Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Note: Death at the Dolphin

Marsh, Ngaio. Death at the Dolphin. Glasgow: William Collins Sons, 1967. Also available as Killer Dolphin. New York: Amereon, 1983.

Ngaio Marsh is one of the great mystery authors of all time. She's mostly quite a bit gorier than Agatha Christie, but her characters are just as—if not more—deeply developed.

Don't let the cover image to the right (the image of the brass dolphin appearing to weep blood) put you off—the contents of this novel are genuinely fascinating in any age, even if the cover was designed in the late ’60s.

And, since you're reading about this novel here, you realize that there are connections to Shakespeare in it.

The plot involves an actor named Peregrine Jay who, though a set of circumstances that I will not spoil for you, ends up being involved in the renovation and re-opening of a London theatre that had been damaged during the Blitz. The Dolphin (that's the name of the theatre) is to open with Jay's new play: The Glove.

I will give away why the play has that title (pages 28-29)—it's one of the most interesting parts of the novel (click on the image to enlarge it and to read it):

“Mayde by my father for my sonne on his XI birthedy and never worne butte ync” (29).

If that doesn't give you something of a frisson, I'm not sure you can call yourself a Shakespeare fan.

“HS,” as you may have divined, stands for “Hamnet Shakespeare.” And all the pieces start to fall into place.

The play Jay writes after seeing the glove sounds a bit maudlin—it contemplates the circumstances under which such a glove might have been made—but Marsh is astute enough to avoid giving us too much of the play itself within her book. Instead, she sticks to the lives of the actors—and the mystery that envelops them.

I'm done with spoilers—I'll leave it to you to read the book and to find out if this is a forgery like those of William-Henry Ireland (for which, q.v.) or if it's genuine.

And do read the novel. It is just stupendous.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Note: Joker

Ranulfo. Joker.  New York: HarperTeen, 2006.

A much more interesting Hamlet novel is Ranulfo's Joker. The novel's narrator is a Hamlet analogue who genuinely seems (at points) to be insane. Ranulfo, the novel's author, was born in the Philippines and lives in Australia, where the novel is set. I don't know much more than that about him, but his writing is quirky and, on the whole, enjoyable. As an example I'm providing the first two short sections. The first seems to be in the voice of Hamlet's father's ghost—but is it? When the second section begins, the book throws a curve ball:
Fall 2004: A Season in Hell

So here I am in hell. Who would have thought it? Oooh! Aaaah! Ouch! Hell is hot—really, really hot. And there’s no cool evening to look forward to. No snows of winter coming around the corner. No jolly spring to frolic in. Just a monotonous room temperature of a million degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit, makes no difference which.

Hey, Elvis, how are ya doin’?

Hey, Hitler! But Hitler does not return my Nazi salute. Thinks I’m poking fun at him. He’s sooo serious. Lighten up, dude! But then again, he’s already lit up. Ha-ha.

Incredibly, no matter how cremation-hot it gets, the skin does not burn or melt—it just sizzles and crackles, so everybody’s still recognizable. It’s jam-packed here. Chockablock with politicians, generals, CEOs, celebrities; in fact, I think all of humanity that ever was is here. The joke is God hates humans. He loves dogs, and only dogs go to heaven. So if a child asks you if dogs go to heaven, tell them yes, but you’re not because you are a dirty, lying, hypocritical, apathetic, bigoted, self-righteous, self-deluding human.

Oooh! Aaaagh! It’s hard to hold a conversation in hell when everybody’s screaming in agony all the time. Extreme pain is not conducive to hobnobbing and small talk. Out of my maw: just deep primeval screams, hysterical shrieks, lamentations, beastly grunts, horrendous howls. AWOOOOOOOOHHHH!!!!

I hope I get used to it. I have 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 years of immortality ahead of me. Or until the sun sizzles itself out.

You didn’t know that this fine hunk of an orb that greets you in the morn is actually a fiery penal colony. You see, all the stars are places of punishment. So don’t get romantic when you gaze at the twinkling stars, for before you are 4 billion souls crying for mercy that never never comes.

But that would be nice. To be able to gaze at the stars, holding hands with someone you love. A soft, kind, breeze. An ice-cold drink. A lingering, mushy kiss. A river to dip in. Cool, refreshing, clean. Oh, if I could only sleep.

Me and my Shadow

Just kidding around. Hee-hee. I’m still much alive on this dumb-ass planet. Except the last bit, which is true. I can’t sleep. Or rather my busy brain can’t shut down—it’s just bubbling, festering, exploding, corroding, spitting, spewing all kinds of thoughts/emotions/fantasies. But there was a fairy time ago I could just hit the pillow, bring down the curtains of my eyelids, and I’d be snoring away in slumberland.

But no more. Not since the birth of Joker.

Who is Joker?

He is crazy, a lunatic, a fool, who laughs at everyone and everything. He is a voice and a shadow. He is inside me. Sometimes he possesses me totally. Sometimes he hides and crouches, ready to pounce. Endlessly, I hear his laughter. He makes me see things—visions, hallucinations, nightmares, epiphanies. I love/hate him.

Before Joker I was serious Matt—athlete, top student, and Mr. Cool of Elsinore High. I had a great mate called Ray, had (actually still have, but the sweetness has soured) a sweet, beautiful girlfriend, Leah—I was one lucky dude. My parents envisioned great things for me. Elsinore, a little Aussie town off the north coast of New South Wales, was of the opinion that I was going to conquer the world. Then it all fell—crash! kaboom! —apart on me.

