Monday, November 17, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“AMNESIA” by Peter Carey (Penguin / Hamish Hamilton, $NZ40)

In many of his thirteen novels so far, American-resident Peter Carey (now aged 71) has reflected on his native Australia in ways that mix realism with myth (or magical realism) the better to bring out major themes in Australian history. I’m one of those unpatriotic New Zealanders who think that Carey’s Illywhacker (1985) was a much stronger novel than the New Zealand contestant the bone people, which won the Booker Prize in the same year that Illywhacker was short-listed. Carey, however, has subsequently won the Booker twice with novels that have nineteenth century Australian settings, Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and (my favourite Carey to date) True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). The first of them deals, in mythic terms, with the “gamble” that Anglo-Australians took in coming to Australia; the second with the rebellious and “larrikin” Irish contribution.  Then there was another strong Carey, Jack Maggs (1997), which took Dickens’ convict hero Magwich and told his story without the Dickensian euphemisms and in a way that made his Australian experience more central.
Given that Carey has lived in New York for the last two decades (and has dual Australian-American citizenship), I’m surprised that he hasn’t reflected more often on America in his novels. The last Carey I read was Parrot and Olivier in America (2010), which is essentially a fictionalised version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century observations of the United States. Otherwise, Australia is Peter Carey’s mental and imaginative home.
In Amnesia, however, Carey puts Australia and America in collision. He takes a big and imaginative swipe at the matter of Australian-American relations in a style that is part satire and part allegory, and relevant to the age of cyber-hacking.
Pardon one of my inevitable part-synopses to set things up.
Rumpled old left-wing Australian journalist Felix Moore has just been dumped on by the courts for libel and has been ordered to have his latest book pulped. Financially ruined, he is ready to accept any project that will pay, so long as it accords with his political beliefs. And he is handed a beaut. His old wide-boy and property-developer chum Woody Townes, who rolls in money, commissions him to write a biography of a young woman called Gaby (Gabrielle) Baillieux. She is charged with releasing a virus, the Angel Worm, into the federal computer system, which controls Australia’s jails. Hence jail doors have sprung open all over the country and prisoners have walked free. But the security systems of Aussie jails depend on American technology, which the computer virus has also affected – so American jail doors also spring open. Gaby is now denounced as a secret-spilling traitor by both Australian and American security services, and has been whisked into hiding by supporters. (Think Australian Julian Assange… or American Edward Snowden).
Woody Townes (a very ambiguous character, because we are never sure if he is really Felix’s friend or foe) says he wants Felix to write a book that will make Gaby look good and swing public opinion her way.
Of himself and his commission, Felix Moore remarks:
I had not, previously, been thought of as the kind of writer who might make a difficult character loveable… As a journalist it was my talent to be a shit-stirrer, a truffle hound for cheats and liars and crooks among the ruling classes. These pugnacious habits had served me well for a whole career…” (p.134)
Felix has a backstory with Gaby’s mother the actress Celine Baillieux, who is the daughter of an Aussie woman raped by an American soldier during the Second World War. (Historical brawls between Aussie and Yank soldiers are referenced). Here’s a clear symbol of the Australian love-hate for America as the country that saved Australia during war, but that has subsequently sought to dominate its destiny. And there’s a second big symbol. Celine gave birth to Gaby in 1975, on the very day of the “coup” that took Gough Whitlam out of power. Many on the left in Australia (including Carey) believe Gough Whitlam’s removal to have been a CIA-organised plot, for which the Murdoch and Packer press acted as cheerleaders.
Everything we knew from life suggested that America could do what it liked and Australia would behave like the client state it always was”, remarks Felix Moore (p.50), who also characterises Australia’s security service ASIO as “the CIA’s bum boys”. He knows that the young woman whose life he is researching will as likely, if caught, end up in an American jail as an Australian one.
Amnesia. The very title suggests a reminder not to forget what has happened in the recent past to shape Australia. So, as Felix Moore sets about researching, and as he recalls episodes in his past relationship with Gaby’s mother Celine, and as he is hustled for results by the ambiguous and sinister Woody, we think we are in for a highly political novel satirising Australian-American relations.
And so we are – but not quite in the manner we expect.
Carey is a master of the unexpected switch, after all. The first third Amnesia is narrated in the first person by Felix Moore, ever ready to spout his political views. Thereafter, it switches into a different mode, with an omniscient narrator mingling with the voices of mother Celine and daughter Gaby as they emerge through the documents and recorded interviews that are Felix’s research materials.
Having set up the issue of American cultural colonialism in Australia, Carey warns against a different sort of amnesia – the sort that would forget what political Australia is really made of in the first place. For in Gaby’s parents, radical leftie actress Celine and middle-of-the-road Labor Party hack Sandy Quinn, Carey ruthlessly dramatises the disunity and political impotence of the Australian left (a bit like the New Zealand left at the moment). Celine is almost “radical chic”, resenting the fact that she has to live among real working class people in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg. “She would rather die than have a backyard, or a Hills Hoist or a barbecue or a privet hedge” remarks the omniscient narrator (p.171). She rows endlessly with her husband Sandy; and Sandy in turn is appalled that their daughter Gaby is sucked in by utopian greenies who don’t know the reality of politics. Alienated from both parents much of the time, Gaby draws closer to the guy who teaches her how powerful a tool computer hacking can be.
And as Gaby’s fate unravels (with a couple of powerful twists en route), Carey paints a hard, bitter picture of a hellish life in the poorer Australian suburbs, sometimes mingled with the rage of the daughter who feels both her parents have let her down. Her thoughts turn apocalyptic and destructive as when she observes:
 The stupid magpies went on carolling and the stupid sky was a cloudless blue and the stupid Sydney Road continued to carry its trucks and cars north across the dreary bluestone plains made in days when volcanoes vomited across the future suburbs, and streams of lava ran like toffee, pooling in the hollows up to sixty metres deep. Liquid basalt spewed from her chest and rolled down the Merri Creek, boiling eels, and sending blazing wallabies to spread fire through bush.” (p.211)
It is characteristic of Carey to start at one point and proceed to take you somewhere quite unexpected. In Amnesia, having registered his protest at Australia’s inability to control its own fate on the world stage, he proceeds to pick apart the weaknesses of Australians themselves.
This is one of his best novels, as funny as it is tragic (especially in the figure of dogged and put-upon Felix Moore), surprising, and hard-nosed in its details even when it is taking the piss.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.  

