Lord Wincey: Reading Gaudy Night

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?’




Ever since a friend told me about The Detection Club, a society of authors formed in England’s ‘Golden Age’ of Detective Fiction, I’ve been meaning to investigate. It was (and apparently still is) an exclusive writer’s society in which initiates solemnly swear the above oath. They meet regularly, dine, sip aged sherry and share their drafts and ideas. Founding members included the huge, caped oddball G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, a Catholic priest named Ronald Knox, a Hungarian-born baroness, at least one prominent Socialist and Dorothy L. Sayers.

I decided to delve into the work of some of these fabled names to see if I could learn something about the detective-writing craft. Agatha Christie books are familiar to me thanks to a squandered adolescence, and I’ve tried a few Father Brown mysteries, but was ignorant about the rest.

Dorothy Sayers’ biography suggested a business-like devotion to writing so I started with her. She was an Oxford scholar before women were formally allowed to graduate, a poet, a successful ad copywriter and able translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Hell [1947]). Her most famous character was an amateur sleuth named Lord Peter Wimsey, a monocle-wearing aristocrat.


Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957)


Gaudy Night (1935), the second-last Wimsey novel, is a mystery set in a (fictional) women’s college at Oxford University. The book’s title refers to an annual celebration in which former students revisit the college and have a catch-up; it is during Gaudy Night that the first unfortunate incident occurs. The novel’s heroine is Harriet D. Vane, ‘who had taken her First in English and gone to London to write mystery fiction, to live with a man who was not married to her’. Vane’s resemblance to the author is pronounced –Sayers herself had gained a First in English at Oxford, gone on London to write mystery fiction (and advertising copy), and to live ‘in sin’ with a man


Sayers worked for S.H. Benson on the Guiness ad series that featured toucans


Sayers understood popular British taste, which helped her in her copywriting job and was probably her biggest strength as a novelist. She was celebrated in her lifetime (and still is—see this article). But viewed from outside that era and those shores, her Wimsey novels read like completely unselfconscious love letters to herself and to Ye Olde England, especially its class system. I suspect that was a big reason why the American critic Edmund Wilson was less than thrilled with her work. “I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well,” he said (in a 1946 New Yorker article called ‘Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’), “…but, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.” Admittedly Edmund Wilson was often wrong (about J.R.R. Tolkien, for example), and his dislike of genre fiction is snobbish, but on the strength of Gaudy Night it’s tempting to agree with him in this case.


Lord Peter Wimsey as played by Edward Petherbridge in the 1987 BBC adaptation of the series.


Ten Wince-Worthiest Things in Gaudy Night

Technically speaking, Gaudy Night is a good mystery. The clues are sprinkled judiciously, the sequence of events is clear, the pacing is good, the characters are fleshy and well differentiated. There is conflict and tension. Everything is resolved satisfactorily, including the love story.

That said, it is not so successful in its bid to be a bigger, literary kind of book. You can see the impulse towards a Tolstoyan or George-Eliot type treatment of moral issues. The chapter epigraphs, the motifs of marriage and woman’s role in society are pretty heavy handed. Detailed descriptions of buildings and furniture don’t help.

But even aside from this, there are some moments where I had to put the book down, slap my forehead and say, ‘What was she even thinking?‘.


  1. Harriet the Love Goddess

Sayers makes Harriet Vane, her thinly disguised literary alter ego, an irresistible love kitten. Despite the fact that she is not-quite beautiful, every eligible, handsome male in the novel is immediately fascinated with her, especially Byronic undergraduates ten years younger than herself. Lord Peter Wimsey himself, a handsome aristocrat and once a renowned international playboy, now restlessly pines after this bolshy bluestocking even though she’s been kicking him in the teeth for five years straight; he sends her a marriage proposal every three months, on the dot. Even the murderer, who denounces everyone at the end, has this highly ambiguous burn for Harriet, “They come after you like wasps round a jam-jar, and then they fall in and die.”

Naturally, she finds all this amorous attention rather a bore. Observe her reaction to the love-making of a young ‘fair-faced goop’:

‘With a large and clumsy gesture Mr. Pomfret swept away the difference of age and plunged on in a flood of eloquence, which Harriet, exasperated with herself and him, could not stop. He loved her, he adored her, he was intensely miserable, he could neither work nor play games for thinking of her, if she refused him he didn’t know what he should do with himself, she must have seen, she must have realized—he wanted to stand between her and all the world—’

Harriet is a man/wasp-trap


  1. Harriet the Brainiac


The Oxford professors fall over themselves complimenting Harriet’s wondrous brains. Even if she weren’t an obvious stand-in for Dorothy L., it would seem excessive, but as it is, it reads like someone’s obsessive day-dream about being the teacher’s pet. It’s worst when she’s speaking to her old tutor, a great scholar:


[she] spoke appreciatively of her work, and commended her for keeping up a scholarly standard of English, even in mystery fiction.

“’You give a lot of pleasure in the S.C.R. [Senior Common Room]’ she added.”


Later on, the same tutor gushes:


“You always had a scholarly mind….and I expect you find your training a help in some ways, don’t you? I used to think you might take up an academic career.”


The Dean herself, not given to effusion, says, “The Warden is longing to see you. She simply loved The Sands of Crime.”



8 Harriet the Superior

Harriet judges almost everyone harshly. Her appraisal of an old school friend (who happens to be dying of a serious illness) is typically generous:  ‘”I suppose,” thought Harriet, “she had one of those small, summery brains, that flower early and run to seed.”‘

She even disapproves of the furniture. Here is her assessment of the college room where she stays for the night for the Gaudy Night weekend:


“The present owner’s short gown hung behind the door; judging by the bookshelves, she was reading History; judging by her personal belongings, she was a Fresher with an urge for modernity and very little natural taste. The narrow bed, on which Harriet flung down her belongings, was covered with drapery of a crude green color and ill-considered Futuristic pattern; a bad picture in the neo-archaic manner hung above it; a chromium-plated lamp of angular and inconvenient design swore acidly at the table and wardrobe provided by the college, which were of a style usually associated with the Tottenham Court Road; while the disharmony was crowned and accentuated by the presence, on the chest of drawers, of a curious statuette or three-dimensional diagram carried out in aluminum, which resembled a gigantic and contorted corkscrew, and was labeled upon its base: ASPIRATION. It was with surprise and relief that Harriet discovered three practicable dress-hangers in the wardrobe.”





  1. Punny Names

Wimsey, Vane – that’s just the tip of the groanberg. Here is a handful of other efforts:


Peter Death Bredon Wimsey

Miss de Vine

Miss Bracey the secretary

Jukes the petty thief

Mr. Garrick Drury, the actor

Mrs. Snell-Wilmington, author of Passion-flower Pie

Miss Sugar Toobin

Jacqueline Squills the author

The Sands of Crime (a novel by Harriet Vane)


6.. The Dog Collar Incident

A significant development in the romance between Lord Wimsey and Harriet occurs when, after ‘teaching her self defence’ by throttling her a few times, he buys her a dog collar… for protection?

I don’t want to kink-shame, but there is a time and a place…you don’t expect two posh Oxbridge gits from the 1930s to launch cheerily into a hardcore S&M routine; it’s embarrassing, like watching dementia patients walking around wearing nothing but leather thongs.

Here is the whole passage, just to show I’m not making it up:


It was when they were passing through a small town that Peter caught sight of a leather-and-harness shop, and pulled up suddenly.

“I know what you want,” he said. “You want a dog collar. I’m going to get you one. The kind with brass knobs.”

“A dog collar? Whatever for? As a badge of ownership?”

“God forbid. To guard against the bites of sharks. Excellent also against thugs and throat slitters.”

“My dear man!”

“Honestly. It’s too stiff to squeeze and it’ll turn the edge of the blade—and even if anybody hangs you by it, it won’t choke you as a rope would.”

“I can’t go about in a dog collar.”

“Well, not in the daytime. But it would give confidence when patrolling at night. And you could sleep in it with a little practice. You needn’t bother to come in—I’ve had my hands round your neck often enough to guess the size.”

He vanished into the shop and was seen through the window conferring with the proprietor. Presently he came out with a parcel and took the wheel again. 

The man was very much interested,” he observed, “in my bull terrier bitch. Extremely plucky animals, but reckless and obstinate fighter. Personally, he said, he preferred greyhounds. He told me where I could get my name and address put on the collar, but I said that could wait. Now we’re out of the town, you can try it on.”

He drew in to the side of the road for this purpose, and assisted her (with, Harriet fancied, a touch of self satisfaction), to buckle the heavy strap. It was a massive kind of necklace and quite surprisingly uncomfortable. Harriet fished in her bag for a hand mirror and surveyed the effect.




  1. Wimsey is Perfect and it’s Weird

In the words of his nephew, Peter Wimsey is “dashed well-off and he’s got good manners and he’s in the stud-book [i.e. is nobility].”  He goes on to admit that, ‘Uncle Peter’s weakness…is his strong sense of public duty.’

Other attributes:

plays the spinet.

has nice hands

unfailingly courteous

a ‘pretty punter to watch’ (rowing)

a good fighter in his college days

a cricketing Blue


unconquerable sweetness of disposition

perfect English aristocrat

voracious reader

brave Major, beloved by his inferiors in WWI

insists on being clean-shaven and wearing well-tailored clothes

took a First in History at Balliol college, Oxford

writes and reads poetry

high-level diplomat

knows martial arts




  1. Erudite Love Babble

Harriet and Peter don’t talk normal:

“Well?” he said, lightly, “how doth my lady? What, sweeting, all amort?…Yes, something has happened; I see it has. What is it, domina?”

Though the tone was half-jesting, nothing could have reassured her like that grave, academic title.


  1. Epigraphs

Every chapter has a godawful epigraph written by some moldy English poet or scholar and it’s too hard to bother figuring out the thematic link to the action.

Honestly, see if you can get through this one (epigraph to Chapter 5) without getting your eyes crossed:

Virginity is a fine picture, as Bonaventure calls it, a blessed thing in itself, and if you will believe a Papist, meritorious. And although there be some inconveniences, irksomeness, solitariness, etc., incident to such persons…yet they are but toys in respect, easily to be endured, if conferred to those frequent incumbrances of marriage…And methinks sometime or other, amongst so many rich Bachelors, a benefactor should be found to build a monastical College for old, decayed, deformed, or discontented maids to live together in, that have lost their first loves, or otherwise miscarried, or else are willing howsoever to lead a single life. The rest, I say, are toys in respect, and sufficiently recompensed by those innumberable contents and incomparable priveleges of Virginity.


‘Hi, I’m Richard Borington.’


  1. Servant Patter

The faithful retainer Padgett offers an opportunity for comic relief and Sayers is not one to pass up on a softball like that. The Dean complains to Harriet of all the opening ceremonies that have been going on in the College as it is being refurbished. She then relates an amusing conversation she had with Padgett:

“Excuse me madam Dean, miss, but could you tell me the date of the Opening?” “What Opening, Padgett?” said I. “We aren’t opening anything this term. What is then to open?” “Well, miss,” says Padgett, “I was thinking of these here new lavatories, if you’ll excuse me, madam Dean, miss. We’ve opened everything there was to open up to the present, miss, and if there was to be a Ceremony, miss, it would be convenient if I was to know in good time, on account of arranging for taxis and parking accommodation.”

Dear Padgett,” said Miss Burrows, “He’s the brightest spot in this university.”


  1. The ‘C’ Word

Class is a problematic issue in Gaudy Night. The villain turns out to be a servant at the college (spoiler alert, too late, oh well). She’s an unknown element in social terms, with no definite position in the rigid class system. She was originally a ‘landlady’s daughter’ but transcended her status by marrying an academic. When he died, she went crazy. She blames her husband’s death on a female academic (with some justification) and despises all female academics, believing women shouldn’t impinge on men’s traditional spheres. Of course, the servant is implicitly condemned for her backward-looking attitude to gender roles. It’s quite interesting, then, that she’s also damned for hating the upper-middle class women she had to slave for. Her speech is presented as the raving of a lunatic:

“I wanted to see you thrown out to starve, like us. I wanted to see you all dragged into the gutter. I wanted to see you—you sneered at and trampled on and degraded and despised as we were. It would do you good to learn to scrub floors for a living as I’ve done, and use your hands for something, and say ‘madam’ to a lot of scum…”

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the poor woman, especially after hearing Wimsey lisp Keats at Harriet. However, our heroine has already declared her views on the topic so we know the skivvy is wrong.

Back in chapter three, Harriet met a woman who used to be a promising scholar but who married a farmer and had to labor alongside him in the fields, Harriet is forthright:

“But Miss Freemantle—I mean, Mrs.—Mrs. Bendick—it’s absurd that you should have to do this kind of thing. I mean, pick your own fruit and get up at all hours to feed poultry and slave like a navvy. Surely to goodness it would have paid far better for you to take on some kind of writing or intellectual job and get someone else to do the manual work.”….

What a damned waste! Was all Harriet could say to herself. All that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn, and drawn far better.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that social mobility is here presented as an evil, destabilizing influence on society. Some people are meant to be lady academics, others to be navvies.


Death of an Octopus


Train station at San Pietro Vernotico (bar on the right)


Vuoi uno polpo?”

The cashier in the little railway station bar shook her head. She looked about sixteen and yet already used to all kinds of crazy people. She was definitely not in the mood to chat, but I tried again.

Er, ho uno vivo polpo in mio zaino. Volete?” I smiled brightly, trying to seal the deal.

Her face closed and she folded her arms. She didn’t know or care what I was getting at.

Non ho capito.” Clipped, brisk. Case closed.

I laughed lightly, failing to suppress the hysteria in my voice.

I couldn’t really blame her. If some foreigner came up to me at my place of work saying, “I have live octopus, you want?”, well, I wouldn’t be happy about it.

The way I ended up with a live octopus in my backpack was this.

I was jogging from Torre San Gennaro to San Pietro Vernotico, when a car stopped and the driver offered me a lift. Ordinarily I don’t hitchhike, but it was a long way to town, my legs were sore and there were no buses. The driver was a very scrawny guy in his forties who looked harmless enough, friendly and kind, so I accepted.

It was a fine opportunity to practice Italian and I made the most of it. I’d already discovered that that the people of Puglia were generally eager to oblige with the Italian practice, to tell you about the place and to ask all about your business.


The provinces of Puglia/Apulia; San Pietro Vernotico is halfway between the cities of Brindisi and Lecce.


I explained that no I wasn’t German but from New Zealand, where people speak English and Maori–yes, that’s right, like the haka. I was living in Torre San Gennaro for one month, as a tourist, with my husband who was from California (I could never remember the word for United States).

My driver said his name was Antonio and he was a cook by profession but only in summer, when tourists were there. For now he was working as a fisherman in Campo di Mare, a little village next to Torre San Gennaro. He had a boat there and had been fishing that very day.

“Many fish?” I asked (I had trouble recalling appropriate verbs so I usually left them out).

“No, only octopus.”

“Oh, very good. How many?”



“One big, three small, one very small.”

And here was my fatal mistake.

“I have never eaten octopus before. Is it nice?”

Antonio’s eyes widened and he nearly swerved the car off the road. He gave a couple of deep breaths, then spoke quickly, “Yes, of course! Very nice!”

“How do you cook it?”

He became animated, illustrating his words with exaggerated gestures, to the point that he (alarmingly) started to drive with his knees.

“Well, first you take the octopus and you break its neck.” He demonstrated this with an imaginary octopus that was definitely dead by the time he’d finished with it.

“Then you bash it like this, maybe ten or fifteen times.” I inferred the verb from his gesture—a series of violent downward strokes.

“Then you have a lot of boiling water. You put the octopus in the water. For half an hour. Slice it up. Put lemon, some salt on it, and it’s ready.” The gestures here were delicate, like a harp-player’s.

“Ah, thank you! I want to try it,” I said, satisfied with the linguistic exchange. Food is a topic I understand, so it’s a good one for trying basic conversations. As far as I was concerned, we were finished with the subject.

He frowned and looked intently at the road as if he were searching for something. Then he turned sharply into a little dirt road between two olive groves (in a sea of about two hundred olive groves).




“Er, is this the way to San Pietro?” I asked in a high voice, even though I knew it was not. I asked myself why I had been stupid enough to accept a ride from a complete stranger. He’s going to give me the octopus treatment, I thought. But then the survival switch kicked in, Oh rot, he’s about five-foot-two and malnourished. I could lift him up with one hand and throw him like a javelin.

As I was thus debating with myself, he parked the car and sprang out of his seat. Dubiously, I also got out of the car. At least I could outrun him if it came to a chase. He opened the back of the car and pointed to a big white bucket full of water in which there was a net, twisted at the top. Very gently, he untwisted the net, put his hand into the water and extracted a creature the size and shape of a deflating beach ball, if a beach ball had long arms.

It was pink, pale-flesh-pink with orange speckles that looked like freckles. It had large eyes with blue rims, eyes that seemed to express great weariness. Two of its tentacles lifted up to touch Antonio’s wrist gently, as if it was dizzy and wished to steady itself.

“Octopus!” Antonio declared in triumph.

“Wow! Live octopus,” I attempted enthusiasm.

“Yes, yes.”  Still holding the being with one hand, he reached for a plastic bag and thrust it out for me to take.

“Open, open!” He insisted.

I fumbled with it, realizing that he was giving me the octopus as a gift and that I could not possibly politely refuse it – it was finished.

He lowered the creature into the bag and it lacked the energy to resist. He put that bag into another supermarket shopping bag and handed it to me, smiling triumphantly.

“Really? Thank you very much! Fantastic!” I said, holding it between my thumb and forefinger. I felt sick.

“You’re welcome!” he said and he went to go back to the car, motioning me to follow.

“Ah, I think I’ll walk from here. I’m quite close,” I lied.


“Yes! Thank you so much! I like to walk.”

“OK,” he shrugged. “Remember—make sure the water is really boiling!”

“OK. Bye.”


I watched his little old car putter off and started walking along a tree-lined lane wondering how to get to the city.

My first thought was to simply drop the bag next to the nearest olive tree. Easy! Just drop it and keep walking. Don’t look back.

But it would stay gasping there, finally drooping into lifelessness among the roots, surrounded by miles and miles of dry earth, sharp little leaves, multicolored olive fruits, Roman ruins. It seemed unspeakably wrong.




No. I could still save it! It was still alive. I could find our landlord Agostino, who lived in town, and get him to drive it back to the sea. Maybe there would be some water I could put it in. Maybe he could fill their bath with water and table salt and give it a home.

But how would I ask him that? First of all, I didn’t have the vocabulary to manage such a complex situation and, second of all, he’d think I was mad. All Italians liked to eat octopus as far as I could tell. Well then, I’d just give it to him to eat—let it be his responsibility! I’d walk to their door, knock on it and hand it over. “Prego! Per voi!”

My god, what a mess.

I saw a sign to the city and started jogging gently, feeling the weight of the cephalopod bump against my back. If this were a movie it would fight back. It would grow larger and stronger, get angry, poke its tentacles out of the pack and try to squeeze my neck, trip my legs, suffocate me…it would only be fair.

What did it feel like to suffocate? It couldn’t breathe properly in my backpack. And the plastic bag probably wasn’t helping either. Did it hurt? Was it like feeling drunk? Or just tired, so tired…maybe it just wanted everything over with. Was it moving in there? Was it trying to say something in its complicated language that I would never understand?

At last, a gas station, a roundabout, houses. We were one step closer to solving the problem.

“Nearly there!” I said cheerfully as if talking to a dog, “Nearly in San Pietro.”

In the town I slowed down a little, trying to hide my desperation. I was strange enough as it was: a tourist in autumn! Who ever heard of such a thing? Locals looked at me curiously as I walked the narrow streets inhaling the fumes of wine from the local cantinas.


Cantina Santa Barbara


There were dainty little rubbish bins here and there and I kept thinking I would simply drop the bag in the rubbish bin. Just like that. But I knew the creature would crawl out and betray me as the one who threw away its life. There would be talk.

Agostino’s house. He would know what to do. It was normal. Eating octopi was what people did around here. He’d given us a yellow melon; I’d give him the frutti di mare. A nice treat. I knocked on the door. Then I rang the bell. Then I knocked louder. Then I held my finger on the buzzer and held it there for a whole minute. Nothing.

I walked on, at a loss. The pharmacy—my original goal—was around the corner and a shop window showed me how scruffy I looked. Sweaty, hair lank and messy, legs scratched by roadside greenery…


team of pharmacist chemist woman  in pharmacy drugstore


“Yes signora, can I help you?” A calm and collected young pharmacist.

I jumped a little, feeling the smallest perceptible nudge against my back.

“Thank you. Yes please. I need these medications,” I passed her a piece of paper.

She looked at them and frowned.

“For these you need a prescription.”

“Oh!” I said, “My husband is sick and we don’t have a car and don’t know where the doctors are.’ She softened visibly at my babbling.

“Please wait. Let me ask my colleague.”

I stood still holding my breath, imagining the octopus turning around in the pack like a small fleshy planet. I wondered how I was going to tell the perfectly groomed and manicured woman in a white coat about my little problem.

After what seemed like a year, the pharmacist returned carrying boxes.

“Here you are. Next time you must have a prescription.”

“OK. Thank you very much!”

She smiled.

Now was my chance…and I missed it.

“Have a good day,” she said.

“You too.”

It was a tidy transaction. She had been kind. It was not the appropriate place to mention an octopus. I left and made my way to the railway station.

Determined to finally manage the thing, I went to the café. I thought they could sell it to their seafood-loving customers. All Italians like octopus…this was my hope…but no, the girl didn’t want it. I slunk out of the café and sat on a bench on the railway platform trying to think of what to do next. Just leave it on the seat?  No. It was too late–no one would take it. No one would save it or even eat it now.

Heart writhing in my chest, I walked into a secluded waiting room and put my backpack on a bench. Looking around to make sure I was alone, I carefully pulled the plastic bag up by its handles. The bag was now vacuum-packed—the octopus had consumed every available oxygen atom. The weight reminded me of a small sack of rice, a couple of oranges. There was no more movement.

I put the parcel in the rubbish bin and walked out. I walked back along the platform, back past the barmaid, jogged through the streets past the aromatic cantinas, down the long road through olive groves and vineyards, all ten kilometres back to the sea.


The view from Torre San Gennaro



First Day on the Job

I looked over and saw our head teacher, Reem, had poked her head into the room and was flashing her diamond-studded smile.

“Meeting with the men everyone!” she announced.

All the teachers stood up and started moving out the door. At first this seemed perfectly natural, but then a thought held me up. Wait a minute…this is a GIRL’S school…in Saudi Arabia! Surely no men are allowed? And none of the teachers are putting on their cloaks and veils so they can’t be going outside!

Puzzled, I picked up a notebook and followed them downstairs, wondering what was going on. Had men really been permitted into the women’s campus? What was the point of the armed guards and locked gates if a man could just waltz onto female turf? Was Saudi gender segregation just a sham after all? Were we going to have some kind of orgy?

“Who are we meeting?” I asked the tall pregnant woman, who was wandering along in a dreamy way.

“Dr. Aasif, the Head of the English Department.”