My mum left my dad and remarried. My best friend Ray got murdered. Two towers came crashing down—Love and Security. My soul is ground zero: smoldering ashes and ruins.

At seventeen I have hit rock bottom.

The day Joker was born I was at church with Leah. In his sermon (typically soporific) the priest commented on how much God loved us. Normally I don’t dwell too much on what the priest says—I let everything slide by. Priests are Muzak to the soul.

But this time a voice whispered to me. A weird, derisive voice. At first I couldn’t catch what the voice was telling me. Slowly it became clearer. “If God loves us, why doesn’t He pick up a phone and tell us so? Why doesn’t He give us a big hug when we’re down? Why doesn’t He fly about like Superman and protect people from danger? Why doesn’t He speak to us instead of letting anybody who calls himself a believer speak in His name? Why doesn’t He make everyone good-looking and sexy? Why couldn’t He create a bigger planet to cater to our greed? Why couldn’t He give us wings so we wouldn’t need to consume oil? Why didn’t God create us in His image—a cat? [sic: no closing quotation mark] I felt like I was cracking open my mind for the first time. All my life I had asked the wrong questions. Questions which already had the answers. Questions provided to me by authorities. Questions which did not spit or snarl or scream. But these questions I was hearing were different. They pushed and shoved me out of my comfort zone, led me down a dark terrifying hole, subverting everything I believed in, tearing and churning up my brain. I began to giggle. Perhaps at the priest, who couldn’t answer Joker’s questions. Perhaps at God, who created us—or did we create Him? Perhaps at myself, who was the biggest idiot of all, who jumped and rolled over when commanded, who got top marks by memorizing and repeating lies dumbly like a parrot. I who thought I knew everything now knew nothing. Big fat zero. Life was just a big joke. I desperately tried to suppress my laugher. Leah kept elbowing and hushing me to quiet down. I couldn’t contain myself anymore so I rushed out of the church to let it all out.

I was laughing so hard that my ribs began to hurt and I thought I was having a heart attack. Sometimes I wish I had died then.

During my hysterics I noticed a teenager breaking into a car and swiping a cell phone, which the owner had foolishly left inside. Customarily I would have done the superhero—Mighty Matt!—deed and nabbed the thief; instead I just enjoyed myself like I was watching Funniest Home Videos on TV.

The thief glared at me and said, “What’s so funny?”

I smiled at him, like he was my best-ever friend.

“You’re nuts” he said.

“I am,” said the joker to the thief. And lo and behold, a voice from heaven said,

“This is Joker with whom I am not pleased.”
That should give a flavor of this novel.

The novel also deviates from the plot in intriguing ways.  I'll give you one set (even though it's a slight spoiler).  The Hamlet analogue's father isn't dead.  He's divorced, and he tends to drink too much and hang around outside Hamlet's house—haunting it, as it were.  As a connected plot twist, the Horatio analogue has died—and his ghost periodically haunts the Hamlet analogue.

Joker is a bit uneven, but it's still quite intriguing.  If you like the section above, you're likely to like the rest of it.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Book Note: Hamlet: A Novel

Marsden, John. Hamlet: A Novel. Somerville: Candlewick, 2008.

I've been very torn about this book.  For some, this is their entrĂ©e into Hamlet (and, thereby, into Shakespeare).  But I can't help giving it a new title in my mind:  Hamlet:  The Novelization.

Essentially, that's what this book is.  The plot of Hamlet is retold as a novel.  That's all.  Here's the beginning of Chapter Five as an example:
The ghost growled the last word. Hamlet thought it the loudest sound he had ever heard.


"Murder most foul."

In agitation the man began to walk away from the lions, as if he did not know where he was going.

Hamlet stumbled after him. Behind him, Horatio too started to walk, and farther behind, Bernardo. The dog slunk away toward the eastern corner of the courtyard, then broke into a run, disappearing around the side of the library.  (24)
Well, that's not quite all.  There's some consideration of the interior of both Hamlet and Ophelia; that part is almost-exclusively sexual in nature.  I've selected this passage because it gives the flavor of that motif even though it's one of the mildest in the novel.  I'm fairly sure you don't want to read the more explicit ones.  Here's the beginning of Chapter Thirteen:

There's that (which, at least, has a cadence and alliteration in "Would you care to share a sherry?"), and then there is some strong profanity.

I found the novel on the dull side.  Yes, even the sexualized sections are flat (not to mention unprofitable).  They're also a little stale, and they make me weary.  In any case, I didn't find much of interest.  If you've read this blog, you know that I don't object to setting Shakespeare in other places, other times, other cultures, or other languages.  Indeed, I find a lot of that to be utterly fascinating.  This novel is set in a vague castle setting (which makes it odder whenever Hamlet is described as wearing jeans).  It's not vague enough to be universal nor precise enough to be significant.

There are just a few moments that are intriguing, but they're dropped pretty quickly.  During the novel's equivalent of Act I, scene ii, Hamlet responds to Claudius' articulation of death's inevitability in this way:  "Hamlet shrugged and looked at the wall opposite, at an oil painting of Joseph of Arimathea" (36).  That juxtaposition of images could be really meaningful—but it's just left hanging.  Later, the players say, ". . . we can do Romeo and Juliet if that is your wish.  It's not a bad bit of work, although a bit far-fetched" (75).  The meta-theatrical possibilities are opened there—but they are not re-addressed.

All in all, I'd advise reading Hamlet:  The Play rather than Hamlet:  A Novel[ization].  The play has everything the novelization has—and much, much more!

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest