Come, let us speak of things, marvellous and mundane, trifling and terrific.
Dialogue is a wonderful thing. Is it not? It brings dynamism and tension to a scene, conveys character and, let’s be frank about it, entertains and brings us closer. Speak and be heard. And I do not talk of cattle. Oh, wrong herd.
The question of dialogue in a novel is, perhaps, one of the most discussed topics among writers. What it is for, how it should be written and what it should not be are supposedly enshrined in immutable rules so that all may know and understand how to do dialogue. I like rules. Really. I do. See how my face expresses honestness and earnesty when I speak of them. For one thing, it’s hard to draw a straight line without one. And the world would fall over without them – straight lines, I mean. I’m all for staying upright. But dialogue? Let’s call her Jennifer.
So, who is Jennifer? What is she, exactly? Well, first off, she’s what you find between those curly things ‘ ’ or “ ”, quotation marks by another name, and we all know where other names led, don’t we. But let’s stick to curly things, at least while no one is looking. Anything that appears between them can be reasonably assumed to be, in general terms, Jennifer. More or less. But she likes to be free, does Jennifer, the kind of gal who runs naked along the sand, her hair dancing in the breeze, leaving footprints along the shore.
None of this means that a reader has to clear his (or her) throat, sit upright and speak forth the words between the curly things and become intimate with Jennifer, although, of course, they can if they is so moved and she allows it. But that’s not the point.
There is a case for arguing that dialogue does not have to be decorated front and back with either ‘ ’ or “ ” but the curvy – curly – things can make her easier to recognise. Nevertheless, text that is directed at the reader in a first-person narrative can be considered to be dialogue, of a sort. In my view, be it ever so ‘umble, is that first-person present is, in effect, a form of dialogue because the narrator engages directly with the reader as though both are present in the same place at the same time and one is speaking to the other. It is all an artifice, of course. It is all smoke and mirrors. When it comes down to it, if it works, then that’s all that matters.
Take Jack Coq for example. He speaks directly to you. He treats you as though you are there in front of him. He speaks in cant, criminal slang and madeuperisms of his own, none of which does he explain because, in the end, he assumes you understand him and cares not a fat fig if you don’t, just like a real person talking. And that’s how it’s written. Now, that’s dialogue. Ain’t it? We’ll come back to Jack Coq and the words he uses in a later blog. For the time being, we’ll stick with Jennifer because she’s a nice girl and good company.
So what is she, then, this dialogue stuff? What does she do? What’s she for? I mean, just what is the point of her? Eh? That’s all a tad cruel if you want my opinion and I think we should allow Jennifer to speak for herself.
Presenting Jennifer, ladies and gentlemen. Off you go, Jennifer, don’t be shy.
‘Thank you. Dialogue is not mere talking, of course.’
‘Dialogue is an excursion into another reality, reached through a side door in the text.’
‘Dialogue doesn’t mirror our conversations, arguments, instructions, discussions, rants and pleadings of the reality we inhabit.’
‘Does it not?’
‘Have you ever eavesdropped a real conversation between real people?’
‘Dull. Meaningless. Contextless.’
‘But I recommend it.’
‘Sounds pointless if you ask me.’
‘It’ll open your eyes.’
‘Your ears, I think you mean.’
‘Real-person conversation bears no resemblance to the dialogue in a novel.’
‘Chalk and elephants, marmalade and flax.’
‘Real conversation bears no resemblance to the dialogue in a play, even.’
‘And the dialogue in a play bears no resemblance to dialogue in a novel. Yet they share a commonality.’
‘Thank you, Jennifer. That was most informative, wasn’t it ladies and gentlemen? There. You have it from the lady herself.’
The other day, I read a piece setting out the kidney of dialogue in a novel. Among its wisdoms was the pearl that dialogue in a novel could not show nuance. Can it not?
For dialogue to work well in any novel, three elements need to be brought together, not in some prescribed formula, but in a dynamic alchemy that turns lead into gold. These are context, character and intent. These should be embroidered on your sleeves, tattooed on your fingers, stencilled on your eyeballs, absorbed by your soul.
Without context, dialogue almost invariably lacks tension, meaning and point. And by context, I mean scene setting, not merely in the immediate area of the dialogue itself but long before, pages, chapters earlier. Which brings us to character. Character is essential as this gives form to the words, their rhythm and cadence, makes what each character says theirs. And intent. I love intent. Intent allows subtext that colours what is said. Take the line ‘Darling, I love you’. Without context you have no way of knowing whether the speaker means it (I would die for you), in what sense they mean it (I’m never going to see you again), or if, in fact, they mean something else entirely (I hate your guts and hope you get eaten by tigers). Context and character lead to intent. Play the text. Nuance? I should think so.
Dialogue is supposed to drive the story along by tightening a tension, running a dynamic, in a particular situation which can, of course, go contrary to what the reader is expecting. It can set up a crisis point in the action. It can be the turning point in the story. But for any of that you need context as surely as we need oxygen. Breathe. In. Out. Breathe.
Dialogue is not supposed to be an exercise in newsflashing, though, commonly referred to as information dumping. The revelation of details not hitherto mentioned or the repetition of information already revealed is not generally regarded as a good thing in dialogue. But, again, context is all. There are no rules, only guidelines. Information that must be imparted to the reader via dialogue can be reinforced with tension and act as a crisis point. The mere provision of information via some character turning up and delivering a newsflash becomes an exercise in dullness.
The issue of newsflashing can be entirely circumvented by adopting a policy of minimalism so that no character says more than about four words at a time, preferably fewer, except in specific circumstances. OK, so I ignored my own advice earlier but, hey, it ain’t a rule. Minimalist dialogue allows greater tension, more nuance and a stronger subtext to be written into it, should you so wish. The dialogue section should not be too drawn out, either, otherwise the tension is dissipated.
From all this, it becomes clear that dialogue should serve a specific purpose and should not merely break up the paragraphs of prose and act as light relief. This is the issue of intent. Why are these characters speaking? Do they mean what they say? Is there a subtext?
Subtext is a term more usually associated with plays than with novels. A subtext is created when speakers do not say what they mean, concealing their true intentions and feelings from those to whom they speak. Think unreliable narrator. This can develop a growing tension or introduce a new one, especially if the reader is gradually let in on the secret. But it can work just as well if they aren’t, provided they can be led to suspect that someone is not speaking honestly. If you give your speaker a long speech you tend to lose all that.
And silence. Do not overlook the silences. They can be very effective in building tension. Context is all, of course. Sometimes not saying something is more powerful that speaking. Credibility is lost if a taciturn character catches word diarrhoea. Moreover, if a character has more than one ‘sentence’ to utter, you have to ask why the other character(s) do not interrupt. ‘Sentences’ are not necessarily grammatically correct in dialogue, of course. Indeed, sentence fragments work much better. Silence, pauses and changes of subject are very effective tension drivers.
Which brings us to ‘he said’, ‘she said’, und so weiter. I don’t use them. Hate them. You have context. Don’t you? And if you have a multi-hander, context indicates who speaks. Actions can be better than speaker indicators; the latter are rather like sticking a hand up ‘Ooh, please sir, my turn’. Similarly, modifiers (she said loudly) are best avoided because they should be redundant because of the context (her voice was overwhelmed by the roar of the engine; of course she shouted).
Jennifer suggests that we have an extract from something. She suggests The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie. So, here we are.
I am none the wiser for Pigg’s exposition. His crew now present their case, each taking his cue for his predecessor, speaking by turn with a little action there, a bob and burn here to highlight the condition. All is random, so it seems. In and out. That’s the up and down of it.
‘We are players.’
‘Of modish means.’
‘We play all the parts.’
‘Comical and tragical.’
‘Poetical and musical.’
‘In many places.’
‘According to tradition.’
‘With a little social comment.’
‘To wet the wit.’
‘We have our entrances.’
‘And our queues.’
‘We provide diversions.’
‘Plays and performances.’
Pigg presents a majestic bow.
‘I am he. Henry Arlequin Pigg, master of all.’
A man goes into a shop and approaches the young lady behind the counter.
‘Good morning, young lady behind the counter. My name is George and I have come into your emporium to purchase some items from you if you would be so kind as to sell them to me. I live only a few hundred yards away from your shop but I used to live much further away in a house that needed a lot of decorating and had to come into the town on the bus, the stop for which is about 50 yards away from your establishment on the left hand side of the road looking east, so I still had a little bit of a walk if I wanted to come in here, which in wet weather meant that I got wetter than I would like but there you are, although I am always prepared for the rain because I make a point of carrying an umbrella, one of those collapsible ones which are very handy,’ explained George to the young lady behind the counter in a chatty and friendly manner because he was a chatty and friendly sort of chap.
‘Good morning to you George,’ remarked the young lady behind the counter whose name George did not yet know otherwise he would have used it as it is only polite to use someone’s name when you know what it is. ‘My name is Cynthia and I live about half an hour away and come into work on the bus every morning at about eight thirty unless the bus is late in which case I don’t arrive on time but the boss, Mister Plinth, is always very good about it and never chastises me, much. I work here, in this shop, called “The Shop” by the way, George. I’ve worked here for several years now and am very happy with my job because it gives me satisfaction to know I am helping people all day long with their purchases although when I was girl I wanted to be an astronaut but there you are. Did you know that?’ continued the young lady who worked in the shop called The Shop, behind the counter and was known by those who knew her as Cynthia.
‘Since you mention it, Cynthia, I didn’t know any of that. Thank you for trusting me with that information about yourself as it is very interesting. I appreciate your candour and I shall endeavour to cause you as little trouble as I possibly can in my attempts to buy what I came into here to buy,’ commented George in response to the young lady called Cynthia who was behind the counter in The Shop and always willing to help.
‘How may I help you George? What sort of items would you like to purchase from me in this shop called The Shop? I want to be as helpful as I can to you George as that is my job,’ responded Cynthia happily with a smile.
George entered the shop. He was desperate.
First-person narratives are traditionally viewed as being more restrictive for the author than third-person stories. And some writers get all sweaty under the armpits about the so-called rules that apply to first-person narratives, especially when they are disregarded or the author is so uneducated that they are quite ignorant of them: there are certain things you simply can’t do when you do first person. Ha! This presupposes, of course, that the narrative is of conventional form, whatever that means. In the traditional or conventional form, so it goes, the narrative can only go where the narrator goes so that no scene in the story can take place without the narrator being present. That’s fine. Up to a point. If that’s what you want. But first-person narratives can have a potency like no other, an intimacy that third-person cannot achieve. It depends on the narrator, of course (as opposed to the author although that is, perhaps, a moot point as he or she exists in the author, although that is also contentious but we won’t go there for the moment).
Jack Coq is a first-person narrative, largely because the story did not work as a third-person one. It had not started as a first-person narrative. As a third-person narrative, it lacked bite, although I was unaware of that when I was writing it. Nevertheless, whenever, I looked back at what I was doing, it seemed awkward, uncomfortable like a hair suit. First person, present tense – all the ingredients for anguish among agents and publishers – did not suggest itself. But I came to realise that for me – for me, it was me. It was – is – my authorly voice. In first-person I can slip into the skin of a character like an actor being subsumed by a role. This, for me, is the key. It means, if you like, that I’m no longer writing as me. I’m pretending to be someone else. And I defy anyone to find me, the author, in there. When you read my next first-person novel, you’ll see what I mean. Because, let’s be frank – nice fella – about this: first-person, present-tense are what you’ll always going to get from me (although that is perhaps a rash statement and I have no intention of being held hostage to it). I have gained an insight into first-person narratives through Jack Coq so that I can get inside the reader’s head. That is why some readers find Jack Coq so unsettling. I make you, the reader, become Jack so that you experience what he does. Of course, you could just dismiss all this as bare-faced bravado and artful arrogance regarding my perception of my own skills as a writer. I shrug. See?
The story that was to become The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie started out in conventional form, that is to say, third-person, past tense. It didn’t work that way. As I pressed ahead with it, the whole process of writing become more laboured and I felt the narrative slipping away from me. I became bogged down in swamps of telling. The forward movement of the story was clogged and obstacled and snared. By the time I had written 40,000 words, I knew I was in trouble and in danger of drowning in a lake of poor writing. Was I waving or drowning? The calamity of my circumstance struck like a lash across my cheek when I went on an Arvon course. That saved me because it made me think again about what I was doing.
A solution did not come to me for several months afterwards, however. And that was only because I wanted to enter a competition and I was forced into having to reappraise what I had written of Jack Coq with a different eye, not because I was going to enter it in the competition but because I was going to enter a sort of rewritten version of it which I intended to be significantly different from the original. I had to do this because I did not have the time to come up with something completely new. How was I going to accomplish any of this? I had no idea. So the conversation in my head went something like this.
‘What am I familiar with?’
‘In terms of a story?’
‘Yes, what am I familiar with in terms of a story?’
‘Well, you’ve got me there.’
‘Come on, think.’
‘I am thinking.’
‘Not hard enough.’
‘What do you want? Blood?’
‘It’s a thought.’
‘Well, think again.’
‘I am thinking.’
‘It’s a thought.’
‘So what do you think?’
‘I give up. What do I think?
‘No. I’ve had enough.’
‘Go on, stay.’
‘Oh, all right then.’
‘Darling, I love you.’
‘Now, don’t start that.’
Eventually, the obvious kicked me in the shins and, while I hopped about in pain, a plan formed in the sensible part of my brain, a small dark place kept well hidden in case the bailiffs come calling. And it was this: the story I knew best was Jack Coq so why not rewrite that as a first-person narrative. That would be different from the original and would not look like it at all. I liked the sound of that and I said so.
‘I like the sound of that.’
But what about the scenes where Jack wasn’t present? What about them? They were important to the story.
‘What am I supposed to do with them, eh?’
‘Rewrite so Jack is present.’
I didn’t much like that idea. I said – well you get the idea.
‘I don’t like that idea.’
Yes. Thank you. We weren’t going there.
‘Just stick to the point.’
‘What is the point?’
A better idea. And it was this: do those scenes where Jack isn’t present in the second person so that it creates a sort of split personality. And menace and tension. So that’s what I did. And those people who read the second-person part, generally liked it.
Why the present and not the past, I hear you ask. A good and cogent enquiry. The more I reworked the story, the more I developed the notion of it all being a play, rather than the play happening somewhere along the way. And for that to work, I needed to create a sense of suspended disbelief (in a theatre, the audience is complicit with the actors by suspending disbelief about the action taking place in front of them as though what they see is reality). The present tense created a sense of immediacy as though it were a performance of a play which takes place in a sort of real time. I say ‘sort of’ because relativity applies here. Linear time in which each second and, hence, each minute and each hour, lasts the same period time does not happen in the theatre. And it does not happen in Jack Coq. It only appears to happen. Time has an elasticity and pliability in Jack Coq. It suits. It fits. Like another skin, one that is slightly too tight in the wrong places.
So, present tense, first-person becomes real time (of a sort) and adds a sense of uncertainty to what is going to happen as well an element of tension because physics might move the narrative in a quite unexpected direction at an unexpected velocity should someone interact with the actors. There is a sense this might happen. Now, then and might-be futures become one at times within the story because we have the duality of wave mechanics.
The second-person parts acquired menace merely because of being in the second person. It made Jack speak directly to the reader and he wasn’t always sweet. I liked that. However, the feedback I had from readers suggested that the second-person parts were getting in the way of the story. They were like speed bumps. Not that the story moves like a thriller. It doesn’t rush. It lingers with uncomfortable intimacy, moves on, then draws you back to an uncomfortable place. Readers usually imagine the story is funny. That it is meant to be funny. Why are you laughing? It’s a tragedie.
So, I rethought the second-person parts and came to the conclusion that I could handle those parts in an equally effective way if I discarded the notion that the narrator always had to be present. Did he? Did he really? Why? Yet, I retained some elements of the second person in that Jack still spoke directly to you, addressed you directly and still chided you when he caught you eavesdropping on his arguments with his self. Since this was a play and plays take place on a stage and stages have wings – of one sort or another – everyone is present all the time even when they aren’t actually on the stage to be seen. Which, of course, raised the issue of what actually constituted the stage in all this. All the world? That in itself was a justification.
So, I offer all this as an intellectual justification for my waywardness. But, actually, truth be told – and I like this bit – I don’t have to justify any part of it. It, this thing, this fiction I have created, needs no justification. It exists. It is. For all its faults and its weaknesses, its strengths are greater than its shortcomings. And nothing is perfect. Is it? No one can take that away. I confess, I always used to feel I had to justify myself whenever I stepped off piste (a fencing term, not the skiing thing at all). Not now. I shrug.
I write. I am.
As someone once wrote, ‘what’s in a name?’ Indeed. Finding the right name for a character is crucial to any novel. The right name goes to the heart of the character who claims it because, unlike in real life, the name is indicative of that character. In real life, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Mass murderers tend to have ordinary names like Harold Shipman, Peter Sutcliffe, Ted Bundy, Fred West and Denis Nilsen, for example. Such names become notorious only after their owners have been identified as killers. Real mass murderers tend not to be named Pontic Badd or Grendock Bloode or Yenmo Dedd. Some real-life killers acquire sobriquets coined by the press or by someone pretending to be the killer. The name Jack the Ripper, for example, was invented by someone claiming to be the killer in a letter he sent to The Central News Agency in 1888. The name Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most notorious and infamous of any killer, real or imagined. Despite the fact that the murders occurred nearly 130 years ago, it is a name that is remembered because it resonates even in the modern era. Peter Sutcliffe became known as the Yorkshire Ripper precisely because of Jack the Ripper. ‘Ripper’ was the crucial part in all this but Jack was equally important. Jack is a strong name. It is one syllable long with a hard sound at the end.
Jack is a popular name for heroic protagonists, of course, in thrillers, crime dramas and adventure tales, such as Jack Reacher, Jack Frost, Jack Bauer, Jack Sparrow. And Jack is a name redolent of fairy tales – Jack the Giant Killer, Jack and the Beanstalk, Spring-heeled Jack, Jack and Jill. The name has a certain quality to it, a certain strength of – er – character. Perhaps, George or Mildred are equally popular names in fiction but they conjure different images from Jack. Quite different. So I called my protagonist Jack.
Originally, he was going to be just Jack but I realised that he needed a surname of a sort. So he became Jack Cock, then Jack Coq.
Coq is the French for chicken, of course, so combining it with Jack was counterintuitive according to The Philosophie and Understanding of True Names, a book yet to be published, and, indeed, written. But Coq is also a reference to the false charge levelled by Horace and Hobble, the two Constables, that Jack is a French agitator. And as with Jack, Coq is a one syllable name with a hard sound at the end. And, of course, Coq is a play on words because my protagonist Jack has a large cock. Which has its own name, Mister Pizzle, so called after the word for a bull’s penis. There are more slang words for penis than for any other part of the body, and these include plonker and pillock. But pizzle was the only appropriate one in the circumstances.
As for Horace and Hobble, these two resemble the Broker’s Men in pantomimes such as Aladdin and Cinderella but, in fact, their names are mere alliterative fancy. Ignatius Qwenk is also mere fancy, plucked from the ether, then made Dutch. He speaks Dutch in the story. Here, indeed, his name gave him more substance than a mere Johan Kepp (although that’s not a bad name) might have done. I tend to make up names although some real ones can be extraordinary such William Sweetbones (from a seventeenth criminal indictment ), Francis Younghusband (a British soldier and explorer) and Christmas Humphries (a British judge). The names of the Commedia characters in the story are all proper Commedia names, tending towards the Italian rather than the French or the Anglicised versions. He who the English call Harlequin, the Italians originally called Arlequino. Here, he is Arlequin. And Pigg is a real name.
Where the names in The Spectacle become a little more intriguing is where they allude to real people. Bill Shoe I have already mentioned in an earlier blog (a reference to Tom Stoppard who used the pseudonym William Boot). The connections of Barclay and Mercer, the two brutal orderlies in the madhouse, and of Fish, one of the inmates, to real people are less obvious. This is because, especially in the case of Fish, the connection is potentially slanderous. And deliberately so. The name and character of Fish is my thrust between the ribs to someone who did me a particular unkindness many years ago. He is, indeed, an artist and well known in his field, although when I knew him he hadn’t yet become one. It is unlikely that the person concerned would connect himself with the character Fish, however, who can only paint in blue and has Tourette’s. And the Commedia character Pasquariello, who attempts to paint Arlequin’s portrait, also alludes to the same person. While the portrait scene comes from a transcription of an actual Commedia piece, nevertheless, Pasquariello’s ineptitude and decrepitude are directed to that same real artist. He is none of these, of course. I’m just being mean to him, knowing full well there is nothing he can do about it. It’s like sticking up two fingers to someone who can’t see what’s happening but everyone else can although they don’t and can’t ever get the joke. Oh, there are in-jokes in there, too. Mean ones.
As for Barclay and Mercer, these names derive from Barclay’s of bank and credit card infamy, and from Mercers, their debt collection division. A few years ago, I ran into financial difficulties and ended up in debt to Barclaycard. Not only were they unwilling to reach a sensible agreement with me over repayment of that debt but Mercers harassed me on the phone, sometimes ringing me several times in one day and in the evening and threatening me. In the end, I discovered what my rights were and I got them to cease harassing me. I decided to write them into the book. Unlike individuals, you can’t slander organisations.
