The Joy Of Not Understanding

Reading & Writing


Last night I was talking with a friend about Shakespeare. She had recently seen a production in Vancouver’s ‘Bard on the Beach’ festival, and had felt the need to explain the plot of Hamlet to her brother, who was unfamiliar with the play. To her surprise, he quickly got the gist of the play and looked forward to seeing it again so that he could understand more.

There is, in today’s culture, a need for the info-dump that gives you everything in one big pre-digested lump – it’s absurd to expect to understand everything at once, of course. Shakespeare continues to reward right through your life. The recent production of Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’ has proven a massive hit in London, breathing fresh understanding into the play, and proving to many that it’s not just Shakespeare who continues to release layers of understanding.

Plays can be endlessly re-interpreted but books are personal, and many reveal new insights as you age. There are novels I come back to at different times of my life that give new insights which are linked to one’s own experience and handling of personal crises. Life is an iceberg; so much of what we need to know is yet hidden. Why shouldn’t literature reflect this? The author and critic Ken Tynan said; ‘You do not need to know why two people fall in love, only that they do.’ Part of our humanity is our unknowingness.

I struggle with period books, TV shows and films that present times and places unknown to me as something easy to understand. Charles Wood put this right with his extraordinary take on ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1968) which used accurate period language and proved a revelation. Whereas TV’s ‘Ripper Street’, great fun though it always is, has as much to do with Victorian times as it has with Narnia.

And books expand you by adding to your knowledge. My favourite classic crime novelist Edmund Crispin had an astonishing vocabulary which he saw no need to curtail for his readers. You have a dictionary; look it up (not on Kindle, though, as most arcane words don’t seem to be covered by theirs). How wonderful to run across words and phrases with which you are not familiar! Travel books can be utterly eye-opening, from William Dalrymple’s ‘City of Djinns’ (about being a student in New Delhi) to Jan Morris’s ‘Heaven’s Command’, about extraordinary Victorian lives.

I look forward to not entirely understanding a book. In fact, the book I can ‘get’ in one sitting no longer interests me. Accessibility isn’t everything. Even popular fiction can be strange, if the worldview of the author is allowed free rein. Accessibility is also why readers like comfort books like ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’. Sometimes people don’t want to feel challenged. Although I’d mitigate that with this conversation, initiated by a reviewer friend of mine at a Harrogate literary festival.

REVIEWER: (Noting that woman next to her is reading ’50 Shades Of Grey’) Are you enjoying that?

WOMAN: It’s the first book I’ve ever read.

REVIEWER: What do you think of it?

WOMAN: It’s absolutely brilliant.

REVIEWER: So, what will you read next?

WOMAN: I’ll just read this again.


17 comments on “The Joy Of Not Understanding”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    I really found a lot to identify with in this column. Good stuff and also being a fan of Crispin, I agree with you on his excellent use of words. Heading to the dictionary to look up a word up can be great fun and rewarding.
    I would say: Life is a slowly melting iceberg – probably one that never quite melts, but is certainly smaller toward the end than it was at a person’s beginning. Know thy self, but do not navel gaze as that leads to linty thinking or Woody Allen. (Although, there are nasty illnesses out there that can erase or obscure much of what a person has learned about his or her inner self and the world. That’s a sorry fate. See this week’s revelations of Martin Cruz Smith and his working around a handicap in the NYT.)

  2. Helen Martin says:

    I am discouraged from reading dictionaries and encyclopedias because I get stuck in them with all the fascinating stuff around what I’m researching.

  3. Alison says:

    My pet hate (one of many I admit) is period novels or films that insist on using 21st century morals and outlooks in their plots. If you’re going to base something in (say) the 17th century, then use their language and their morals. Otherwise you’re giving us ‘Eastenders’ in pantaloons.

  4. Vivienne says:

    I’m with Alison on this, which is probably why I tend not to read fiction that is based back before the author’s time. I know I could hardly reproduce the chats my granny used to have with her friends, let alone anything pre-Victorian. That’s why green Penguin crime books are so good: contemporary and give a real insight into ordinary life.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    Vivienne – Do they still publish green Penguin crime books? The line as full of classics, but now Penguins all seem to be with drawn covers here in the U.S.

  6. Vivienne says:

    Dan, no they don’t – but it’s good to find them in secondhand bookshops. Although there is a resurgence of reprints as people begin to value these stories – if you are in the US I don’t know how available these might be. Hilda Lawrence is an American writer I came across who is excellent.

  7. snowy says:

    Alison as ever* raises an interesting point about the jarring effect of modern seeming language or mores in fiction.

    Umm, this is the bit where I disagree slightly.

    The morals and language before about 1850 are so completely alien to us now, that it would be almost impossible for an author to use them authenticaly in a work for a modern audience.

    Just to try to back this up, consider Pepys’ Diaries. Or even in fiction post 1850 the books of Robert L Stevenson, Dr J for example, are written in a very torturous style. And getting closer to the present date Oscar’s Portrait of D G, is a stylish but complete mess of a book.

    The trick seems to be to craft a story that fits the established modern view of the past, without introducing anything that appears to break that bubble.

    The point about ‘stenders is an interesting one, because if you were to take those plot lines back to the ‘High Victorian’ period. The matron of a middle class family might find them rather shocking, but a widowed mother of 6 kids in Limehouse might recognise them as the life of ‘her 3 doors down’.

    So is it not time, but class that is the divide?

    *[edit and Viv’e.]

