Saturday, October 3, 2015

Translating Shakespeare for English Speakers: An Act of Cultural Survival?

RSC Production of As You Like It

No playwright is more translated and adapted than Shakespeare, as (almost) every culture seems to have an insatiable need to meet his work half-way, inspiring many of the great writers and poets (and directors) to coin their own Shakespearean language. Given this, you would think that English speakers praise their lucky stars to be have this amazing literature born from their mother tongue, which requires no artful translation or extravagant staging. You can simply crack open King Lear or The Tempest and have at it. And yet, so many English-speakers, and chief among them students, groan at the very mention of Shakespeare and his all-but-unreadable language, which they often claim is “old English.” A Shakespeare play no longer draws throngs of eager pilgrims as it once did, as many claim the plays are too remote, too obscure, and require someone explaining all the business on stage. If only he could just speak “English” so it would all make sense! Indeed, many audiences find themselves lost in a labyrinth of language which leads them in circles, at least until they grasp at the coattails of a plot. This has inspired many theater companies to severely edit the plays, removing strange references and shortening lengthy speeches of verse. Some go even further and attempt a complete translation, making Shakespeare’s characters speak “our” language (wherever “we” are at the moment), so the audience can enjoy a simple night’s entertainment without having to pull up Spark Notes on their cell phones.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Read My Book: The Winged Turban is published

In previous posts I talked about my novel-in-progress, The Winged Turban, which I've posted in installments on Inkitt and which won second place in one of their contests. After much revising and hemming and hawing, I decided to publish it today so it can join my other two books on Amazon. It's very much in the high-fantasy vein, though without excessive swordfighting (hell, there isn't any) or battles; it's a quiet, humorous fantasy novel about magic, love, and whether or not any of us are living the "right" lives. I dedicated the book to my Spring 2015 British Science Fiction and Fantasy class, which spent the entire semester reading so many great works--Tolkein, White, Dunsany, etc.-all of which inspired me to finish the book and respond to the great, on-going conversation of fantasy literature. 

Here's the blurb from Amazon: Beatrice is the victim of an arranged match to the Duke of Saffredento, who hastily abandons her to an estate full of forgotten traditions and curses. When the portrait of a strange woman begins turning up in the house, she summons the great sorcerer, Hildigrim Blackbeard, to investigate. The portrait, it seems, has traveled through time to find her—and bring her back by any means necessary. For she can no longer be Beatrice of Saffredento, but a young woman who died two-hundred years ago and must be reborn through the magic of an Enchanted Circle. But no one in recorded history has ever conjured such a Circle, though quite a few have gone mad in the attempt...

You can buy the book here for 99 cents:

Also, my other books, The Astrologer's Portrait and The Count of the Living Death are free to download from Wednesday to Friday:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Death's a Mug's Game": Reading Life and Death in Gaiman's Sandman

[This is a short excerpt from my longer article on Gaiman that will appear in Gale/Cengage's British Writers Series XXIII next year: what follows is a brief reading of two comics from the series, which I hope will inspire people who haven't read them to pick them up!] 

Critics often ask—with all seriousness—why comics writers would write a comic instead of a traditional story or novel. Typically they see comics as a juvenile form of literature, or at best a way station for writers trying to break into more serious work. Gaiman, however, has always embraced the possibilities of what Will Eisner termed “sequential art,” and never distanced himself from the comics community that spawned his greatest success. Partly this is because for him, comics were “virgin territory.” As he goes on to explain, “When I’m writing novels I’m painfully aware that I’m working in a medium that people have been writing absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant things for, you know, three-four thousand years now...But with comics I felt like—I can do stuff nobody has ever done. I can do stuff nobody has ever thought of.” (Ogline, Wild River Review). One of the things he can do that “nobody has ever thought of” is the sheer range of associations possible in a literary comic book. While a story or novel can allude to this or that work, a comic book can literally have several stories/characters existing simultaneously in a single frame, even in distinct worlds/times/ universes. As Harlan Ellison, the famous science fiction writer, remarked about Sandman, “I remember finishing issues of Sandman and just sitting there trying to catch my breath, saying “What a ride this guy has taken me on. And I’d add, “how brilliantly clever.” I’m a fairly clever guy, and I knew that I was catching maybe a third of the cultural references in each issue that Neil would just casually drop in” (Bender xiii).  

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Pipe Organs of Crom! The Conan Soundtrack Lives Again...