In The Spectacle, the Constables have a dog named Yur. Yur is a lurcher and is named after what, as a child, I believed to be what a Cornish farmer had called his dog. What he was actually saying wasn’t the dog’s name at all, of course, but a command for the dog to come to him, ‘come here’ which was reduced to ‘yur’ by his Cornish accent. In The Spectacle, the description of Yur is a short portrait of my then lurcher called Lucy (sadly she died from cancer a few years ago aged only seven). After her death, I decided to write my dogs into all my fiction, even if they have only walk-on parts.
Several years ago, I was an active participant in an online forum run by the Telegraph in conjunction with a series of articles written by the novelist Louise Doughty. Louise suggested we, the participants in the forum, might contribute to a speculative and risky venture, namely, a collaborative novel. Needless to say, that proved to be too difficult to make real and nothing came of it. She set a sort of competition for us to come up with a title, without, of course, having the first idea of what the novel would be about. And as a prize, whoever she felt came up with the best title would be rewarded by having a major character in the novel she was writing named after them. As luck would have it, I won with Custard Shoes. So, in Whatever You Love, there is a female police sergeant called Antonia Saunders. She is named after me. Oh, the fame of it.
Excuse me while I bask a little.
The theatricality of Jack Coq is apparent from the language Jack uses to tell his tale. Jack Coq is a manifestation of playing a text, rather than emerging from a literary tradition. The plays of Shakespeare rise as shipwrecks from the ocean, often in the form of distorted and fragmented soliloquies (Hamlet is particularly useful here). And as set piece scenes. The death of Hobble, for example, is the death of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Jack’s first encounter with Arlequin is Hamlet’s meeting with the Player, also recreated by Stoppard when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet the Player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Indeed, Arlequin is derived from the Player. In the novel, the scenes played between Pasquariello, Arlequin and Pierrot are from an eighteenth-century transcription of a Commedia play, as is the scene between Lady Hortensia and the Duke of Morelands and Gratewelth. Arlequin’s haunting by Columbine’s face in the painting is again derived from a real Commedia piece transcribed in the eighteenth century. Originally, Commedia pieces were not written down. The players had no texts from which to work. The players learned their trade and their ‘business’ from those who went before them. Here, the term ‘business’ has a specific meaning in the theatre: action, often with a comic intention, which is not scripted but devised by the actors. And the scene in which the hanging of Bill Shoe on stage features is derived from Stoppard’s play in which the Player recounts a similar event to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There are elements of Beckett, Dario Fo and Brecht. The whole novel is constructed from theatrical wreckage. And it is visual. Yet, the language should be savoured, spoken aloud as lines from a text as though said for the very first time. Played. Performed. Ha! Not merely read.
None of it is realism, of course. Jack Coq is the heightened language of Elizabethan theatre – no one actually spoke as Shakespeare’s characters speak (and much of it is verse) but the audience fully understood the allusions, the metaphors and got the point. It is also the absurdity of Ionesco, Beckett and Buster Keaton. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Marat/Sade are Theatre of the Absurd. The Spectacle is a novel of the absurd, perceived as a play presented as a novel, a story which might actually occur in a reality outside Jack’s head. Theatre of the Absurd focuses on people being caught in illogical worlds populated by those who behave as though their worlds are logical in which religion and sense and purpose are absent. And there are no neat beginnings, middles and ends, but open-ended uncertainties that examine human behaviour and existence. In The Spectacle, God does not exist, only Almighty Jenkins, an evocation of a remote Higher Power (the Devil is Mister Jefferies or Old Jeff). Jack is swept along by ridiculous events out of his control and which he does not question, although he does question who he is and why he is. ‘All the world’s a stage’ according to Jacques in As You Like It ‘And one man in his time plays many parts’. Think on that. Think on sole. O for a muse of fish.
My love of theatre, and absurdist theatre in particular, started when I was sixteen. I joined a youth theatre group, one of the older members of which was keen on absurdist theatre. Through him, I discovered Ionesco, Stoppard, Beckett. And as it happens, the unrequited love of my life, Susan, but that’s another story. Around that time (the early 1970s), Peter Brook at the RSC produced a circus-like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (he had actors spinning plates on poles and actors on trapeze) and the absurdist enthusiast was inspired to attempt his own different approach to the play although not quite as ambitious in concept as that presented by Brook. I played Puck, my first big role. Least said about that the better (although it might have been my second, come to think of it, as I had been in Tom Thumb by Henry Fielding. I played King Arthur). The Dream features in Jack Coq (although Tom Thumb doesn’t) Also at that time, I went to the Young Vic in London to see a wide variety of plays from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (which I have seen several times over the years, including a version produced by a company that also did Hamlet with the same cast), to Oedipus Rex (Sophocles), The Cheats of Scapin (Molière) and The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare). The Young Vic is an intimate theatre and you are very close to the action. The actors ran across the tops of the seating in Shrew. They were happy to mingle with the audience in the bar afterwards. I remember having a drink with Nicky Henson and Jim Dale after the Shrew.
In the mid 1970s, I had the chance to attend an acting summer school run by professionals for amateurs. Between 1976 and 1997, I became a regular. I went to most of them. I learned about plays, text, acting and performance. I learned dancing and singing, historical and musical. They were hard when I was neither a singer nor a dancer. But I was better at stage combat than anyone else because I was a fencer (an épéeist) and knew about swords. I later did some fight choreography for a semi-pro production of Verdi’s Otello. As a writer, I learned about the subtext, the subtleties of language, and the unreliability of characters (take Iago in Othello, the archetypal subtle liar and manipulator of truth). The theatre courses played to my senses of unreality and the absurd. They challenged and expanded my imagination, made me do things I would never have done otherwise. After all, a play performance is an artifice which takes place in a pretend environment. And the audience is complicit in the deceit. In this respect, theatre is quite unlike film and television which often pretend to present reality, especially in dramas and soaps. But they are remote in comparison to theatre. They don’t engage and draw you in as co-conspirators, nor present reality. It’s all lies (to be spoken with a raised eyebrow and a wry smile).
It is not surprising, then, that my written interpretations of some acting techniques also feature in The Spectacle, as perceived by Jack. And so you have to ask of Jack: was he soldier, actor or thief before he ended up in the madhouse? He has the attributes of all. In some respects, he owes these skills to two real but unrelated people, neither of whom ended up in a madhouse, one from the early eighteenth century, the other from the second half of the century. The first was a Scots soldier and fencing master called Donald McBane, the other a footman in the service of the Duchess of Queensbury, herself an eccentric. McBane featured in my previous blogs about swordsmanship: everything I write is connected.
And you have to ask of the novel: how much of what happens is real and how much of it is performance? It is all a conceit, of course, much like life itself. The novel has a subtext. Its plot is circular in that Jack appears to face imminent death at the end, which is how we first meet him – although that circumstance is not where the novel begins (if that is not itself a contradiction) – and fatalistic because his death seems inevitable and quite beyond his prevention. Yet he defies fate and the story ends on a note of uncertainty, in a quantum mechanics fashion. What happens to Jack?
