Paul Griffiths lets Ophelia recount her story in her own words. Literally. His first-person narration uses only the 481-word vocabulary that Shakespeare gives to Ophelia in Hamlet. It sounds bizarre. Yet the result is tender, touching and extremely beautiful.

Paul Griffiths, Let Me Tell You. Reality Street, 2008.
extracts in Golden Handcuffs Review No.8
reading notes by Anthony Miller

So: now I come to speak. At last. I will tell you all I know.... These are the words of Ophelia at the beginning of this short novel: literally her words, in that her narrative is composed entirely of the vocabulary she is allotted in Hamlet. Within these meagre resources, she manages to express herself on topics including her love for her father (Polonius), her care for her younger brother (Laertes), her puzzlement in the face of the Prince himself, and her increasing sense that she must escape the fate awaiting her in the play.

This is no mere technical exercise or prequel to the play: the use of such a restricted vocabulary means that Ophelia’s voice, while direct and passionate, gains musical qualities as words keep recurring in perpetually changing contexts.I found let me tell you a beautiful and enthralling work, as well as a great success in Oulipian terms.’ - Harry Mathews

Ambitious authors who fancy a tough climb may wish to try writing a work that wholly lacks, or flags up, particular linguistic traits. Such a book might limit its span to a tight vocabulary, cut parts of normal lingo, or fix strict laws to follow – as in many kinds of sport. A bunch of smart guys did such tricks in Paris not too long ago. "Oulipo" was this group's tag. That gang could brag about fabulous high points though, as all cults do, it soon ran out of puff. But that notion of a sort of writing bound by voluntary chains, as a big gambit against stiff odds, still has its fans. Fix your idiom, runs this mantra, and it will allow your imagination to soar.
Phew ... or perhaps, aargh! That was an Oulipian paragraph. This will not try to be. The Parisian pranksters' best-known achievement remains Georges Perec's novel without a single "e", La Disparition. With stunning brilliance, Gilbert Adair emulated what Oulipo calls a "lipogram" as he translated it into the equally e-less A Void. Oulipo, by the way, survived to thrive again: its current president, novelist and diplomat, is Paul Fournel, literature attaché at the French embassy in London.
Any poet, however amateur, who knows the unconscious rewards of rhyme will grasp the creative logic behind Oulipo's experiments. All works of art fix rules for themselves as a source of liberation. Save for the odd world-shaking genius, the freer the verse – or the fiction – the lower its value. Even in a time of anything-goes aesthetics, a set of self-chosen manacles may tempt. The Dogme film-makers, such as Lars von Trier, made an international splash with their no-frills manifesto.
But Oulipo, created in 1960 by a group that spanned engineers and mathematicians as well as literati, set the gold standard for artistic inspiration through willing bondage. One of its founders was the French-based American writer, Harry Mathews. His warm endorsement can be found on the cover of a slim novel by Paul Griffiths, Let Me Tell You (Reality Street Editons, £9).
Griffiths, a leading music critic and author of two other novels, here lets Ophelia recount her story in her own words. Literally. His first-person narration uses only the 481-word vocabulary that Shakespeare gives to Ophelia in Hamlet. It sounds bizarre. Yet the result is tender, touching and extremely beautiful. Neither archaic nor colloquial, Ophelia's language both reflects her bounded life and strives to overcome it. "My words may be poor," as she says, "but they will have to do".
We grow accustomed to this sad young woman's voice. The limits of her speech begin to feel as natural as breathing. They never muffle – in fact, they intensify – her bewilderment at Hamlet's pain, a lost soul "of such cold woe that one could weep". They brighten the glimpses of a happy childhood, quicken the anguish of estrangement from Laertes ("how could that sweet little brother of my memory have turned in to this?") and sharpen anger at her mother's neglect as she sports lasciviously with her lovers: "To be gyved. To be jangled. To be larded. To be larded all over and in me. To be done. To be well and truly done."
As the plot of Hamlet circles round her like a wolf from the surrounding snows, she seeks to give it the slip and "make another way" (shades of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). Ophelia feels, and shows, that "there's more to me now than the poor, sweet daughter". And she does so in achingly lovely words – all her own words – that stem from Shakespeare but bring Beckett's later prose to mind.
Sceptics often assume that Oulipo-style obstacles imprison feeling in a cage of constraint. Rhyming poetry has for centuries proved otherwise. Let Me Tell You narrows its range to deepen its impact (again, Beckett is the exemplar). Not many authors will want to wear such shackles. Only a few can ever make them sing. But when work of this poignant beauty comes along, less really does mean more.
P.S.I once heard Mick Imlah, who died on Monday, silence a chatty dinner-table by singing – gloriously – "The Bonny Earl of Murray". "Ye Highlands, and ye Lawlands,/ Oh! whair hae ye been?/ They hae slaine the earl of Murray/ And hae layd him on the green..." Many sad words have marked the passing of a deeply gifted poet. Here are happier ones from "Iona", a prayer for his daughter, "my perfect rhyme", in last year's The Lost Leader: "how you would seize the reins, Iona, /riding my shoulders over the hill/ Or rarely sitting still,/ your hands spread on my knees, my jeans/ the sidelines of your throne./ Succession is easy: first it was them,/ then me for a bit; and now it's you." In poetry, succession is harder: first Michael Donaghy, now Mick Imlah, leaders lost in their prime. "An the bonny Earl of Murray,/ O he might hae been a king!" - Boyd Tonkin

The Oulipian strategy behind Paul Griffiths' short novel Let Me Tell You (Reality Street) is made plain on the book's back cover: So: now I come to speak. At last. I will tell you all I know.... These are the words of Ophelia at the beginning of this short novel: literally her words, in that her narrative is composed entirely of the vocabulary she is allotted in Hamlet.
If it is true that fictional characters are literally no more than the words they are assigned in the text that gives them "life," Let Me Tell You illustrates that those words can go a long way. Through creative reshuffling and inconspicuous repetition Griffiths takes the fewer than 500 words Ophelia speaks (or sings) in Hamlet and fashions them into a convincing first-person account (with an interpolated play, several sonnets, and a soliloquy or two) of Ophelia's life before the events portrayed in the play, although in the words following those quoted on the back cover, she in effect acknowledges the difficulties of being liberated from the script she has until now always followed and that has set the terms of her existence:
. . .I was deceived to think I could not do this. I have the powers; I take them here. I have the right. I have the means. My words may be poor, but they will have to do.
What words do I have? Where do they come from? How is it that I speak?
Very rarely do Ophelia's words seem obviously contrived to fit the new circumstances of their utterance, and as the text unfolds Ophelia convinces us she has the right and the means to speak for herself and that the origin of her words is secondary to her often affecting repossession of them.
At the same time, one can never quite "lose" oneself in Ophelia's narrative. Its origin in the recycling of a precursor text, one that is no doubt well known to most who might read Let Me Tell You, must remain a manifest reality in the experience of reading the novel; it has very little claim on our attention, in fact, independent of its source in Hamlet and in Ophelia's role in the play. Admiration for the skill with which Griffiths rings changes on those 500 words is an unavoidable part of the reading experience. Indeed, the pleasure one takes in a work like Let Me Tell You is precisely the pleasure of witnessing in a particularly intent way the way a writer is using a structural device to bring character and event into existence.
In an interview with Mark Thwaite, Griffiths himself comments on the utility of his structural device: "If you keep to some form—some command, if you like—you come up with things you could never come up with by yourself." Griffiths' initial decision to write under the "constraint" imposed by sticking to the text of Hamlet--what he has "come up with" by himself--allows him, or forces him, to invest form with the duty to produce "content." This is what fiction writers who fancy themselves as having something "to say" are rarely able to do. For them, form is mostly an inconvenience, the bare minimal means to be enlisted in the grander act of saying something. Their work is thus formally unimaginative and, usually, thematically banal. In Let Me Tell You, Griffiths trusts that his form will effect its own kind of "saying." That it results in a character with emotional depth and a narrative that plausibly develops a life story about which Hamlet is otherwise silent only validates the wisdom of the author's commitment to that form.
Ultimately, Let Me Tell You seems to me one of those experimental fictions that straddles the line between narrative fiction and poetry, although by "poetry" we now mean only one of the modes that was included under that heading prior to the emergence of the novel as a separate literary form ("prose fiction"). Before then, "poetry" essentially included all modes of literary expression. If it is often the case that, as Brian Phillips has it, poets who write fiction often tend to exhibit a "powerful narrative impulse" that "refashions fiction with fiction’s own materials, not with transposed notes of poetry," writers of fiction who challenge what Phillips calls "narrative straightforwardness" often create works of "prose fiction" that remain more or less identifiably in "prose"--they are not "poetic" because they indulge in flights of figurative language similar to what is found in an older mode of lyric poetry--but that challenge the equation of "fiction" with narrative, refashioning fiction by aligning it with the structural imperatives of poetry but leaving the "lyrical" elements of verse aside. Such a move still puts more emphasis on language, as the reader must focus more squarely on the writer's effort to turn prose to account for purposes other than "telling a story," but it represents an approach to prose fiction that might re-establish it as a "poetic" genre alongside lyric poetry.
Near the end of Let Me Tell You, Ophelia, on the cusp of her fatal madness, laments to an absent Hamlet that "I cannot tell you what I most wish to tell you, for there are no words for what I would say." This is at the same time a playful reference to the conditions imposed on Ophelia's speech by the text itself and an honest statement of the unavoidable conditions imposed upon all poetic saying: the urge to express is quickly confronted with the actuality that all such expression will be incomplete, that the substance of what would be said is always escaping between the words. But, as Let Me Tell You demonstrates, what can be done with those words is sometimes almost sufficient compensation. - Daniel Green

The great Georges Perec wasn’t the first person to write a novel without using the letter “e” – as far as anyone knows, that was Ernest Vincent Wright, with the little-read Gadsby (1939) – but he was the first to do it with any artistic purpose or success. La Disparition, which he wrote in 1968, omits that key vowel, but the story becomes an investigation into what is missing. This gap in turn becomes a metaphor for a more sinister disappearance. It is a reminder of the acts of disparition the French government issued after the war in lieu of death certificates to those who had lost their relatives in the Holocaust.
This turns what looks like a prank into something deadly serious; but Perec clearly had real fun while he was doing it. Christian Bök has taken the idea even further: in Eunoia, he writes whole stories univocalically – that is, allowing himself only one vowel per chapter. It’s impressive stuff, and involves less fudging than Perec’s Les Revenentes did. He manages to give each chapter a character of its own: “a” stars an Arab man, and has a tang that attracts as a bazaar’s; “e” tells Helen’s secrets; “o”’s slot is too porno for most of Bök’s crowd; and so on.
The author writes about how hard it is to write like this: “thinking within strict limits is stifling”. So it is, and the trick is to see if, even within those constraints, you can say something similar to what you might actually want to say. Often Bök can, and the most impressive part is “e”’s biography of Helen of Troy. This, like “o”, falls back on lewd sex (but then nothing compares to “u”). The problem with univocalics is that you do end up writing extensively and graphically about sex. Perec had this problem, too, and his biographer David Bellos offers ingenious literary and psychological reasons for it. But the work of Bök suggests it is an occupational hazard. The biggest risk is of concluding, as Bök does at one point, “NIHIL DICIT, FINI”. Eunoia does include poems that indicate there is some kind of purpose, including a proper understanding of Perec’s letter games; but the fun is not in seeing why the fellow did it, but that it can be done at all.
Paul Griffiths’s book is a more profound achievement. He sets out to tell Ophelia’s story, using only the words that Ophelia speaks in Hamlet. At first, this would seem easier than Bök’s task. Surely Ophelia says all kinds of things, and Hamlet is a long play. But Ophelia doesn’t say all that much, and much of her most interesting vocabulary comes from the snatches of old songs she chants as she heads for the willow-shaded brook. Griffiths pulls off some fine tricks, and shows how much of her speech can be chopped up and made to sound like Beckett, or the Beatles (she quotes Love Me Do verbatim), or Oscar Wilde. There are the rhythms of recognisable nursery rhymes throughout.
Some of it is cleverer than it is revealing, and the book would be no less amazing were it half the length: Griffiths finds himself inventing characters called Mark, and Gis, and a maid who marries Polonius (who can’t be named, and nor can Laertes, who convincingly acquires the pet-name Little). He invents double meanings for Ophelia’s words, while being fully aware that many of her words would have had their own resonance or innuendo. One result of this is that when Griffiths turns to sex, in a quick sonnet sequence just as full-on as Bök’s scenes, much of it sounds to the modern reader as single entendre.
Still, this is a vital book, as much for musicians as for literary theorists. From Griffiths, who is perhaps best known as an invaluable guide to contemporary music, this is a composition in its own right, to listen to along with Berio’s Sinfonia with its spliced quotations from Mahler and Beckett, or John Cage’s Dadaist treatment of Finnegans Wake. For feminist critics, ironies abound: here is Ophelia’s story, at last, but with words that a man wrote for her being hacked about by another man. But then, somebody had to do it (the book does make you feel this way); and if so, why not have her do Polonius’s oft-quoted lecture in her own words? “Do not take and do not give. You know what this means. Look good when you go out, but doubt fashion. This most of all: to your own soul be true…” Good advice, that last part, especially if you’re a writer about to spend ages on a whim that could take you who knows where. - Tom Payne

My own reading fancies have been most tickled of late by a small but hugely resonant book just out from Reality Street, Paul Griffiths’s let me tell you. I almost feel reluctant to appear to be plugging another Reality Street book after my keen endorsement of the Reality Street Book of Sonnets a few months ago: not least because I got my ear quite roundly cuffed by Geraldine Monk on one of the poetry listservs for giving what she felt was a partial and distorting account of that anthology’s contents. This is one of the problems with writing appreciations on a blog like this of stuff one feels enthusiastic about: one doesn’t write with the care or the calm formal attitude with which one might compose a review for print publication, say. I imagine that I’m talking to friends here, and though I’m always happy to be quoted if anything I say can be useful in putting more readers in touch with a book or whatever, it’s oddly jarring, like a category error, to then be taken to task for what I’ve said as a consequence, or at least to be so vehemently disagreed with outside of these pages. One feels a bit like an actor in a soap opera being duffed up in Sainsbury’s because of something his character did in the previous night’s episode.
Fortunately, Let Me Tell You doesn’t produce (in this reader, at least) quite such a whoosh of adrenalin, so let’s hope I can express my approval of this work in soberer and less contentious terms. Again, there’s a high concept to this book that can be simply explained: the narrative voice is Opehlia, and the author allows himself to use only those words actually spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet. So on one level this is a rare British contribution to the corpus of Oulipian literature: and worth celebrating as such. However, like all the best Oulipian or constraint-based works, it wonderfully exceeds its exact perimeter. Which is not to say that it transcends the pressures exerted by its formative constraints: that would be silly, really. The prose has just a shade of strangeness, of stiltedness about it, even at its most fluent:
Mine is a memory made, as all memory is made, of what was and what should havebeen. Wish is close to memory, and will find a way in. Wish will not be denied.We all know that. Your memory is not one but many – a long music you have madeand will make again, over and over, with some things you know and some you donot, some that are true and some you have made up, some that have stayed fromlong before and some that have come this morning, some that will go tomorrow andsome that have long been there but you will never find them, not if you lookfrom now to your last day, for there is no end to memory.
And of course the lexis is sufficiently small that over the course of this 130-page book, the patterns of repetition and cross-beating slowly become hypnotic, sometimes befuddling. So it is a vital part of the success of the work that it is not quite able to, presumably not seeking to, rise above its limits; it doesn’t want you to forget what shapes it. But it does exceed, lyrically, hauntingly, its limited life as a game or exercise. The breakages and small bathetic failures of its textures and materials, the gaps and fissures within which the language reverberates, start to speak for themselves, about the homelessness, the terrible wandering madness, of the disembodied voice within such an insistent text. We start to hear something almost like a computer voice -- like HAL, say, in 2001: A Space Odyssey: this artificial Ophelia likewise has just enough intelligence to be paranoid; so much of her expressivity rests on polysemy, and yet if these few words are all she has, how is she to trust them when they’re so unstable? It is a sad, beautiful, limpid book. Were he living, Edward Lear would read it and weep; Veronica Forrest-Thompson, likewise, might bat an eyelid, were she. - Chris Goode       

‘Like a Beckett character marooned on an RSC stage set, Griffiths’s Ophelia suspects her words even as she utters them....The very literal limitations of O’s language underscore her own sense of its inadequacy to her interiority; thus the slightly irregular syntax that is all her limited vocabulary allows makes her lamentation all the more affecting....Much of the wonderful ambiguity integral to Shakespeare resides in the indeterminacy of his language, and Griffiths can retain that quality by pressing upon the pluripotency of each word in its turn. Here, his work as music critic and translator shines through; from his limited repertoire of words he has composed a prose work whose components recur and resound like familiar notes....On the scale of the entire novel, Griffiths has forged a leitmotif from certain words suggestive of his heroines problematic conception of herself: memory, mind, be, nothing, will, words, other, speak, thoughts, and know, acquire great weight as this increasingly willful Ophelia begins to consider a means of defining herself outside a language that again now is no home to me.”’ - Alyssa Pelish

At first sight, Paul Griffiths’s exceptional novel might be recognized as an attempt to draw the profile of the woman Shakespeare obscured, and that would not be wrong, but it is not why the book is exceptional. Ophelia has been reimagined before...yet never with such restraint, or, more precisely, constraint....[The] formal restriction still enables Ophelia to tell a story rich in detail and expression, taking us back to her happy childhood with a distant, speech-making father, to the birth of her beloved brother and to the glowing presence of a nameless maid who comes from over "the cold green mountain"; a radiance soon gone. The repetitions of words and familiar phrases powerfully evoke what remains uncertain in Ophelia’s life outside the play, what these words alone will never quite say....The effects of necessary variation and repetition kindle both the freedom of another life and the fire that burns it away.’ - Stephen Mitchelmore

‘The beautiful, moving, and unsettling narrative Griffiths crafts for Ophelia from her drastically limited lexis inevitably resonates, as one reads, against the actual speeches written for her by Shakespeare....let me tell you takes us into the heart of the Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia family. Mrs Polonius appears here too, in unflattering terms: she is portrayed as a nymphomaniac who has herself serviced daily by a pair of lusty attendant lords, until she finally abandons her family altogether, much to her daughter’s relief. Ophelia’’s love for her brother and father is delicately limned, and we learn too of her brother’s first erotic experiences, in a series of bawdy sonnets that make repeated use of the word cock (‘‘Young men will do’t, if they come to’t, / By Cock, they are to blame.’’) Underlying her memoir, however, is the terrible knowledge of her impending betrayal, lunacy and death, which have been predicted to her by a prophetic maid. She ends the novel on the brink of an attempt to escape Elsinore once and for all. Although we know this attempt will prove futile, that a watery death still awaits her, this ingenious novel does succeed—as her clothes do in the brook—in bearing her up mermaid-like awhile, before the fate allotted her by Shakespeare reasserts its imperious grip.’ - Mark Ford   

