An evening of Sudanese literature and a reminder of the importance of cultural exchange

London

On an iron-grey Tuesday night earlier this week, the first floor of Waterstones Piccadilly (or Waterdilly as my best friend and I call it) was filled with the murmur of voices from a truly staggering array of cultures. It was an evening in celebration of Arabic literature and the launch of the fifty-fifth issue of the Banipal magazine.

The magazine itself is significantly named for the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal who mobilised all the 7th-century-BC resources at his disposal to establish the first organised library in the Middle East. This treasure trove of fledgling-world-literature was located in the largest city in the world at that time, Nineveh, a sprawling fortress-town of red brick where the Tigris and Khosr Rivers meet. Ashurbanipal’s library saw the accumulation of thousands of Sumerian, Babylonian, Mesopotamian, and Assyrian clay tablets. The logistics alone of transporting so many fragments of engraved rock from across the Assyrian empire to a single city perhaps epitomises the ferocity of the spirit that has been so characteristic of Arabic literature ever since; a literature that began as an oral tradition, growing and fluctuating with all the many peoples who would one day share the incredibly rich language that evolved from it. Nowhere is this fierce literary pride more intense than in those nations under those regimes that still seek to repress it.

pub_20160414185113It is, therefore, very apt indeed that Banipal-55 focuses specifically on today’s greatest Sudanese writers, collecting their latest works into a garishly yellow and vital volume of translated short stories.

Sudan’s republic, though democratic in theory, is fettered by the authoritarian National Congress Party who retained power in a rigged vote in 2010 that saw the re-election of President Omar al-Bashir, despite the international warrant for his arrest. This controlling regime and the fact that its legal system operates under Sharia law mean that the arts are virtually non-existent, at least to an outsider.

On Tuesday evening, Waterstones welcomed Sudanese authors Ahmad Al Malik and Tarek Eltayeb, two contributors to the Banipal-55 publication who characterised the situation in Sudan today in a moving expression of quiet passion and simmering resentment. Literature of course exists in Sudan, and is in fact flourishing, but publishing houses are fatally repressed, the internet is censored and restricted as much as humanly possible, and any paperbacks that do make it across the border must be secretly photocopied and distributed through the black market in books flowing out from Khartoum. Due to this rather desperate model of literary dissemination, piracy is rife, which though increasing circulation to a point, actually damages the growth of Sudanese writing in the long run as those authors working abroad then face losing their platform of expression. The majority of these authors now live in Europe due to the desire for a medium in which thoughts can be expressed freely without fear of discrimination and persecution. It makes one think of the “thought-fish” Virginia Woolf wrote of in her infamous, feminist polemic, and the necessity of a medium in which they can swim without impediment.

Under Waterstones’ flat, muted lights, these two sleek-suited and enigmatic authors graciously answered questions in broken English interspersed with streams of melodious Arabic, which was then frantically translated verbatim by a German interpreter scribbling Arabic script as they spoke and converting it immediately into English for the more linguistically-challenged of us in the audience.

In fact, the room was filled to the brim with polyglots from every walk of life. Eltayeb was born in Cairo but spoke with a perceivable intensity about Sudan and his Nubian mother, who unlearned Nobiin (the descendent of Old Nubian) as she learned more Arabic. Both Eltayeb and Malik were venturing into their third language when they answered questions in English, and Malik described it as being like walking into a different room in his mind. Suffice it to say, the entire evening was a rather bewitching euphony for the ears.

Above all, it was a profound reminder of the role of language as the gateway to other cultures, especially those repressed by regimes constricting their medium of expression. Indeed, the native speakers of every language still surviving today have something of a moral responsibility to be the torchbearers of their language’s literature. Not only is it the one most comprehensive creative outlet and medium for social commentary in every culture, but a language’s survival relies on its literature. As soon as its writers stop producing new works for people to read and discuss, it is left behind, yet another dusty signpost dwindling in the rearview mirror marking a point assigned for evermore to history.

This, of course, is not an imminent danger for Arabic, but it is so important for those writing in that distinctively Sudanese Arabic to keep writing no matter how desperately others try to silence them. And that’s why publications like Banipal are so essential.

It is as that old Arabic proverb says.

أول الشجرة بذرة

A tree begins with a seed.

Sudan

 

Ibis of Palmyra, a poem

 

Palmyra

Dhwty, sing ancient voices

searching stars for meaning,

eyes upon gleaming

crescent, lunar forces,

black and white film still,

a curved ibis bill.

 

Lunar forces hauling wine-dark

oceans across inky skies,

bewitching ancient eyes,

who saw an ibis stark

against the starry night,

wings raised in flight.

 

Mighty mediator, Thoth,

calculator on high,

weaving papyrus sky,

sun-kissed pith-cloth,

bill dipped in ink,

father of those who think –

 

think and write in words

with winged helms, hurled

from world to world,

the free and vital birds

flying with bills sharper

than needles of fir.

 

But now black feathers

shimmer in moonlight

setting desert alight,

littering a city in fetters:

Geronticus eremita,

prisoner of Palmyra.