My colleagues wandered to a tiny receptionist’s office just inside the main entrance. The room was so full of people that I could barely squeeze through the doorway. Reem was huddling over a telephone that sat on a desk in the middle of the room. Everyone else encircled her. There wasn’t enough room for everyone so a couple of teachers went to stand outside. Reem wore a grave expression and hovered intently over the phone.

So that was why we didn’t have to cover up—the meeting was going to be over the phone! I felt a strange sense of relief. After all, the gender-apartheid system was internally consistent.

“Dr. Aasif is supposed to call at twelve o’clock,” said Reem. “Now it is one minute to.”

As time passed, we all stood there with a sense of nervous expectation. A few minutes after the time for the appointment, we relaxed into soft whispers, teasing and giggles. Well, most of us did. Reem looked to be wound up so tight that she might shatter from the pressure.

When the phone finally rang, Reem pounced on it and looked at us, pressing her finger to her lips in warning.

“Good afternoon Dr. Aasif, this is Reem,” her voice, which had previously been sharp and commanding, transformed to suddenly become very quiet and very meek.

“Yes, we are all here Dr. Aasif. Yes, all right, now I will switch to speakerphone.”

She asked him to hold for a moment as she said something under her breath then tried poking a switch.

“Yes, hello Dr. Aasif, can you speak please, just to test if it is working?”

We all looked at the phone waiting for the Great Voice. A tiny squeak was holding forth from the receiver, but the speakerphone was silent.

“Hello? Hello? Dr. Aasif?” Reem timidly tried to get Dr. Aasif’s attention, but he barreled right along, talking up a tiny storm. Reem started jabbing at the switch with more urgency.

It didn’t work.

“Dr. Aasif? Dr. Aasif,” but the voice kept squeaking. “Please! Doctor Aasif! The speakerphone is not working. One moment please while we try to fix it.” She set down the receiver and motioned to me.

“Kathy, dear, help.”

“Me? Um, I don’t know anything about phones.”

“Try dear.”

“OK.” I squinted at the switches, saw ‘on speakerphone’ and ‘off speakerphone’. The switch was definitely turned to ‘on speakerphone’. I twiddled the switch a few times but it made no difference. I shrugged and stepped back as Atif came forward to inspect it.

“Doctor Reem, it is broken,” Atif announced solemnly. Reem nodded, palely, as if being told a patient was terminal. She picked the receiver up again.

“Hello?  Dr. Aasif? Are you there? Hello. I am afraid the speakerphone is not working. What do you suggest we do?” She listened as the voice responded.

“Yes,” she answered at last, “I see. Taib’. Dear Teachers, because the machine will not cooperate with us, you will need to come very close to the telephone and be very quiet, so all can hear. I will turn the volume up as much as it can go.”

She put the handset on a desk and sat with her head resting near it. Then she beckoned us to do the same.

For some reason, the other teachers shoved me forward, and I joined the other three women who were closest. As he spoke, we all tried to get our heads close enough to hear him without giving each other head-butts. The other teachers behind us visibly relaxed—there was no way they were going to hear anything. Even from my position it was hopeless; all I could make out were the long, long oratorical cadences of someone used to holding forth. Reem seemed to understand some of it and did an admirable job of inserting ‘Yes’s and ‘Mmmms’ but a vein in her forehead was bulging with the effort.

She must have understood some of it because at one point she wanted clarification.

“Dr. Aasif? Yes. But Dr. Aasif…..Dr. Aasif…Yes of course, but Dr. Aasif, if I may…. I just want to…Dr. Aasif. DR AASIF! I would like to say one thing! Thank you.”

After an extremely long discussion about whether we ought to use green or red pens to mark exams, Dr. Aasif launched into a long speech. Miraculously, I managed to hear the topic, which was ‘Professional Development’.

Just at that moment, though, a deafening wail came through the walls and seemed to shake the whole building. It was a guttural roar, as if from the bowels of the earth, respecting no physical barrier, massaging the kidneys with its force. After the initial shock, I realized that it must be the mid-day call to prayer coming from the brand-new mosque next door, which had at least five top-of-the-range loudspeakers propped on its turret.

Some of the teachers got glazed looks on their faces and began muttering to themselves.  They were saying prayers. My shoulders relaxed and I prepared to stand up straight, thinking that the phone call would have to end now, for holiness’s sake. To my astonishment, though, Reem and the others were carrying on, heads nearly resting on the desk by the phone as if they couldn’t even hear the deafening blast.

I gave up. They could keep going if they wanted, but I wasn’t going to play along. I slumped against the wall and started doodling elephants on my notepad. I drew one of them with a speech bubble coming out from under the trunk that said, “This is dumbo.” The other elephant, whose trunk was a bit too short and fat, replied, “I like nodles.” Elephant one countered, “That’s not how you spell noodles. It’s n-o-o-d-l-e-s.”

After another ten minutes the phone conversation was nearly over. Dr. Aasif took yet another ten minutes to sum up and sign off, then Reem replaced the receiver looking flushed and weak from the stress. She did her best to mask her fatigue with a stately smile, and she raised her hands to signal an announcement.

“Dear teachers! You all know well that many minds are better than one! Here is your assignment: Write down all the points of the meeting that you remember. Then I will collect these notes and make a full account. Please, go and write it immediately while it is still fresh, and I will collect them in ten minutes!”

We all returned to the teachers’ room and everyone busily started writing notes. I looked at them in disbelief, then started to carefully and slowly write down the only two things I’d heard for sure: ‘Professional Development’ and the point about using green pens, which Reem had paraphrased for us.

When Reem returned, she came around our desks one by one, requesting our notes. I handed her my page.

“Is this all?” She said in surprise.

“Well, um, actually I couldn’t hear anything,” I replied.

She turned sadly but gracefully away.


Excerpt from my memoir about living in Saudi Arabia called Girls of the Empty Quarter (Le Ragazze di Rub’ al Khali in Italian). 





Susan Glaspell, American Menace

Every now and then I get an urge to write a short story, then realize I haven’t even read one in ages. Then I start hunting a bunch of them out hoping to absorb the form by osmosis.

So it was, in a fatal moment, that I happened upon the American Literature library and clicked on Susan Glaspell. Her biography informed me she was a playwright and author of short stories. ‘Good enough,’ I thought, and started in.

Two hours later I was rolling around in a puddle of my own tears, sucking my thumb, whimpering looking for a giant plush panda to cuddle.


Susan Glaspell (July 1, 1876 – July 28, 1948)


Here she is. Looks like a nice lady, doesn’t she? Sweet. Thoughtful. Full of the milk of human kindness.

Well don’t be fooled; this woman was a menace. She lived to torment innocent people with stories about girls with tuberculosis and men who selflessly forego True Love and little boys who want nothing so much in the world as a scruffy little dog. She starts each story in pretending to be all wry and realistic, but soon enough the sentimental hooks are in your liver and she’s twisting them around with that winsome little smirk on her face.

There are some people who go out looking for that sort of thing but I am not one of them. I only read about six or seven of these gut-punchers, then decided: No, I won’t do it, I’m not reading any more!

You might be different, but anyway, here’s a sample of her stories. Read them if you dare.  Here are they are, with blunt advisories.


A Jury of Her Peers 

This is a sort of proto-feminist detective story. It’s not too sentimental in that all the bad stuff has already happened. That said, you might want to give it a miss if you are sensitive to issues such as violent murder, domestic abuse and animal cruelty.



From A to Z

This starts out as a light-hearted Rom-Com-type scenario. Girl gets her first job at a publishing house, is assigned to write a dictionary and falls in love with her colleague. But that’s when the Rom-Com turns into a kind of twisted Japanese tragedy. NOT A HAPPY ENDING.



“One of Those Impossible Americans”

At last! A little light humor of the Mark-Twain-abroad type. Two Americans meet by chance in Paris. The man is a stereotypical goofy Yankee who wants to buy his wife French clothes and the woman is trying to stop him from kitting the poor woman out like a Moulin Rouge dancer. So far, so good. But then, you find out …OH NO SUSAN, DON’T DO IT! LEAVE THE PATHOS ALONE. Goddammit, Susan.