Paul Griffiths’ most recent novel, let me tell you, is a spare work of engulfing mystery and power....The mentality which created this elegant prose and verse—both essentially modern, although well marinated in the language of the Bard—could only have developed in the most refined areas of musical taste during the second half of the twentieth century....What a relief to find such a work of craft which can still satisfy the novel-reader’s craving for a parallel non-reality, the urge to become one with an imaginary human, in this case, one of Shakespeare’s most seductive mysteries, a mystery of derangement. The fruit of fourteen years' work, this small book is a brilliantly successful and an important one—a work of art which belies the accusation of insularity often brought against the British novel.’ - Michael Miller
She is like the rest of us; we all have no more than the words that come to us in the play. We go on with these words. We have to.
So the king prefaces let me tell you, an ode to Ophelia, whose limited vocabulary as Shakespeare allots her in Hamlet—481 distinct words—forms the toolkit for Paul Griffiths’s autobiographical exercise. Avid ECM listeners will have caught a glimpse of this language via there is still time, wherein his own recitations of similarly restricted poetry are the moon to cellist Frances-Marie Uitti’s sun and prove that the conceit is not a restriction at all, but rather a microscope’s mirror throwing light on that which might otherwise be left to inference. Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, and her father, Polonius, are the main specimens on her slide, and Shakespeare himself the dye that imparts context.
The story begins with a concession to concessions. Ophelia speaks, and speaks of speaking. Her call to speech is musical: like music, an act in the fullest sense, moving to rhythm of grass and herb.
This is like being one of my own observers, but with no powers over what is observed.
She remembers her birth, but muses upon the art of memory as gift bestown over keep earned. She sees, or rather hears, her father in the cadence of his anticipation, connecting sole to stone as amniotic darkness readies itself to break light around her.
False memory may speak, I find, as well as true. I have to know the difference.
The sounds are immaterial, as true in origin as lies. Father’s feet fade into alliteration, his face alive with death. As it is, we come to realize that it is not her birth after all, but her brother’s—pulled from in to out by the dimples of Achilles. The maid sings of tears and roses, equates tears and roses with glass, and frets them to the consistency of wet paper. The maid sounds herself only through singing. Otherwise,
She would look down at us and say nothing—say nothing but look and look, harsh with love.
The face as medium: it knows of love beyond the bounds of her charge, carries it through the yeast of her other half, percolating through the dough of secret passion until it crackles like a finely browned crust that all but burns eager hands. She is a character of vocal shadows. The young siblings take this challenge as a game, and spin from it a fiber they can only hope will survive the distance she puts between herself and them as she follows her nose to a kitchen beyond the mountain.
The flowers come and go, but leave a trail of their scent. With the mark of a pansy, the pollen and blood of it smeared across the hands, it changes from solid to liquid in the blink of a written eye. The iris materializes on her arm, a curiosity in relief, a sisterly longing temporarily branded.
And there is the sun, and there is the mountain: all where we are is in an ecstasy of expectation.
From this fragile experience, the winds of which linger in curls from a photo tinter’s brush, she knows the value of intimacy within bounds, the buzz of the almost-was. And in fact, beauty is never an indulgence here. It flits in and out of touch, floats in musings on music, and comports itself loosely in the presence of bodies and minds.
Here all is still, still as night. We do not have the joy of music.
Thus the melody of language, inherent as crickets to midnight, also reveals a dream: the wish for something to give up, for the choice to do so. The father looms, bearded but not, lavishing brother and sister with warm breath. In them pools reflect the stories of his travels, and they too tremble and distort those memories with every telling. Words come verily, jumping gaps shallow and deep. It is the battler’s tale, wrapped in water and set adrift, farther to sea than any memory might have been.
Here is an Ophelia whose childhood resembles a stained glass window. Each section is its own color. Some are uniform and almost transparent, others milky and swirled, but they cohere at once-molten boundaries. Anxieties surround the maid who spent so much of her time with the siblings. Her absence is fraught. She is home, lost to the whim of another relationship in an empty life. But the maid returns with something dour, her actions choreographed to royal step. In them are mirrors for the end-aware glance of a sick girl.
But do I long for death and not know it? Is this what my words tell me?
A play within a play, performance at Polonius’s beck and call. Behind its curtain stretches the actor of death, the rise and fall of death. Ophelia questions her remembrance of the stage, but in the asking answers the conundrum that is the root of her. She knows quietude equals harmony.
The after reads into the before. This she admits. Drawing a name from the play and the fortress, she twists a mock fiber of reality from the shavings of fiction and holds to her bosom the flowers that will end her.
We discover her need for flowers, a trip over the mountain by a path startlingly seen. She meets the maid’s daughter, whose animosities are at once vague and clear. This daughter becomes an anti-Ophelia, a mirror-Ophelia, an other-Ophelia in one. She glares and resists, pushes the girl into our capture, from which the only escape is a dip.
It’s cold. My eyes weep.
Those same eyes see profundity incarnate, wrapped in glass and splashed through the atlas of openness that is her heart. A visitation, a spark and a candle, fearful and awed. Her memory unfolds one morpheme at a time, a hand-game shielded by paper pyramids and children’s scrawl. Her memory looks back to the shadows. It pulls the oxcart of the present, heavier with distance and jangling with a litany of bells.
She grows into an awareness that constricts her, even as it opens those eyes beyond where light may reach. Hers is the desire for visions and valences. The unkempt window, cobwebbed and secure, frames it all in quadrants. Music waits like fatality, a game played only once and which leaves a trail of mimics until the temptation to lose overcomes. Strategies are windows of a different sort. They facilitate emotional insight, forming bonds that would never have been without competition.
With music, thank God, you cannot speak.
Behind the façade of affection beats the drum of fate, and Laertes follows his along a divergent path. This, Ophelia would seem to know—if not then, then ever more. She was the one who let go of his hand, that it might transcend the arras of his brokenness. It is written on her skin.
I wish he had been well more of the time, says Ophelia of her father, whose letters adhere to her. She remembers the words as if they were her own (as of course they are). Not only are his eyes weak, but also his denials. Yet she remembers his time in uniform during a time that was not uniform. Since then his speech has become his synecdoche. I do not know what I would do without him.
Her mother: the italicized she. Notorious indifference and depravity of the one who neither listens nor reads, yet has no compunctions in letting the children know what goes on in her chambers. Mother shares these details, imposes them upon daughter, to ensure that power and separation are one and the same. And the suitors don’t stop there. They have eyes for the younger.
She had made it so that I could not believe my own memory.
Sharing is a double-edged blade: one side run with the blood of the unavoidable turn, the other licked clean by bedroom trysts. She must hide these things. Her father cannot know, though his eyes implore. In his absence, mother calls her close and opens the floodgates of illogic. The vessel of that deluge is as quiet as her motive, and sands away the grit of intangible things.
She was a length of hell.
But then she is gone. The sister bids good riddance. The brother inquires.
Hamlet appears pronominally, as nature and nurture wrapped into one. His presence has long since faded, though abstractly it flickers in and out of sense. Ophelia fishes his limpid brain, but comes up short every time. Into her chamber the boy steals and, along with her brother, ganders what he cannot ever have. There is a lack of affection in Hamlet’s past that speaks to the dwindling nature of her own. The cloak of yearning frays at last when Hamlet takes an education. Words hang from his tongue like raindrops at the tips of leaves.
Without music it means nothing. Without music it could make me fear.
Polonius wanders into the background, but ties a string to Ophelia’s finger ere exeunt. In light of this, she hopes the hearts of both men will see her silhouette and marvel. And when the young man swoons as if in the plays he attends, she closes the light around herself and wonders what brought her here.
The play is not still: it becomes something.
She is aware of the theater. Loves the theater, insofar as she knows her lines. And so we jump into a mise-en-abyme…only it’s not, for we have the ending already in grasp. The trio—father and children—takes a comedic bow.
Praying to a God she knows to be absent, she supplicates a mountain away from the kingdom, calculates in her heart the mathematics of foretelling. How can she not doubt the music of life, when all it amounts to is silence?
Now there is no eye on us, and the night goes on without end.
Yet silence can be an act of kindness, of a love so deep it cannot be defined—as when Laertes throws himself into manhood at the arm of a pretty young thing or two. Unlike their mother, he locks his tingling away from the girl, who wonders still about what is over. When she confronts him on it, the answer is morbid, final.
There is a change in the brother. His person shines.
In this erotic turn, speech becomes excitement, contact, and self-realization.
In my heart as in yours there is no doubt:What reason then, my love, not to come out?
Night,A letter to the curtain, behind which the body thrums. A time when mouths open—not to speak but to sing.
day:Sun burns away the flesh of pretense, leaving skeletons of passion to rest on the hills. Glass weeps with light.
there is no difference for me.The difference is love: they make the night as the night makes them. Togetherness blossoms like those pansies by the path, now overgrown beyond recognition. The weeds are quills in the playwright’s hand, flung one after another until the inkwell runs dry. The hand will open, say nothing, and drop. It cracks a door to tragedy.
Last night I made up my mind: I must go.
The young lord has left her to the darkness. Death is no longer the correct term. If only there was remembrance to tell her father and brother what they cannot know, they might respond. Their tears will tell enough.
Ophelia in the castle, hands on knotted ore, seeks the king and in him lays the infant of her choice.
There’ll be no remembrance of you here. It will be as if you had never been. The effect of O.
“O” is all that I am. Through the portal, a ring on a finger left in the forge’s keep. The knob turns at my touch. For as long as the snow powders the earth like the face of another, I will linger here, a trace and a scent. If crowds should gather and resurrect me a million times, only to throw me and my vocabulary into the abyss of plot development, so be it. I have said my piece, and the piece has said me.
If there is anything to be found in these images, it is a version of ourselves. The pathos of life is clearest when the means are limited. They express changes in light. The text begins to take on an anatomy: shoulders, hearts, tongues, and arms all fit together in changing combinations. Quotidian essentials like food and children’s games become a linguistic game to best capture the essence of nonexistent fare. Words become names, and names objects. The color green is at once generative, sinful, and divine.
To be sure, these parameters are fascinating but in the end imply something greater than the sum, if not also the subtraction, of their parts. Just as we can forever impose shapes on the water vapor we call “cloud,” also infinite is the potential of the graph we call “letter.”
By the time we have read this Ophelia, she has already read us. -