When I started posting the chapters of The Spectacle here on Booktrap, I knew I had the answer to that question. But it is an answer I have to conceal because is goes to the heart of what will form a sequel. Of a sort. Told from someone else’s perspective. It’s not the same story retold; it goes beyond where The Spectacle ends. For the moment, it’s my secret. And Jack’s.
I write what I am moved to write. It comes from my heart. It is rooted in my skirmishes with life, from theatre and from those in the world of theatre whom I have met through my desire to learn its arcane practices. As the late Rudi Shelly might have said (he was a tutor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, a European émigré with a German accent accentuated by years of chain-smoking unfiltered Gauloises): ‘Darling, don’t act. Just play the fucking text.’
Anthony and Catherine, as well as all the authors of Booktrap, wish you Happy Holidays! May the NEW YEAR bring Health and Happiness to you and your families and may all your dreams come true this year!
This week I'll take you to another trip around my country, Greece, and introduce some of our Christmas traditions.
1) Christmas Boat
Being a country surrounded by sea, Greece has a different custom regarding Christmas decorations. Traditionally, we decorate a boat in our houses and not a tree. The boat symbolises a new journey in people's lives after Christ's birth. It is also a kind of tribute and a welcome to all the sailors returning home to spend holidays with their families. In the past, children used to carry little boats as they visited house after house in their neigbourhood to sing the Christmas carols. Unfortunately, this is a custom that tends to become obsolete as most houses now prefer to put up a Christmas tree as a home decoration.
2) Christ's Bread
Traditionally, the lady of the house bakes a special kind of bread on Christmas Eve. It is called 'ΧΡΙΣΤΟΨΩΜΟ' (christopsomo) which means Christ's Bread. A Cross is always shaped on the bread and, depending on regional customs, more decorations might be added on it.
On Christmas Day, the host takes the bread, makes the sign of the Cross on it with a knife, usually thrice, and then cuts a piece for every person in the house. It is said that this custom symbolises the Holy Communion; the same way Christ gave the Bread of Life to his whole human family.
3) Christmas Sweets
We like food in Greece and especially sweets. Traditionally, lots of various sweets are made during the Christmas holidays. Some of the most popular are: ΜΕΛΟΜΑΚΑΡΟΝΑ, ΚΟΥΡΑΜΠΙΕΔΕΣ, ΔΙΠΛΕΣ (melomakarona, kourabiedes, diples).
4) Christmas Carols
We call our carols 'KALANTA'. There are a lot of variations of carols, depending on the region and the occasion. Children roam the streets on Christmas Eve as well as New Year's Eve and visit all the houses or shops in their neighbourhood to sing and give their wishes to the hosts. They, in turn, give money or a treat of traditional sweets (or both) to the kids.
Kids usually carry musical instruments, such as the triangle, or decorations like the traditional boat and also a box where the people put their donations. In Ancient times, kids carried a branch of olive or laurel.
5) New Year's Customs
On New Year's Eve morning, the kids go out to sing the carols again and gather money and treats from the people they visit. In the evening, families gather at homes where they share dinner, usually a stuffed chicken or pork, and exchange gifts. A few seconds before midnight, we turn off the lights and then back on again to signal the coming of the New Year. On New Year's Day, we forcefully drop a pomegranate down on the threshold so that it breaks and the seeds spread all over the inside of the house. The host, who usually performs the custom, wishes for health and happiness throughout the year and says that the New Year should bring him and his family as much money as the seeds of the pomegranate spread in his house. A person, who is considered lucky, is also asked to visit the house in the morning and be the first to step on the house so that they have good luck all year through. Their first step in the house should be their right foot.
The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie is about mortality, what it is and how it feels. These are intrinsically difficult questions to address. Ask any philosopher. Ask any Zen Buddhist. Philosophers have spent lifetimes pondering such questions, Zen Buddhist a lifetime seeking enlightenment. But more than that, these are a quantum mechanics paradox that defies conventional arrangements of words for explication. Quantum mechanics shows the duality of subatomic particles so that, for example, light behaves as both a wave and a particle at the same time, and electrons are not particles but probability clouds. What has any of that got to do with mortality?
Let me try to explain, although I have to point out before I go any further that it is precisely because I find it so difficult to untangle this Gordian Knot about life and death that I wrote the novel. This is not some philosophical conundrum for me but relates to me on a very personal level. What I’m talking about is understanding what it means to be alive. Well, of course, we all know what it means to be alive. It means not being dead, for one thing although what the essence of life feels like as harder to grasp. The paradox – or one of them, at least, and there are many – is explaining the paradox.
Imagine being faced with a duality, a probability cloud in which being alive is an uncertainty (in the Heisenberg quantum mechanics sense) until you open your eyes so that you are both alive and dead until you open them (like Schrodinger’s cat in its box). I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this is the same old waking from a nightmare conundrum: how do you know when you’re really awake and not merely dreaming you are awake? Well, no. It’s not like that at all. In the dream, you believe yourself to be awake until you do actually wake up and realise you were dreaming. But in this paradox you are both awake and asleep at the same time until you open your eyes and become by that act either awake or asleep.
The problem is that as soon as you try to explain any of this, everything is changed by the explanation which is itself a quantum paradox, just like when observing electrons. The process of observation changes the electron’s position or velocity so that you can only know where it was, never where it is now. That’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
So what was this troublesome event that is so hard for me to describe? The events that led up to it, I can explain in plain language.
When I was twelve years old, my parents took me and a school friend on holiday to a place called Lochgoilhead, a sea loch on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. The nearest town was Oban 55 miles to the northwest (or 70 miles depending on the route) while Glasgow was 55 miles to the southeast. The roads between these places and Lochgoilhead were indirect, narrow and winding (they may be different now, of course). Over a period of about seven to ten days (I don’t remember exactly), I gradually became unwell, then seriously ill and finally comatose. In the last 24 hours, whatever was wrong with me accelerated. I lost weight so rapidly, you could almost see it fall away hour by hour. I peed every 20 minutes as though I had not peed for a week until I stopped peeing altogether. My core temperature dropped. I remember looking in a mirror and seeing the sunken eyes of dead child looking back me. You’ve seen pictures of starving people, skin and bones survivors liberated from Belsen in 1945. That was me. Skin and bones, barely alive.
The ambulance came from Oban and took me to Glasgow Children’s Hospital, a trip of 110 miles or 3–4 hours driving time. However, the ambulance was driven at great speed. According to my father who was following in the family car, the ambulance was travelling so fast he could hardly keep up. I owe my life to that ambulance crew. When we arrived at the hospital, the doctors began treating me immediately I came through the doors. Literally.
I should have died in the ambulance. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t. And yet. I do know why. Not from the physiological perspective – I should have suffered multiple organ failure, after all. But I didn’t. I had only hours to live at best when the ambulance collected me. Something happened in the ambulance. That’s the difficult bit to explain.