Story includes saucy French hat


“Out There”

This one appeals to me because it’s about a painting that exerts a strange, semi-magical power over someone. It could be argued that it has a happy ending, but only in the sense that life is endless suffering and oblivion is a sweet release. Do not read if you are triggered by tubercular waifs who never had a chance in this terrible world.


The Anarchist: His Dog

This story was the absolute worst. I mean, you always have to be wary of any story, book or film that involves a dog; it’s only there to flip you over on your turtle back and expose your soft belly to the torturer’s knife. And quite often, something bad happens. This story has a happy ending but even so,it is just relentlessly upsetting from go to whoa. Avoid.



Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo – Boy with a Dog


A Portuguese Prank

‘One of the masked men struck a match, lit five candles in a bronze candelabra, picked it up, went over to a piece of furniture covered by a travelling rug, and lifted the rug.

‘I could not contain my shock and let out a cry of horror. There before me lay a dead man’s body.’


Because it was our last week in Portugal, I had to start The Mystery of the Síntra Road, especially since we were in Lisbon. Not only is the book set near that city, it was also the very first mystery novel to be written in Portuguese for the Portuguese—seventeen years before Sherlock Holmes poked his pipe into foggy London scandals.

Ramalho Ortigão e Eça de Queiroz
Eça de Queíroz (right) and Ramalho Ortígão (left)

In their preface to the third edition (1884), the two authors Eça de Queíroz and Ramalho Ortígão describe how it originated:

‘One summer evening fourteen years ago [1870], while sitting before our respective cups of coffee in a café in the Passeio Publico and slowly succumbing to the melancholy of Lisbon as it dozed off to a tearful pot-pourri of tunes from Verdi’s I Due Foscari, we made up our minds to do something and make a loud enough noise to wake the whole place up, with said noise taking the form of an extraordinary novel to be sent blaring out across the Baixa from the dizzy heights of the Diário de Notícias.’

This youthful act of literary vandalism was first published between 24 July and 27 September 1870s as a series of letters, apparently genuine, in Lisbon’s big daily newspaper. Allusions to real people and place names, the use of initials and asterisks to conceal ‘real names’ and fake indignant responses fostered the illusion of reality. Some readers believed the letters were genuine and I feel sympathetic towards them because as a teenager I was completely duped by Forgotten Silver. You see, in 1995 (six years before the premiere of The Lord of the Rings) Peter Jackson made a prank documentary about a forgotten New Zealand genius named Colin McKenzie—figure who never actually existed. The national media was in on the joke and promoted the documentary enthusiastically, interviewing Jackson about this extraordinary person. When the documentary aired on TVNZ in the primetime Sunday evening slot, half the country believed it, as this article recalls. I should mention, though, that my mother was convinced it was bullcrap five minutes in.

Peter Jackson yukking it up with fake footage

When The Mystery of the Síntra Road hit the streets, the detective novel was still pretty new. The genre had its beginnings in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, who breathed life into C. Auguste Dupin in 1841 with ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’. The popular French detective Monsieur Lecoq appeared in L’Affaire Lerouge in 1866. The first detective novel in English, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone was published in 1868, only two years earlier than The Mystery of the Síntra Road, with which it shares many features; they are both epistolary novels, narrated by a series of different characters and foreground opium.

Illustration from The Moonstone


It is sometimes hard to tell whether the authors of The Mystery of the Síntra Road, are taking the piss. It takes melodrama to frequently ridiculous extremes. The characters can hardly sit still for a moment; they’re too busy dying, gasping, biting their knuckles, fainting, issuing cool threats and striking anguished poses. When the detective-figure finds his first clue (a hair), for example, he launches into a very odd apostrophe:

‘So it was true! There you are! I’ve found you at last, poor little hair! I pity the innocent way you lie there, oblivious, careless, idle, languid! You may be cruel, you may be wicked, but you are not crafty or underhand. I have you within my grasp, within my line of sight; don’t run away, don’t tremble, don’t blush; you give yourself, you consent, you offer yourself up, O meek, gentle, trusting hair. And yet, albeit fragile, tiny, almost microscopic, you are part of the woman whom I had intuited, foreseen and whom I seek! Is she the author of the crime or completely blameless? Is she merely an accomplice? I don’t know, and you cannot tell me.’

Some people have described the book as a spoof and it is quite easy to imagine Derlock Holmes rolling about delivering this with a lisp.

Deduce You Say (12)
Still from ‘Deduce, You Say.’

Queíros later became celebrated for his Realist novels, to the point that Zola thought he was much better than Flaubert. His most famous books include O Crime de Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro), O Primo Basilio (Cousin Basilio) and Os Maias (The Maias). In his preface to  Síntra, he expresses dignified regret for the sentimental excesses of his first novel:

‘We shall draw a discreet veil over its masked men of various statures, its mysterious doctors, its fair-haired English captains, its dangerous countesses, its tigers and elephants, its yachts on which are hoisted white linen and lace handkerchiefs like flags of fantasy, its sinister glasses of opium, its elegant corpses its romantic costumes and, finally, its horses spurred on by riders in pale-grey capes who disappear into he dust of incredible adventures as they gallop through Porcalhota and off into the distance!

‘All these things — though pleasant, invariably sincere and even, on occasions, moving — are displeasing to their now more mature creators, who long ago averted their gaze from the misty horizons of sentimentality in order to devote themselves to the patient, humble study of the stark realities of their own street.’

Ye Olde Roman Antics

Rome in the fourteenth century was a bag of weasels. You didn’t want to be in it or near it if you wanted a quiet life. The whole Italian peninsula at the time might be termed ‘disunited’ but Rome was like someone who would amputate his own hands unless heavily sedated. Maybe there was left-over lead in the pipes, maybe papal potency was a bit too potent—whatever the reason, the ancient city had more than her fair share of ‘vivid personalities’.

This much I have gathered from The End of the Middle Age by Eleanor Constance Lodge (a great book for novices like me who want a smooth introduction to that era). Lodge enjoys herself describing the inhabitants of that Eternal Asylum, so I will let her introduce them in her own words (all the quotes below are from her unless stated otherwise).


Lodge became the first woman to receive a D.Litt. from Oxford University in 1928.


The Shy, Retiring Hermit: Celestine V (Pope from 5 July 1294-13 December 1294)


Most of Rome’s conflict came down two or three noble families who were continually vying for power and making life difficult for everyone. The main culprits, the Orsini and the Colonna, were especially interested in securing  the Papal seat so they could use it (quite improperly) to their own advantage. Nicholas IV (Pope from 1288-1292), for example, represented the Colonna family, which enraged their rivals..

“So disastrous were these disputes that on the death of Nicholas two years passed before a successor was fixed upon, and then a wholly new departure was made, in the choice of a holy hermit of obscure birth, who had spent his life in solitude and self-torment after the fashion of the saints of those days: a strange preparation for the public position to which he was now exalted. Already worn out, both in body and mind, by the life he had led, the Hermit protested in vain that he was unfit for the office. But the Cardinals felt that they had been divinely guided in their choice, and he was inaugurated as Celestine V., and grand Papal robes placed above his own coarse dress of sackcloth. It did not require more than a few weeks to show the Cardinals what a mistake they had made. The new Pope was totally ignorant and lacking in sense or dignity. He fell into the unscrupulous hands of Charles of Anjou, whom he believed to be a friend, and was easily duped by all who surrounded him. He gave away any dignity, created any office for which he was asked; indeed he could easily be persuaded to bestow the same post over and over again. One of the Cardinals, the ambitious Benedetto Gaetani, had peculiar influence over Celestine and is supposed to have been largely responsible for inducing him to lay down his unwelcome dignity. Kumour, indeed, says that he resorted to the unworthy trick of terrifying him in the night through a hole in the wall, and thus making him believe that a messenger from God was urging him to leave the world. Certain it is that the Pope after five months could bear no more, announced his abdication to the Conclave, and fled back with haste to his old cave in the mountains.”


