The Romance of Tristan and Iseult

(Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut)

Joseph Bédier


(A knight and a lady pursue their magical love through bloodshed and sorrow.)

JohnWilliamWaterhouse_TristanDetail from Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (1916), by John William Waterhouse. The philtre on the high seas cements their love for all time– a draught unto death.  This painting is in the private collection of Fred & Sherry Ross.  Read about this collection at the Art Renewal Center

When tales pass through centuries of retellings, they tend to become what of audio media we would call “overproduced”:  too many interpreters have slanted the story their various ways, too many embellishments and new episodes have been inserted, too many accommodations and updates have aimed at suiting the fancies of each audience.  In the process the story can lose some of its grip on our imagination and our romantic sensibilities.  It can be so cobbled and abused that we are left to distill the heart of it as best we can from a variety of sources.  The only way such a beautiful old tale could ever be told today in anything like its original form and spirit, would be for three literary virtues to unite:  a single author must be simultaneously an expert scholar, a great poet, and above all, modest.  Only a scholar will know the history of the work; will be able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in elements of theme, characterization, and plot; and will sufficiently understand an ancient teller’s perspective so as to effectively reproduce it.  And only a great poet will be able to convey this perspective, and the story itself, with convincing unity and supreme skill—for expectations of quality and beauty are very lofty when we pick up a beloved and popular story.  And finally, many a great poet and scholar will have great pride as well, in which case there will be too much of the writer and not enough of the legend in the text.  Granted, we love our authors’ egos when it is them we want to see; but if the aim is to represent something of the original (or at least old) character of a romance, an author must exercise admirable self-control. We can thank Joseph Bédier for being this author for the legend of Tristan & Iseult.


The Right Stuff

Tom Wolfe


(Seven pilots scale the ziggurat of manliness on the quest to be America’s space heroes.)

 MercuryRedstone3_ShepardMercury-Redstone 3 rocket launching Alan Shepard in 1961 to become the first American in space. Courtesy of NASA.


Tom Wolfe probably awoke one morning and thought to himself, wouldn’t it be great if reading about current events were as fun as reading novels?  And with as simple an idea as that, he kicked off the movement known as New Journalism.  And Wolfe sure is fun to read!


Whose Body?

Dorothy L. Sayers


(A financier goes missing and a lookalike is found dead in a bathtub.  The easygoing Lord Peter Wimsey searches for the connection.)

wimseyIan Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, from the 1970s BBC miniseries (


As troubling as murder is in our society, more of them happen on bookstore shelves than anywhere else, and millions of apparently peaceful people pay plenty of money to read about them, as if it were a pity that they don’t happen more often.  I have casually wondered why.  Probably it is an example of entertainment by extremity: if conflict is the heart of any good story, surely lots of people will go for people killing each other, since you can’t get more conflictual than that.  This doesn’t really answer the question, though—it just passes the buck from fascination with murder to fascination with conflict in general.  But of course we humans are inherently scenario-building, personality-scrutinizing, lie-detecting social beings.  Human success has always depended on figuring other people out.  The fact that one of the characters in such stories is likely to be the murderer is probably a large part of the draw.  Trying to solve a murder mystery flexes the same mental muscles that we use for everyday social problem-solving and monitoring.  And a murder is, again, more likely to catch our attention than any other breach of social mores.  The authors make the stakes so high to ensure our attention.  Not everyone goes in for these books, of course, which is simply because our society provides us with a variety of different ways to address basic human concerns.  Take an EEG of a video gamer, sports follower, or romance reader at their respective hobbies.  I suspect they are scratching the same itches in different ways.


July’s People

Nadine Gordimer


(A white South African family in danger of racial violence flees to a village under the protection of their black servant.)

LukeKgatitsoe1986Luke Kgatitsoe, Magopa, South Africa, 1986 (photo by David Goldblatt)


You like to have some cup of tea?—

She runs.

This is the novel.  Rather, between these two lines lies the novel, and these two (the first and last lines of the novel) are the tail ends of two realities that rest on either side of the novel and overlap within it.  The pre-novel reality is a comfortable family in South Africa under apartheid, served by a black man July (I almost wrote “Friday”), “as his kind has always done for their kind”.  The post-novel reality is an unwritten future, a frenzied sprint to the unknown, where the white mother, in some ways the central figure of the family, flees either to her violent death or to her salvation.  Which of these she finds is not known, was not written, never came to pass.  The novel is not about an ending, and so this is not a spoiler.  The novel is about the boiling metamorphosis in process.  As the novel’s frontispiece quote by Antonio Gramsci indicates, the goal is to portray the “morbid symptoms” of a time when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”.  The first line is the old that is dying, and the last line is the failing to be born of the new.  In a terseness and simplicity of prose not unlike that of her countryman Alan Paton, the eventual Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer unwraps the space between these two lines, guiding us through the development from one into the other.


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