Over the years, I have often thought about it. I knew I was dying. It is a sensation unlike any other. All the metaphors and similes in the world cannot describe it. The nearest I can come up with is holding on to an ever-thinning thread being pulled out of you and sooner or later it is going to fade to oblivion, so you have to focus on the thread staying strong enough not to pull apart, the effort becoming ever greater and your own strength becoming ever weaker.
That makes it sound as though strength is the key to survival. It isn’t. This is the paradox, the duality problem. You have to let go of strength – but what replaces it, is even harder to describe. All this explanation, of course, is my intellectual interpretation of a primordial experience which contains no intellectual component whatsoever. And you can’t decide to do or not do. You either do or you don’t. It happens or it doesn’t. In the ambulance, I had a moment of absolute clarity about what it means to be alive, an intangible, indescribable moment. And that moment saved me because through it I found another way to stay alive because I understood at a primordial level. I’ve spent my life trying to understand, intellectually and emotionally, what that moment was. And whoever I might have been before, I was someone different afterwards. Read Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. He describes a similar, if less dramatic, paradox.
That event, that moment, was the inspiration for The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie. The novel is an exploration of my experience, or, at least, some elements of it. My attempts to understand that moment drives me to write and it is why what I write tends to the absurd. I don’t do ordinary.
Following on Anthony's last week's blog, I'd like to take you to the World of Theatre again. This week we will explore the origins of Commedia dell' arte.
Commedia dell’arte (Italian pronunciation: [komˈmɛːdja delˈlarte]) is a form of theatre characterized by masked “types” which began in Italy in the 16th century and was responsible for the advent of the actresses and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios. The closest translation of the name is “comedy of craft”; it is shortened from commedia dell’arte all’improvviso, or “comedy of the craft of improvisation”. Originally, it was called commedia all'improviso. This was to distinguish the form from commedia erudita or learned comedy that was written by academics and performed by amateurs. Commedia dell’arte, conversely, was performed by professional actors (comici) who perfected a specific role or mask.
Italian theater historians, such as Roberto Tessari, Ferdinando Taviani, and Luciano Pinto, believe commedia was a response to the political and economic crisis of the 16th century and, as a consequence, became the first entirely professional form of theater. This is debated though, as evidence shows that there were possibly acting unions prominent as far back as the Greek Times.
The performers played on outside, temporary stages, and relied on various props (robbe) in place of extensive scenery. The better troupes were patronized by nobility, and during carnival period might be funded by the various towns or cities, in which they played. Extra funds were received by donations (essentially passing the hat) so anyone could view the performance free of charge. Key to the success of the commedia was the ability of the performers to travel to achieve fame and financial success. The most successful troupes performed before kings and nobility allowing individual actors, such as Isabella Andreini, her daughter-in-law Virginia Ramponi-Andreini, and Dionisio Martinelli, to become well known.
The characters of the commedia usually represent fixed social types, stock characters, such as foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado. Characters such as Pantalone, the miserly Venetian merchant; Dottore Graziano, the pedant from Bologna; or Arlecchino, the mischievous servant from Bergamo, began as satires on Italian “types” and became the archetypes of many of the favorite characters of 17th- and 18th-century European theatre.
The commedia’s genesis may be related to carnival in Venice, where by 1570 the author/actor Andrea Calmo had created the character Il Magnifico, the precursor to the vecchio (old man) Pantalone. In the Flaminio Scala scenari for example, Il Magnifico persists and is interchangeable with Pantalone, into the seventeenth century. While Calmo's characters (which also included the Spanish Capitano and a dottore type) were not masked, it is uncertain at what point the characters donned the mask. However, the connection to carnival (the period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday) would suggest that masking was a convention of carnival and was applied at some point. The tradition in Northern Italy is centred in Mantua, Florence, and Venice, where the major companies came under the aegis of the various dukes. Concomitantly, a Neapolitan tradition emerged in the south and featured the prominent stage figure Pulcinella. Pulcinella has been long associated with Naples, and derived into various types elsewhere—the most famous as the puppet character Punch (of the eponymous Punch and Judy shows) in England.
Although commedia dell'arte flourished in Italy during the Mannerist period, there has been a long-standing tradition of trying to establish historical antecedents in antiquity. While we can detect formal similarities between the commedia dell'arte and earlier theatrical traditions, there is no way to establish certainty of origin. Some date the origins to the period of the Roman Republic (Plautine types) or the Empire (Atellan Farces). The Atellan Farces of the Roman Empire featured crude "types" wearing masks with grossly exaggerated features. More recent accounts establish links to the medieval jongleurs, and prototypes from medieval moralities, such as Hellequin (as the source of Harlequin, for example). The first recorded commedia dell'arte performances came from Rome as early as 1551. Commedia dell'arte was performed outdoors in temporary venues by professional actors who were costumed and masked, as opposed to commedia erudita, which were written comedies, presented indoors by untrained and unmasked actors. This view may be somewhat romanticized since records describe the Gelosi performing Tasso's Aminta, for example, and much was done at court rather than in the street. By the mid-16th century, specific troupes of commedia performers began to coalesce, and by 1568 the Gelosi became a distinct company. In keeping with the tradition of the Italian Academies, I Gelosi adapted as their impress (or coat of arms) the two headed Roman god Janus. Janus symbolized both the comings and goings of this traveling troupe, and the dual nature of the actor who impersonates the "other." The Gelosi performed in Northern Italy and France where they received protection and patronage from the King of France. Despite fluctuations the Gelosi maintained stability for performances with the "usual ten": "two vecchi (old men), four innamorati (two male and two female lovers), two zanni, a captain and a servetta (serving maid). It should be noted that commedia often performed inside in court theatres or halls, and also as some fixed theatres such as Teatro Baldrucca in Florence. Flaminio Scala, who had been a minor performer in the Gelosi published the scenarios of the commedia dell'arte around the start of the 17th century, really in an effort to legitimize the form—and ensure its legacy. These scenari are highly structured and built around the symmetry of the various types in duet: two zanni, vecchi, inamorate and inamorati, etc.
Commedia dell'arte is notable in that female roles were played by women, documented as early as the 1560s, In the 1570s, English theatre critics generally denigrated the troupes with their female actors (some decades later, Ben Jonson referred to one female performer of the commedia as a "tumbling whore"). By the end of the 1570s, Italian prelates attempted to ban female performers; however, by the end of the 16th century, actresses were standard on the Italian stage. The Italian scholar Ferdinando Taviani has collated a number of church documents opposing the advent of the actress as a kind of courtesan, whose scanty attire and promiscuous lifestyle corrupted young men, or at least infused them with carnal desires. Taviani's term negativa poetica describes this and other practices offensive to the church, while giving us an idea of the phenomenon of the commedia dell'arte performance.
By the early 17th century, the zanni comedies were moving from pure improvisational street performances to specified and clearly delineated acts and characters. Three books written during the 17th century — Cecchini's Fruti della moderne commedia (1628), Niccolò Barbieri's La supplica (1634) and Perrucci's Dell'arte rapresentativa (1699) — "made firm recommendations concerning performing practice." Katritzky argues, that as a result, commedia was reduced to formulaic and stylized acting; as far as possible from the purity of the improvisational genesis a century earlier. In France, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Comédie-Italienne created a repertoire and delineated new masks and characters, while deleting some of the Italian precursors, such as Pantalone. French playwrights, particularly Molière, gleaned from the plots and masks in creating an indigenous treatment. Indeed, Molière shared the stage with the Comédie-Italienne at Petit-Bourbon, and some of his forms, e.g. the tirade, are derivative from the commedia (tirata).