“THE KNIGHT’S TALE” by Geoffrey Chaucer (written probably some time in the 1380s)

It is odd how you come to some great works of literature.
As an undergraduate taking English in the early 1970s, I of course had to read some of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. We read the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales and the delightful Nuns’ Priest’s Tale of Chaunticleer and the fox; and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale (the prologue being far more fun than the tale); and The Clerk’s Tale of patient Griselda, which nowadays angers not only militant feminists; and my favourite, The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale about misbehaving alchemists. Some of us, on our own initiative, also read The Miller’s Tale just for the fun of a good fart joke. Then, as an honours student, I remember being dragged through Chaucer’s epic-length Troilus and Criseyde by a professor whose idea of a lecture was simply to read the text and offer us footnotes by way of commentary. Most of us preferred simply to read the text and the footnotes on our own, from the scholarly editions that we had anyway. If the lectures weren’t very edifying, at least I can say that I found Troilus and Criseyde a more satisfactory work of art than Bill Shakespeare’s wonky, satirical handling of the same story as Troilus and Cressida, even if Bill does give us some great lines and speeches (especially Ulysses’ “alms for oblivion” speech).
But, while I had ploughed through these works in the original Middle English, it always niggled with me that I had never read the whole of The Canterbury Tales in the original. Instead, when I made a dash through Chaucer’s unfinished masterpiece, I relied on the jokey modernised version by Nevill Coghill in the Penguin Classics.
So, years later, in an idle moment, I decided to amend at least some of this defect.
I approached it obliquely.
First I read John Dryden’s Palamon and Arcite, his “translation” of Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale published in 1700 – almost exactly midway between Chaucer’s time and ours. I read through its 50-odd pages, enjoying its subtly-varied rhythms in the rhyming couplet form. I appreciated the general courtliness of the whole thing. But on occasion I was surprised by some of the theological reflections, which, in their vocabulary, seemed more of the 17th century than of the 14th century.
Next evening, therefore, I sat down and read The Knight’s Tale in the original. To my surprise I discovered that in some ways the original is more easy to read than Dryden’s much more recent version. I found Chaucer’s vocabulary more restricted, more direct and simpler – although occasionally not having the nobler rhetorical effects that Dryden had added. And, by reading Chaucer’s original, I found that Dryden had sometimes elaborated on, or paraphrased, the original, so that what he had produced was more a “version” than a true translation. Indeed, in Dryden’s (circa 1700) version, there was much post-Reformation language about predestination and sundry other matters that were discussed quite differently in the late Middle Ages.
The basic story (in both Chaucer’s and Dryden’s words) is a very simple one. Palamon and Arcite are two knights, who have been imprisoned by Theseus. (Here – as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Theseus is the wise and benevolent ruler of Athens, seen in distinctly medieval terms, rather than the hero of Greek legend.) As the two imprisoned knights gaze through the bars of their prison, they both fall in love with Theseus’s kinswoman Emyle (Emily). Theseus, after some complications, permits a tournament in which the two young knights will fight for Emyle’s hand. Before battle, Arcite dedicates himself to Mars. Palamon dedicates himself to Venus. Arcite, devotee of Mars, wins the joust – but then dies by accident. After a suitable time, Palamon is allowed to marry Emyle. During the conflict between the two knights, Emyle prays to Diana to preserve her virgin state, but eventually she happily accepts noble marriage to Palamon.
In this simple, chivalric tale, the poet’s real attention is directed to the elaborate descriptions of the bowers of the different gods – Mars and Venus – and the rival lovers’ prayers to them; the tourney area that Theseus sets up; the funeral rites of Arcite; and the sententious wisdom of Theseus.
In short, the story’s characters and plot are like something seen on a tapestry, and are very fitting for the “verray parfit gentil knyghte” (“truly perfect noble knight”) who tells the tale as the first story-teller in The Canterbury Tales.
Having read the story in these two versions, I agree with the critics who say that the poem, while presenting two equally noble and admirable rivals, is contrasting desire and devotion as the mechanisms of love. Arcite desires Emyle, and would have her by conquest. Hence his dedication to Mars. Palamon is devoted to Emyle, approaching love as a religious cult. Hence his dedication to Venus. We cannot read too much psychological complexity into the poem, but it does say that love is different things to different people. For the record – Chaucer (who borrowed the story from Boccaccio) has made some concessions to the fact that the tale takes place in pre-Christian times, even if it drips with medieval courtly love and chivalry. Saturn plays the role of malicious fortune, deciding between the rivals and striking down Arcite when he appears to have won his bride.
I must settle one recent, and quite inane, controversy in discussing this stately work. In 1980 Terry Jones, ex-Monty Python, produced a singularly silly book called Chaucer’s Knight – The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, which argued that we should really see Chaucer’s knight as a devious, bloodthirsty hired killer because (in Jones’ view) this is what all medieval knights were anyway.
Now so long as we are prepared to use evidence very selectively, Jones’ view of historical medieval knights who really existed is possibly tenable. But, as most astute critics have already pointed out, you can only promote this view of Chaucer’s knight if you blithely ignore the words that Chaucer actually wrote. For there is no suggestion anywhere in either the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales, or in The Knight’s Tale itself, that Chaucer sees the knight as anything other than the “verray parfit gentil knyghte” which he calls him. Had Jones been prepared to weigh up the words on the page, rather than imposing his pre-existing ideas, he could not have been able to make his case at all. It’s one thing to say Chaucer’s view of knighthood is unrealistic. It is quite another to say, as Jones does, that we are meant to see the knight of The Canterbury Tales as anything other than noble.
Okay. Enough of the type of snide smart-arsery that ex-Monty Python members have tended to move into, once they abandoned pure comedy.
Getting back to Chaucer’s poem, there were some passages that stood out for me as still being highly resonant. Consider Arcite’s justification for ignoring Palamon’s prior claims to Emyle:
“Wostow nat wel the olde clerkes sawe
That ‘who shal yeve a lover any lawe?’
Love is a gretter lawe, by my pan
Than may be yeve to any erthly man.
And therefore positif lawe and swich decree
Is broke al-day for love, in ech degree.
A man moot nedes love, maugre his heed.
He may nat fleen it, thogh he sholde be deed
Al be she mayde, or widwe, or ells wyf.
And ekk it is nat lykly, al thy lyf,
To stond in his grace….”
Translation? “L’amour est enfant de Boheme, qui n’a jamais connu de loi”, as Carmen sang. This is the creed of those who think the stirring of their loins is a moral imperative.
There is also a strong predestination theme when Theseus just happens on the two knights when they are about to fight without any courtly preliminaries:
The destinee, ministre general,
That executeth in the world over-al
The purveyaunce, that God hath seyn biforn,
So strong it is, that, though the world had sworn
The contrarie of a thing, by ye or nay,
Yet somtyme it shal fallen on a day
That falleth nat eft with-inne a thousand yere.”
Later, equally fatalistic, Theseus’s father reacts to the accident that kills Arcite by saying:
This world nis but a thurghfare ful of wo
And we ben pilgrims, passinge to and fro;
Death is an ende of every worldly sore.”
It is intriguing that the description of the temple of Venus commences with an account of the woes of the lovers depicted:
First in the temple of Venus maystow see
wroght on the wal, ful piteous to beholde,
The broken slepes, and the sykes cold;
The sacred teres, and the waymenting;
The fyry strokes of the desiring,
That loves servaunts in this lyf endure.”
This is really “tears on my pillow and pain in my heart” territory.
It is equally intriguing to see how the acts of violence depicted in the temple of Mars include both overt and subtle ones:
The smyler with the knyf under the cloke;
The shepne brenning with the blacke smoke;
The treson of the mordring in the bedde;
The open were, with woundes al bibledde.”
The phrase “the smiler with the knife” leapt out at me, because I already knew that “Nicholas Blake” (pseudonym of donnish poet Cecil Day-Lewis) used the phrase as the title for one of his thrillers. More to the point, though, I thought what a wonderfully concise way Chaucer had of expressing himself. “The smiler with the knife under the cloak”. Doesn’t that say as much about the bland deceptions of the would-be violent as Shakespeare’s “There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”? And, come to think of it, Shakespeare’s phrase occurs in the very play in which there is “the treson of the mordring in the bedde”.
The Knight’s Tale may be a long narrative poem, and it may be courtly and noble in ways that are quite alien to us. Whoever first organised Chaucer’s work presumably placed it first in The Canterbury Tales to signal that he was doing something serious, before he got to the crude tomfoolery of the miller and others. Elevated and lengthy though the poem may be, however, the language itself displays those key virtues of Chaucer that translations and “versions” often don’t catch. He is concise and pithy.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


A couple of weeks back I wrote a “Something Old” on Richard Aldington’s 1929 novel Death of a Hero [look it up on the index at right]. I said that Aldington had a tendency to rant, rave and shout at his readers in his prose, and I still think that this is the case. But it occurs to me that maybe I wasn’t giving him due credit for what he did achieve as a poet, before he gave it up for prose in the late 1920s.
With Ezra Pound and “H.D.”, Aldington was one of the three original Imagist poets, just before the First World War. The strengths and weaknesses of Imagism are clear in a free verse Imagist poem like Aldington’s “Round Pond”, where the verse is clumsy because it is a clatter of observations like jotted notes (still very Georgian in vocabulary choices), and where the whole poem is really justified by the image of the last line. Imagism is essentially a one-image-punch thing, and you will have to decide if this one image works:


Water ruffled and speckled by galloping wind
Which puffs and spurts it into tiny pashing breaks
Dashed with lemon-yellow afternoon sunlight.
The shining of the sun upon the water
Is like a scattering of gold crocus-petals
In a long wavering irregular flight.

The water is cold to the eye
As the wind to the cheek.

In the budding chestnuts
Whose sticky buds glimmer and are half-burst open
The starlings make their clitter-clatter;
And the blackbirds in the grass
Are getting as fat as the pigeons.

Too-hoo, this is brave;
Even the cold wind is seeking a new mistress.

            When he came to write poems of his war experience, Aldington really continued with the same technique, as in what is probably his most famous war poem, “Bombardment”. Here, though, the imperfection before the final punch is even more extreme – nearly every line is a verbal cliché before we come to those last two lines:


Four days the earth was rent and torn
By bursting steel,
The houses fell about us;
Three nights we dared not sleep,
Sweating, and listening for the imminent crash
Which meant our death.

The fourth night every man,
Nerve-tortured, racked to exhaustion,
Slept, muttering and twitching,
While the shells crashed overhead.

The fifth day there came a hush;
We left our holes
And looked above the wreckage of the earth
To where the white clouds moved in silent lines
Across the untroubled blue.

            Finally, a selection from Aldington’s satirical free-verse cycle A Fool i’ the Forest, published in 1924 and intended to head off the type of modernism Eliot had just introduced with The Waste Land. From this distance, Aldington’s preoccupations are very much of their time. Like Eliot to some extent, and Pound to an even greater extent, he is worried about the “old bitch gone in the teeth” of Western civilization after the Great War. Aldington’s approach is much less resonant, however, as he simply compares, in ironic fashion, the ideal of ancient Greek culture with its debased modern equivalents. As in his prose, rant sometimes takes over. Let’s give him credit, however, for this little epigram, even if it is a daydream:


Praise and a crown of glory to the race 
Which first shall say: “We have enough, 
Bread, olives, meat, a little wine,
Rough wool dyed purple for our robes; 
Now let us live as men.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

Something New

 We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE POSSIBILITIES” by Kaui Hart Hemmings (Jonathan Cape / Random House, $NZ34:99)

            I’ll begin this review with a painful confession. I never read the Hawaii-based American novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings’ first novel The Descendants, though I knew it was highly praised. I did, however, see the movie version (starring George Clooney) and I was a little nonplussed. It, too, was highly praised as an insightful probe into the complexities of (wealthy) family life, and I quite enjoyed it as a grown-up drama. But I don’t recall it as living up to the best reviews. Had it been over-sold? Or did it miss some extra factor that was found in the original novel?
I had all this in mind when I sat down to read Kaui Hart Hemmings’ second novel, The Possibilities. Assuming that the film version of The Descendants more-or-less followed that novel, then the two novels have much in common. Both are set in locations usually associated with affluent people taking holidays (Hawaii in The Descendants; a skiing resort in The Possibilities). Both have a family coming to grips with trauma (a wife rendered comatose in an accident, and later dying, in The Descendants; a son killed in an accident in The Possibilities). Both are very much “aftermath” stories, dealing with how people reconstruct the past and try to adjust their lives once tragedy has happened.
Main character in The Possibilities is Sarah St.John, very specifically aged 43, living
with her widowed father in the house where she has, as a solo mother, brought up her son Cully. When she found she was pregnant at the age of 21, she remained friends with Cully’s father Billy, but she never thought of marrying him. And now Cully, at the age of 22, has died in a skiing accident, cut down by an avalanche.
The setting is affluent middle-class.
Breckenridge, Colorado is “a small town… with 686 hotels and inns” because its population more than trebles in the skiing seasons. Sarah has a job as host and reporter for a local infomercial channel aimed at the tourists, and telling them where prices are best, which ski-fields and pistes are open and so forth.
Narrated by her in the first person and in the present tense, The Possibilities begins as a catalogue of the stages of Sarah’s maturing grief. Within the first two pages she is looking at other boys the same age as Cully and wishing she could still cuddle him:
I look at these boys all the same age as my son, these boys with mothers and fathers, hopes and problems, and an embarrassing urge comes over me to hold them. To swoop them up in my arms, something that Cully as a child always wanted me to do and I’d often get annoyed. You’re a big boy. You can walk. At times he was such a jarring cargo, especially when he was first born and I was only twenty-one. He felt like a school project, the egg I was supposed to carry around and not ever leave or break.” (Chapter 1)
The first wave of grief brings out the protective mother’s attitude towards an infant.
Then there are the irritations of other people extending sympathy and being too nice and considerate to her in ways that sound either forced or patronising. Two or three months after Cully’s death, Sarah has returned to her TV work and has a hard time playing along with the type of trivia the job demands. Death puts infomercials into perspective.
There’s also an element of possessiveness and even competitiveness to her grief. Her friend Suzanne is going through a messy divorce. Each woman wants to scream that her problem is the more important. Each restrains herself from doing so. Awkwardness hangs between them, especially as Suzanne’s daughter has taken it upon herself to organise some sort of memorial event for Sarah’s son, which Sarah sees as a bit of an imposition and an intrusion into her territory.
The world is unhelpful. Sarah’s elderly father Lyle, now retired, spends much of the day watching infomercials and buying junk. (Although later he proves to be more perceptive than he at first seems.)
So the novel ambles for about its first third or so, making us exactly aware of the social class, the circumstances and the tastes of all these characters, as well as how Sarah’s mental state is brewing. It is, dare I say, a little like a grief therapy manual.
Plot development as such begins only when, clearing Cully’s room out, Sarah begins to understand that she might not have known her son as well as she thought she did. Perhaps her memories of the recently deceased Cully are idealised ones? In the first place, she discovers that her son supplemented his income with some drug dealing. A relatively trivial matter in this milieu, where most of the affluent ones seems to puff some weed recreationally.
More important, a bit shy of halfway through the novel, a girl called Kit turns up.
She is pregnant with Cully’s child.
At which point, as is my custom, I abandon my synopsis, having given you the set-up but being determined not to spike a new novel’s intended surprises, which would be bad-mannered. Let’s just say that a lot of people become involved in Kit’s problem – Sarah, Lyle, Billy, Suzanne – all with different viewpoints on whether Kit’s pregnancy is a blessing or a curse.
There are some moments of good writing here. When Sarah has just learnt Kit’s secret, she opens the front door and gets a blast of the mountain air, which is like the freshness of the new revelation to her:
I open the front door; the air is cutting. I will always love the mountains for this: the initial step outdoors, the decisive air, the bruised blue of night and swarm of stars, the chomp of snow, and the silence, all of it enlivening and heartbreaking. A chunk of snow drops off the branch of the spruce tree and onto the hood of the angry-looking truck. Motes sparkle in the air. I don’t know how it is that I’m registering the air, the night, when here she is, Kit, this burden, this mystery. Maybe this is how it will be from now on? Nothing can be shocking. Nothing could be harder.” (beginning of Chapter 10)
There are, almost inevitably, moments where Sarah reflects on how unknowable other people’s families are:
You can know people so well and still make discoveries about them as a family, but you’ll never know everything, the mundane day-to-day, the behaviours when the doors are closed. Families are all such elite clubs.” (Chapter 15)
I do not belittle Kaui Hart Hemmings’ ability to make vivid a particular social milieu.
And yet, in the end, I did find this one a little too pat, too obviously created for the middlebrow market who want an “issue” in their novels.
The author entertains all the possibilities of what Kit could do with her baby, but it’s quite plain to see what view she holds herself and much of the novel’s latter half reads like polite propaganda. There is a little bit of humour in Sarah’s first-person voice, but these characters are so reasonable and considerate about everything, so ready to listen to other people’s views, that you long for an hysterical outburst. And isn’t the novel’s timeframe a little off? Would a woman who centred her life on her son really reach serenity, balance and a new view of life a mere three months after her son’s death?
Maybe, but I don’t quite buy it.
And what is it about the first-person present-tense narration? Of course it manufactures a sense of immediacy, but often it makes the characters sound as if they do not know anything but the present moment.
Pardon me. I’m sure many people will find this a meaningful and well-crafted novel. Apparently a movie version is in the works, and I’m sure it will be the same sort of tasteful affair that the movie of The Descendants was.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“THE RECKONING” by Charles Nicholl (first published 1992; revised edition 2002)

There’s an incident in my life which I still remember with incredulous amusement.
About fourteen years ago, my wife and I were visiting one of our sons, who was then a student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. We were having breakfast with him and a bunch of other students in the college’s ancient and august dining hall, when a cleaner walked past our table with a cleaning rag over one arm, and a framed portrait under the other. I did a double take. The portrait was the famous Elizabethan image (dated 1585) of a young gentleman, who has often been identified with one of Corpus Christi’s most famous (or notorious) alumni, Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). It’s the image that most often appears on collected editions of Marlowe’s plays.
Surely that isn’t the original?” I said to my son.
Of course it is,” he replied, and explained that it was often taken down for its frame to be wiped.
To me, seeing it carried along as casually as this created about the same effect as I would have felt had it been van Gogh’s sunflowers or the Mona Lisa. Here’s a world-renowned, and obviously very valuable, work of art being carried as casually as if it were a cheap household article.
I am not an obsessive about Christopher Marlowe. Comparing Marlowe with
Shakespeare and Jonson is a bit like comparing Dylan Thomas with Eliot and Yeats. On the one side there’s a young man who can come up with compelling and memorable phrases, but whose range is very limited and his outlook un-nuanced – on the other, two mature literary geniuses who, for all their own shortcomings, had a vaster range, more mature vision and greater depth of feeling. Marlowe (dead at 29) is the enfant terrible. Of course with his best lines and phrases, you thank him for liberating drama “from jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits / And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay” and you have heard all the stuff about “Marlowe’s mighty line”. But when all is done, you end up with a young guy who left us great promise unfulfilled and a heap of fragments.
I turn to the volume of his collected poems, and find what he left of Hero and Leander is shorter than the “completions” by George Chapman and Henry Petowe. I go to his collected plays and recall fondly reading them all as an undergraduate. Easy enough to do, as there are only seven of them. My score card goes thus: Dido, Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris are clearly unpolished, incomplete fragments, though there is some fun in the latter when Marlowe inserts lots of sick humour into what should be straightforward anti-Catholic propaganda. Yes, the two parts of Tamburlaine did introduce the “mighty line”, and you are happy to parade along with it for a while – but, my God, it does go on and on and on as tediously as The Lord of the Rings movies, being more a spectacle, pageant or Elizabethan “progress” than a play. For structure and design his two most finished plays are Edward II, a pretty good royal tragedy, and The Jew of Malta. But the latter has to be forbidden territory. I know most of the commentators are eager to tell us that the Christian characters are as nasty a lot as the Jewish villain is, and that Marlowe is playing with Machiavelli. I know Barabas has been designed with the same sort of sick humour as Shakespeare’s Richard III or Dickens’ Quilp – he is a demonic character along with whom we gloat and laugh as often as we deplore him. But the play is still irredeemably anti-Semitic. And so we are left with what should be Marlowe’s masterpiece, Doctor Faustus. But (in either of the two very different surviving versions) even here there are problems – the brilliant scenes, especially as Faustus approaches his end, jostling with the overlong, irrelevant and unfunny knockabout. I prefer the shorter version, but it’s still fiery flashes in a bucket of mud rather than a full tragic drama.
So I look at Marlowe’s career and I say “Such brilliance (in the literal sense of the word)! Such talent! So clearly a young man who could have written more. What a pity he died so young.”
Which brings me at last to Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning, subtitled The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. Nicholl is fond of literary mysteries [look up the index at right for my take on his Somebody Else, a book about the post-poetic life of Arthur Rimbaud].
The Reckoning is one of, by now, many, many attempts to reconstruct what “really” happened when Christopher Marlowe died, and why it happened; but it is probably the most detailed and (given that it inevitably contains much speculation) it is also the most plausible.
            In 1593, the 29-year-old Marlowe was killed in a fight in a room in Deptford by a
nondescript thug called Ingram Frizer. At least that was the official story. Frizer said he drew his blade in self-defence when Marlowe attacked him in a quarrel over the “reckoning” (bill) for a meal they had shared. The coroner accepted this version of events, which was corroborated by the other two men who were in the small room at the time, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. Frizer was acquitted of murder and there the matter should have ended.
