Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Paul Griffiths, _Let Me Tell You_

I HAVE BEEN thinking that Ophelia might make a good subject for a historical-setting Young Adult novel. In every new crop of English majors these days, there are a few Elizabeth Bennet-ites, a few Jane Eyrians, and a few Ophelia-philes. There was even one young woman with an Ophelia tattoo--at least one, I should say.

That Ophelia's story has a foreordained grim ending need not dissuade authors from adapting her as a YAF heroine--YAF is getting fairly dark these days. And indeed, a World Cat search reveals there are already a few examples out there--Lisa Klein, Jeremy Trafford, Jackie French--which I have not read, but I am curious about.

My thoughts were turned in this direction by Paul Griffiths's Let Me Tell You, which I only knew about because it has been turned into a vocal piece by Hans Abrahamsen, sung by Barbara Hannigan. The musical piece was interesting enough that I decided to pick up the source material (Griffiths adapted his own novel for the libretto).

The trick of the novel, and the feature that would make it hard to market as YAF, is that Griffiths set himself the constraint of composing a first-person narrative that uses only words that Ophelia speaks in the play. That one can write even a short novel with such a constraint is impressive; that Griffiths finds way to make the novel illuminating and moving as well is downright astonishing.

The constraint ceases some serious challenges. For instance, in a novel, Ophelia is almost obliged to mention her mother, but Ophelia in the play never uses the word "mother." Griffiths has to resort to phrases like "my father and the other one." Griffiths then redeems the awkwardness of this circumlocution by spinning its implicit sense of alienation to create the plot development of Polonius's wife having had to leave the court due to infidelity.

Similarly, Ophelia never says "Hamlet," but her not mentioning her lover's name in chapter 12, a sustained lyric prose poem, actually heightens the euphoria that passage wishes to represent.

Griffiths even manages to compose a few sonnets (in the novel, they are the work of Laertes' mistress) with his Ophelia-set of words. Good ones, in fact.

Successful though the book is, the constraint does mean that the prose has an odd, filtered atmosphere due to the inevitable lack of certain lexical items, and the references often need puzzling out. Unlikely to crossover to the YAF market, in short. But who knows? Stranger things have happened. It might in time lead to even more Ophelia tattoos.

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