Commedia dell'arte moved outside the city limits to the théâtre de la foire, or fair theatres, in the early 17th century as it evolved toward a more pantomimed style. With the dispatch of the Italian comedians from France in 1697, the form transmogrified in the 18th century as genres such as comédie larmoyante gained in attraction in France, particularly through the plays of Marivaux. Marivaux softened the commedia considerably by bringing in true emotion to the stage. Harlequin achieved more prominence during this period.
It is possible that this kind of improvised acting was passed down the Italian generations until the 17th century, when it was revived as a professional theatrical technique. However, as currently used the term commedia dell'arte was coined in the mid-18th century.
Curiously, commedia dell'arte was equally if not more popular in France, where it continued its popularity throughout the 17th century (until 1697), and it was in France that commedia developed its established repertoire. Commedia evolved into various configurations across Europe, and each country accultrated the form to its liking. For example, pantomime, which flourished in the 18th century, owes its genesis to the character types of the commedia, particularly Harlequin. The Punch and Judy puppet shows, popular to this day in England, owe their basis to the Pulcinella mask that emerged in Neapolitan versions of the form. In Italy, commedia masks and plots found their way into the opera buffa, and the plots of Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini.
During the Napoleonic occupation of Italy, instigators of reform and critics of French Imperial rule (such as Giacomo Casanova) used the masks of the carnival to hide their identities whilst fueling political agendas, challenging social rule and hurling blatant insults and criticisms against the regime. In 1797, in order to destroy the impromptu style of carnival as a partisan platform, the commedia dell'arte was outlawed by Napoleon himself. Venice would not see a rebirth of the Commedia until 1979.
Castagno posits that the aesthetic of exaggeration, distortion, anti-humanism (as in the masked types), and excessive borrowing as opposed to originality was typical of all the arts in the late cinquecento. Theatre historian Martin Green points to the extravagance of emotion during the period of commedia's emergence as the reason for representational moods, or characters, that define the art. In commedia each character embodies a mood: mockery, sadness, gaiety, confusion, and so forth.
According to 18th-century London theatre critic Barretti, commedia dell'arte incorporates specific roles and characters that were "originally intended as a kind of characteristic representative of some particular Italian district or town". The character's persona included the specific dialect of the region or town represented. Additionally, each character has a singular costume and mask that is representative of the character's role. Commedia dell'arte has three main groups of stock roles: the servants (zanni), the masters or elders (almost always old men hence their Italian name, the vecchi) and the lovers (innamorati, also known as the amorosi). Male servants and male masters (but not male amorosi) are masked and those characters themselves are often referred to as "masks" (in Italian: maschere), which, according to John Rudlin, cannot be separated from the character. In other words the characteristics of the character and the characteristics of the mask are the same. In time however the word maschere came to refer to all of the characters of the commedia dell'arte whether masked or not. Female characters (including female servants) are most often not masked (female amorose are never masked). Female characters in the masters group are rare. The amorosi are often children of a male character in the masters group, but not of any female character in the masters group, which may represent younger women who have e.g. married an old man, or a high class courtesan. Female characters in the masters group, while younger than their male counterparts, are nevertheless older than the amorosi. The servants or the clowns are referred to as the Zanni and include characters such as Arlecchino, Brighella and Pedrolino. Some of the better known commedia dell'arte characters are Arlecchino (also known as Harlequin), Pierrot and Pierrette, Pantalone, Il Dottore, Brighella, Il Capitano, Colombina, the Innamorati, Pedrolino, Pulcinella, Sandrone, Scaramuccia (also known as Scaramouche), il Somardino, La Signora, and Tartaglia.
In the 17th century as commedia became popular in France, the characters of Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin were refined and became essentially Parisian, according to Green.
Conventional plot lines were written on themes of sex, jealousy, love and old age. Many of the basic plot elements can be traced back to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, some of which were themselves translations of lost Greek comedies of the 4th century BC. However, it is more probable that the comici used contemporary novella, or, traditional sources as well, and drew from current events and local news of the day. Not all scenari were comic, there were some mixed forms and even tragedies. Shakespeare's The Tempest is drawn from a popular scenario in the Scala collection, his Polonius (Hamlet) is drawn from Pantalone, and his clowns bear homage to the zanni.
Comici performed written comedies at court. Song and dance were widely used, and a number of innamorata were skilled madrigalists, a song form that uses chromatics and close harmonies. Audiences came to see the performers, with plot lines becoming secondary to the performance. Among the great innamorate, Isabella Andreini was perhaps the most widely known and a medallion dedicated to her reads: "eternal fame." Tristano Martinelli achieved international fame as the first of the great Arlecchinos, and was honored by the Medici and the Queen of France. Performers made use of well-rehearsed jokes and stock physical gags, known as lazzi and concetti, as well as on-the-spot improvised and interpolated episodes and routines, called burle (singular burla, Italian for joke), usually involving a practical joke.
Since the productions were improvised, dialogue and action could easily be changed to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, while still using old jokes and punchlines. Characters were identified by costumes, masks, and props, such as a type of baton known as a slapstick. These characters included the forebears of the modern clown, namely Harlequin (arlecchino) and Zanni.
The classic, traditional plot is that the innamorati are in love and wish to be married, but one elder (vecchio) or several elders (vecchi) are preventing this from happening, leading the lovers to ask one or more zanni (eccentric servants) for help. Typically the story ends happily, with the marriage of the innamorati and forgiveness for any wrongdoings. There are countless variations on this story, as well as many that diverge wholly from the structure, such as a well-known story about Arlecchino becoming mysteriously pregnant, or the Punch and Judy scenario.
While generally personally unscripted, the performances often were based on scenarios that gave some semblance of plot to the largely improvised format. The Flaminio Scala scenarios, published in the early 17th century, are the most widely known collection and representative of its most esteemed compagnia, I Gelosi.
Come closer that we might whisper.
Once upon a time, long long ago, in a land far off somewhere and all the rest of it, there lived a hairless cove whose skin was patterned blue. Mercy, he was a frightful sight, yet wondrous to behold. The good folk of Thereabouts never tired of gawpering at this grotesque and his prize pizzle. Yet, at the same time, they feared him as an incubus incarnate of Old Jeff and poked him with sticks and threw rotting fruit every Sunday after church. What fun they had to see him yelp and dance!
Worse, doxies grabbed Mister Chicken – Jack Pizzle as he was called – if they could, to find out for themselves, if they might, whether he was, indeed, big and beefy. He didn’t much care for having hisself handled by Old Joan and her cats, so he fought them off as a raving beast. Jenkins above! Everyone feared fire and smoke would burst from his eyes and arse.
Welcome to The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie.
So, having been told by agents, publishers and editors that, despite being well-written, Jack Coq is not commercial enough to be publishable, I decided to take back control of my own work and publish the novel myself in weekly instalments online (http://thebooktrap.weebly.com/jack-coq). It’s not unprecedented, of course. And I write to be read, after all. This way, he can be read.
