Paul Griffiths’ latest novel, let me tell you. Reality Street Editions, Hastings, 2008

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John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851-51). Tate Britain, London.

John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851-52). Tate Britain, London.

Paul Griffiths, let me tell you. Reality Street Editions, Hastings, 2008

Paul Griffiths’ most recent novel, let me tell you, is a spare work of engulfing mystery and power, although its technique is highly conceptual: he has set himself the task of telling Ophelia’s story from her own point of view, using no more than the 483-word vocabulary Shakespeare allotted her in Hamlet. This is hardly the first time a modern writer has attempted to scatter new seeds in this corner of Shakespeare’s garden, but few have approached it with Griffith’s fluid imagination and verbal sophistication, a talent he has developed as much from his career as a music critic and historian as in the role of a literary man. Even a naive reader will be captivated by Griffiths’ touching portrait of Ophelia, as she grows up in an ensnaring web spun by the habits, desires, and social obligations of her father, her brother, the queen, the old and new kings, and, of course, the Prince. But in this case, she is no victim. With her own native ingenuity and a healthy desire to survive, she finds a way out.

The difference between let me tell you and the usual post-modern literary product lies in Griffiths’ fully developed characters, the humane feeling aroused in the reader by their circumstances, and in his neat handling of narrative and language, which is always simple, affecting, and beautiful. The characters’ tentative seeking of an orientation in reality, which is denied them by the nature of things, reflects the mystery of the nouveau roman, but made—seemingly—real in a narrative space which could exist at almost any point in history, but which, through the reader’s assumptions based on Hamlet and the Elizabethan social conventions that appear in the story, vaguely gravitate towards Shakespeare’s time, nonetheless disrupted by telling anachronisms, some of which are disturbing and others quite amusing. At certain junctures the presence of what seem to be alternative realities make the task of finding one’s way all the more complex for Ophelia. The mountain where she often goes, both with others and alone, has an aura of Arthur Machen to it. After all, she lives in a world where the family maid can take her and her brother to an oracular woman in a cave in order to find a viable path into the future.

Griffiths in his multivalent performance of Shakespeare’s words is able to be extremely precise in his vagueness—that is, his exposition of Ophelia’s experience through sensations and feelings, which in the narrative are recollected, while their past immediacy and reality remain vividly present to the reader. In this passage words mediate the physical reality of the possibly incestuous horseplay of Ophelia and Laertes and the psychic reality of Ophelia’s encounter with flowers and the subsequent metamorphosis of her hand:

Each morning, in bed, the words tumbled on and on, as we [my brother and I] tumbled over each other, and then more as we lay quite still.

“I was up the mountain and there was a bed of flowers by the path, you know. There was a rose with the face of a lady, but she did not speak. I could see long columbines with eyes all their length, but I do not think they could see me. And some pansies, like there are. I had gone to take one up, and, touching it, it made me cold all over, and I took a look down at my hand, and it had turned my hand green.”

“Are they all down on the ground?”

“What?”

“The flowers.”

“No.”

“Then what made you say they lay in the bed?”

I see this now as I could see it then. I look as my hand becomes a dove, a green dove, and is loosed from my arm, it goes up and away. And then I look again, and my hand is as it was. [p. 20]

In his deployment of Ophelia’s 483 words, Griffiths is able to draw on a sensibility which he could have developed only from a lifetime in music, specifically the distilled sounds and patterns of a Boulez or a Carter. At one point Ophelia reminisces:

There was a time when I could sing, and then I would sing and sing. My father would love to have me sing to him, at the end of a hard day. But that’s all over. Now he would say, if one should ask, that he’s no time for music. And what is music, if not time: time of now and then tumbled into one another, time turned and loosed, time sweet and harsh, flowers of time? [p. 26]

The mentality which created this elegant prose and verse—both essentially modern, although well marinated in the language of the Bard—could only have developed in the most refined areas of musical taste during the second half of the twentieth century. In Griffiths’ restricted word-treasure (the selection of the pennies is as choice as the gold, the rubies, and the emeralds) the value of each vocable is heightened, like notes and sounds in Webern or Boulez, as the reader can appreciate the intensified meaning of each: “key”, for example, is one word which keeps returning with ever more telling associations.

What’s more, Griffiths knows his Shakespeare. His sonnets are finely crafted modern versions of Shakespeare’s own—lively and even ribald as they are. Beyond that, they play a significant function in the narrative, since they appear with Ophelia’s sexual awakening and early experiences. These are functional sonnets, sent back and forth, with a social or sexual purpose in mind. In fact, as diction, these missives are the equivalents of sexual intercourse, containing, on a literal level, reminiscences of love-making.

The distancing of post-modern narrative also comes into play in the book, but in such a way that it deepens our perception of Ophelia’s story. What a relief to find such a work of craft which can still satisfy the novel-reader’s craving for a parallel non-reality, the urge to become one with an imaginary human, in this case, one of Shakespeare’s most seductive mysteries, a mystery of derangement. The fruit of fourteen years’ work, this small book is a brilliantly successful and an important one—a work of art which belies the accusation of insularity often brought against the British novel. Rooted as it is in the quintessential English man of letters, it is as cosmopolitan as John Banville’s finely honed inventions.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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