Paul Griffiths, The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories, Sylph Editions, 2013.

In this cahier Paul Griffiths effects a multi-layered translation, taking a series of eleven Japanese noh plays and turning them into stories in English. The reader will encounter spirit-beings set free, lovers lost and found, dreams and desires fulfilled, lessons learned from nature, and always a longing for the infinite, as the long, slow drama of each noh play is transformed into a short and moving tale. Interspersed and contrasting with the stories are ten photographs of contemporary Japan by John L. Tran which further explore the relation between theatricality and narrative, while offering hints of a very different vision of infinitude. -

Japan’s Noh plays remain mysterious to most British readers, including me. Paul Griffiths’ pamphlet, The Tilted Cup, offers brief prose versions of eleven plays. Despite an early flicker of mannerism, these are a deep delight. As Carson admits, ‘humans […] crave a story’. Griffiths explains that Noh plays use ‘language dense with metonymy, ambiguity and cross-­reference’. Griffiths’ more elaborate syntax reflects this intricacy. But his language can be down-to-earth: ‘Lady Han […] was no lady’. His tales often end simply, distilled to a phrase. Lady Han takes her lover’s fan: ‘She slowly raised what she had been given, up to what she already had. […] Moon covered moon’.
Poets may brood on Tadanori, who deliberately dies in battle, because he is not credited in an anthology. (John L. Tran’s photographs provide arresting comment. Tadanori’s hunger for glory is followed by the brilliant scarlet and gold of a shopping mall.) Other stories present talking trees, and porridge, in starring roles. In ‘Hagoromo’, a fisherman watches a spirit dance, ‘until its feather cloak […] was a point, until it was nothing at all’. What is the story’s point? Ecstasy? ‘Hagoromo’ entrances.
Griffiths is technically adventurous. ‘Teika’ is one sentence, dense as the ivy around its two lovers’ graves. But the plays’ power would be diminished by over-analysis. As the Emperor of ‘Sagi’ commands (of his heron) ‘Let it go, let it go!’
One of Griffith’s stories contains a lovely trick: his homage to an English poet. But I must let The Tilted Cup pour out its own secrets, in better language. - alison brackenbury

‘This is a book of…vividly reimagined landscapes and the gracefully evoked pain of lingering ghosts. The stories are presented with a restraint well suited to the dignified aesthetic of Noh theatre, but they can be daring in their inclusion of details and turns of phrase that come not from the original texts so much as from images that the texts have suggested to Griffiths. Creative typesetting gives the story of Mount Fuji the shape of the mountain itself. Another story of endlessly convoluted love becomes a miniature Finnegans Wake. No attempt is made to spell out literary allusions, draw the Western reader into a world of foreign terminology, or recreate an alien theatrical experience. The approach is quite the opposite of exoticism. Each story has been stripped down to its bare bones, released from the encumbrances of footnotes and historical background, so that each narrative floats in a space as uncrowded as the arcades in the [accompanying] photographs.’ - Jay Rubin

Paul Griffith's The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories (review copy courtesy of the publisher) is another of the wonderful slices of writing from The Cahiers Series, a coproduction between Sylph Editions and The Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris.  Each of the cahiers is a slim, aesthetically-pleasing volume, running to about forty pages, and they all have some sort of connection with translation.
This particular cahier is of special interest to J-Lit fans as it takes classic stories from Japanese Noh plays (slow productions which use wooden masks to convey emotions) and condenses them into brief, elegant short stories in English.  While it sounds a little unorthodox, it's actually a decision which works very well, as the original stories are less complete tales than thought-provoking vignettes - and they are all very well-known in Japan, on a par with such tales as the Arthurian legends or Aesop's fables.
Several of the choices touch on the supernatural, depicting encounters between humans and spirits.  In 'Hagoromo', a fisherman agrees to return a spirit-being's cloak to enable it to return to the heavens and, in return, is allowed to witness a heavenly dance - an indescribable event:

