Category Archives: Writing Form

Historical dialogue and personal names

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Last time (http://richardabbott.authorsxpress.com/2014/10/09/historical-dialogue-and-social-position/) I wrote about the use of formality in dialogue, and some of the ways that modern English could and could not reflect that.

Statue, Delos, Cyclades islands
Today I am thinking about an easier area to capture – the use of personal names. In the UK (and I believe also in other countries such as the US), once you have said “hello Richard” as we start to talk, it would be rare to use it again in the same conversation unless you wanted to emphasise something. “Don’t be ridiculous, Richard“, perhaps, or maybe “were you listening, Richard“, or even “Richard! You won’t forget this time, will you?“.

But this is not the case globally. Even when English is used as a common language, some cultures use personal names very much more. Several years ago, when I first came across this, I found it a bit disconcerting; now I really like it, and enjoy the way it reestablishes the person-to-person link periodically in the conversation.

There is, I think, something satisfyingly engaging about using a personal name. It might signal intimacy in some situations, but does not have to, and can easily be blended with formal terms of address in those many languages that use them. It’s not just a way to identify who you are speaking to in a group, which could easily happen in English too. There is something affirmatory about the use of a name which, now I am used to it, is very satisfying.

Now, we have very limited access into casual speech in the ancient world, since most of the written records are necessarily formal. Where speech is included, it is probably representative of the occasion rather than a realistic attempt to capture it. So, in the kind of situation which I deal with a lot, where people are meeting casually and often cross-culturally, the field is open.

Varying the use of personal names between groups, and perhaps showing different reactions to this, helps these different groups to have their own identity. Not all groups have to use language – or personal names – the same way that we do in contemporary Europe or the USA!

Historical dialogue and social position

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I thought I’d go back today to the subject of handling conversation in historical fiction. In my own books, and many others I read, several different groups intersect, each with different culture or ethnicity. They have to communicate in a shared language: how should one write about this? Some months ago I wrote a post called Historical dialogue and translation which looked at this from one angle: here is a different angle.

Speaker's area on Santorini (Thira)
Some writers make effective use of dialect – rural English vs London in the 19th century, for example, which I came across in Sue Millard’s Coachman. So long as the author can handle the differences confidently, and the end result is comprehensible, this can work. However, I have met some readers who just don’t like this in principle. In any case, for me (and many others) the original languages my characters speak are nothing to do with English. Sure, I could imagine someone from Gedjet (Gaza) speaking in a West Country accent, or someone from Hatsor sounding like a Yorkshireman, but those ideas would be pretty much unconnected to reality.

So today I am thinking about less obvious patterns. Take, for example, how we signal relative rank. Modern English is quite sparing in this. If we want to indicate hierarchy in speech, we have to include special words to do so – “Your Majesty“, “my lady“, “sir“, “boss” and so on. But many languages have this built in at a much deeper level. Across most of Asia, it is not possible to address somebody without making a deliberate choice about using formal or informal terms of address.

English lost most of these language signals in the years after the Norman Conquest, as Norman French and Saxon English wore each other down into a single thing. The last remnants were probably variations of the old pronoun “thou“, which through lack of use dwindled into an archaic sounding, formal way to address deity. It is a rather sad decline for a word which once indicated intimacy. Its living parallels such as French tu and Hindi tum still convey closeness and familiarity today.

In some places, however, using proper modes of address is not just a sign of respect, but an acknowledgement of absolute place in a social hierarchy. Get it wrong, and you don’t just make a grammatical slip, but potentially destroy a relationship before it ever starts. It is essentially impossible to mirror this in written English, and the most that can be done is, positively, by including specific terms of respect, or negatively, by showing the reaction of the hearers.

That’s it for today. Next time I will be talking about something we can control more easily in writing – the use of personal names in conversation.

Review – The Elder Edda, translated by Andy Orchard

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I decided to classify The Elder Edda as historical fiction, on the grounds that the tales within it probably served a similar function in Icelandic culture – and general Norse culture – as that genre serves in ours. Certainly the content moves progressively from more obviously mythical, where the main focus is on the doings of gods and supernatural beings, towards history, where specific leaders and their followers are vying for political and military supremacy in a recognisable world. As such, it provides a rationale for particular clan allegiances or rivalries which are active in the authors’ time.

Buy The Elder Edda from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Elder Edda from Amazon.com

Cover - The Elder Edda
Andy’s translation seeks to be fluid but faithful, seeking also to preserve the stylistic differences between the various sections. This does mean that some of the poems read more fluently than others, depending on the style and form chosen by the original author. He also discusses the probable route by which the collection has reached us, via a Christian cleric who preserved it out of respect for his people’s lore. The myth and religion of the Norse world is carefully presented to us, but with the clear message that its day has long gone, and that even at its most noble it was heading unerringly towards its own destruction.

Norse poets, like their Anglo-Saxon contemporaries, took great delight in punning or riddling descriptions and names: Andy has recognised that no single tactic will solve this. Instead he has chosen several routes ranging from leaving names untranslated in some cases, using marginal notes of explanation in others, and converting into an English pun in others. He has also been flexible with issues of form, keeping remnants of the original alliterative style in many places without feeling constrained to maintain it everywhere. As well as very brief marginal comments, there is a much longer notes section at the end which gives contextual explanations into the background and subsequent use of the poems as well as translational points.

Readers even slightly familiar with Wagner’s operas will recognise names and stories here. But in addition, these same stories emerge in slightly changed form in Tolkien’s Silmarillion, especially in the long and tragic account of Turin. It is clear that Tolkien had enormous respect for The Elder Edda, and enough skill and confidence to creatively rework it into his own world.

How can one rate a classic piece of world literature? For me, this is a four star book. I intend to dip into it again, especially a few of the more accessible pieces, and I am very glad to have read it. In a few places I felt that the poetry faltered – translating poetry is extremely hard, especially when, as here, the translator is seeking to faithfully represent a selection of different voices. On balance Andy has done a good job.

The Elder Edda will not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly is a milestone in the development of northern European culture and identity.

Repetition and historical writing 2

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Well, a post on repetition simply had to have a follow-up… Actually though some really interesting ideas have come out of conversations around this blog post, so a second one seemed called for. And maybe a third?

Statues at Delos, Cyclades, Greece
Some of the connections which emerged were:

  • Links to Mesopotamian writing, especially in the areas of magic and medicine
  • The fact that much ancient writing was intended to be read aloud rather than silently
  • The Egyptian Tale of the Eloquent Peasant
  • A human tendency to use repetition as a calming influence over disturbance: “there, there”
  • Mantras which are specifically intended to be repeated many times

A couple of things before going back to another ancient source. Firstly, the William Wordsworth link can be found in later editions of Lyrical Ballads in his notes to The Thorn. Among many other things, he says:

There is a numerous class of readers who imagine that the same words cannot be repeated without tautology: this is a great error: virtual tautology is much oftener produced by using different words when the meaning is exactly the same… There are also various other reasons why repetition and apparent tautology are frequently beauties of the highest kind. Among the chief of these reasons is the interest which the mind attaches to words, not only as symbols of the passion, but as things, active and efficient, which are of themselves part of the passion. And further, from a spirit of fondness, exultation, and gratitude, the mind luxuriates in the repetition of words which appear successfully to communicate its feelings…

(See http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wordsworth/william/lyrical/poem9.html)

Secondly, I have been reading a book set in the Punjab area of what was then north-west India, now Pakistan, in which the author deliberately mirrors the Hindi/Urdu pattern of repeating words for emphasis, for example “good-good, nice-nice” or similar. Many languages in the Semitic family do the same. This is a level of reflecting a source language which I have not attempted in my own writing.

So, back to the ancient world, and in particular the mythic poetry from the city of Ugarit (on the coast of modern Syria). There is a very common pattern used here where a series of lines is repeated several times over – for example they might appear first in a dream, then in the morning when the dreamer recounts the dream to another, then a days later when the action itself occurs. For example, in the Tale of King Keret we have this pattern:

  1. The chief god El appears in a dream to Keret and after a brief series of questions gives him a series of instructions for obtaining a wife
  2. Keret wakes up and carries out the first stages of the required actions
  3. He goes to the required city and issues demands which recapitulate the dream again and gets the ride he wants (Hurriy)

But… in the second stage there is a crucial change where Keret goes beyond the requirements El set up, and while en route to the city makes a rash vow to the goddess Athirat if the quest turns out well – rash firstly because the scale of the vow would probably have bankrupted a real king of Ugarit, and secondly because it shows a certain lack of faith in El’s declarations!

By the time Keret comes back successfully from the final stage with Hurriy, either he has forgotten the vow, or else he decides that since things turned out well it was not necessary to fulfil it. Either way, the departure from strict repetition is noted by the gods and things start to go wrong.

This sort of pattern, where departures from exact repetition signal looming disaster for the party concerned, can be found in a wide variety of ancient literature. One can easily imagine an eager audience listening out for the crucial action left out or put in, and being alerted to expect some serious consequences. The basic principle can be found in a number of fairy tales and folk stories, often where the third time of asking brings about the change.

So let’s see what comes out of this particular repeat – nothing disastrous, I hope…

Repetition and historical writing

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There is a very interesting shift which has happened in writing in recent years. At many times in the past, word repetition has been recognised as a deliberate rhetorical device. Repeated words, or word roots, have been used to signal something important to the reader or listener. Nowadays, in contrast, editors or reviewers often fasten on repetition as a sign of poor vocabulary, or poor proofreading. About the only sphere we regularly encounter repetition now is in political speeches. Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches were full of repetition – “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight… we shall fight…“. But even the vastly less nationally stirring backwash from the UK’s recent council and euro elections has had its share, contributed by several of the major speakers, such as “too big, too bossy, too interfering” or “little pearls, little announcements, but the pearls weren’t connected“.

Statues at Delos, Cyclades, Greece

Back in the world of ancient literature, such repetition was used a great deal, in many different contexts. Several of the New Kingdom Egyptian love poems are constructed around repeated word roots. For example the first poem in the papyrus Chester Beatty song cycle 1 is built around various forms of nefer, which has the basic meaning of “beautiful” but in English could also mean “splendid“, “brave“, “outstanding“, and a whole mix of other similar ascriptions of quality. In my own translation of this I have tried to reflect this by using the cluster of words “resplendent“, “splendid“, “splendour“.

Biblical Hebrew has similar examples. When King David’s former enemy Abner comes to him to sue for peace, David is minded to grant it to him (2 Samuel ch.3). There is a friendly encounter in which the phrase “and he went in peace” is repeated verbatim three times within a few verses. Then David’s sidekick Joab returns – a rather vicious man driven by a thirst for revenge. He is outraged that his king has done this, and demands “why did you send him off, and he went?“. The absence of “in peace” stands in stark contrast to all of the previous repetitions. Sure enough, Joab goes in pursuit and murders Abner. The repetition of the phrase, and the textual signal provided by its omission, are both crucial parts of the story. David never forgives this act, and on his deathbed commissions his son Solomon to ensure the death of Joab himself.

What do modern translations do? The Message has “sent off with David’s blessing… dismissed with David’s blessing… sent off with David’s blessing… walk away scot-free“, which at least preserves some sense of repetition. The Living Bible has “return in safety… sent away in peace… [one instance omitted]… letting him get away” which leaves almost nothing of the rhetorical delicacy of the original (though of course the basic story is the same). Most recent translations keep the repetition of “in peace” but vary the verb in different ways; again this preserves some of the sense but not all.

But examples are not limited to the ancient world. There was keen interest in and acceptance of repetition as a device through until the 19th century at least. I am reliably informed that William Wordsworth explored its use in connection with Deborah’s Song (Judges ch.5), which is indeed one of the most striking examples to be found in the Hebrew Bible. He is just one of a long line of writers – for example D.H. Lawrence used repetition a great deal.

So, what should modern writers of historical fiction do? Should they avoid repetition or stick with it? The first choice is apparently favoured by editors and reviewers, but the second might be a more authentic mirror of an older style. And, moreover, careful use of repetition places the writing much more in the centre of the broader literary stream. The problem, of course, is that repetition is also easy to do accidentally, by overlooking options and failing to clean up after edits. That kind of repetition is well worth rooting out, but the deliberate kind, in my view at least, has a great future still.