Jack Coq first confronted the world in early 2007 in The Telegraph’s A Novel in A Year competition which was launched following the success of the ‘A Novel in a Year’ series of articles by Louise Doughty during 2006. The articles encouraged participation in online exercises set by Ms Doughty. These were subsequently turned into a book A Novel in A Year. As AJS, I feature in that book (along with many others, of course; and a character in her novel Whatever You Love is named after me, but that’s another story). The whole thing was a lot of fun and refired my urge to write novels again. I had been concentrating on writing stage plays and I was committed to writing my PhD thesis.
I knew exactly what I wanted to write and why I wanted to write it. Jack Coq was intentionally a radical departure from what I had previously written. Indeed, the novel was – is – an exploration of mortality, identity and reality, themes I had previously avoided.
Jack is a man who has no history – I didn’t want any sort of back story. He has no recollection of a past. And he is noticeably different from everyone else without his understanding why or how. There is no explanation in the novel for his difference. Indeed, nothing is explained in the novel. It just is. In the original opening – the competition entry – Jack is discovered in the street one morning, naked and hairless with a blue fern-like pattern down his body, and insensible. He is Caliban. Although the novel provides hints about how this circumstance came about, I can now reveal that Jack was struck by lightning. But that occurs before the novel begins. It explains his fear of storms.
That discovery sequence is no longer the opening of the novel. It appears elsewhere in the story. Indeed, the narrative is not quite linear and some episodes are revisited from different perspectives through the story. Some elements recur several times, such as water, storms, death, mockery, and lack of control of one’s fate.
Jack was shortlisted in the ANIAY competition. He started out as third person, past tense but, in time, evolved into first person, present. And that was a key decision. While some people find first person restrictive, I found it liberating. Having spent a lot time in the past learning how to act – not professionally but from professionals – I applied those skills to the novel. Thus, The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie is rooted in theatre, both in terms of play scripts and in terms of performance.
Jack Coq himself is intentionally an enigma. He is a character in a play. You see the world through his eyes without ever knowing his real name or whether what he perceives reflects the character or the man playing him. What is real, what is imagined, what is pretend, and what is deceit are questions that run through the narrative. The answers are complex.
The characters in the novel are all derived from the Commedia Dell’Arte, some more obviously than others. Their behaviour and how they interact with one another come from this root. Hence, the illustration for the book cover. This is an engraving by Jacques Callot, a French artist who drew from life in the seventeenth century. He illustrated many Commedia characters for Balli di Sfessania, published in about 1622. The Commedia dell’Arte were stock characters. The acting troupes erected temporary stages in towns and villages to perform bawdy shows which often mocked authority. They got away with much. If anyone performed today like they did then, it’s probable they would be arrested from obscenity. The Commedia were known in Shakespeare’s day – Pantalone, for example – but it was via the Comédie Française that the stock characters took root in Britain in the eighteenth century and became pantomime. Punch and Judy are derived from the Commedia which illustrates the cruel humour.
There are no dates in the novel although there are clues to when it is set. One character (Ignatius Qwenk) mentions that he was at the Battle of Leuthen. That was in 1757. The smallsword was a weapon worn between the late seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries. The Siege of Vienna took place in 1683. The Great Faux (who appears on a bill advertising a fair) was a real illusionist from the mid-eighteenth century. And the language Jack uses in based on eighteenth-century criminal cant. (There is no glossary, by the way.)
The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie is challenging because of the language but also because not everything is quite what it seems and because Jack speaks directly to you as though you are present in the audience watching the performance of a play. Indeed, you have a paradox: you, the reader, are put into his skin yet he speaks to you as though you are another person, which reflects his dilemma about himself.
Of course, the notion of a play within a play is not new – Jack is in a play in the madhouse (a play within a novel about a play). Shakespeare did it more than once, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Hamlet for example. Jack Coq draws on Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which is itself a reworking of Hamlet. There is reference to Bill Shoe in Jack Coq. This is my nod to Tom Stoppard. He once used the pseudonym William Boot. Hence, Bill Shoe. And the notion of lunatics performing for an invited audience was used by Peter Weiss in his play Marat/Sade, a very powerful work set in a Paris lunatic asylum about the murder of Paul Marat in his bath by Charlotte Corday in 1793. The lunatic’s performance ends in chaos.
The idea behind Jack Coq has some basis in history. During the eighteenth century, it was not unusual for the inmates to be put on show for visitors to gawp at for a fee. And the Marquis de Sade did write a play when he was in Charenton lunatic asylum in Paris, the setting for Weiss’s play.
In Jack Coq, I wanted to write about mortality. Next time, I will tell you why.
One of the most important aspects of a manuscript, and occasionally one of the most problematic as well, is dialogue. Though your speech should sound realistic, you can't just talk as in real life.
Dialogue can make people cry, laugh and believe what the author tries to convey in seconds. It provides memorable ways to understand the behaviour of the characters in a book.
When a writer puts words on the page into the mouths of characters, those words had better have a liveliness that make them seem to jump out of the page. Dialogue has to make us interested; curious to find out more about the heroes.
Readers enjoy dialogue because it brings them closer to the characters; it can make them sympathise with their emotions or be completely vexed with them and even hate them. But that should be your goal as a writer. Use your dialogues to present your characters in a way that will appeal to your readers and keep them reading on.
The minute characters talk, the reader sees them. As I have mentioned in a previous blog, readers want experiences when they pick up a book and they prefer to see what's happening rather than hearing about it through narration. Dialogue can help you do that.
Let's see some tips as well:
1) "Uhs" and "ers" are to be avoided in dialogue. Use your words wisely to give time to your characters to think of what they want to say.
2) A speech should be brief, not more than three sentences. If it is longer, then break it up with interruptions from other speakers or by an action or a thought.
3) Keep your dialogue simple. Give the reader the chance to digest it all in a quick reading. Remember that the reader perceives thoughts one at a time, so it's important that your dialogue builds one sentence after another and that they all add to the force of the whole.
4) The main purpose of dialogue is to reveal character and to move the story along. Talk is an action and at times, it can be more exciting than physical action. Try to put your characters under stress, for example, and see how they would react in real life situations. It will make your exchanges far more interesting.
5) You need to create an emotional effect in the reader, so forget logic. You want thoughts that are loose, words that carry your characters' feelings. Show their anger, stress, happiness, eagerness through speech and not by telling the reader what a character is feeling.
6) Before you begin writing any new dialogue, know the purpose of the exchange. After completing it, check if the lines spoken by each character are consistent with their background. Cut out the unnecessary words or loosen any stiff sentences. Try changing informal words to formal ones, or the reverse.
7) And perhaps most important, check to see what's going on between the lines. What counts is what is meant and not what is said. Make sure you have conveyed the meaning or feeling you intended.
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Historian and Author of six books.
Anthony Saunders writes books. Some of them have been published. His fiction is absurdist, theatrical (from a performance perspective). He writes about mortality and the ridiculous. At the age of twelve, he was faced with the choice of living or not living. He chose the latter. He doesn't do ordinary.