The Utter Bastard: Boniface VIII (Pope 24 December 1294-11 October 1303)


Remember that ambitious cardinal Benedetto Gaetani, the one who encouraged poor Celestine to give it all up for a nice life in the caves? Well, he became the next pope as Boniface VIII. He soon made himself comfortable in the role and started making enemies everywhere he went. He was pro-Guelf in the Guelf vs. Ghibelline conflict (which is too complicated to get into) and that led to the following incident:

‘Whilst performing the Ash-Wednesday ceremony of scattering ashes on the heads of penitents to remind them of their end, he flung them into the eyes of a personal rival, exclaiming: “Ghibelline, remember that you are  but dust, and that with the other Ghibellines your fellows you will return to dust.”

Not only did he incur the wrath of the Colonna family, who’d backed Celestine, but he insulted the Holy Roman Emperor by grabbing temporal power for himself, a highly unusual move to say the least:

‘When Albert of Austria became Emperor in the place of Adolf of Nassau, Boniface refused to recognise him, and put the crown on his own head as a sign of his control over the Imperial election. ” It is I who am Caesar, I who am Emperor, I who will defend the rights of the Empire,” he is reported to have cried.

He also unanimously decided all by himself that England and France would no longer receive tax from clergy. And to cap it all off, he threw a giant party for himself. Even in on his big day he couldn’t help being a big bastard:

‘In 1300 a grand jubilee was held at Rome, and pilgrims of all ranks flocked to the city, where Boniface was to be seen enthroned in state, with two swords carried before him as signs that he possessed both spiritual and temporal power. He laid down law to Kings and peoples, and displayed his haughty pride to the full: it is even said that he kicked one of the ambassadors of the King of Germany in the face, as he was stooping down to kiss the mule, on which the Head of the Church was riding.‘ 

Pope Boniface gets a special mention from Dante Alighieri, who he’d exiled from Florence.  The poet had sound personal reasons for visualizing the Pope in Hell but at the same time he was faced with the problem that His Holiness was still very much alive and kicking (as it were) at the time of writing (1300), which meant (a) he couldn’t be in Hell yet and it would be unrealistic and (b) Boniface might react badly to such a characterization.  Dante solves this little conundrum quite neatly, as will be seen.

In L’Inferno Canto 19, Virgil is leading Dante into the Simony section and they see a  former pope, Nicholas III, buried head-first in a rock. Nicholas, his eyesight thus impaired, hears Dante and mistakes him for the current Pope, who he knows is due in some time soon:

Ed el grido: Se’ tu già costì ritto,
se’ tu già costì ritto, Bonifazio?
Di parecchi anni mi mentì lo scritto.”  (Inf. 19.52-54)

And he cried out: “Are you already standing,
already standing there, o Boniface?
The book has lied to me by several years.”

(translation found here)    

So just in case Boniface raised any objections, Dante could just say it wasn’t him who said it, it was Nicholas III and take it up with him when you get there.

Anyway, Boniface ended up dying in 1303 in less than ideal circumstances, so Dante was probably pleased about that.


The death of Boniface in a 15th-century version of Boccaccio’s De Casibus. It reflects the (disproved) rumor that Boniface had gnawed his own hands off.


The Hero:  John of Bohemia (10 August 1296-26 August 1346)


John of Bohemia wasn’t crazy but he was pretty interesting. His father, Emperor Henry VII, had tried to patch things up in Italy but had failed completely and died in Siena at the age of 40. Hopes therefore turned to his son John, who certainly looked the part:

‘Handsome and chivalrous, devoted to tournaments and all knightly exercises, he was no less famous in actual warfare and able to hold his own in court or camp. Elegant and polished in dress and manners, he was curiously out of place in half-civilised Bohemia, over which his father had given him the rule. Indeed, unless kept there by revolts amongst his turbulent nobles, he spent little time in his own dominions, but wandered about like a true knight-errant, seeking for wrongs to redress or weak causes to champion. He had aided Lewis the Bavarian at the Battle of Miihldorf, which secured him his Empire. He had made firm friendship with the King of France, a country which particularly attracted him. He had headed a Crusade against the heathen in Lithuania. He was delighted now to find new occupation for his arms, and to endeavour to continue a work in Italy which his father had died in attempting. It was a regular saying at the time, that no one could hope to carry anything through, ” without the help of God and the King of Bohemia”.’

His efforts in Italy were doomed to fail, but he carried on hero-ing regardless.

‘John withdrew to spend the remainder of his restless life in continuous fighting, sometimes in his own interest, sometimes in that of others. It was in a second crusade in Lithuania that he lost his eyesight, partly owing to the climate, partly owing to the ignorant treatment of his doctors. The King could not bear his misfortune to be noticed, and would not let it in any way hinder his incessant travels and career of adventure, which he continued, until at last he lost his life at Crecy, fighting for his friend Philip VI.’


The Revolutionary Cola di Rienzo (1313-1354)

Photo: Di Lalupa – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27774256


‘Rienzi was an inveterate opponent of the aristocrats, by whom his own brother had been ruthlessly murdered, and full of sympathy for the poor and the oppressed. His speeches before the Pope excited much notice and admiration. All through this he had evidently the true orator’s gift of swaying men by a word, an almost miraculous power of influence and attraction. The Pope honoured him with an official post in Rome, and on his return from Avignon, Rienzi set himself heart and soul to prepare the way for a democratic revolution. Little by little he won over the people. He excited their minds by speeches and allegorical pictures which showed Rome in shame and distress from which popular effort alone could raise her. To avert suspicion until his schemes were ripe, he played the buffoon before the Orsini and the Colonna, so that they never dreamed of his real character and power. When the time came he struck boldly and with promptitude. On Whitsunday, 1347, having spent the previous night in prayer and preparation, he headed a procession to the Capitol, where he had summoned a meeting of the people to consider the passing of new laws and measures of government; there he swayed the crowd by his eloquence, and proclaimed an edict of reform and retribution. With one accord the assembly hailed him as their ruler, and gave Tribune full power over the laws and government of the Roman Republic. This revolution was accomplished without the shedding of one drop of blood: struck as by a spell, the old Senators fled and many nobles hastened from the city where their power had been undermined.’

The rest is not so good. The nobles objected, the Pope denounced him as a heretic and a criminal and he was driven out of Rome. He became a hermit for a while then offered ‘visionary services’ to Emperor Charles IV, who didn’t know what to do with him and sent him to the Pope in Avignon, where he was put in prison.

‘Clement died in 1352 and two years later the new pope, Innocent VI, sent Cola to Rome on a mission to restore papal authority in the city. Arriving at the beginning of August and resuming his career as dictator, he found himself opposed by the nobles and desperately short of money.

‘Cola was always highly excitable and now, according to his contemporary biographer, he had become hysterically volatile, laughing one moment and crying the next. To raise money, he levied taxes on wine and salt, which was not popular, and began arresting well-to-do citizens and demanding a ransom for their release. He failed to pay his soldiers, which proved to be a mistake when an angry mob, some of them in the pay of the Colonnas, gathered outside his palace on the morning of October 8th and began hurling stones and bawling for his death. Cola now found himself with no bodyguard. Putting his helmet and body armour on, he went out onto the upper balcony and gestured for silence. He was a magical orator and might well have calmed the crowd down, but they refused to give him the opportunity, grunting noisily like pigs to drown his voice, throwing stones, setting the building’s gates on fire and shouting for his death.

