Let me ask you... why exactly did you choose lowercase for the title of—what shall I call it? your novel? novella? nuvoletta? When the pages that followed are styled in the usual way?
I put the question to you in an open letter why? Because these notes are not meant as a review, a form I practice mostly under sentence of an assigning editor. So think of this as what John Donne calls in "The Ecstasy" a "dialogue of one"—not between lovers, as in the poem, though I do love your work, but between acquaintances whose very sporadic exchanges go way, way back.
If memory serves, our paths first crossed in Finland in July 1984, at the Savonlinna Opera Festival, where as members of the press corps we were holed up in the same hotel steps from the castle, under the sweeping wing of Finland's Falstaffian goodwill ambassador Tatu ("Birch Bark") Tuohikorpi. The draw that year was Aulis Sallinen's motley history pageant The King Goes Forth to France, starring the visionary baritone Jorma Hynninen. The subarctic sun was still hovering on the horizon as you and I rose from Tatu's table that first night, so we strolled a while by the stony shore of Lake Saimaa. You were wearing sandals, I remember, the same has you have often done, with Trappist sangfroid, in the teeth of a New York blizzard. We may have heard the chimes at midnight.
So much for that.
As I learned only six weeks ago, you published this third and latest of your rare ficciones quite a while ago, in 2008. What brought to my attention was a review of the concert piece it inspired, by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, on the occasion of its New York premiere. Right away I ordered both the book and the CD, which at the time still awaited release. As I write, amazon.com informs me that it shipped this very day.
The interim was thine.
Abrahamsen's half-hour setting has made quite a splash, hasn't it? First the triumphant premiere at the Berlin Philharmonic under Andris Nelsons, with the incandescent soprano Barbara Hannigan as soloist; then Hannigan's subsequent performances with other top ensembles in other music capitals; now the blue-ribbon Grawemeyer Award...
It really must be something special. Still, I note that the composer, however gentle his hand, would have had no choice but to cut your 139-pages text to ribbons. And as a reader I would hate to lose a line.
"Oh speake of that do I long to heare."
As readers looking over your shoulder and mine may already have heard, let me tell you tells, in Ophelia's voice, of her life before the curtain rises—"Who's there?"—on Hamlet. In Ophelia's voice, and, as we learn in a preface signed by King Claudius, in her words. "She is like the rest of us," Claudius writes; "we all have no more than the words that come to us in the play." Ah, but do we not also have our thoughts, which our words seldom exhaust?
For the record, I never caught "O," as I shall call your avatar, overtly cribbing from Shakespeare. Rather, she takes Ophelia's word as the keyboard for her fantasias: anecdotes of the Polonius siblings among themselves and as playmates for the prince; reflections on mysteries of love and time and loss.
Does O use every last word of Ophelia's? Maybe not even her author knows for sure. But like the clown in Twelfth Night, she well knows how to turn a cheveril glove inside out. Ophelia's bore is a verb in the past tense; O's bore is a noun, or rather two (read on). Treads morphs from "walks" to "footsteps." In a musical context, grave takes on a second syllable as an Italian expressive marking. At every turn, the microscopic how of O's monologue casts light on the panoramic what of it, coaxing us to parse, as it were, at the molecular level, word for word—or even at the atomic level, letter for letter. Take the sequence, "Snow. Now. No. O." That's a paragraph, in full. Pure Beckett. (Ah lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.)
As far as I can see, O never falls back on inflection, changing singulars to plurals, for instance, or present tense to past. Where copy texts disagree, she picks and chooses—or not. A synoptic case in point: After her brother's lecture on double standards surrounding premarital sex, Ophelia makes him a promise. Modern editions read, "I shall th' effect of this good lesson keep/As watchman to my heart." "Watchman," singular. The First Folio, by common consent the most authoritative source for the play, has "watchmen," plural—fairly patently a typo. O has occasion to use both readings.
More curiously, O lists, on a menu of delicacies for the king's table:
Sweet Tongue, on a bed of ground fennel
Twice-Turned Shoulder of Young Robin, in a stole of rosemary flowers
The king doth wake tonight, keeps wassail and so on. But paconcies? The single previous instance of the word takes us back to the First Folio, where the context overwhelmingly suggests "pansies." O seems to have some form of animal protein in mind, but what? Let's see that recipe.
Beyond garbled spelling, there's creative hay to be made from punctuation and diacritics. What's a stray apostrophe among friends? Like Madame Blavatsky at the Ouija board, O has at her disposal the full complement of letters with which to tap out T (short for to) – A (the indefinite article) – B (short for be or by or be with) – O (the interjection) – O. Ecco! T-A-B-O-O! Search engines like OpenSource Shakespeare and Shakespeare Navigator choke on dupped, which O uses at least four times, but dupp'd comes up paconcies, oops, roses. An acute accent turns bore, which I've mentioned before, into boré, plausible faux-Elizabethan for bourée, that jaunty dance. And the slender pin of a macron is all it takes to spear a whole dramatic tradition from Japan. Yes, I speak of nō.
The one word in let me tell you of which I find no trace in Hamlet, let alone in any line of Ophelia's, is stature (pages 27, 76). What am I missing?
"Where are my Switzers?"
You'll be thinking I see let me tell you solely as an exercice de style, à la Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec, of interest principally for slavish adherence to a more or less cockamamie set of rules.
