let me tell you

about let me tell you – a novel by Paul Griffiths, published by Reality Street Editions, which I came across at last year’s Small Publishers’ Fair, and finished reading at two minutes past midnight this morning. The premise: Ophelia speaking for herself, breaking out of the role assigned to her in Hamlet, but with only those words she speaks in the play available to her. So, there is an element of the Oulipian exercise to the text, but within these restrictions, Griffiths is marvellously inventive. There are some startlingly beautiful images – a mountain described as ‘a green sandal loosed from the heels of heaven’, for example. Lyrical or melancholy passages are contrasted with moments of surprising humour (the prophecy of an oracle, Lady Profound, spoken through an owl, ends ‘Come up and see me some time.’). The novel plays with its conceit, the narrator O remarking how the words do not seem to belong to her, that they come from outside herself; and then there is a play within the novel, where he (the unnamed Hamlet) takes a part, alongside O, her brother and father. The affection she expresses for her father and younger brother is genuinely touching, and her sense of bewilderment and need to escape the fate which has been written for her is movingly conveyed.  Some of the writing has a sparseness, a pared-down quality, which approaches Beckett, and the more I read, the more I felt the cumulative power of this book

And it’s only now, as I started writing this post, that I realised the author is the same Paul Griffiths who wrote the indispensable, addictively dip-in-able New Penguin Dictionary of Music – just about the best resource for information on classical music. Pithy, wonderfully expressed, and in the way of the best reference books, hugely diverting.

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