‘Cola saw it was hopeless and went back inside. He took off his armour, hastily cut his beard, blackened his face with soot and, pretending to be a rustic from outside the city, mingled with the crowd and joined them in bellowing for his own death. He was recognized, however, seized and dragged to the steps of the Capitol. There after a long, grim pause–perhaps to wait for orders? — one man stabbed Cola in the stomach, another in the head and then one after another stabbed him until he was riddled like a sieve. Joking merrily, his assassins dragged the body to the Piazzo San Marcello, near the Colonna palace, where they hung it up for two days while boys threw stones at it. Then on the orders of the Colonnas a fire was made and the corpse was burned to ashes. ‘Because he was so fat,’ his biographer says, ‘he burnt easily and freely’. He was in his early forties.’






An Epic Ramble

Appropriately enough, this post on epic poems is too long. What can I say? Things got out of hand…I started out with a couple of thoughts on the Portuguese epic, but one thing led to another and before I knew it I was slashing my way through Greek hordes, roaming the Mediterranean, founding Italy, following Virgil through Hell, scolding Moors and generally having an exhausting time. 

Excerpt from The Iliad


The Iliad

What got me thinking about epics is that last year my husband John Dolan published a brand-new version of The Iliad. Not to brag, but he has managed to do what no one in the past ten centuries has done, which is to skirt the swampy muck of boringness in which other valiant authors have foundered, starved and been pickled like big cats in the La Brea tar pits. His is a version that a 21st-century audience can actually read, understand and enjoy.


John quickly realized that a word-for-word literal translation was not necessarily the best way to transmit this story to a modern audience. Until now, The Iliad has been treated (by academics) like a fragile museum artefact that must be handled with archival gloves, hidden behind glass, observed from a distance with a respectful hush and generally only handled by experts who know their dactyls from their trochees.

This approach disregards the fact that The Iliad, conceived and developed in the oral tradition is by nature supposed to be fluid and flexible. Ramon Glazov’s review succinctly describes the translator’s problem when choosing to treat this text as a sacred, immutable artefact:

Translation is more than just carrying a text from language to language; it’s also a passage from audience to audience. To its Greek listeners, the Iliad didn’t need footnotes or endnotes. It wasn’t ‘literature’ or a status marker for taste and education. It was popular entertainment, put on at boozy gatherings by MCs whose talent could get them free drinks. That mood is hard to recapture now, even if a translator’s philology is faultless. (Imagine a future where students pore over John Carpenter screenplays in Penguin Classics editions, but no living person has watched The Thing.

The epic is a particularly tricky genre to translate because the ancients favored conventions specially designed to infuriate us. These include Muses, ‘catalogues’ (endless lists of things like ships, heroes, nations, tribe names), lengthy formal speeches, stock phrases repeated ad nauseum (e.g. ‘the rosy-fingered dawn’) and poetic circumlocutions referring to places or people that necessitate reading footnotes. Also, I personally don’t know anyone who would willingly read a book-length poem in hexameter (or any other kind of meter). Since most of these conventions originated as mnemonic devices, it seems acceptable to drop them in an age of 64 GB memory chips. Elmore Leonard famously said, ‘I try to leave out the parts that people skip’, which is also a good summary of John’s modus operandi.

Sometimes, though, John actually had to replace what other translators had left out. Parts of The Iliad have been deliberately underplayed or even ignored, especially its comedy. Since Roman times, for example, we have been conditioned to expect high seriousness from Homer, and this blinds us to his humor. Erasmus went against the grain by saying, ‘if anyone examines more closely the lives of those sober gods in Homer…he will find them all full of folly’. A few scholars do point out that The Iliad contains a good deal of Punch-and-Judy style slapstick and cruel humor but, as Robert H. Bell says, ‘It remains difficult to comprehend (much less enjoy) [it].’ John’s translation, inspired by the shining examples of Looney Tunes and Itchy & Scratchy (which rely on exaggerated violence for laughs), manages to make it a bit less difficult.

There is another aspect that sits uncomfortably with modern readers expecting high seriousness: the prominence given to a less-than-benign supernatural/divine presence. The big family of squabbling, shape-shifting gods seems variously trivial, artificial or (for believers) blasphemous. The movie Troy, which is based on The Iliad, dispenses with the gods entirely (not counting Brad Pitt, of course). John, who is steeped in fantasy and Sci Fi lore, embraced the spooky weirdness. He had a good time tweaking these supernatural actors in a way that can intrigue a modern audience. The part where Achilles aggravates the river Yellow, who is the father of Asterapayos, is funny, wild and weird:

Akilles laughs, “I decide who dies and where! I won’t stop till Hector is looking at his own intestines at my feet.”

And he jumps into the shallows to provoke the river, kicking at the stream. 

Yellow lashes up into a fist of water and knocks him onto the bank. Then the river calls, “Apollo, I know you’re watching all this! Where’s your bow? You always leave your people in the lurch!” 

Akilles is getting to his feet on the bank, but the river swells into a flood that flows uphill at him, uprooting brush and trees. 

Yellow crawls out of its banks, tossing Trojan corpses from its streams, surging toward Akilles. 

He sees a wave, another fist of water, rising up to hit him, and grabs at a tree. But the water-fist slams into him so hard that it rips the tree out by the roots. Akilles is knocked flying, and as he tries to get to his feet, Yellow forms another giant water-fist and sends him flying again. 

The way John has restored the humor and supernatural to The Iliad is analogous to the way conservators in the late 20th century have shown that Greek statues were originally painted. And not just a little highlight here and there, either, but full-on, over-the-top kaleidoscopic garishness, the kind you need sunglasses to look at. These developments allow us to view the ancient Greeks in a new light: not as elegant minimalists but gaudy showboaters.


A Persian archer in neat leggings. [Image from http://thedailycuriosity.tumblr.com/post/8371803203/despite-popular-belief-they-ancient-greeks-often ]

The Roman Empire

Before I get into a description of Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), I should probably mention another epic, The Aeneid by Publius Vergilius Naso, aka Virgil. By the time Virgil was born around 70 BC, The Iliad had been doing the rounds for more than a millennium. It had been repeated by schoolboys, recited at competitions, alluded to by literary bigwigs and generally held up to everyone as a literary paragon.

It’s not surprising, then, that when Virgil set about writing his own epic, he aimed to incorporate, emulate and rival The Iliad and The Odyssey. The echoes are unmistakable: Aeneas is a Homeric hero present at the fall of Troy; he wanders the world and visits the Underworld, as does Odysseus in The Odyssey; battles are described in great, pathetic detail; there are those interminable catalogues. When Aeneas reaches Italy and establishes the race that will rule the world, the quest is at an end, creating a sense of homecoming and restored justice comparable to when Odysseus reaches Ithaca and resumes charge of his household. Virgil constantly evokes Homer to show how the Roman Empire is really an extension of those glory days. Augustus is a descendent of Aeneas (and by extension, Venus), Virgil is Homer’s heir. All this confers a kind of fatal inevitability on the status quo—things were always meant to be this way. This must have been a comforting idea in a century characterized by endless conspiracies and civil war. While some scholars argue Virgil is a subversive critic of the empire, The Aeneid looks like nation-boosting propaganda and Augustus himself was reportedly tickled pink. It is, perhaps, superfluous to say that Virgil dispensed with the humor. Everything is very serious, official and infused with gravitas, which is only palatable because of  Virgil’s sympathetic and frankly mopey nature.

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Art Institute of Chicago.


The Proto-Renaissance

With the rise of Christianity, Classical authors fell out of favor, especially in Western Europe and knowledge of ancient Greek was rare as early as 500CE. Even though scholars knew and admired Virgil and other Classical authors, they rejected their stories as un-Christian and therefore blasphemous. Saint Gregory of Tours reportedly said, “We ought not to relate their lying fables, lest we fall under sentence of eternal death.”