 

Single sunset eye burns

in darkness, searching,

seeking, lurching

swish hrump through ferns

and shrubs of steppes

steeped in silence-webs.

 

Soft in silky quiet

ibis pauses and prowls

when wind howls

and hosts of stars riot,

alone with pillars of stone

and towers of bone.

 

Last to give way to howling

hurricane, first to emerge

when hell subsides, scourge

of darkness, prowling

ibis, Noah’s charm

survives unharmed.

 

Echoes haunt dhwty city,

voices of forgotten empires

ravaged by time’s fires,

soaked in world’s pity –

and the ibis stands,

silent in the sands.

 

It was the silk road – once.

Conduit for ivory, porcelain,

salts, spices, gold, cotton…

but ibis hears no response

to her hrump and hyoh calls,

just echoes from empty halls.

 

Temples of lost gods,

buried Roman blades,

and corinthian colonnades

stand now in muddy bogs,

pale phantoms frozen

in the blaze of erosion.

 

Yet still the ibis lays

her spotty blue-white eggs,

as blue as her legs are red,

in the rocky maze

of the northern dunes

above the Valley of Tombs.

 

But where ibis prowl

hatred-seeds be strewn,

and around our crescent moon

barbarian shadows crowd,

for murderers cage worlds

as rhyme shackles words.

 

So murderers return

to carve out Palmyra’s doom,

to destroy and exhume –

a band of thugs armed

with the sordid black rag

they call their flag.

 

Ibis eradicated by plague,

crescent neck snapped,

by barbarians entrapped,

rage staining papyrus page,

silence slammed

onto the waste land.

 

Now all that remain

are the tortured ghosts

haunting the outposts,

and the inexpressible pain

of a land locked in fetters,

littered with black feathers.

Jungian synchronicity. Dhwty city.

Dhwty  dhwty  dhwty

Ibis

Rodents in children’s literature: The power of the ‘undermouse’

acorns

Deep in the heart of Mossflower country, nestled between the emerald woods and the sprawling meadowland, stands an ancient abbey. It was built from red standstone by the first mice centuries ago, and even now, with the fiery red cloak of ivy draped over its south face, it burns as brightly as it did back in those distant days so dusted by memory. Today, with the Summer of the Late Rose just beginning, the page has opened at a new chapter. Father Abbott Mortimer’s words to Matthias, the bumbling, ebullient novice mouse, were supposed to be kindly dismissive. “Poor Matthias, alas for your ambitions. The day of the warrior is gone, my son,” he says in those opening few pages. But he could not possibly have been more wrong. For this is the world of Redwall.

Redwall. It’s funny how a single word rooted so deep in your childhood can be so charged with meaning. Say this particular word to me and my imagination explodes with images of cloaked mice, the clash of swords, flagons of white gooseberry wine, raspberry cordial, peach and elderberry brandy, candied chestnuts, riddles, badger lords, a fearsome rodent army led by a one-eyed rat covered in grey and pink scars, candlelit caverns filled with dancing woodland creatures, and above all, Martin the Warrior.

Martin the WarriorBrian Jacques began his enchanting series in 1986 and subsequently published twenty-two books set in the Redwall universe, the final one released three months after his death in 2011. Often described as one of the greatest children’s authors of all time, he wrote his first animal story aged ten at school about a bird that cleaned a crocodile’s teeth. His teacher was so convinced that he must have copied it from somewhere, deciding that no ten-year-old could possibly have written such a thing, that she caned him. Jacques left school five years later to become a merchant sailor in search of adventure, and eventually wrote his first Redwall tales for the children at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind while working as a milkman. They quickly spread across the globe like wildfire, fuelling the imaginations of millions.

I think nostalgia is underrated. That bewitching rush of affection tinged with sadness for a moment buried in your past. I get it most intensely while reading novels I adored as a child. Re-reading has that unique synesthetic effect of evoking the places, feelings, sights, smells and sounds you experienced while first reading the story, be it the crash of waves, rumble of the Underground, smell of evening barbecues, feelings of loneliness, jubilation, or the warmth of a family home. And there is something so magical about anthropomorphic literature in particular, from singing bears to scheming tigers. It ignites that most romantic corner of our imaginations.

But what is it about rodents?

Well, even the word ‘rodent’ is charged with the negative connotations of disease-carrying creatures scurrying through pipes and sewers, evoking images of pinpricks of light in dark corners and the eerie rustling of woodland undergrowth. Woven through their web of associations are traits of timidity, disloyalty, untrustworthiness, and cowardice, along with words like ‘infection’, ‘vermin’, and ‘plague’, not to mention the fact that ‘rodent’ is actually an adjective meaning ‘corrosive’.

One would think that with such damning qualities they would be doomed to malevolence and antagonism. But everything changes when they are given human traits. As soon as a mouse is invested with the powers of speech, reason, and free will, his or her true nature is revealed to spectacular effect.

Brian Jacques’ Martin the Warrior is a heroic woodland mouse who becomes a Redwall legend, the legend of legends. The son of Luke the Warrior, he sets out with his father’s magical sword to avenge his mother, who was murdered by the wicked stoat pirate Vilu Daskar. His adventures include being enslaved by the tyrannical stoat Badrang as well as battling Verdauga, the wildcat king of Mossflower. He is first described by the novice Matthias generations later. Matthias walks with Father Abbot through the Great Hall of the Abbey right at the beginning of the very first book and stops to gaze up in awe at a magnificent tapestry, ‘the pride and joy of Redwall’, woven by its founders. Upon this tapestry is an armoured mouse ‘with a fearless smile’, leaning casually on a mighty sword ‘while behind him foxes, wildcats, and vermin fled in terror’. The more you read of their world, the more you will come to realise that the mice of Redwall could not possibly be more heroic.

Perhaps even more famous worldwide are the stories of Beatrix Potter, also filled with rodents who fly in the face of their connotations. From Squirrel Nutkin, Twinkleberry, and Mrs Tittlemouse, to Timmy Tiptoes, Johnny Town-Mouse, and Tom Thumb, they all have their own quirky personalities and grievances, often overcoming many challenges in their respective tales to emerge stronger and happier than ever before. These characters are particularly topical this year given the 28th July will mark the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth. September will also see the publication of her newly-discovered story, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, thanks to some detective work undertaken by publisher Jo Hanks, who found a reference to the lost tale in an out-of-print Potter biography.

So what does all this really say about our interpretation of those most diverse and preyed upon members of the animal kingdom?

Perhaps it merely illuminates the sheer intensity of that so fundamentally human adoration of animals and our quixotic propensity to idolise the ‘underdog’, or in this case, ‘undermouse’. More than anything, it shows just how much we want the weakest and most vulnerable to triumph. And nowhere is such an outcome more avidly hoped for than in the mind of a child. It rather restores your faith in humanity, doesn’t it?

As George Eliot mused in The Mill on the Floss, ‘we could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it’.

New illustration for The Tale of Kitty in Boots by Quentin Blake

New illustration for ‘The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots’ by Quentin Blake

In Conversation with Thomas More: Escaping the Labyrinth of Theology

Religion cartoon

“You must acquire the best knowledge first, and without delay; it is the height of madness to learn what you will later have to unlearn,” wrote “Prince of the Humanists” Desiderius Erasmus in a letter to his friend Christian Northoff in 1497. Though himself a religious man, Erasmus had such a knack for articulating the ironies of learning that it would be understandable to misread him as a born sceptic. Either way, he tried throughout his life to free the methods of scholarship from the rigid formalism of medieval traditions and the often narrowing framework of theology.

It is unsurprising then that fellow Renaissance humanist Thomas More, born just twelve years after Erasmus, developed such a friendship with him. Sharing his equal detestation of the irrational feudalism still raging in 16th century Europe, More brought together many of their ideas in his 1516 masterpiece Utopia. Though it contains much that is archaic and illiberal by modern standards, More was after all a product of his time, he still manages to envision a world with some truly enlightened ideals. The most important of these is one that would utterly transform the earth today and it boils down to just two words: religious tolerance.

OvidMore agrees with Plato that the ideal state would be a communist one, but instead of Plato’s superior Guardians, the philosopher-kings, he describes an agricultural island overseen by a hierarchy of ‘syphogrants’, ‘tranibors’, and a single governor, who all form the democratic senate. His society echoes the myth of the Golden Age which Ovid so poetically wrote of 1400 years before him, a utopia of sorts that can be adapted to any outlook, whether monotheistic, polytheistic, atheist, or agnostic. In short Ovid imagines a world that has no mention of religion, but is simply governed by peace, equality, and harmony with nature:

      No punishment or fear of it; no threats

      Inscribed on brazen tablets; no jostling crowds

      Beseeching mercy from a lofty judge;

      For without law or judge all men were safe.

And More’s vision is just as optimistic, one where “Utopians marvel that any mortal can take pleasure in the dubious sparkle of a little jewel or bright gemstone, when he has a star, or the sun itself, to look at.”

He lived during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, the sweeping movement triggered by Martin Luther in 1517 that saw a determined break from the Catholic Church in favour of a purified faith free of corruption, ritual, and embellishment. And it is the very fact that he was surrounded by such religious turbulence that makes his Utopia so interesting.

The island is populated by believers in not one but many different religions that vary from household to household and city to city, those that place their faith “in a single power, unknown, eternal, infinite, inexplicable, beyond the grasp of the human mind, and diffused throughout the universe, not physically, but in influence”. However, there is one crucial characteristic of the Utopia that would transform our world today, and indeed is the core argument buried in the heart of his text that will make his words continue to stand the test of time, that “it is one of their oldest rules that no man’s religion, as such, shall be held against him […] everyone could cultivate the religion of his choice, and strenuously proselytise for it too, provided he did so quietly, modestly, rationally, and without bitterness toward others. If persuasion failed, no one was allowed to resort to abuse or violence”.

If this was only the attitude practiced by those of faith today, it would not only bring an end to the majority of the world’s most brutal and long-lasting conflicts, but it would free religious people from the impossible task of trying to explain and justify religious violence.

Though the resource-driven conflicts from Rwanda to Israel to Ireland would no doubt have taken place anyway, religion has always acted as a terrific force multiplier, an argument the great Christopher Hitchens always so vehemently advocated. As Freud said, we are torn apart as a species by the “narcissism of little things”, a genetic inevitability greatly intensified by an absolute belief in divine authority. Both faith in a supreme being, and faith that such a being takes sides are delusions of a truly fatal magnitude.

This realisation of the impossibility of human perfection is, in a way, what More concludes in the Utopia. Indeed, he abandoned his tenet of religious tolerance only a handful of years after its publication when he began to partake in the mass persecution of Protestants.

AragornBut that’s what makes imperfection such an important concept to acknowledge, not to simply deny by imagining a greater intelligence into the framework of reality. It’s why JRR Tolkien never wrote a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. He began such a project, resuming the story some decades after Aragorn’s reign when the world had begun to destabilise again with the absence of the elves, but he soon abandoned it, realising that the cyclical nature of human vice and destruction is simply never-ending so why not let it rest at the culmination of one particular war.

This cycle is denied outright by theology, which has many elaborate timelines of creation, redemption, intervention, and absolution, all of which contradict the others.

The only way out of the labyrinth is through the realisation of imperfection itself, and the collective resolution to tolerate it.

LGBT Rights Today: Socrates, Dumbledore, and the nonsense that began in 539BC

LGBT march 2

In October 2016 the trial of serial killer Stephen Port will begin in London. His story is a horrific one. Over the course of fifteen months from June 2014, Port coerced four gay men to go with him back to his house in Barking, where he manipulated them into taking large amounts of the Class C ‘party’ drug GHB (gammahydroxybutrate), before murdering them and depositing their mutilated bodies near a church and abbey in the impoverished east London town. Though murder is always reprehensible, Port’s crimes were made all the more horrifying as a result of his apparent motivation being the sexuality of his victims.

This is just one example of the fact that though laws are now finally starting to change in favour of LGBT men and women, homophobia is still a deeply embedded cultural belief across Europe. After four years of being ranked top on the continent for LGBT rights in the Rainbow Europe index, the UK has now fallen behind Malta, who pulled ahead last October with a score of 89% based on forty different criteria, while Azerbaijan still festers at number 49 with a score of just 5%. Though Malta should be commended, this only reinforces just how polarised opinions still are.

Pride march 1981Across the pond, the outlook is similarly bleak. Though the ruling of the US Supreme Court to legalise gay marriage across all states last year was indeed a milestone, one need only look to the pockets of extreme Republicanism scattered throughout the country to see prejudice still raging. Consider the story of 15-year-old Larry King, who was shot twice in the back of the head in 2008 after asking his murderer to be his Valentine. Though it even prompted a rare political intervention by a tearful Ellen DeGeneres in a televised call to start changing attitudes once and for all, there were many who still denounced King as the bully in the scenario, with his own (abusive) adoptive father claiming he was then used immorally as a “poster child” for gay rights. All this does is once more show just how ingrained homophobia is in the human psyche in a long history of men claiming rights over the bodies and choices of others.

The fault for this lies almost entirely with religion.

It is staggering to consider the sheer extent to which the rise of monotheism bred this inhuman discrimination. From the perpetuation of the belief that homosexuality is not born nature but optional disposition, to the insistence that sodomy is sin, the collective damage inflicted over the last two millennia or so by religious delusions just defies comprehension. In the same way the sheer magnitude and complexity of the cosmos is beyond imagining, it is impossible to comprehend that scale of suffering.

SocratesThis is even more confounding when one realises that in the classical age homosexuality was an object of absolute veneration, and that gay men were not only considered the only people fit for political office and cultural accomplishment, but were also considered as being in possession of the highest and truest understanding of love. In The Symposium, Plato writes of a fictitious dinner party in which seven great orators including the very personification of wisdom, Socrates himself, gather to discuss the nature of love. The conclusion is that men inspired with the love of ‘Heavenly Aphrodite’, who had no mother, as opposed to ‘Common Aphrodite’, who was the daughter of Dione, were drawn to the ‘naturally more vigorous and intelligent’, that is, other men. Gay men therefore ‘are the best of their generation, both as boys and young men, because they are naturally the bravest’, and, being ‘pregnant in mind’, the result of their love is ‘more beautiful and more immortal’ than love with a woman.

It is an astonishing thought indeed that a people who lived two and half thousand years ago were more liberal than we are today. The only downside of this liberalism was of course that male homosexuality was only so prized in the first place due to the fact that women were universally believed to be fundamentally inferior; physically, intellectually, genetically, and socially. Even now the majority of verbal insults are still derived from a negative association with women, and gender stereotypes remain so embedded in our culture that many people don’t realise when they’re approaching something from the view that to be female is to be weaker or inferior in some way.

First London PrideIt is now almost an insult to be labelled a ‘feminist’, with a feminist argument often being the unpopular one regardless of how many times it is made clear that this is an equality movement. Hollywood is racked by gender pay gaps and a lack of “good roles for older women”, interviews by men with women always mention aesthetic beauty, most female comedians must be self-deprecating to be funny, periods are still used as cheap insults, and sexual attacks are blamed partly on the woman for walking alone or dressing how she wanted to. Everything women ever do is always defined first by sex, from filling out forms to the assumption that their names must be changed to the man’s upon marriage. Any film or novel or TV show in which a woman is the protagonist is pigeon-holed in depressing rhetoric like “strong female lead” as though it’s a revolutionary thing, and when a woman is better than a man at something or trumps him in an argument it is still met with surprise and patronising admiration in some quarters of the world. Frankly, no man will ever understand what it’s like to battle against such embedded, daily assumptions. And that’s just in the fairly democratic and progressive West where women don’t face, at least not anywhere near to the same extent, constant reminders of explicit inferiority, rigorous censorship, patriarchal control, frequent rape, genital mutilation, and total ownership by a male relative.

But it remains a fact that homosexuality was never a bad thing until the Persians, after their conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, triggered the writing of what would become under Emperor Constantine centuries later ‘the Bible’, by ordering the local authorities of Jerusalem to come up with a single law code in exchange for a degree of autonomy from the Achaemenid Empire. Indeed, this will always be a thought-provoking question. If Constantine had not converted to Christianity in 312AD, would it have swept the globe as it did, and would polytheism then have survived?

With the rise of transgender awareness particularly over the last year given the publicity around Caitlyn Jenner and pioneering films like The Danish Girl it is more important than ever that these fatally unenlightened views are shattered by common sense and basic human compassion and civility.

DumbledoreIt is time for justice. And justice can only come with universal acceptance, though even the word “acceptance” implies LGBT people are different and “need” to be assimilated, that they are removed from “us” in some fundamental way.

As JK Rowling said to one Twitter user who claimed they were confused as to why Dumbledore was gay given they couldn’t see him that way:

“Maybe because gay people just look like… people?”

It’s time we, as people, treated people like people too.

LGBT march

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History: Staggeringly Underrated, Utterly Timeless, and Ubiquitously Sublime

Snow 2

I have only to glance over my shoulder for all those years to drop away and I see it behind me again, the ravine, rising all green and black through the saplings, a picture that will never leave me. I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

It’s not often you read a book that utterly bewitches you. Sure, you can love a book, you can love many of them, but it is a rare thing indeed to find one that feels like it was written for only you to read, one that serves almost as a mirror, growing to inhabit your very being. For me, that was The Secret History, published in 1992, debut novel of 29-year-old Mississippi-born Donna Tartt, who actually began writing it a decade earlier while studying at Bennington College in Vermont. And frankly, I cannot believe I lived over nineteen years without it.

secret_history_penguinThe story is written from the point of view of Richard Papen, a quietly eccentric and reserved boy from the fictitious town of Plano in California. Richard is an unusual narrator in that he exists not only as a means through which we can view the events unfolding in the story world but as a carefully crafted enigma in his own right for us to explore, wracked by a subconscious inferiority complex, bouts of loneliness and depression, and an obsession with beauty, that fierce, unchanging Platonic ‘Form’ shared by Nature’s harshest things (for khalepa ta kala, as Richard would say). Indeed, every character that Tartt weaves is so flawed, so brutally human, it is almost inconceivable that they are, in fact, not real, that, when reading, they are incapable of stepping right off the page into our “phenomenal” reality.

The narrative opens with a short prologue written from some point in Richard’s future where he eerily reminisces about an event buried in his past of such traumatic magnitude that it became the only story he will ever be able to tell. We learn what it is in the very first line, the death of ‘Bunny’, and halfway down the page it becomes clear that Richard played a role in his murder.

And so begins possibly the most captivating ‘whydunit’ of all time. I would even go as far as to say that it is one of the greatest books ever written.

Chapter 1 throws us back into Richard’s childhood in a remote corner of golden California:

Plano. The word conjures up drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop. My years there created for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup.

And we soon learn of the series of events that triggered his exodus to the wintry and picturesque heart of Vermont and the highly selective Hampden College isolated on the other side of America away from everything he had ever known:

Radiant meadows, mountains vaporous in the trembling distance; leaves ankle-deep on a gusty autumn road; bonfires and fog in the valleys; cellos, dark windowpanes, snow.

Hampden is at the same time intimately relatable, for any reader who has ever been to university far from home, but also enchantingly ethereal. The whole place has this otherworldly quality, which is only intensified when Richard has his fateful meeting with the five Greek students.

He had been drawn to classical mythology throughout the barren wasteland of his childhood and discovered a proficiency for Greek later in life, so was keen to pursue it in college after so miraculously securing a place, probably being one of the poorest applicants Hampden had ever seen. But, when he approaches the fantastically eccentric Greek professor, Julian Morrow, who in many ways becomes the ‘senex’ or ‘sophos’ of the novel (I mean, he essentially is Socrates fallen through time), relatively early on in the narrative, he is told joining this notoriously elite class is quite impossible, despite there being only five students enrolled.

These five students rapidly become Richard’s obsession, the enigmatic idols onto which all his fantasies are projected, representing for him the very epitome of grace, knowledge, and beauty.

Materialistic Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, the ‘epicene’ twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, graceful Francis Abernathy, and, the most bewitching of them all, Henry Marchbanks Winter.

They all speak Greek, they all exude a hostile superiority which paradoxically only makes them more intriguing, and they all harbour dark secrets embodied forever in the irresistible title of their story.

snow

Richard does finally manage to enroll in the class as a result of a fortuitous encounter in the library when he helps Bunny solve a tricky question around verb endings and essentially earns his place.

It was as if the characters in a favourite painting, absorbed in their own concerns, had looked up out of the canvas and spoken to me. Only the day before Francis, in a swish of black cashmere and cigarette smoke, had brushed past me in a corridor. For a moment, as his arm touched mine, he was a creature of flesh and blood, but the next he was a hallucination again, a figment of the imagination stalking down the hallway as heedless of me as ghosts, in their shadowy rounds, are said to be heedless of the living.

This marks the beginning of what will become one of the most emotionally shattering tragedies since the great Athenian masters, from Sophocles to Euripides.

It all revolves around Henry’s infatuation with Dionysus, or ‘Bacchus’ in his more violent Roman form, god of fertility, harvest, wine, but more importantly, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. Unbeknownst to Richard, the others are swept along by Henry’s consuming desire to achieve a state of perfect bakkheia, an orgy-like frenzy, the ultimate spiritual, out-of-body, utterly enlightening experience so prized by the ancients, a cult Livy described as secretive, subversive, and potentially revolutionary.

But it all goes horribly wrong and triggers a sequence of events that ultimately results in Bunny’s demise.

And so Tartt achieves the extraordinary feat of completely emotionally justifying the murder of our protagonist’s close friend. What’s more, long before the act is committed, we find ourselves agreeing with their homicidal intentions. And it’s not just murder. Tartt leads us through such a convoluted moral maze that, utterly entangled in its thorny thickets, we end up advocating the execution of a boy who has become in many ways our own friend. It is a triumph in the sheer brilliance of its ruthlessness.

One of the greatest pleasures of reading The Secret History is in the majesty of the prose itself. For a novel that hinges around two violent murders, it is bewitchingly philosophical.

donna tartt

The incomparable Donna Tartt

It is quite literally brimming with esoteric quotes in Latin and Greek, and constantly pays loving homage to Homer and Plato as well as dozens of other literary giants across the ages. Tartt’s intellect is staggering, you’ll find her quoting Rimbaud within the first few lines of the book. But none of these references are forced, instead her love for Greek mythology and literature itself suffuses The Secret History like beating veins. As John Mullan wrote in his 2013 article for The Guardian, ‘You are leaving the sublunary world behind and entering a realm of literary and linguistic riches. Outside the novel’s pages people are watching TV and talking in cliches, but within them you are in the company of the best that has been said and thought.’ It is an intoxicating experience.

Richard is the classic lonely narrator, setting out from poor and depressing beginnings to completely recreate himself, quite literally conjuring a fictitous history to reinvent his past. He is insecure, reserved, but filled with dreams and fantasies that he projects onto Julian and his classmates in a narrative driven by a quiet passion, the kind that is more like lava-infused bedrock than wildfire.

His first impressions of the five ethereal Greek students and their shining, unattainable world, this select group of Hellenophiles, erudite to a fault, are devastatingly juxtaposed against the truth; their real, human forms, warped by vice, arrogance, deceit, violence, desire. It is a tragedy of epic and ingenious proportions.

Henry is at the heart of it all, he is Plato marooned in the 20th century, an enigma: eccentric, conceited, captivating. From his studies of Arabic alchemy to his fatal obsession with Bacchus, he suffuses the story with an indescribable sheen of insidious intrigue.

There’s a wonderful moment that always reminds me of him at the very beginning of Plato’s Symposium just before Apollodorus relates the shenanigans that went on at Agathon’s latest party to our narrator, possibly Plato himself. This fictitious symposium of speeches philosophising on the nature of love was so widely gossiped about in the rumour mill of 5th century BC Athens that it came to the narrator in question fourth-hand, a whole decade later. But it is Apollodorus’ off-hand remark just before he launches into his tale that resonates with me most.

Whenever I discuss philosophy or listen to others doing so, I enjoy it enormously, quite apart from thinking it’s doing me good. But when I hear other kinds of discussion, especially the talk of rich businessmen like you, I get bored and feel sorry for you and your friends, because you think you’re doing something important, when you’re not. Perhaps you regard me as a failure, and I think you’re right. But I don’t think you’re a failure, I know you are.

This could have been said by Henry Winter, in Greek of course, to just about anyone he ever came across in the world of The Secret History bar his five classmates and the venerable Julian Morrow. Indeed, Henry’s utter idolisation of Julian is much like Apollodorus’ veneration of Socrates in The Symposium.

Julian is the sage, the father, the pinnacle of all wisdom, built up by his students onto a pedestal towering above the mortal, phenomenal world, practically cloaked in magic and mystery. The climax of the novel, and this is a masterstroke by Tartt, is not in Bunny’s death, but in Julian’s discovery of the truth. And it is the moment in which the illusion of Julian himself is shattered to devastating effect. He is human. Richard reflects somewhat bitterly in the ‘present’ that though they worshipped, romanticised, and sentimentalised him, they were perhaps blinded by love, and his desire to impart knowledge was not altruistic but driven by a malevolent desire to warp young minds fearing inferiority into believing in their superiority.