Historical writing and translation

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A couple of posts ago I wrote about the problems of historical dialogue and translation. Today I want to have a brief look at the particular problems of poetry in historical works, and how these are translated. Some of the same issues about translation arise here – for example the question of whether you go for a modern equivalent to an ancient word, or stick with a less familiar but more accurate concept.

Speaking area, Santorini (Thira), Greece
First, an example from Egyptian poetry. Ezra Pound prepared translations quite a few years of some of the New Kingdom Egyptian love poems. These have been generally regarded as lively and engaging, but have had a less favourable response from Egyptologists. In one poem he uses the word “bathing suit“:

My bathing suit of the best material,
The finest sheer,
Now that it’s wet,
Notice the transparency,
How it clings

Now, the word that Pound renders “bathing suit” in its original sense means something more like a robe – in some contexts a soldier’s protective garment, even, though that would probably not be a good choice here! An Egyptologist’s translation of these lines reads:

in a robe of finest royal linen,
permeated with camphor oil.
[… this line unreadable…]

Although the introduction to Pound’s book claims that the text is “based on literal renderings of the hieroglyphic texts into Italian“, very few students of ancient Egyptian would agree that the final result is a literal rendering! Pound is quite obviously presenting a modern re-presentation of an ancient text. The illustrations chosen to go alongside the words blend men and women in modern dress (well, modern for the late 1950s) together with drawings much more like Egyptian wall paintings. Should Pound have done this? Was he right to use a word here that suggests beach relaxation and sensuous bodily enjoyment, or was he wrong to bring in to the poem a word quite alien to its original culture?

Moving on to the Hebrew Bible, here is a single verse from David’s Lament, found in 2 Samuel 1. First, here is a fairly literal translation of verse 20:

Neither declare it in Gath
nor bear news to the market-places of Ashkelon
lest they rejoice – the daughters of the Philistines
lest they exult – the daughters of the uncircumcised.

It is clear that the verse consists of two pairs of parallel lines. The first pair names two Philistine cities, with each line starting with a command not to publish the news of the Israelite defeat there. The second pair uses two parallel expressions for the Philistine women, with each line starting with a warning about the delight they would feel concerning the news.

By way of contrast, here are four recent translations:

New International Version
Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

Good News Version
Do not announce it in Gath
or in the streets of Ashkelon.
Do not make the women of Philistia glad;
do not let the daughters of pagans rejoice.

The Message
Don’t announce it in the city of Gath,
don’t post the news in the streets of Ashkelon.
Don’t give those coarse Philistine girls
one more excuse for a drunken party!

New Living Translation
Don’t announce the news in Gath,
or the Philistines will rejoice.
Don’t proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon,
or the pagans will laugh in triumph.

Clearly the New International and Good News versions stick quite closely to the word order and meaning of the original, with only minor changes. The Good News version chooses simpler vocabulary and sentence structure, in keeping with the translators’ goals, but keeps the pattern given by the Hebrew text. Both versions preserve the parallelism within each pair of lines, between the two town names on the one hand, and the two descriptions of rejoicing women on the other. “Pagan” in the Good News version perhaps suggests a value judgement about Philistine religion which the descriptive term “uncircumcised” avoids (though to be fair this word increasingly came to have a pejorative value in Hebrew thought).

Moving on, The Message keeps the town names parallel, but completely disrupts any sense that the second pair of lines had parallel descriptions at all. It also speculates on the nature of the celebrations – that they involve drunkenness – considerably beyond anything the text has to say. The effect is to paint for the reader a rather blacker picture of the Philistines than the original author chose to write – indeed one with slightly racist overtones.

The New Living Translation makes a fascinating choice. The two pairs of parallel lines are kept, but have been rearranged. The new organisation was presumably reckoned to be simpler for a reader to grasp, as the instructions “don’t tell…” are directly linked to the consequences “or else…”. Moreover, the celebrations are no longer the province of women but will apparently be carried out by the whole population of these towns. From a historical point of view, victory celebrations in this era typically were in fact led by women – a gender difference which, perhaps, the translators did not wish to highlight. In the interest of presenting a simple, clear verbal image, both the specific words of the text and the results of historical investigation are set to one side.

What do we make of this? Bible readers in many churches are often encouraged by speakers to compare several translations in order to get an overall sense of the meaning of a passage, even if a single version is routinely used within services. Generally speaking this is good advice, but the example from David’s Lament shows that actually doing this in the case of poems can be confusing. Faced with this diversity of presenting material, what is the non-specialist reader to do?

