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Letters

Vol. 42 No. 14 · 16 July 2020

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Not My Binary

It is something of an honour to find one’s book the occasion for a performance from Michael Dobson, always a pleasure to read for his unique combination of sharp (sometimes caustic) wit, intelligence and knowledge (LRB, 2 July). As usual, there is justice in his criticism. Undoubtedly, for instance, there is a ‘festive’ side to Ben Jonson I might have allowed for rather than setting up the simple opposition to Shakespeare. Perhaps too I am soft on Falstaff, harsh on George Page and Malvolio. And it may be that wordplay is more liberally practised by English speakers today than I suggest, although I do think that, like the practice of synonyms, it has an intellectual respectability or value in French culture it does not have in English culture.

I was, however, taken aback by the blunt reduction of what I had hoped was a nuanced treatment of religious issues to ‘“older, Catholic” (good) v. “Protestant” (bad)’. This is emphatically Dobson’s binary, not mine. My focus is the impact on cultural and especially linguistic production of an ideology which takes its origins from the religious movement, but which developed the specificity of its reach with the yoking of politics and religion in the establishment of the Church of England. It is a resistance to this ideology – basically of containment – that I trace in Shakespeare’s dramas of the 1590s, which, I argue, promote values that, where they are named, are not ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ but, pointedly, ‘Christian’, as in one of my key quotations from Shakespeare’s (probable) first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, when the servant clown Launce declares that what makes one ‘worth the name of a Christian’ is the practice of ‘charity’ as exemplified in the welcoming of strangers and unlimited forgiveness. This ‘internationalist vision of Christian community’ bypasses sectarian as well as national frontiers.

On a point of fact: I am a ‘Swiss scholar’ only in the sense that I have enjoyed an academic career in universities across Switzerland. I am British born (and educated), and French by marriage. My book no doubt owes much to a lived experience of travelling back and forth across national borders, in between two, sometimes three languages, a lived experience of both/and, neither/nor, which eludes classification. I tell my French-speaking neighbours the book is called ‘Shakespeare sans frontières’.

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
St Cergues, France

Michael Dobson highlights the ‘over-simplifying binarisms’ that detect a protective and nationalistic linguistic elitism in opposition to a more playful and heterogeneous poetic mode. We could go further and challenge the assumption that this opposition even existed in the minds of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Rather, this boundary between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon registers was shored up in the later 16th century precisely for the purpose of linguistic performance, and to traverse it playfully was a sign of humanist learning. This happened first in academic revels and in professional institutions such as the Inns of Court, and gradually became popular in (mainly Jacobean) drama.

The perfect example of this process is the career of John Hoskyns, who advocated for English plain-speaking in his Directions for Speech and Style (c.1598), in the tradition of George Gascoigne and Henry Peacham’s rhetorical tracts. But he was also a master of the mock-scholarly neologistic ‘fustian’ performances popular in Oxford and London at the time. He irrevocably offended the authorities at New College in 1592 with a particularly saucy performance, and later gave a similar comic speech at a Middle Temple revel.

Hoskyns has also been credited with the first example of fully-fledged English nonsense poetry, in the ‘cabalisticall verses’ he contributed to the prefatory verses of Thomas Coryate’s Crudities in 1611. Here he mocks the author’s Latinate verbosity. Coryate – an academic outsider known for ludicrous verbal posturing – was a favourite jester not only of Hoskyns’s clique at the Mitre tavern, but also of Jonson’s club at the Mermaid, and the household of Prince Henry. John Donne, Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones and Henry Peacham all contributed multilingual or mock-classical prefatory verses to the Crudities.

Although there is certainly a social condescension in this form of entertainment, and it was fundamentally conservative in its use of lower-class intellectual caricature as a means of promoting cohesion among established London wits, there is little to distinguish Shakespeare’s use of the same poetic devices as uniquely subversive. He was writing from within a richly playful linguistic culture, not in opposition to a nationalist reformist movement.

Frazer Hembrow
London E2

While Statues Sleep

I offer a footnote to Thomas Laqueur’s review of Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans (LRB, 18 June). The early laws of the Federal Republic of Germany defined as ‘persecuted’ for the purposes of indemnification and compensation those people who had suffered because of their race, religion or political opinion. Others were labelled Nationalgeschaedigte – persons ‘injured’ because of their nationality. These were Poles, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Serbs, Czechs, Slovaks and others who had been deported to work as slave labourers in German factories. After the war, many surviving Nationalgeschaedigte went to North or South America, South Africa or Australia as refugees. In 1957, when these countries began negotiations with the Federal Republic of Germany about compensation for their citizens, they did not take up the claims of this group. The FRG, it was agreed, would hold talks with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about refugees who had suffered because of their nationality.

In 1960, UNHCR and the FRG concluded an agreement according to which UNHCR would administer a ‘hardship fund’ of 45 million Deutschmarks provided by Bonn for Nationalgeschaedigte who had become refugees before 1 October 1953. Successive agreements increased this amount. By 1993, when the last payments were made, 53 million DM had been disbursed in small, one-time payments to non-Jewish refugees and former refugees who had been victims of Nazi persecution.