And so the story reflects the very best Greek tragedies, with the fate of sorts established in the prologue leading to an escalation of fermenting issues. Ultimately, it is about the darkest shades of human nature, the Marquezian obsessions that destroy, consume, shatter. And throughout it all the love and veneration for Ancient Greece and Greek mythology and philosophy serves as the backbone of the novel.

Aesthetic beauty, Romanticism, sexual self-exploration, social stratification, Dionysian expression, the nature of art, inferiority complexes breeding delusions of superiority, the destructive power of desire, guilt and jealousy, the inhumanity of humanity… these are all themes in the novel upon which thousands of words could be written.

But perhaps above all of them is that greatest and most harrowing of truths: khalepa ta kala… beauty is harsh.

“Death is the mother of beauty,” said Henry.

“And what is beauty?”

“Terror.”

“Well said,” said Julian. “Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”

I looked at Camilla, her face bright in the sun, and thought of that line from the Iliad I love so much, about Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

“And if beauty is terror,” said Julian, “then what is desire? We think we have many desires, but in fact we only have one. What is it?”

“To live,” said Camilla.

“To live forever,” said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.

The teakettle began to whistle.

Vermont 2

Treasures of the British Library: Falling in Love with the Ritblat Gallery

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“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something,” said a ponderous Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit. Walking into the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the magnificent British Library in the heart of London evokes just this feeling. You may not know what you’re looking for, or that you’re even looking for anything at all, but you will undoubtedly find something in there, something that will stay with you forever.

The icy lighting of the main hall gives way to darkness as you enter the treasures gallery itself. With the golden spotlights illuminating the faded leather covers and ancient yellowed paper sleeping behind the glass and the reverent whispers from their onlookers, the low-ceilinged gallery manages to evoke both the atmosphere of a church or a Buddhist shrine and a library at the same time.

Stretching along the southern wall rest a thousand years’ worth of musical manuscripts from Bach to Beethoven, including ninety-seven handwritten volumes of Handel’s operas. But one of the most intriguing books is seven centuries older. It is one of the first records of musical notation, a slim volume from 1050, lovingly created by Spanish monks from the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos. The minuscule black notes are dotted between lines of curling Latin, the pages yellowed and stiff, with notes spilling into the margins like tributaries dancing away from a slow, wide river. A curious red, green and gold painting of four pheasant-like birds looks up from the centre of the right-hand page, decorating the music that was once used for the feast of St John the Baptist.

British Library 1Several feet from this treasure lies another curiosity, the Sumer Is Icumen In book from 1260 found in Reading Abbey, the most famous piece of secular medieval music in existence and known only from this copy. Tight, jagged black and red writing stains the ancient vellum, with flashes of blue or red at the beginning of each phrase, interspersed by lines of tiny, short-stemmed notes. The words are written in the Wessex dialect of Middle English and the rota itself happens to be the oldest known composition featuring six-part polyphony, in which there are six simultaneous lines of independent melody.

But that’s not all. Mounted on the wall to the left of these fragments of history is a panel of famous recordings and a set of headphones, so one has even more of an excuse to simply stand there and stare through the glass, enraptured. From Chopin’s Barcarolle and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus to a soaring rendition of Elgar’s Nimrod from 1926, it would be hard to experience a moment of more intense serenity.

And stretching out from this spot right up to the literature section are over a dozen original manuscripts from Purcell, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck and Chopin, to Elgar, Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky, Bennett and Panufnik. Puccini’s handwriting is undoubtedly the messiest, an almost unintelligible scribble of pencil somehow managing to depict the final scene of his 1903 Madama Butterfly opera, when the distraught and heartbroken Butterfly kills herself in a fit of despair after losing her child. But there is something so inexpressibly moving about looking with your own eyes on the original impassioned scrawls of the world’s greatest virtuosos, knowing that they held these pieces of paper in their hands, guided the ink across these very pages in their moments of deepest and darkest pain, joy and rage. The ocean of notes crash behind the glass, almost beckoning, eternal echoes of those most passionate of souls.

And this is just the beginning. The rest of the gallery is perhaps even more inspiring.

British Library 2The feeling of sheer awe when you look upon the Nowell Codex for the first time cannot be overstated. Dating all the way back to the 11th century during the reign of King Aethelred the Unready, the original Beowulf manuscript is truly a sight to behold. The slim, grey pages, stuck inside a larger yellowed-page book, are faded in places, the brown ink almost invisible at the edges, damaged in the infamous fire of 1731 that destroyed more than a quarter of the Cotton Library collection. One dreads to think of what would have happened if the flames had consumed it, given Beowulf wasn’t transcribed until 1786, nor translated until 1805. The world would have lost forever the epic story of monsters and mortality that would become one of the foundation stones of western literature.