For my own part, I would rather grapple with something closer to the original. If an original author has taken the trouble to use a particular word, pattern, or overall form, I want to engage with that rather than be offered someone else’s opinion of what the author might have said if they were living today. But other readers might disagree, and feel that a modern “upgrade” helps them get the point. At very least, as readers we need to be aware how much modern filtering is going on between us today and the original design of the author.

Historical dialogue and translation

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I have seen several blog articles recently on the subject of fictional dialogue. However, I have not yet seen any which have tackled the specific issue of dialogue in historical fiction. Most are concerned with matters such as use of slang or idiomatic language in contemporary writing – whether this works or not, how quickly it ceases to be relevant, and how to use it.

Status - Delos, GreeceHistorical fiction faces slightly different problems, though, and I want to tackle these over a few blog articles, especially as they are closely related to the translation of historical texts. For one thing, many of us who write about the past are also writing about people speaking another language – even the English of Chaucer’s time is quite different in certain ways from modern English. Along with a lot of other people, I write about a place and time where the characters’ language was scarcely related at all to English.

A reviewer of In a Milk and Honeyed Land commented that she felt that some of the dialogue was too modern, and in particular picked out my frequent use of “look” or “see“. We had a great discussion about this – one of those really positive online experiences. My basic answer was that in the Hebrew Bible, this is actually one of the more common words (hinneh). In older translations this is typically represented by “lo” or “behold“, and most modern translations simply omit it… ironically, given the discussion, because they consider it too archaic! Egyptian has a similar word (mek) which is also frequently used, and similar comments can be made of other languages of the region,

The basic idea is that this word pulls the reader or listener into the action alongside the protagonist. For example, in Genesis 15, Abram is protesting to God: “And Abram said, “Look, to me you have given no seed: and look, one born in my house is my heir.” (Both words “look” are variations of hinneh).

So from my point of view, my characters’ use of “look” or “see” is quite period-correct… but evidently it did not carry this idea to the reader in question, who herself writes historical fiction set in another age, so is very well informed.

This set me thinking about how to present historical dialogue. I suspect that for many people, “ho varlet, why dost dare stand before me? Unhand me and get onst thy knees!” would seem genuinely historical. But to my Late Bronze characters, such phrasing (always presuming that anybody actually spoke like that, which I suspect is unlikely) would be unthinkably far in the future.

This brings me to translation. By and large there are two schools of thought about this. One is to take the text and translate very literally, keeping as close as possible to the original words and sentence structure. This is usually associated with academic or other “serious” contexts. At another pole is an approach called “dynamic equivalence“, in which the translator basically tries to write what, in their opinion, the original author would have said if they were speaking today.

You can make a case for both of these, and just now I am not going to promote one way above the other. Pretty obviously, dynamic equivalence makes a text more accessible to a casual audience, but at the cost of deliberately discarding forms and patterns present in the original. In another blog post I’ll give some examples of this.

For today it’s enough just to open up this problem. How do you make your characters speak in ways that as author you are confident has roots in your period of choice… while at the same time persuading readers they are reading something set in the past?

I have read books which adopt the dynamic equivalence approach and simply use modern phrasing, on the grounds that this is how the people would speak if they were alive today. As a reader, this does not work for me, but I can see the logic. And clearly it is not suitable to write totally in the characters’ idiom – how many people would enjoy In a Milk and Honeyed Land or Scenes from a Life if the dialogue was in Canaanite, early Hebrew, or Egyptian? How far should one go in trying to capture something of their way of speech, and the occasional struggles of trying to communicate cross-culturally?

And how far, I wonder, does the problem extend to other genres? When might writers of fantasy or science fiction use archaic-sounding language to good effect? Quite apart from the general techno-babble style of things, I remember being fascinated by Isaac Asimov’s coining of the word “richified” (to mean “bribed“, of course) to signal a slightly backward world… though still with space flight and other things which are futuristic to us!

Alternative plot structure part 1 – the ring pattern

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How are stories planned and organised? More interestingly, how have they been arranged in different parts of the world and times in history? Today I want to talk about a common middle eastern pattern, “ring structure”. Nowadays, the pattern most commonly talked about is called “three act structure”. Some people use this title just as a convenient piece of shorthand, but others try to argue that there is something fundamental about it, even to the extent of suggesting that there is some basis in human brain chemistry that favours it.

Three act structure is pretty much stock in trade for Hollywood films and so has big money behind it. Basically, 1) the plot presents a problem to the main character. A first attempt to solve it fails. So 2) a more elaborate attempt to solve it is set up and also fails, this time in such a way that things look hopeless. Then 3) a final sacrificial attempt is made and it is resolved.

But is there really anything profound in this pattern? I want here to distinguish between film plots and book plots. These are different media and so might quite reasonably have different forms – why should a film follow a book storyline any more than if the key plot ideas were turned into a musical, or a poem, or a piece of art? However, typically, people who know a book well routinely end up disappointed with a film adaptation.

Now, despite some of the things which have been said about it, there is no real reason to suppose that having three acts mirrors anything deep about the human soul. Many pieces of literature have used entirely different patterns, and I want to focus on a few of these over an intermittent series of blog articles.

So for today, I want to look at ring structure – the key moment or event is placed in the middle of the work. It is, quite literally, pivotal, or centrally important to the plot. Bailey, back in the late 1990s, said of this pattern “The primary language of the picture is placed in the climactic center. Around that center is a series of interpretive semantic “envelopes”, which provide direction to the reader’s imagination“. On similar lines, Radday said “Chiastic structure… is more than an artificial or artistic device… it is rather, and most remarkably so, a key to meaning“. In the ancient near eastern world this pattern was common, and it has survived to some degree through to the present.

Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian cover imageThe typical pattern is to open with a state of stability and peace, which is then disrupted in some way – perhaps by a natural crisis, or by wickedly motivated individuals. The disruption may be presented from several different points of view, depending on the length of the work. The pivotal event is at the centre to resolve the crisis – in some texts it might be a battle, for example, but in others it will be a celebration of a god, nation or individual. Merenptah’s Israel Stele has “A great wonder has occurred for Egypt“. The Hebrew “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15, first half) has “Who like you among the gods? Yahweh!“. After the central affirmation the situation ‘unwinds’, commonly in symmetric ways to the opening layers, and the setting is restored to peace and stability.

A few years ago now I made a study of this in the PhD thesis Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian. In this I showed how some key texts in New Kingdom Egypt and the oldest strands of the Hebrew Bible use ring structure, and its stricter cousin chiasmus, to provide the framework for their narrative. But use of the pattern is not restricted to the ancient world, and it was in use in rural middle eastern contexts within living memory. Some people have argued that it reflects a difference in world-view. Three-act, credibly, lends itself to a conquering, pioneering mentality in which obstacles are only there to be surmounted in pursuit of a supreme goal. Ring structure lends itself to a view which values cohesion around a crucial centre. Perhaps it is not surprising that Hollywood likes one and not the other!

Some modern authors have experimented with this pattern, such as Hemingway in The Sun also Rises. There are even elements of the ring structure in the typical Star Trek (original series) plot, when Kirk, Bones and Spock collect on the bridge on a wind-down return-to-normality session after saving the world again. On a more domestic scale, I built In a Milk and Honeyed Land according to the structure: readers can entertain themselves working out the key events which I have set as the pivot, and how concentric patterns are set up during the book as a whole.

With influences from world literature increasingly impacting on British and European fiction (from what I have seen, America lags behind a little here), it is to be hoped that ring patterns will come back into larger scale use. They provide an interesting and creative variation of plot structure, and potentially say something important about a world view.

Senet, ‘Scenes from a Life’, and mobile app programming

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Well, all three of these have been quite prominent this week. Senet is an ancient Egyptian board game, considered by many people to be an ancestor of backgammon. Available evidence is for the most part from tomb drawings and artefacts, with a small amount of textual material as well. It is not clear how far through the various levels of ancient Egyptian society enthusiasm for the game went – the tomb evidence by its very nature preferentially informs us about elite activities and interests, and we simply do not have information either way about other strata of the culture. Senet was used, apparently, not just directly as a game, but also as a religious or spiritual symbol of the passage through this life and the next. You could liken this very loosely to today’s playing cards, which similarly straddle the long gulf between between gaming and divination in different people’s hands.

Scenes from a Life makes use of Senet quite extensively, and I have assumed that it was played very widely by all kinds of people. Sometimes in the book it is just a game, but much more frequently it features on a metaphorical level. So the journeys that take place through the book might be interpreted by the characters as like movements in the game, with all of the anticipation and anxiety that this brings about. Or there might be an analogy drawn between someone’s behaviour and a game play strategy. If, as I suspect might have been the case, Senet was something of a national game back in New Kingdom Egypt then this is inevitable. Think how sports fans tend to lace their conversation and world-view with ideas and set-piece moves drawn from their favourite sport, whether football, chess, baseball, table-tennis or whatever.

Senet app icon

So that brings us through to mobile apps. Some long-term followers of this blog will know that I have a Senet game available on the various app stores (pick your favourite store and search for DataScenes Development, or just directly for Senet). But over the last few weeks I have been working on a new version. Alongside the paid-for version there will be a free (well, advert-supported) one which has a number of geeky techie advantages.

  • By using a different underlying technology I am able to release it for a lot of phones and tablets of quite modest specification (lots more than was constrained by the previous tech choice).
  • I have integrated the app with the web so there is a sort-of leaderboard feature for those who fancy themselves as modern-day Senet champs.
  • I have taken the opportunity to rework a lot of code that had got more and more like tangled spaghetti. Anyone in the IT trade will recognise this as refactoring, and with my QA hat on I am completely aware just how many bugs get introduced by enthusiastic developers doing just this… but my code will be different…

Senet splash screen But I have also been finding some of the down-sides with the new development tool (it’s the Corona SDK for the true IT geeks). This is based on a graphics engine called OpenGL – which is magnificent for things like displaying images and moving them round the screen, but really quite poor at laying out simple text in – say – some help pages. Ironically I think I have spent longer getting the in-app help to work properly than the mechanics of the game itself.

Now, the characters of Scenes from a Life did not have smart-phones with them on their journeys. But they did enjoy the game of Senet – and you can enjoy it along with them! Realistically Senet the free game will be released quite some time before Scenes from a Life hits the bookshelves, so it can act as a sort of preview…

Exploration in narrative

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Only a short blog today as I am out and about at the moment. But I had cause earlier in the week to contemplate the different ways that people approach their writing. I emphasise that I am not at all talking about whether an author has published many or few books, or whether they make a good living or not, or any of those tangible markers of success. The thing that struck me is whether people approach writing from the point of view of “playing by the rules” of their own culture and/or personal preference, or exploring alternative points of view.

Personally I don’t think that there is any one ideal narrative style (still less that narrative style is in some way written into our DNA) but rather that particular cultures tend to throw up styles that suit them. The dominant cultures in North America and Europe have settled on a particular way to tell stories – you see it perhaps in its most obvious form in Hollywood films which self-consciously set out to follow the pattern, often as a kind of in joke overtly signalling the transition points to knowledgable audience members.

My own studies have convinced me that not all cultures have chosen to do this, and I cannot persuade myself that the current US/European paradigm is automatically the best! I have written a number of times before about chiasmus as a structural feature – key events and plot themes are placed at the centre of the work, with successive envelopes forming outer layers around that. You see this a lot within Middle Eastern writing, especially pre-Christian writings. It is perhaps striking that the Hebrew parts of the Bible (the Old Testament) display this structural habit of thinking much more than the Greek parts (the New Testament), which tend to be more in keeping with our modern expectation of linear progression through difficulty to triumph.

I know much less about far eastern writing but have just finished reading “A Pair of Jade Frogs” by a contemporary author from Shanghai. A Pair of Jade Frogs cover Here, by contemporary western standards the book seems to rather trail off. Key events and tensions are resolved earlier in the story. Only one narrative theme is pursued to the end, and that one is not closed off triumphantly but dissolves into uncertainty. I appreciated the different approach to writing, but I did wonder if the book would be criticised for not adhering to western standards of narrative form? Certainly some of the opinions I come across online would be very critical of this form, and certainly would not want to imitate it in their own writing. As for me, I really enjoy getting to grips with the many and varied ways that people have structured meaning over the years!