Classical works were, though, translated into Arabic, Syriac and Persian and distributed throughout the East. The Abbasid dynasty of Baghdad (750-1258) was particularly keen to amass and translate these treasures. It was during this period that the scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq travelled to Alexandria, came away with a good knowledge of Greek and proceeded to translate a heap of manuscripts earning him the moniker ‘Sheikh of Translators’. The Moors’ occupation of Iberia (711-1492) meant that ancient Greek works began to be translated from Arabic into Spanish. Meanwhile, Byzantium (where Greek was the main language of administration and writing) held a large collection of works in the original Greek. With the gradual collapse of Byzantium, many scholars moved west, brought these manuscripts with them and translated them into Latin and European languages.

Illumination from Hunayn ibn-Ishaq al-‘Ibadi manuscript of the Isagogue (An introduction to Aristotle’s ‘Categories’)

The Late Middle Ages brought us the ‘three fountains’ of Humanism: Dante Alighieri (1265), Petrarch (1304-1374) and Bocaccio (1313-1375). These Florentine writers and scholars were all strong exponents of Classical learning.

Petrarch had a particular love for Latin literature and was an advocate of the continuity between Classical culture and Christianity. The Encyclopedia Britannica sums up the importance of his influence:

By making a synthesis of the two seemingly conflicting ideals–regarding the one as the rich promise and the other as its divine fulfillment–he can claim to be the founder and great representative of the movement known as European humanism.  

On Easter Sunday 1341, in an elaborate ceremony on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, Petrarch was crowned laureate. In his speech, Petrarch claimed he was reviving a classical tradition and that a return to the spirit of the ancients would revive an exhausted culture (Rome was at that time wracked by civil strife and had lost the Papal seat to Avignon).

As a youth, Dante developed a taste for Latin literature. When the great unrequited love of his life, Beatrice, died, he turned to Latin literature for solace. His Divine Comedy, though not strictly an epic, borrows the tone and author of The Aeneid: Virgil himself is the narrator’s guide and spiritual advisor. This was not quite as blasphemous as it might seem–many people of the age believed that Virgil had predicted the birth of Christ and was therefore some kind of honorary Christian. Not only that, but Hell is peopled with the souls of antique characters: Achilles, Statius, Tarquin, Telemachus, Vulcan and Penelope.

Dante meets Virgil in Inferno 1 (Bodleian Library, Holkham Hall, misc. 48, p. 2)

Boccaccio, a friend of Petrarch, was also a scholar, poet and champion of Classical learning. He befriended a scholar and theologian named Barlaam of Calabria who had tried his hand at translations of Homer, Euripides and Aristotle. Discussions with Petrarch led Boccaccio to write Genealogia deorum gentilium (On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles). This was not only an extensive guide to deities mentioned in Classical literature, but also an apologia for the study of ancient literature and thought.


The Portuguese Empire

Fast-forward a couple of centuries and Europe’s elite are up to their necks in Classical art and literature. Many modern artworks had Classical themes, such as Giambologna Douai’s ‘Venus’, Sandro Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ c.1480), and Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens‘ (c.1509). French writers not only translated and staged the plays of Sophocles, Seneca, Euripides and others, but they also wrote original plays based on plots from ancient mythology or history.

Pegasus and Mercury; detail of ‘Parnassus’ by Andrea Mantegna https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parnassus_(Mantegna)

In 1497, the same year Andrea Mantegna painted ‘Parnassus’, a doughty admiral named Vasco da Gama found a sea-route from Portugal to Calicut, allowing his countrymen to monopolize the spice trade. Portugal became wealthy and powerful and its empire extended from Brazil to Eastern Africa to the East Indes.  

Brass figure of a Portuguese soldier holding a musket, 17th century C.E., Benin, Nigeria © Trustees of the British Museum

Not much later, a man named Luís Vaz de Camões (1524-1580) would write an epic poem about this fateful voyage: Os Lusíadas (1572), referring to Portugal’s former name of Lusitania. Da Gama’s feat was an astonishing achievement, and it is not hard to see why a bright young man of the age would see a way to make a link between the feats of ancient heroes and those of contemporary ones. Like The Aeneid, Camões’ epic celebrates the achievements and virtues of his countrymen. Like Dante, he stresses continuity between past and present and, like Virgil, he suggests that the great feats of antiquity have been outdone:

Cease the sage Grecian and Man of Troy

To vaunt long Voyage made in bygone day:

Cease Alexander, Trajan cease to ‘joy

The fame of vict’ories that have pass’d away:

The noble Lusian’s stouter breast sing I,

Whom Mars and Neptune dared not disobey:

Cease all that antique Muse hath sung, for now

A better Brav’ry rears its bolder brow.

Unfortunately, the poem is ghastly, at least in the translations that I’ve seen. Burton’s effort (1880) is full of words like ‘rutilant’ and ‘welkin’. I couldn’t get past Canto III in spite of the titillating prospect of a sojourn on the ‘Isle of Love’ later in the poem. Confronting aspects (aside from tedious braggadocio), include the rabid, really almost psychopathic, hatred of Moors and other foreigners and the relentless, unconvincing depiction of the Portuguese as the innocent and long-suffering good guys. This becomes particularly objectionable when you know they were chopping off the hands of anyone who looked at them funny.

If you’re interested in the story of Portuguese exploration and conquest, a good prose account (recommended to me by John) is the history Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, by Roger Crowley.

Camões’ own life is an interesting tale and a bit epic in itself. When his father died young seeking his fortune in Goa, his mother remarried and young Luis was taught by Dominicans and Jesuits. As a youth he was a talented scholar and handsome person who cut a neat figure at the Lisbon court until he irritated someone and was exiled from the capital in 1548. He then enlisted in the overseas militia and fought bravely in Ceuta (on the north coast of Africa), losing an eye in a naval battle. He returned to Lisbon but got in trouble for assaulting a member of the Royal Stables. Thrown into prison, he was released thanks to his mother and his sentence was reduced to a fine and three years’ service in the militia in the Orient. In 1553 he boarded the São Bento for Goa. During his obligatory service he fought along the Malabar Coast and near Egypt and India. At the end of the three years, he became chief warrant officer in Macau, charged with managing the properties of missing and deceased soldiers in the Orient, which gave him plenty of time to work on his poem. On his way back to Portugal he was shipwrecked near the Mekong River on the coast of Cambodia and lost his Chinese lover. Legend has it hthat he managed to hold his epic over his head while swimming to shore, which sounds pretty dubious. Anyway, he arrived back in Lisbon in 1570 and published Os Lusiadas two years later. In 1578, in the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, Portugal’s army was destroyed, along with King Sebastian himself and most of the country’s nobility. Two years later, Camoes died. Mickle describes the poet’s sad end in an introduction to his translation:

By some it is said he died in an almshouse. It appears, however, that he had not even the certainty of subsistence which these houses provide. He had a black servant, who had grown old with him, and who had long experienced his master’s humanity. This grateful Indian, a native of Java, who, according to some writers, saved his master’s life in the unhappy shipwreck where he lost his effects, begged in the streets of Lisbon for the only man in Portugal on whom God had bestowed those talents, which have a tendency to erect the spirit of a downward age.


Sir Richard Francis Burton

As I said, I don’t think that much of Burton’s translation of The Lusiads. However, I am a huge fan of the mustachio’d renegade Ruffian Dick and intend to write plenty more about him later. His picture says it all:

What a guy!


I was quite taken with the introduction to his translation, written by his wife Isabel. She did burn his translation of The Perfumed Garden, which is a shame, but you can’t really blame a Victorian woman for not wanting her husband to be known for a how-to manual on pederasty.  Anyway, here is her description of Burton’s attitude to Cãmoens:

this translation stands apart from all the rest–as far apart as the Passionspiel of Ober-Ammergau stands apart as a grand dramatic act of devotion from all the other Miracle-plays, now suppressed. This translation is not a literary tour de force done against time or to earn a reputation; it is the result of a daily act of devotion of twenty years from a man of this age who has taken the hero of a former age for his model, his master, as Dante did Virgil; and between whose two fates–Master and Disciple–exists a strange and fatal similarity.