Right next to the Nowell Codex sits the scribbled first drafts of the most famous translation of the Old English poem, by Seamus Heaney, or Heaneywulf as he was called by many of his contemporaries. The fascinating thing about these notes is that you can see with your own eyes what he changed on the first page of the poem between his first and sixth drafts…

Take the first line. In the first draft it reads, “So. The spear Danes held sway once. / The kings of the clan are fabulous now / because of their bravery.” Whereas the sixth draft reads, “So: the Spear Danes held sway once. / The kings of that nation are known to us still / because of their daring: what they did was heroic.” Even the adjustment of a full stop to a colon over the course of so many drafts conveys just how much thought Heaney put into his translation, all in the tireless effort to do both the story and the language justice, in many ways an impossible task.

Along this same wall a whole host of original manuscripts can be found, including the 13th century poem The Owl and the Nightingale, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s scribbled, looping translations of Petrarch’s original Italian sonnets, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, the first page of Shelley’s politically ingenious 1819 poem The Mask of Anarchy, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (complete with a wonderfully illuminating revision, a self-deprecating paragraph boldly crossed out in eight arrow-like scores), as well as Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles, Oscar Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates, WH Auden’s 1939 journal, and even a letter from TS Eliot to a friend glumly reporting his dissatisfaction with London life, his longing for “sea and mountains which give some sense of security” and his struggles with a new poem… a poem that would in just a few short months become The Waste Land.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is now a whole new section dedicated to three thousand years of Chinese writing, displaying everything from “dragon bones” dating back to 1600BC found in the ruins of Yin, the sight of the last capital of the Shang dynasty, to strips of wood, bamboo, silk and eventually paper all covered in Chinese characters.

This is followed by a selection of ancient maps from Bedfordshire to Tokyo, overshadowed by an enormous globe from 1693 Paris, a baroque vision of the heavens by Vincenzo Coronello, part of a family of globes specially constructed for Louis XIV, showing the mighty figures of the ancient constellations including Hercules, Delphinus, Pisces and Habena, a beautiful and sprawling amalgamation of wings, swords, manes and tridents…

Just around the corner sits a breathtaking display demonstrating the evolution of bookbinding, with examples of the finest books ever bound, a glittering case of gold, diamonds, rubies, silver thread, green goatskin, purple foil and white vellum, all positively shining in their elegant spirals, squares and swirls. The jewel of this collection is a vast Persian tome that sparkles behind the glass like a star fallen from the sky.

British Library 3Next come the substantial range of volumes contained within the sacred texts and art of the book sections, the former of which features major works from every religion in human history, and the latter of which boasts artwork from medieval Indian paintings, English and Italian art and the earliest intact European book (the St Cuthbert Gospel, a tiny and unassuming handwritten copy of the gospel of John found in Cuthbert’s coffin in 1104, with a curious Celtic design of four spades emblazoned on its wine-red cover), to the Lindisfarne gospels and the Catholicon Anglicum, one of the only remaining comprehensive Middle English-Latin dictionaries from 1483.

The art of the book display spills onto the historical documents section, which includes a 10th century glossary of rare Latin words from Worcester, a letter from one of the ‘Cambridge Spies’ recruited by the Soviet Union, a suffragette’s scrapbook, letters from Churchill regarding the Monuments Men, a letter from Karl Marx, the original Crimean reports from Florence Nightingale in 1854, the last letter from Horatio Nelson which he never finished, written from the deck of HMS Victory on the day of the Battle of Trafalgar, and a beautifully printed and preserved copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, with gold inlaid over the huge cover boards and the histories arranged chronologically from King John to Henry VIII. This also includes one of the earliest surviving copies of Henry IV, collected by Nicholas Rowe in 1709 in an effort to preserve the works of the world’s greatest playwright, given some of the original manuscripts had already been lost. Rowe also divided the plays into acts and scenes, and added character lists and illustrations. Opposite this enticing display dedicated solely to Shakespeare lies the Codex Arundel, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, showing his eclectic array of passions from mechanics to bird flight and written in Italian in his famous ‘mirror writing’.

But my favourite item on display in the Ritblat Gallery, aside perhaps from the First Folio, is undoubtedly Jane Austen’s writing desk. This unassuming wedge-shaped block of dark red wood and black leather, lying just along from the Nowell Codex and given to her by her father in 1794, is complete with compartments for ink, pens, paper, stamps and sealing wax. A two hundred year old pair of writing spectacles sleep in the top left corner, and the whole bottom half of the desk is hinged so Austen could hurriedly sweep the pages she was working on into its dark and secret interior. Indeed, the two pages of the original Persuasion mounted just above the desk, covered in her tight, slanted writing, are on cream notepaper cut down from their full foolscap size so she could easily hide them when interrupted mid-composition.

With the political Machiavellianism currently rife in the British party conference season, the turmoil still rampaging through Europe with the shocking treatment of refugees and the horrors raging in the homes they are fleeing from, yet another mass shooting across the pond and discontent stirring over Putin’s interference and intentions in Syria, we could all do with stopping just for an hour or two for a few stolen moments of true contemplation. And where better to do it than amidst one of the world’s greatest collections of literary treasures, the air heavy with the weight of three millennia of storytelling, myth, legend and history?

There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something…