"The fisherman never tried to describe what he then saw, not to his beloved, not to his friends, not, when he was an old man, to the children of the village.  He had seen something; that much they all knew.  They would look into his eyes, for a trace of it.  Of course, there was nothing to be seen."
'Hagoromo', p.13 (Sylph Editions, 2014)

The first story, 'Tadanori', also introduces a spirit, when a monk sleeping beneath a cherry-blossom tree is watched over by a ghost - the poet the monk is seeking -, and in 'Kayoi Komachi' we hear of a poetess, a ghostly lover and spilt wine which never reaches the floor...
Another theme is the occurrence of chance meetings, as detailed in 'Hachi no Ki'.  In this story, a ruined, exiled nobleman decides to show pity on a traveller on a cold winter night, and while the outcome is perhaps the most predictable of all the stories, it's still elegantly done.  In contrast, 'Hanjo' tells of a chance meeting between two young lovers, where fortune conspires to put obstacles in the path of their happiness, leaving the woman to abandon hope of ever finding the man again.
As much as the stories are fascinating, though, the real beauty of The Tilted Cup is in how the tales are told.  The title itself comes from the writer's preface, which he begins:

"Translation tilts the cup, and the text takes on a new shape.  What spills over, the translator hopes, is not lost to the ground but held in the ambience of that which remains." (p.5)
In fact, by taking stories from Japanese into English, and converting them from drama to prose, Griffiths is making a double translation - or, as he puts it, tilting the cup at least twice.  Happily for the reader, it doesn't appear that too much of the essence has splashed out onto the ground ;)
Griffiths has brought the stories into the new language (and genre) with some beautiful writing, and he has a pleasingly light touch with words.  In 'Kantan', a tale of a student, a pillow and some spell-binding dreams, one of the images is described thus:

"Thereupon a messenger in court uniform arrived to tell him the emperor had died, and had named him heir.
 Why?  The messenger didn't know.  That wasn't his job."'Kantan' (p.17)

There are many more examples of sly winks to the reader, but let's not give too much away here...
What stands out most about the collection, however is the way in which several of the tales play with the structure to make the story stand out.  In 'Fujisan', the brief text is shaped in the image of the famous mountain, and 'Teika', which recounts the perfect love between a princess and a poet, takes the form of an incomplete sentence, one which circles back on itself and could almost be read continuously.
The best of these, though, is 'Saigyozakura', in which a famous poet laments the visitors who journey to see his famous cherry-blossom tree - and disturb his tranquillity.  However, a spirit chides him for blaming the tree:

"It seems to me, said the flowers, that you carry human nonsense within you.  Only the fool thinks himself raised above folly."'Saigyozakura' (p.36)
The beauty of this one, however, is what you discover when you glance at the end notes.  You see, this one is a story within a story, for if you look back at the text, there is another, similar tale hidden within, just waiting to be discovered by the careful reader...

As always with the cahiers, there's far more to the work than just the text.  The book also includes several photographs by John L. Tran of contemporary Japan, interspersed between the stories and perhaps reflecting them in a new light.  Many of them focus on empty hallways in covered shopping strips, cold, shiny and fairly claustrophobic.  For people who have visited Japan, they're fairly familiar images, yet the absence of people, and the forbidding, rolled-down shutters, give the pictures a slightly more sinister, other-worldly air...
...which brings us nicely back to the stories :)  The Tilted Cup is a beautiful work, another perfect coffee-table piece (for if I ever get a coffee table), and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japan, Noh plays or Japanese shopping centres.  It's not a book which will take long to read, but it's certainly one you'll be dipping back into time and time again... -

  Leda (2000)

 The Lay of Sir Tristram (1991)

Paul Griffiths, Myself and Marco Polo, Chatto & Windus, 1989.   

Interview with Paul Griffiths at ReadySteadyBook.

books on music    
 La musica del Novecento (2014)
   Modern Music and After (1980, 1995, 2010)
  Horizons Touched (2007)

 When Divas Confess (1999)

 Stravinsky (1992)

 György Ligeti (1983, 2/1992)

  The Thames & Hudson Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Music (1986)

New Sounds, New Personalities (1985)

 Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time (1985)

Bartók (1984)

 Igor Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress (1982)

 The String Quartet (1982)

Peter Maxwell Davies (1982)

Cage (1981)

 A Guide to Electronic Music (1979)

 Boulez (1978)

    A Concise History of Modern Music (1978)