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Stealing Home from Martial’s Third Base Epigram

I admit to this peculiarity: I read one thing and a completely different thing pops into my notebook. I recently finished Martial’s Epigrams. They’re out of copyright since they were composed in c.40 – 104 CE, the pre-book days of publishing. Several of them made me laugh out loud, which probably shows my wit is old-fashioned. Most of the jokes I know are certainly from that era. I’m working on a very big book and my method is unusual, not to say novel–’cause you’d all groan at such a pun. I am writing the whole thing at once rather than working from end to end.

As I devoured Martial’s clever quips, I would sometimes stop and read the Latin (badly) and a transformed version would make its way into the draft of my book. Here are several widely dispersed scenes, all caused directly or obliquely by my Roman friend:

Doctor Willard, recently a physician, now has a job where he’s a mortician: same clientele but a slight change of condition.  (Parody of Nuper erat medicus)

You know, Keith, when you freely allowed everyone to touch your sister there were no takers. Since you appointed Tim Healy as a body-guard, she’s had a randy horde on her heels; You’re an ingenious fellow. (Parody of  Nullus in urbe fuit tota)

     “You do insults. I’ve heard you. But have you ever tried to do compliments?”

     “Don’t be silly, we’re boys.”

     “Here, give it a try.” Megan though a moment, “Habib is naughtier than Catullus’s sparrow. Get the idea?”

     “I like this,” Habib said, sitting up with a nefarious smirk.

     “What are you doing with your face?” Duncan asked, a hint of defensiveness dusting the fringe of his words.

     “It’s a wicked smile with a pinch of derision because I though of a good one: Duncan is more seductive than any bird, and Megan is more pure than a dove’s kiss.”

     “Habib is the most precious Indian treasure,” Megan joined in.

     “Bollocks,” Duncan lost the thread, “he’s a fake dog poo. Put him side by side with a real dog poo and nobody can tell the difference.” (Parody of Issa est passere nequior Catulli)

Mrs. Iqbal-Nash shrouded herself in the tinted darkness of the car. Mister Iqbal read her good-bye note, his hands frozen in place and his voice shivering in the heat, “Into the care of my late mum and dad, Ron and Cilla, I commend the soul of my little loved one, Habib.” He stopped a moment, the slightest catch in his voice. His lips hugged one another until they were ready to move on. “Look after him in those shadows we can’t see through. He’d be seventeen in four months if…” The silence flowed back into the red bricked hall. His father looked down and decided not to forsake his son’s eulogy. “I hope his word games don’t annoy you too much. I hope the leaves fall gently on his ashes in the Water Wood that he loved so much. It’s the one where his feet fell gently on the leaves every Autumn.”  (Transforms Hanc tibi, Fronto pater, geneterix Flacilla, puellam)

He remembered an advert for the Job Shop: If you want to make some money, join a band. If intellect isn’t your thing, we have openings for auctioneers and architects. (Vaguely related to Cui tradas, Lupe, filium magistro)

     “See, that’s why we don’t bet on no races. That number three dog dropped back on the last curve; he was winning a bribe for losing the race.”

     “What’s a dog gunna do with money?”

     “Buy hisself a rabbit. He knows they ain’t ever going to catch the one in their race.” (Suggested by Vapulat adsidue veneti quadriga flagello)

If you’re stuck for a big story idea–that plot thing that creative writing teachers seem to think is important–try grabbing some small ideas and seeing if they fit together to suggest a story. What have you got to lose? Apart from an evening reading Latin jokes and dirty limericks.

Ask not for whom the writer writes

It’s in all the books; you hear it at clinics and in class: Who are you writing for? I usually fall back on claiming that I write for myself, sales be damned! However, a funny thing happened on the way back from Atlanta. I was listening to a lecture on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, as one does on such expeditions, when Professor Greenberg noted that the trumpet part was written with a single performer in mind, a virtuoso player by the name of Johann Ludwig Schreiber. The trumpet part is still considered one of the most difficult in the entire repertoire even with the change from valveless to valved instruments.

This gave rise to a question: What would a story or book look like if it was written for a virtuoso reader? Poetry might be one answer, a story that makes you think about the texture and construction of the language might be another. No matter. This was the genesis for my new answer to that ever recurring question I started with.

My writing is scored for the Virtuoso reader. I refuse to dumb-down my prose to make it accessible to the average reader. This isn’t snobbery; it’s that I like the baroque complexity and structure that I produce. Thus my excuse takes me back to the answer I have previously given–I write for myself. If a publisher pushes me to define my target audience, I now have a term I can give them: the virtuoso reader.

Patently Fictitious

Habib’s English teacher, Mr. Bell, was one of the smallest members of the teaching staff, even on a Monday; however, he had a reputation for rousing sleeping students by slamming a large book onto their desk and shouting, “Tired students die more easily!”

The first time Habib saw him do this, he thought, ~Bellicose Bell bellows by the beastly boy below.~ Unaware that it had expired, Habib attempted to write a story that did not infringe the patent on plots. Skipping the specification and figures, his claims read:

1. A story comprising at least one plot device selected from the group consisting of: boy meets girl, stranger comes to town, boy loses girl, hero goes on a journey, boy regains girl, and man hunts whale.

2. The story of claim 1 in which Hamlet’s father’s ghost sets off an unfortunate chain of events.

An abstract of Habib’s story would read along the lines of, “Stranger comes to town where he meets girl and boy. Girl and boy lose stranger but his ghost sends them whale hunting for their fathers.”

Mister Bell’s response was scribbled obliquely across the bottom in red pen, “Obvious. I anticipated the ending, as have many before me. Your grammar and spelling is atroceous.” For good measure he had added his initials with a florid swirl. It was an illegible signature, but it wasn’t Kurtz, it appeared to say, “Jesus.”

A Chunk of Jig-saw Puzzle

The front cover will include text that has been torn from all sorts of places: a phrase from a newspaper headline, a word from a Sears catalogue, two letters scavenged from a shoe box, one from a Subway napkin, and three more trimmed from Auntie Linda’s Christmas card. That’s all as it should be, because that’s pretty much how the book is being written. Here are several fragments taped together and masquerading as the opening of a short story:

Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were as forgettable as all the other kings and queens who had lived since time began. On Saturday, April 7, the queen agreed to join the king for a ride in his dingy along the mighty River Cole. Max Smith turned to watch the launching, gliding in sharp prowed silence with the blades of his single skull brushing the still surface of the Cole like the feet of a water spider below the rowlocks on their riggers. His widow’s peak and run-away mustache completed the skinny antithesis of what one would expect of a champion rower. He had taken gold in the cup races back in October, and yet he looked every pound a weakling as he nodded silent recognition to Habib.

With mock formality, Habib greeted Nichaline, “Good morrow, young miss. I trust she fares well.”

She replied with a very low bow, “Good morrow to the sailor. Neptune be praised that he is returned unharmed.”

“They found better meat, so they didn’t eat me, said the sausage.”

“What courage,” replied the butcher’s daughter.

“Right it is,” he answered, and with the oars steadying the dingy at the bank, and Max Smith’s little dog, Montmorency, unhappy and deeply suspicious atop the Five Arches Bridge, into it she stepped and out they shot on to the waters which, for the next seventy minutes, were to be their home.

Within a few hundred yards Habib was perturbed by the silence. He put on his touch-of-Bronowski accent and gave a speech on hydrodynamics and hull design, “Where do vee get this combination of laminar und turbulent flow? Frum the deepest depths of skience, Nichaline.”

“You’re German, is that why you’re all toasted?”

“I’m half English and half Indian.”

“I though you were a Paki.”

Habib, who had heard far worse far too often, casually replied, “Dad got here before partition. Always called himself Indian.”

“So, which half is Indian?” Nichaline asked, with either surprising facial control or surprising dumbdom.

“Everything from the waist down.”

She became less high spirited, more edgy, ill at ease. Applying steady and splashless strokes, Habib moved them up the river. It was wrapped in a delicate grey haze with a mud brown undertone, like a dirty thought struggling for words through a mist of racing hearts. Turbid waters dodged under the Highfield Road Bridge, threatening to give up a face or a waving arm through its dull murk–a murky depth that suggested drowned creatures, or staring corpses, white from bleeding in some ponded shell hole on the Western front.

In an attempt to defuse the racial shell that threatened the stability of their boat, Habib explained the Troy two to the one-hundred theory. This was his name for the principle that for any modern individual to have been the product of matings between unrelated humans since the siege of Troy, there would have to have been two to the power of one hundred humans alive at that time: a figure that dwarfs the total number of humans that have ever lived. Thus, he concluded, we are all related or highly inbred, “an interesting dilemma for those who support wars against those of different races.”

Playing seriously

There is no reason that a serious story cannot be told with comic asides. These can even be a useful place to foreshadow important events. One of my character’s invented a word game that crept into a description of them preparing to put on a play. I now have six pages of ‘bedioms’ to use and abuse in other parts of the novel.

“Back in your places; today is tomorrow’s yesterday! Our charwallah is done, thank you, sexton,” [predictable snuffles of laughter and repetitions of the word ‘sexton’ in strange voices] “and you should all have been to the kharsie.  Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent sleep therefore we must Seize the blanket because when opportunity knocks, the head-board rattles.”

Sir Jimmy occasionally mixed pithy sayings with his directions and explanations on making actions louder than the narrator’s words, with his costume suggestions and requests for prop manufacturing, and with his instructions on stage craft and set crafting. However, Habib had devised a game called ‘bedioms’ in which he sabotaged proverbs by the addition of a piece of furniture for sleep. Over the following years, these adages and maxims of the bedroom became so ingrained in his speech that Megan recalled other people as having used these sleepy turns of phrase when they had, in fact, never strayed from the regular dictums of the Burning Hammers. As a result, it became impossible to reproduce Sir Jimmy’s oration with the correct aphorisms. In a similar way, all memories of Sir Jimmy eventually placed him in a tweed hunting jacket with leather ovals stitched to the elbows, a pair of green-brown trousers that ballooned above his knees, “Khaki, don’t ya’ know, that’s the colour,” and a rolled umbrella with a handle that folded out to form a small seat, “Don’t call it an umbrella, it’s a shooting stick, laddie.”

Memory also rearranged the room for all subsequent rehearsals, placing Allenedmunds at the piano every minute of every occasion, tickling the ivories with a cheesy grin although even a blind pig occasionally goes to bed. The mob of little ones in their dark green cub scout pullovers or mud-toned brownie smocks was muted as if all the world’s a bed and all the people in it were asleep. The four older children learned their lines and the actions society expected of them, maturing with the inelegance of every teenager since Mr. and Mrs. Afarensis told their daughter to clean her nest, and with bed comes wisdom. But putting on the Mercian Enigma play was easier bed than done, with many a slip between bed and breakfast. They hoped for the best and prepared for bed, an uneasy truce forming between the factions of youth under the golden rule: Sleep as you would be slept by. While their church hall was god between four bed-posts, more lessons were to be learned: slumber doesn’t pay and you can’t sleep twice in the same bed. Soon enough, curiosity wrecked the bed, for an idle brain is the devil’s bedroom.