Not really. I concur with the octogenarian American novelist and poet Harry Mathews, contributor of your only blurb, who judges your Opheliad "beautiful and enthralling" as well as "a great success in Oulipian terms." Not that I knew what "Oulipian" means. Wikipedia to the rescue!
Oulipo (French pronunciation: [ulipo], short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: "workshop of potential literature") is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques.
No doubt about it, Mr. Mathews is dead right. Yet the tour de force I've been documenting scarcely accounts for the quality of O's imagination, the timbre of her voice. Philosophy comes naturally to her, yet her thought is never abstract. Her feelings run deep, yet never devolve to the maudlin. And do the rules of your game explain the narrative invention that drives O's scenes from the marriage of Polonius and the hitherto unknown Mrs. Polonius? The lyric mimicry behind your new-minted pop lyrics and nursery rhymes that preserve the meter and meaning of old ones we've known forever? The higher ventriloquism in that brilliant sheaf of sonnets (from a hand other than O's) that catch to a fare-thee-well Shakespeare's form, themes, and X-rating?
According to the New Yorker review of Abrahamsen's concert piece, O scrapes by on just 483 words—a fraction of the 2,000-word core vocabulary of the antique international techspeak known as Basic English. It's hard to credit how many of the notional bare necessities O must do without. The sex-starved malcontent she must not call mother," arises before us in the bare pronoun she (often, conveniently, italic). Powerless to speak of the dead, ill or otherwise, O conjures up Hamlet Senior as the king as was.
Bereft, moreover, of names and even court titles for the people we know from the play, O styles Hamlet Junior not as "prince" but as the young lord, Laertes as my brother, Gertrude as the king's lady, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the two that are with him, the Gravediggers as two other men, who might also be the two from before, them with the letters, but in other clothes.
Even so, O finds ways to name names here and there. An Uncle Gis turns up. (His name, a contraction of "Jesus," is plucked from the rich source of her mad songs.) O's surrogate mother, a maid, remains anonymous, but not her interesting brother Mark (as in "nay, pray you, mark," which is to say "please pay attention"). And then there are the Violets, swaggering companions for Laertes, a more cagey, less macho customer than O supposes. Oh, and how nimbly, in rehearsal for a play, O dances around such essentials as "costumes" (make that your clothes for the show), and "director" (the one to tell us what to do).
Elsewhere, words Ophelia uses but once—hand, fashion, bells, music—show up in dense gravitational clusters or glimmer subliminally here and there, like stitches of some unbroken silver thread. (I note a strange preoccupation with the sandal.) Ophelia's report of Hamlet in his feigned madness—beginning "a sigh so piteous and [fill in the blank]"—triggers a visit to the a sibylline Lady Profound and her talking owl, who clinches prophecies with movie quotes (Come up and see me some time.) Similarly, Ophelia's description of a shroud ("white as the mountain snow," hardly her highest flight of the imagination) raises the curtain on a whole Alpine Lebensraum of O's adolescence—and on the elegiac Winterreise with which, staff in hand, O makes her quietus, fading to white.
The hour advances, yet I cannot resist a parting glance at other favorite details: tweets that encapsulate whole Shakespeare plays (a lord that's given away all he had, a young soldier-king with his sword raised...), cryptic pages of theatrical dialogue that slithers somehow from Waiting for Godot to The Wizard of Oz and The Importance of Being Earnest; a tip of the hat (all of me) to Frank Sinatra; a hint perhaps(Lord Say and another noble lord with their daughter) of same-sex marriage; a gloss (the whole of Chapter 12) on the oceanic Liebesnacht of Tristan und Isolde. And for terribilità, there's Chapter 10, in which O goes up her mountain, on her own, to the brow where all is green and you seem to be at the door to the heavens.
That's where I go to pray, she says, when I do pray, in my own words, to the God I know to have gone from us—but I still pray. Bad enough that God has left like an owl in the night (there are no thieves in Hamlet, only pickers and stealers), but it gets worse. There was another come from God to say: God is dead. ... O Father that is not in heaven, is heaven still there?
You have made your career, Paul, chiefly as a music critic, producing, year in, year out, a body of calm, collected prose remarkable in its reach, penetration, independence, and judgment. But a father might have sent his newborn off to college in the years between your first two novels and the newish one. Just now you have me wondering how your work in different genres hangs together.
A hallmark, it occurs to me, is the living presence of the past in a present that is living, too. It's been decades since I read The Lay of Sir Tristram (1991), but I remember how lightly its postmodern anachronisms rested on the dominant medievalism of the story. It's been even longer since your debut novel, Myself and Marco Polo (1989), to which I keep returning for a metaphor that may to capture your sensibility exactly.
The myself of your title—Rustichello da Pisa, ghostwriter of the Travels—is gazing into the basin of a stone fountain in faraway Isfahan, struck by the way it is "coated inside with a dull green deposit of mineral and algae."
And it seemed to me that this was the way of the soul, to receive a constant trickle of impressions and to let go, quietly to let go, all but a little that would fasten on the sides, and stick, and stay, and become a part of the container. And I thought that contentment might come from a sufficient acquaintance with this, and not from a wish to hold more, register more.
Stains on marble: impalpable, indelible, painted and repainted by the infinitely patient hand of time. If only writing were that easy. Maybe it would be if we measured human lives in centuries.
All good wishes,