Basil Poledouris' score for the classic (well, it might not be a masterpiece, but it has attained classic status) 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian, is one of the great fantasy film scores of all time. Without a blush, I would rank it alongside the Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings films, and (to move into science fiction), Horner and Goldsmith's Star Trek scores. Watch the film again sometime and notice how symphonic the movie is: it's almost all music, with hardly any dialogue, or little more than a page here and there.  It's almost a silent film in this regard, though a silent film with a score--making what could be a very stupid movie incredibly beautiful throughout. Certain moments even come close to ballet, such as the famous "Orgy" scene, where Conan and his companions sneak into the palace smeared with white and black paint to blend into the background. Watch how the worshippers sway to the slyly seductive music, while the thieves clamber about the set, always in time with the music. It's stunning stuff--but would mean absolutely nothing without the music.  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Machiavelli Among The Stars: A Re-Reading of Frank Herbert’s Dune

“How would you like to live billions upon billions of lives?” Paul asked. “There’s a fabric of legends for you! Think of all those experiences, the wisdom they’d bring. But wisdom tempers love, doesn’t it? And it puts a new shape on hate. Now can you tell what’s ruthless unless you’ve plumbed the depths of both cruelty and kindness? You should fear me, Mother. I am the Kwisatz Haderach.”

If someone asked me what my favorite science fiction book was, my immediate instinct would be to shout: “easy, Frank Herbert’s, Dune!” However, my actual memories of the book were hazy, colored largely by David Lynch’s eccentric adaptation of the book (which I still adore). So which Dune was I responding to, book or film? To answer this question, I decided to re-read the first book (at least) to separate fact from fiction, myth from matter. The results surprised me, but largely in the way I expected. For one, the book is much better than I remembered, and certainly a far more complete work of art than the film. In many ways, Dune is the work Machiavelli would write if he was born in the early 20th century rather than the 15th. Indeed, it bears the unmistakable stamp of the Italian Renaissance in its philosophy, political intrigue, and bizarre characters, any one of which might have existed in the courts of Lorenzo di Medici. When I read Dune, I was haunted by memories of not only The Prince, but works such as Castiglione’s The Courtier and More’s Utopia—as well as a subtle perfume of Shakespeare’s darker works such as Measure for Measure or King Lear. I say this not only because of the work’s literary merit, but because it shares age-old themes about power and the sacrifices required to maintain it. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Novels Aren’t Movies: Or, Why The Book is Always Better

We live in an age of film and digital media, which often exists uncomfortably with the world of the book, that wayward child of libraries and cathedrals, thinkers and scoundrels. Since most books today are novels, their direct pedigree goes back to the eighteenth century, when diverse literary forms such as the romance, the travel narrative, and the spiritual autobiography became entangled in a hodge-podge contraption which captured the emerging middle-class’ imagination. Indeed, some of the first novels were dramatic collections of letters detailing the melodramatic pursuit of a young girl’s chastity (Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa), or the no-nonsense journal of a castaway forced to create a replica of England in “savage” lands (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Music of Flame: The Orchestral Music of Alexander Scriabin

Imagine this, if you will: a gorgeous, pre-Raphaelite temple (to no particular god) set amidst the sublime landscape of the Himalayas.  You arrive for the performance of a lifetime—namely, Alexander Scriabin’s magnum opus, Mysterium, a work for orchestra, chorus, soloists, dancers, odors, colors, and perhaps the earth itself, which is to last an entire week.  At the conclusion of the work, the audience, along with the performers and the composer himself will die—ascending to the heavens in a state of cosmic bliss. In other words, the end of the world.  A kitschy bit of 21st century avant-garde postmodern performance art? was a work Scriabin conceived around 1909 and worked on feverishly until his death in 1915.  Scriabin began life as a virtuoso-composer in the mold of Chopin or Liszt, writing conventionally perfumed piano music in traditional forms—Preludes, Mazurkas, Etudes.  After an apprentice period which also saw the composition of two symphonies and a piano concerto, Scriabin immersed himself in the writings of Nietszche and conceived more grandiose ambitions for his music.  This only intensified once he became a member of the Theosophical Society and sought to embody the beliefs of Madame Blavatsky in art.  His piano music all-but departed from tonality, and he invented what he termed the “chord of the pleorma” (later called the “mystic chord”) which became the basis for many late compositions.  [read more about it here:].  Indeed, his middle and late music seemed to be as much about sight and smell as music itself, and he developed an elaborate system of colors correlating to each musical note (a system that other contemporaries, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, also espoused).  By the turn of the century, Scriabin seemed poised to be the messiah of a new branch of composition that would change music—and indeed, the world—forever.  But it was not to be: he tragically died of a lip infection at the tragically young age of 43, before many of his ideas could reach fruition.