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy, it’s often class, but then again look at Mary Queen of Scots and her life. The plot of that would be upsetting to the morality of any age. I read all of “Ellis Peters” mysteries of Brother Cadfael and felt that she brought the standards awfully close to modern. Artisans’ and merchants’ daughters not married by 18 and it not a concern? I’d have to go back and read them again for specific examples but she supposedly knew her stuff. That’s not to say that she got it wrong because there was lots of it that sounded apt for the middle ages, but details rubbed. The language didn’t worry me because I assumed a ‘far-listening translation device’ that gave you the meaning without a paragraph of words you’d never understand. Perhaps using modern phrasing has a negative effect on period fact.

  9. John Griffin says:

    That’s why Ridley Walker is such a monster piece of fiction. So different yet so plausible.

  10. glasgow1975 says:

    I do find myself reaching for my smartphone more and more when reading now, rather than puzzling over a word or phrase, I just Wiki it instantly 🙂 as long as it’s a word or two here and there I don’t mind, but a whole book written in authentic idiom where I’m reaching for my phone every line takes me out of the narrative and is annoying (I’m thinking of one particular Scottish Medieval mystery series in particular where the author defiantly refused to include any form of Glossary, and then grudgingly did include a link to an online dictionary in later books)

  11. Alison says:

    Snowy, apologies for the delay

    I agree that part of the problem is perhaps that of ‘class’ in that it’s an almost alien concept to us nowadays – we’re all so determined to be ‘working class and proud’.

    I think part of my problem is almost with the rhythm of speech more than what they say – I had a friend who had a horror of reading period novels because she couldn’t bear the fact that they ‘spoke forsoothly’, and while I know what she means, I think it’s important that we do hear that difference in speech. People simply spoke differently then and to me that’s an important fact.

    As for the morals thing – possibly a double-edged sword here. People were of their age – my own hero is Richard III who of course is (apparently) a child-killing monster. Whether or no, he was a reflection of his times, and to me it’s really important that it needs to be shown. The morals of the 15th century would not fit in the 21st (I hope) so I don’t think we should make the 15th century characters speak with 21st century rhythms.

    Does that make any sense? I feel I have rambled rather.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Not rambled, Alison, no. I agree with what you say about rhythm and think that the author who eschews modernisms in historic fiction is wise. There’s a difference between using “authentic” language and using authentic rhythms, though. Anything before the 18th century should probably have a reduced percentage of Latin originated words and structures since it was in that century that all the reasoning, “higher thought”, and scientific words flooded the language, including its grammar, with Latin forms.
    If I were to analyze that paragraph I’ll bet there would be little left not from either classical Greek or Latin. People in earlier times wouldn’t have had a desire to say those things, either, unless they were serious scholars.

  13. snowy says:

    I understand both your point about speech rhythmns and also your friends niggle with people ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’-ing all over the place.

    And getting the balance between ancient and modern is a very difficult thing to do. Too much of the former, can read like a bad Chaucer pastiche. And too much of the latter inevitably ends up with Iago declaring, “Othello, you slaaaag! I’m gonna stitch you up like a kipper”.

    [Steve Berkoff might get away with it but most don’t.]

    The knack seems to be to stay within the boundries of the audiences expectations of what they think people sounded like in that time.

    While writing that last para. I’ve just unconvinced myself that the secret is all in the rhythm, I think it’s more in the idiom.

    For each character there are certain words and phrasings that fit naturally in their mouths, and some that feel instantly and instinctively wrong.

    Sherlock Holmes could probably only talk of “an infernal horseless carriage” or “a motor car”, any other expression would stick out like a sore thumb.

    “Yo! Watson, get the jam-jar. We are going… to Milton Keynes”, would never work.

    I’m going to skip over both Mary QoS and Dickie 3, [the well known bit of Cockney rhyming slang]. Because their reputations have been almost completely fabricated by Tudor ‘spin-doctors’ to paint them in the worst possible light.

    For a large part of human history, morals were something of a luxury item, something one aspired to have but could ill afford. In the fictional world though it would be a very dull place without any villians, no?

  14. snowy says:

    There is a trap lying in wait for authors who would write about the Kings and Queens of England.

    The spoken language of the monarch has been variously French, Latin, Scottish, Dutch and German, perhaps more often than it was ever English. 🙂

  15. Alison says:

    Yo! Watson, get the jam-jar. We are going… to Milton Keynes”,

    Oh I don’t know, though … Can I assume that the recent cinema versions of Sherlock Holmes did not, perhaps, meet with your 100% approval??

    And I like your last post re the language of the monarch. Traps galore, indeed!

    Thinking about everything that’s been discussed, I have come to a Conclusion. I think one of the best modern writers for rhythm, idiom and just downright correct use of just about everything, has to be Anne Perry. As a result, her books are quite slow and (compared to many) the language is a little more dense. But she has the Victorian morals and the Victorian hypocrisy off to a tee, she really does. She’s one of the few authors who I think really does ‘get it’.

    Frankly, Snowy and Helen, you are two people with whom I would be happy to be trapped in a lift.

  16. snowy says:

    I rather enjoyed both films in all their camp Hollywood glory. They seemed to pull it off quite delightfully, by preserving the spirit of the piece while having immense fun with the interplay between characters.*

    People have been having fun with Holmes for years, sometimes it works, [Gene Wilder, Billy Wilder] and sometimes not so well, [Pete and Dud].

    It’s the recent BBC versions that I’m undecided about, but I’m going to rewatch them over the Xmas break to try to puzzle that out.

    *While I feel sure there are a few minor mistakes in the film, none bothered me in the slightest.

    [Well apart from the spelling mistake in TEN FOOT HIGH letters, that nobody spotted before the film was signed off for duplication. 😉 ]

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Alison, locked in a lift with you two would be fine, provided there was a stack of reference–oh, but you two would have devices with applications, wouldn’t you. Bring on the lift!

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