            The trouble was, though, that this tale was just a little too convenient, especially for some in high places who had a short time earlier arrested and interrogated Marlowe about his blasphemous views. They weren’t at all displeased to have the budding young literary genius out of the way. Even more suspiciously, Frizer, Skeres and Poley were all low-level operatives in England’s early spy service, directed by Robert Cecil and others. They were mainly involved in the business of entrapping Catholics for not conforming to the newly-invented state church, the Church of England, or, as agents provocateurs, devising treasonous plots that could be blamed on Catholics.
It seems that Marlowe too was part of this grubby business.
Though he came from a financially humble background (his father was a shoemaker), Marlowe had been to Cambridge and had studied for an MA. But rumours of his unorthodox beliefs – and possibly rumours that he himself was going to cross to a seminary in France and train as a Catholic priest – meant that there was a dispute over whether he should be awarded his degree. This was solved for him when high-ranking government officials signed a document – which still survives – refuting such rumours and declaring that Marlowe had actually been about official business. He was duly awarded his MA. There is the strong implication that, under Robert Cecil’s orders, he had been infiltrating Catholic groups in order to spy on them and to dob them in.
            Since the coroner’s report on Marlowe’s death was first discovered (by Leslie Hotson) among official records in the 1920s, there has been speculation about what really happened in that small and private room in Deptford (often wrongly assumed to be a tavern and therefore giving rise to stories of Marlowe’s death in a “tavern brawl”). Given the personnel involved, given that Marlowe was in the company of three fellow spies, it is at least possible that Marlowe’s death was more a deliberate “hit” than the outcome of an impulsive fight.
            The Reckoning trawls carefully through such documents as survive, Nicholl’s 500-odd pages draw out the networks of influence that existed between the spies, the playwrights, the propagandists and the politicians of the day. His case is that Marlowe’s death was incidental to a larger plan to entrap and discredit Sir Walter Raleigh. A gadfly in parliament, a man accused of unorthodox beliefs, and an enemy of other powerful people, Raleigh was often called an atheist. In some of his most illuminating passages, Nicholl argues that “atheism” in late Elizabethan England did not mean what it means now. The term was used for any religious view that was not clearly Catholic, Anglican or Puritan-Protestant, including the type of Arianism (the belief that Christ was less than God but more than human), which Marlowe and Raleigh might both have espoused.  We have to remember that “evidence” that Marlowe was guilty of even more blasphemous beliefs was mainly drawn out of “witnesses” under torture. “Evidence” that Marlowe was homosexual also has to be treated with some caution. Here is the poet who writes of Jove and Ganymede; the playwright who gives the most overt depiction of a homosexual relationship in Edward II – yet again, direct evidence for Marlowe’s sexual life is ambiguous and was mainly extorted (from Thomas Kyd and others) under duress.
Like his “atheism”, Marlowe’s homosexuality could have been something manufactured to discredit him and, by association, to discredit Walter Raleigh.
The world depicted in The Reckoning is a sordid and dangerous one. Late Elizabethan England is aptly described as a police state, not as some Hollywood fantasy of “Merrie England”, and the espionage game here is as ruthless as its modern equivalent. Reviewing this book some years ago I described it as “a wonderful piece of historical detection and a riveting read”, and I still hold this view. Yet here I must add some words of caution.
First, Charles Nicholl is aware that many of his conclusions have to be speculative, but he does play fair with the reader, signalling what is verifiable fact and what is informed guesswork. Even so, there are holes in his case. The inference that Marlowe was murdered on some authoritative person’s word seems a good one, given that the meeting of four spies is unlikely to have been merely a social gathering. But how Nicholl connects this with moves against Sir Walter Raleigh is a lot more tenuous.
Second, it should be noted that, after doing more research, Nicholl changed his mind about one key matter between the first (1992) and the second (2002) editions of this book. The earlier version fingers Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, as the chief mover against Sir Walter Raleigh. The second edition fingers the Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil
The second edition also has an added chapter on the modus operandi of the Elizabethan spy Thomas Drury, and a thirty-page appendix answering some objections that historians had raised to his earlier edition.

Dyspeptic footnote: Like Shakespeare, Marlowe has been the subject of much fiction as well as of much factual research. Anthony Burgess’s last completed novel A Dead Man in Deptford (published in 1993 on the 400th anniversary of Marlowe’s death) assumes that Marlowe really was both homosexual and atheist in the modern sense, and has him coping with this in an angsty manner before he is murdered. More irritatingly, there are those nitwits who wish to reassign Shakespeare’s works to somebody else. Some of them – with absolutely no documentary evidence to back their claim – would like to believe that Marlowe’s death was only faked in 1593, and that Marlowe then went off into exile where he spent his time writing those plays that were attributed to the talentless frontman Shakespeare. The trigger for this absurdity is the observation (not entirely accurate) that Shakespeare’s first good plays began to appear shortly after Marlowe died. Essentially this theory is just more evidence of the old snobbery that refuses to believe a non-university-educated chap like Shakespeare could have had any genius, and that therefore wishes to hand over his plays to somebody like Cambridge-graduate Marlowe. Most recent advocate of this fantasy is Ros Barber, though in fairness her verse-novel on the subject, The Marlowe Papers, is avowedly a work of fiction. Nevertheless it is an unpleasant experience to hear her – as you can on line - arguing with Charles Nicholl at the Cheltenham literary festival in 2013, shouting over him as he attempts to make his case, and generally speaking in a fashion bordering on the bloody rude as she drowns out his measured comments.