being a “first” – Poirot didn’t feel quite fully “Poirot-like” to me, yet, though that may because I am not used to seeing him through the eyes of Hastings. But the novel also didn’t feel quite as tight in its execution, and although I am quite used to not actually solving the crime, usually there’s this feeling of “Oh, right…” that didn’t quite happen for me here. So not quite my favorite Christie, but it certainly does nothing to dissuade me from more!

[Read in early 2019….and just now finally posting! Part of my Agatha Christie reading project.]