…Peasants (The Oxford Diary)

by WE

Bad luck at High Table tonight. You get invited to dine at High Table once during your stay at Christchurch. Remember Harry Potter? High Table is were the teachers sit and look down upon the pupils.

I was seated to one end of the table – or maybe I should say Table – with an Australian (retired) sheep farmer from Perth to my right, a (retired) pilot/instructor (US forces) on my left, a lady from Melbourne opposite and, next to her, David from Michigan.

When it turned out that the Australian lady’s father and husband were with the RAF and that David from Michigan had always wanted to become a pilot (only, he had to have some brain surgery done at the age of 22, so they wouldn’t let him) the topic for the evening was fixed. Planes. The crash in San Francisco. Planes. Afghanistan. Planes. Vietnam (!). Planes. The sheep farmer did his best to turn the conversation around – once even offering David one Pound if he got up, turned around and shouted “Peasants!” at those who were sitting at the tables (not the Table), which was quite funny really.

But there was no way the others would be diverted from the course they’d taken. So, all in all, it was just a tiny little bit boring.

By the way, the food here is really good.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Literary Scholar

by WE

Today, I felt like the loneliest person in the world for about half a minute.

My company sent me to attend a training for data security officers. For lunch, we went to the canteen of the Association of SHI Physicians which is just down the road. The lady at the reception desk gave us the directions: “Through this door, down the stairs and then just follow the yellow wall.” And, indeed, there was a long narrow corridor (with a little bit of imagination you could even call it ‘winding’) and one of its walls was painted a rich sunflower yellow. I immediately felt moved to remark: “Oh, so it’s not a yellow brick road”, and – realising my company consisted of IT administrators, company lawyers and similar – after an almost imperceptible pause added: “like in the Wizard of Oz.”

Were there any chuckles? Did anyone laugh out loud? Did one of the administrators answer on the lines of “oh, yeah, follow the yellow brick road…”? Was there even a condescending *old-chestnut-alarm* smile by one of the lawyers?

No. In fact, they didn’t even grant me a puzzled look.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t blame them or want to ridicule them. Probably the proportion of aspiring data security officers with special interest and knowledge in the field of literature (or even movies of the 1930ies, for that matter) is rather small – and not surprisingly so. In fact, I am the odd one out in this whole business – the “freak” as one of my best friends recently remarked.

She meant it in a nice way.

But I still feel lonely sometimes.

(Other literary scholars (be they IT administrators, lawyers, bakers, sweepers, freaks…) stay tuned for my Oxford Diary starting next Sunday.)

Unreliable Narrators – Part Two: Self-Unfolding Liars

by WE

[continued from: Unreliable Narrators – Part One: Liars in Retrospect]

An example from literature this time:The first-person narrator in “Me and Kaminski” by Daniel Kehlmann. The “me” as it were. There’s a lot of reviews and interpretation around on this novel. A nice and short account of the story and of its place within Kehlmann’s oevre was published by Phillip Oltermann (In: The Observer,

For my present purpose I would have liked to focus on the first few pages of the novel, in which the reader realises that he is dealing with an unreliable narrator. Okay, I’ll admit that the title is already a bit of a hint in that direction. But the true character of the narrator unfolds over the course of a few paragraphs in which he describes and assesses what he does and says or how the people around him respond. It is his assessment of his (inter-)actions which reveals him as an unreliable narrator.

Unfortunately, I cannot find my copy of the novel and last read it a couple of years ago, so – unless I keep the whole analysis extremely vague and only dwell on the impressions I remember to have had at the time – I can’t really proceed with my argument right now. Therefore, I will stop here and revisit this article as soon as I have the book back. (It’s probably right in the middle of the shelf which is at eye-level, which is an extremely perfidious place to hide.)

The Exclusive Interview with the Creators of ‘Sherlock’ which didn’t quite happen

by WE

[In case you’re wondering: WE stands for Working Ear and is no indication of my having thoughts above my station]

[Warning: Spoilers for Sherlock season two]

WE: Welcome Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat! Thank you for joining me in my head. It’s a bit crammed up here, sorry about that, I didn’t get around to spring-cleaning yet. Maybe you, Mr. Gatiss, will sit on this armchair I remember from my grandfather’s house and would you, Mr. Moffat make do with this swing from happy childhood days? It’s more comfortable than it looks.

[Gatiss and Moffat each take a seat and throw suspicious glances around.]

WE: Again, thank you for making the time. I’m sure you’re very busy at the moment what with filming the third season and so on.

[Polite smiles]

WE: So, let’s start with the first question. I’ve always wanted to ask you whether it’s more of a challenge or a relief for a screenwriter that so many people know the Sherlock Holmes adventures from the books, movies and TV renderings?

Gatiss: W…

WE: What I mean is – you know, on the one hand you have to meet the audience’s expectations and on the other hand you have to create suspense.

Gatiss: W…

WE: Is that, maybe, why you introduced the character of Dr. Stapleton but didn’t make her the murderer?

Moffat: N….

WE: Sorry to interrupt, but let me get this clear by another example. At the beginning of “The Reichenbach Fall” you seem to be wanting to build up some tension by this first scene in which Dr. Watson tells his therapist that Sherlock is dead. As if not everyone knew that his death was faked, haha [smiles getting more strained]. But then, shortly before the fall, you give clear indications of Sherlock planning something about his death and needing Molly, the mortician!, to help him carry out his plan.

Moffat: It…

WE: I was thinking that it was almost a bit schizophrenic to have this heart-breaking farewell scene, the fall, Sherlock lying in a pool of blood…and then just having him standing in the cemetery watching John Watson crying at his grave.

