Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Note on Hermes and Robertson Davies' The Cunning Man

The caduceus: two snakes

The rod of Asclepius: one snake
I have in the past couple of years discovered Robertson Davies: author of gripping, humorous, intelligent novels that deal with the human stage. They tend to feature cultured professional men observing increasingly bizarre situations. The Cunning Man sees a doctor trying to reinstate a kind of Paracelsian philosophy into medical practice. He refers often to Hermes and the caduceus as the symbol of medicine, and uses the two serpents symbolically to aid his own practice. He is, of course, wrong.

It's interesting how easily a mistake can become embedded into a culture. Many have noted that the statue of Eros in Piccaddilly is actually Anteros. That kind of mistake is easily forgiven - who on earth has heard of Anteros?

But Hermes has got nothing to do with medicine. His caduceus, or staff, has two snakes entwined around it; somehow it has become associated with the medical profession in America. It does not seem all that appropriate for a god who ushers the dead into the underworld to be the symbol of the profession. It all rests on a simple error of sight: the staff of the god Asclepius, the god of healing, has one serpent entwined around it - an ambiguous symbol, of course; but what a difference a snake makes.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Decline and Fall: a note on the recent BBC adaptation

Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall was one of the first "grown up" novels I read, a recommendation from my prep school headmaster, who was never one not to stretch an imaginative reader. I loved it, of course, though I had no idea what were the dubious sexual indiscretions Captain Grimes had really been "in the soup" for - I just thought he was a cad.

The recent BBC adaptation, starring Jack Whitehall, was beautifully rendered, and successfully captured the meek nature of Paul Pennyfeather set against the grotesques who people his world. It struck me though that the novel's central image of the big wheel at Luna Park was placed in the wrong mouth. The adaptation gave it partly to the criminal butler, Solomon Philbrick (and I can see why it was dramatically necessary to do so), and partly to Peter Beste-Chetwynde; but Waugh gives it to the architect Otto Silenus, in whose mouth it sits much better:

"Now you're a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel, and you got thrown off again with a hard bump. It's all right for Margot, who can cling on, and for me, at the centre, but you're static. Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic."

This circular imagery is very common to Waugh: people end where they begin, as Paul's career ends where it began, pointlessly.

Finishing the series on Pennyfeather's resurrection and a new Bollinger outrage was a good idea; but it lost the deep poignancy of Waugh's final scene in which Peter, having newly inherited his uncle's title and become the Earl of Pastmaster, comes into Paul's rooms at Scone College: it's apparent that the young man, whose interest in making cocktails at first seemed so charming, is now fast on the way to becoming an alcoholic:

"You drink too much, Peter."
"Oh damn, what else is there to do?"

One of the only truly close relationships in the novel, between the fatherless Pennyfeather and the fatherless Peter, also remains broken: "So Peter went out, and Paul settled down again in his chair," where he reads about the "ascetic Ebionites", and Peter, presumably, dashes off into the drunken night. I think the adaptation suggests that Paul has learned from his time in the centre of the wheel: Waugh  suggests that he doesn't; as if, in fact, he has woken from a dream, or as if his "shadow" has returned to his real body (there is a mysterious passage half way through the book where Waugh talks of a moment when Paul becomes "real", and his "shadow" flits off into the second half.) Round and round and round goes the world; with nobody any the wiser.

A final note: I also must speak in defence of Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington; who in the adaptation is presented as a slippery fellow who'll betray Paul at the first moment. In Waugh he is at least honourable - though he does end up being Margot's lover.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology & Carolyne Larrington's The Norse Myths

I've reviewed Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, and The Norse Myths by Carolyne Larrington for The Times Literary Supplement - read it here (behind a paywall).

In Memoriam: Jeremy Lewis

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Jeremy Lewis, publisher, journalist and biographer. Jeremy was a familiar and welcoming sight on the literary circuit: at launch parties he would hove cheerily into view, canapé in the act of being eaten in one hand, second or third glass of wine in the other, anecdote at the ready.

I knew him from my time at Literary Review, when he would come into the office on occasion as our Editor-at-Large, invariably wearing his blue corduroy jacket; once he appeared rather dazzlingly in a very smart seersucker. If ever the phone rang (which, at Literary Review, was not very often) he would leap up, alarmed, and look round for assistance, to a cry of "Help!" This would extend to computers, which he regarded with mild horror: he would refer to the Microsoft Office icon as "the Henry Moore sculpture."

 He would indicate his approval of a submission with a "rather good, I thought"; his disapproval was shown with a hand to the mouth, in imitation of a yawn, and a waggling of his immense eyebrows. He was an acute observer, picking up the tiniest details of dress or habit, which made his work involving and vivid; he was a brilliant raconteur, and would hold us all mesmerised with his accounts of increasingly absurd adventures in which he, invariably and self-deprecatingly, was the butt.

Even in 2005, when I began at the magazine, he mourned the passing of the old way of publishing life: the long lunches and the bibulous evenings. Though we still managed the odd roustabout, it felt as if we were at the end of a span of time that would never be imitated. No longer would publishers tumble out of darkened restaurants at 4pm, hilarious with wine and good writing: what he called the "Perrier" world had already taken over.

Jeremy was always very kind to younger writers, offering advice and cheery goodwill: his writing was warm, humorous and tinged with a clear-sighted knowledge of human folly. We all loved him in the office, and I will miss his presence hugely.


Latin graffiti in Cambridge: "Locus in domos loci populum"

Romani ite domum: Life of Brian
I've written about Google Translate and Latin before (see here); I never thought the day would come when the hapless machine would be used by protestors in Cambridge to get their message across. As reported by the BBC here, a series of new houses has been spraypainted with the words "Locus in domos loci populum."

Strung together, these words are meaningless. The culprit? Google Translate. If you type "local homes for local people" into the search engine, it churns out "Locus in domos loci populum."

I've been trying to think how to turn the phrase into Latin, but haven't yet been able to come up with much. It's hard to get idioms right: English into Latin translation requires some sure-footed sideways thinking.

What still remains interesting is why these protestors felt that Latin - or rather some approximation of it - might be useful as a tool of protest. Who says Latin is dead?