I was UNHCR’s representative in Bonn when the last payments were made. Almost daily, our office received handwritten letters from elderly, non-Jewish refugees detailing their suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Some enclosed photographs of themselves before they were deported and then after the war. Others sent medical certificates and unpaid bills. We faced the impossible task of assessing their suffering and doling out small amounts from what remained in the fund. No sum could repair the damage done, but as I read the letters it became clear that what the victims wanted most of all was for their suffering to be recognised.

Judith Kumin
Contoocook, New Hampshire

Thomas Laqueur writes that the core exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin was designed ‘by the team responsible for the Maori Museum in Auckland, specialists in portraying the history of a marginalised and denigrated group’. I think he must be referring to Ken Gorbey and Nigel Cox, New Zealanders who took leading roles in the making of the exhibition in Berlin after working together on the creation of Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. Jock Phillips, who was in charge of Te Papa’s history exhibitions, explains the process of education and negotiation that went into creating stories of New Zealand’s complex ‘national identity’ in his memoir, Making History (2019). Maybe Germany is not the only country whose approaches to ‘confronting race’ would be informative for America?

Robyn Marsack
Glasgow

Thomas Laqueur writes that the Stolpersteine are ‘brass bricks set in the pavement just high enough to cause the passer-by to stumble, stop and read the name of a murdered victim of the Holocaust who lived in a nearby building’. No local authority would permit the installation of something that would cause a pedestrian to stumble: the brass bricks are set flush with the surface of the pavement. The word ‘stumble’ (stolper) refers to the mental disturbance that the brass plate and the information it carries is designed to trigger in the person who happens across it.

Alan Windsor
Exmouth, Devon

Glimpses of the Laird

I find it hard to recognise Colin Tennant in the glimpses presented by Rosemary Hill in her review of the memoir Lady in Waiting by his wife, Anne Glenconner (LRB, 4 June). In 1971 I was living in one of a row of workers’ cottages in the Scottish Borders. Colin was my landlord and laird of the estate. I was one of an itinerant group of musicians and artists it amused Colin to allow to rent the cottages.

I came from a farming background in Ireland, and the estate manager hired me to work around the place when I wasn’t away playing music. I scythed thistles, caught sheep, groomed and rode the horses and along the way got to know the laird in a friendly and casual manner.

When Colin decided to throw a party for Princess Margaret, he asked me to approach musicians from the Incredible String Band – who also lived on the row – to see if they would play at an afternoon gathering to be held beside the boathouse on the loch further up the glen. A meeting was convened in the main house and the details thrashed out. I remember the stylish polished chain-mail fireguard that hung from the vast mantelpiece, and a tall elegant woman – it must have been Anne – materialising to regard us hippies with a degree of disdainful amusement. Colin, the perfect courtier, warned us that the princess, with her liking for young men, might become flirtatious and that we should not entertain such behaviour.

The next afternoon, Edinburgh’s great and good gathered at the loch. All went to plan: the musicians performed, the PA squealed, the sun shone. At some point I was sitting on a straw bale, the String Band’s American roadie Stan on my left, Princess Margaret on my right. Polite conversation ensued. Stan wasn’t aware what Margaret looked like – earlier, we had mischievously pointed her out as the beautiful daughter of a local dignitary – so he leaned across me and with a ‘Mind if I bum a fag?’ took a cigarette from her gold packet of Perfectos. ‘Please do,’ she said.

Perhaps two years later, back in London, I was walking down Cromwell Road to catch the airport coach when a large Rolls-Royce sighed to the kerb beside me and the window rolled down. It was Colin, driving on his own, and somehow he had recognised me and appeared delighted to see me again. Nothing would do but that he should take me to Heathrow himself. Which he did. We discussed the world, the estate, music and art, and he dropped me off. I never saw him again. This act of generosity touched me deeply and I record it here. For balance.

Tim Booth
Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry

Here we are

‘The printers’ strike at the Times in 1978 closed the TLS temporarily,’ Alice Spawls writes in a footnote to her piece about the Type Archive, ‘creating an opportunity for a new literary review. Here we are’ (LRB, 2 July). In fact, the Times and its three supplements (Literary, Education and Higher Education) together with the Sunday Times, all stopped publication on 30 November 1978 by decision of the then owners, the Thompson Organisation. There was no strike, by the printers or anyone else: the staff were locked out by management, who rather foolishly hoped that the National Graphical Association – the printers’ union – would cave in and that the journalists, members of the National Union of Journalists, would be willing to take over the typesetting by using computers. Members of the Times NUJ chapel decided that we would use computer-aided typesetting, but only if the printers agreed. We were not prepared to be used as management’s cat’s-paw to put other employees out of work. We didn’t like being bullied. The papers weren’t published again until mid-November 1979, by which time the company had wasted around £40 million on the longest and most expensive lockout in the history of Fleet Street.

Jacob Ecclestone
Diss, Norfolk

Alice Spawls refers to ‘Monotype printing’, but Monotype was a method of composing text, not of printing it. The main distinction isn’t between Monotype and computerised typesetting (as Spawls observes, a computer can run a Monotype caster), but between letterpress and lithographic printing: between printing from a raised surface and a flat one. Hot-metal typesetting was deposed by ‘cold’ photocomposition of text and then by digital typesetting. Letterpress printing was deposed by offset lithography.

It’s time, too, to put behind us the idea that type was made from lead, which is far too soft to do the job of a printing surface. Type metal was always an alloy: lead, tin, antimony, with traces of other metals. Monotype ingots are shiny, and some assiduous apprentices have been known to polish them.

Robin Kinross
London NW5

Maigret’s Room

Stephen Sedley offers cinematic examples in response to John Lanchester’s nomination of a ‘candidate for the worst translated title ever’ (Letters, 2 July). The translation of film titles is often more concerned with commerce than fidelity to the original. I remember wanting to see Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter in Paris many years ago and leafing through the Officiel des spectacles for the title I had previously noted, Le Chasseur de cerfs, only to see that it had been changed to Voyage au bout de l’enfer (‘Journey to the Ends of Hell’).

There are fashions in these things too. Remembrance of Things Past was lauded for its echo of a Shakespeare sonnet, never mind that it rides roughshod over the nuances, and even the primary meaning, of Proust’s original. A more felicitous example of a French translation of an English text is the rendition of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as Le Meilleur des mondes (‘Best of All Possible Worlds’), which, like the original, echoes a classic text (Candide in place of The Tempest) and also retains its ironic flavour.

Paul Bilic
London SE11

Carry on Playing

David Trotter’s piece about Jacques Tati reminded me of a conversation I once had with one of the extras in Les Vacances de M. Hulot (LRB, 2 July). Pierre Joubert was a 63-year-old retired headmaster when I interviewed him at St Marc-sur-Mer in 2003. He was 11 during the making of the movie, and he and some other local children were told to play on some rocks as Tati went by. ‘Tati was very demanding,’ M. Joubert recalled. ‘He told us all not to look at him but to just carry on playing. He had injured his nose and there was a bandage on it. So the scene had to be shot without showing his face.’

Simon O’Hagan
London NW3

Translating Camus

Jeremy Harding raises the possibility that Stuart Gilbert had Thomas Bewick’s ‘yellow owl’ in mind when mistranslating Camus’s ‘hibou roux’ (Letters, 18 June). Conceivably. But could Camus, an unlikely ornithologist, really be alluding to the exotic Madagascar Red Owl, Tyto soumagnei? Robin Buss’s admirably plain 2001 translation of La Peste for Penguin settles for ‘red-headed owl’, as the hapless guilty man in the dock is first described as having ‘meagre red hair’. Camus’s secondary narrator, Tarrou, unlike the dispassionate Dr Rieux, is given to fanciful reverse anthropomorphism, and there is an earlier ‘hibou’ in his narrative, a distantly cruel father who addresses his wife (a ‘black mouse’) and children (‘poodles’) as ‘vous’. This first ‘hibou’ may have some kinship with the second, who is condemned to death by Tarrou’s prosecutor father.

French owls are distinguished, according to Le Petit Robert, by their ‘aigrettes’ (ear tufts). Tufted ‘hiboux’ and round-headed ‘chouettes’ are also heavily gendered, grammatically and in figurative usage. It is unlikely that Camus or Tarrou would have confused a ‘hibou’ (‘homme triste, solitaire’) with the pejorative ‘vieille chouette: vieille femme laide, acariâtre’. Since Bewick’s day, the ‘yellow owl’ has been given its own genus, Tyto (including T. soumagnei), and family, Tytonidae, distinct from other owls grouped in Linnaeus’s Strigidae, and in English we know it as the barn owl (T. alba). In French it is the ‘effraie’ or ‘chouette effraie’, whose name, Harding suggests, is perhaps evoked by Camus’s ‘hibou effarouché’. But the ‘effraie’ itself is frightening, as anyone who has heard its unearthly screech will testify. As it is a common enough bird of French villages (less common in Britain), Camus may have heard it in 1942, convalescing in the hamlet of Le Panelier (Haute-Loire) while working on a first draft of La Peste.

Martin Shipway
Great Wishford, Wiltshire

Mistake

In Ferdinand Mount’s piece about Boris Johnson’s first year, we introduced the misinformation that Michael Havers was lord chancellor between 1979 and 1987 (LRB, 2 July). Those are the dates for Lord Hailsham’s tenure, during which time
Havers was attorney general. Havers followed Hailsham as lord chancellor, but was in post for just four months, between June and October 1987.

Editor, 'London Review'

Consider the Hare

Katherine Rundell writes that ‘hares are the only game you can legally hunt all year round’ (LRB, 2 July). Fortunately for the more northerly of the species, a new ruling from the Scottish government has granted mountain hares protected status under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

John Glenday
Carnoustie, Angus

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