[Gatiss and Moffat exchange nervous glances]

Gatiss: W…

WE: Sorry to interrupt but let me formulate this in a question: I thought that maybe you wanted to serve both audiences? Those that knew the story and those that didn’t? Those who knew the story could start to wonder quite early on on how he did it. The others were allowed to waver between desperation (Sherlock is dead) and hope (I’m sure he’ll be okay, otherwise there would be no third season and it has already been commissioned by the BBC). Very clever of you. Then, again, I thought that [Moffat rolls his eyes] it is also possible that you wanted to develop the two very different points of view of Sherlock, the cold schemer walking over his own dead body, and Watson, the far more emotional character who is almost crushed by the loss of his best friend?

Gatiss: W…

WE: But that doesn’t stand to reason, does it? Because we know that Sherlock wants to protect Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade by faking his death, which is not cold and scheming but rather a nice trait. Hmmm – It seems you don’t want to shed any light on this. Or can’t? Maybe I should ask Steve Thompson [Moffat: YES], after all he wrote this episode.

Gatiss: G…

WE: Oh, I see our time has almost run up. So, thank you for these very interesting insights into your work! I’m sure, people can hardly wait for our next session. It’s been really fascinating…oh, they’re gone…well, tomorrow’s another day…Maybe the swing was not such a good idea. I should have another look at that scene in front of the fireplace before the next session and offer them comfy armchairs and a drink…[thoughtful pause]…

Oh, no! I completely forgot to ask them for the title of the third episode of S3. It would be funny if it was something like “The Prancing Women” [chuckles] or “The Four Garibaldis”… now that would be a bow to the confectionery industry…  [Falling asleep rambling.]

[Note to the esteemed creators of Sherlock, Mr. Mark Gatiss and Mr. Steven Moffat: Hope you’ll forgive me! Best intentions and everything…no offence meant.]


Orlando Bloom Killed by Elves

by WE

Not long ago, I watched an old episode of “Midsomer Murders” (Judgement Day, 2000) in which a quite young Orlando Bloom played a womanizer by the name of Peter Drinkwater who was killed by someone living in a house called Lothlorien. Gruesomely. With a pitchfork. (Doesn’t even the name Peter Drinkwater have a slightly Tolkien ring (no pun intended) to it?)

Talking about coincidences: The episode was written by Anthony Horowitz who went on to write “The House of Silk” about an atrocious organisation whose dealings were discovered and put an end to by Sherlock Holmes whose adventures have been very cleverly adapted for a modern TV-version in which Dr. Watson is portrayed by Martin Freeman who also plays Bilbo in “The Hobbit”.

Call that far-fetched? I call it a closed circle!

Unreliable Narrators – Part One: Liars in Retrospect

by WE

[continued from: “Inglourious Basterds”]

An example from the movies. [I am still not sure, who exactly is the narrator in a movie. As a first working hypothesis, I’ll opt for the camera – steered or given its voice, of course, by the screenwriter’s script and the director’s handicraft.]

Remember when you first watched “The Sixth Sense”? [Spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen the movie and still want to, stop reading here and turn to another category.]

Now be honest: Did you at any point suspect that the character played by Bruce Willis was a ghost? Admit it – you didn’t! Like most movie-goers you were utterly taken by surprise when the revelation was made. To be sure, there were some strange scenes. The wedding-day dinner in the restaurant, for example, when you would have expected some kind of scene or mouthed remonstrances from the wife. Or the fact, that the psychologist is never seen talking to the boy’s mother. But the implications of these scenes only become obvious in retrospect. You accept these scenes as just being strange, maybe because the whole film breathes strangeness. Or maybe because you find your prejudices against psychologists and their wives confirmed.

Because the camera in “The Sixth Sense” is a superb liar in retrospect. A liar who leaves clues of his lying all over the film and yet isn’t found out by the audience. It’s the narrator’s triumph in the end to have you go through the film again, trying to find all the clues and wondering if you could (should?) have suspected the truth.

“Inglourious Basterds”

by WE

This is not about the film. Apart from this one mention, the name and work of Quentin Tarantino won’t figure in this text at all. If truth be told, I just don’t feel comfortable about using words like “bastard” – or, come to that, even “basterds” – outside my head, let alone in writing. Notice the abundant use of quotation marks? Yes, I am a bit old-fashioned in that respect. But, hey, it’s okay if it’s a quote, isn’t it? No need to blush!

No, this text is about narrators and the fact that you just can’t  trust some of them. And if you’re feeling tricked into reading this text by a rather crude allusion to a major motion picture – well, take it as a first point in favour of my argument.

We learn at school that it is important to distinguish between the author of a novel or a poem or similar and the narrator. There are, for example, first-person narrators, third-person narrators and omniscient narrators, and they all shouldn’t be confused with the person who gives them a voice. Sometimes the narrator is a human being, sometimes an animal, sometimes the narrator is the material produced by the camera. In fact, with movies it’s a bit more complicated because you not only have the writer of the script but also the director, the leading actor(s) or rather the characters (again something which shouldn’t be confused), the cameraman – who of these people is the narrator?

However, I think one of the most interesting species of narrators are the unreliable ones, the pretenders and fakers, the liars and self-deceivers. Mostly, if they are well-crafted, it’s great fun to find them out.

I’ve given this group of voices some amateurish thoughts and came up with a number of different categories of unreliable authors which I would like to put up for discussion.

Read on: Unreliable Narrators – Part One: Liars in Retrospect

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