Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Alcathoe's bat

Catch-up miscellany (I have been traveling, it throws me off!):

Thumbprint-sized bat discovered in England.

Ancient Roman ingots to provide lead shielding for neutrino detector (thanks to Wendy for the link!).

An edited transcript of my interview of Jonathan Safran Foer for the Literature and Terror series at Columbia.

At the LRB, Jenny Diski on delusionary parasitosis (something I hope I will never experience).

A recent conversation with a friend of my mother's who didn't much like Wolf Hall (which I liked very much indeed) led me to obtain and consume (I will not say devour, they are not quite so delightful to my tastes as that) four crime novels by C. J. Sansom, who seems to be better known in Britain than in the U.S.: Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign and Revelation.

They are not at all bad, they are highly readable, but they caused me to think with considerable grumpiness about how much I dislike the genre of the historical mystery (as opposed to the straight historical novel), especially when it is set in medieval times.

It might just be after-the-fact rationalization of a more visceral dislike, I cannot really say, but the thing that irks me is that though of course crimes must always have been investigated (and Oedipus Rex would be a good example of an early literary work that develops an innovative form to foreground a narrative of investigation and discovery), the narrative protocols of crime fiction are very much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so that it makes a sort of nonsense of the whole business (at the very best a parlor game, at worst a deeply misguided effort in false sensibility) to write about fifteenth-century monks as though they could just be plugged into a P. D. James novel and function.

The first volume in particular gave me a desperate yearning to read some modern stabs at 'real' faux-medieval crime narratives - you would mine Boccaccio and Chaucer and whatever else you wanted for some ideas and then write some really genuinely formally peculiar things that would be (ideally) moving and intellectually gripping but that would look absolutely nothing like the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. Medievalists out there? Any ideas? What would the reading list be for a fiction-writer researching such a project (I am not contemplating it myself, I am just curious), and what might the genre of medieval crime tale look like? Are there ones that are readable (in verse or prose), and what are their narrative as opposed to investigative protocols? What about law cases/trials and other forms of narrative of investigation? Adaptations of the story of Cane and Abel or other Biblical crimes? Hmmm, I realize I do not actually have a very clear idea about this, I must investigate - perhaps there is an abstruse but magically interesting academic book at the library that would satisfy my curiosity on these points...


  1. Sam and his father like those Ian Pears Oxford-in-the-17th-c. mysteries: Sign of the Fingerpost, etc. (This isn't really an answer to your question--not medieval, etc., plus their tastes may be less particular than yours...)

  2. These ideas may be somehow both too obvious and too irrelevant, but I think immediately of historical works like Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms and Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre (both more early modern, perhaps, but perhaps there are other examples closer to the mark), and separately, Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas. Ditto in terms of the period concerned.

  3. Also, Joni Mitchell is experiencing a version of delusory parasitosis:


  4. For some reason this post of yours keeps coming to my mind. Another (again, historical) work that would seem to be interesting, this time genuinely medieval-related, is this: