There is a particular sort of novel of which I always profess to be passionately fond: the sort with one plotline in the olden days with people doing their olden-day thing, and one in the present with eager scholars researching the very olden-day events in the other plotline. (Is there a word for this sort of book? Can there be one?) If you have ever reviewed a book like this on your blog, I have probably commented to say something like, “Love this sort of book! Adore! Worship! Cannot imagine my life without!” and added it to my reading list straight away.
When pressed, though*, I can only think of one such novel that I would recommend to a friend, and then only if I knew the friend in question didn’t mind extreme wordiness. (A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I should read that again. It’s been years.) More often I am disappointed on an epic scale by the author’s failure to live up to some arbitrary and impossibly high standard for this kind of novel.
*By me. Much as I would like to live the sort of life where book lovers from all over the nation are constantly bashing at my door trying to get my opinion on Important Literary Matters, I am not yet at that place in my life. Give it time.
For reasons far too complicated** to go into here, I am binging on Tom Stoppard right now. I started with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, moved on to The Invention of Love, the result of which you saw, and just finished the play I normally claim as my favorite, Arcadia. Arcadia goes back and forth between Byron-times, when a thirteen-year-old girl called Thomasina contemplates Latin translations and carnal embrace under the instruction of her tutor Septimus Hodge (that sounds much dirtier than it is), and present times, when scholars research Thomasina’s family and try to work out whether Byron ever shot a poet at their house.
**And awesome. I would tell you what they are, except that I’m afraid that if I did, my sister’s boyfriend would no longer be able to write that treatise on Tom Stoppard and the nature of art that I expect he is currently planning, and also that Tom Stoppard’s people (I’m assuming he has people. He’s Tom Stoppard.) would find this post, take umbrage at my flippant tone, and decline to allow Tom Stoppard to be interviewed by anyone ever again. Better safe than sorry, right?
No wonder other books of this type have failed to satisfy me! I have been comparing them all this time against Tom Stoppard! It is hardly fair. Especially when you consider that Billy Crudup, on whom I have a massive crush from Charlotte Gray and Almost Famous, played Septimus at one point in his career; and Bill Nighy, on whom I have a massive man-crush*** from, well, everything, was the original Bernard; and both of them are playing those roles in my head when I read Arcadia. It’s like saying, Oh hey, I traveled back in time and saw the original production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe with William Shakespeare playing Oberon, so WHY CAN’T YOU MEASURE UP, NEIL GAIMAN?****
***My little sister and I got fed up with having no word to describe our feelings for male actors we adore but don’t have crushes on. We can say “crush” to describe how we feel about Ben Barnes, and “girl-crush” to describe how we feel about Carey Mulligan and Helen Mirren, but there is no word for how we feel about Nathan Fillion and Johnny Depp. So we decided to say “man-crush”. It is officially the most useful word I coined in the 2009 holiday season (with “snuddle” a close if nauseating second).
****Confession: Before I ever saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I read Susan Cooper’s heart-wrenching King of Shadows, in which a lonely orphan boy travels back to Shakespeare times to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Shakespeare takes care of him. While playing Oberon. I think that may actually be why I have never seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that satisfied me. That, or the Royal Shakespeare Company is massively overrated.
Arcadia gives us alternating scenes in past and present, gradually unfolding the little drama that took place in the old days between a poet called Chater and another called Byron. Stoppard manages to maintain intellectual and emotional suspense while exploring chaos theory, the intersection of science and humanities, and the limits of human knowledge. While, also, being very funny:
Thomasina: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?
Septimus: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.
Thomasina: Is that all?
Septimus: No…a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well-hugged, an embrace of grouse…caro, carnis, feminine: flesh.
Thomasina: Is it a sin?
Septimus: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh. QED. We had caro in our Gaulic Wars: ‘The Britons live on milk and meat’ – ‘lacte et carne vivunt’. I am sorry the seed fell on stony ground.
Thomasina: That was the sin of Onan, wasn’t it, Septimus?
Septimus: Yes. He was giving his brother’s wife a Latin lesson and she was hardly the wiser after it than before.
Phew. Dizzy from all the wordplay.
Tom Stoppard, y’all. Arcadia. I almost got to see it in London but then did not, and I really wished I had organized my schedule better. It’s a magnificent example of the above-mentioned double-plotline sort of story, the standard to which all others of this type should aspire.