Review: Arcadia, Tom Stoppard

There is a particular sort of novel of which I always profess to be passionately fond: the sort with one plotline in the olden days with people doing their olden-day thing, and one in the present with eager scholars researching the very olden-day events in the other plotline.  (Is there a word for this sort of book?  Can there be one?)  If you have ever reviewed a book like this on your blog, I have probably commented to say something like, “Love this sort of book!  Adore!  Worship!  Cannot imagine my life without!” and added it to my reading list straight away.

When pressed, though*, I can only think of one such novel that I would recommend to a friend, and then only if I knew the friend in question didn’t mind extreme wordiness.  (A.S. Byatt’s Possession.  I should read that again.  It’s been years.)  More often I am disappointed on an epic scale by the author’s failure to live up to some arbitrary and impossibly high standard for this kind of novel.

*By me.  Much as I would like to live the sort of life where book lovers from all over the nation are constantly bashing at my door trying to get my opinion on Important Literary Matters, I am not yet at that place in my life.  Give it time.

For reasons far too complicated** to go into here, I am binging on Tom Stoppard right now.  I started with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, moved on to The Invention of Love, the result of which you saw, and just finished the play I normally claim as my favorite, ArcadiaArcadia goes back and forth between Byron-times, when a thirteen-year-old girl called Thomasina contemplates Latin translations and carnal embrace under the instruction of her tutor Septimus Hodge (that sounds much dirtier than it is), and present times, when scholars research Thomasina’s family and try to work out whether Byron ever shot a poet at their house.

**And awesome.  I would tell you what they are, except that I’m afraid that if I did, my sister’s boyfriend would no longer be able to write that treatise on Tom Stoppard and the nature of art that I expect he is currently planning, and also that Tom Stoppard’s people (I’m assuming he has people.  He’s Tom Stoppard.) would find this post, take umbrage at my flippant tone, and decline to allow Tom Stoppard to be interviewed by anyone ever again.  Better safe than sorry, right?

No wonder other books of this type have failed to satisfy me!  I have been comparing them all this time against Tom Stoppard!  It is hardly fair.  Especially when you consider that Billy Crudup, on whom I have a massive crush from Charlotte Gray and Almost Famous, played Septimus at one point in his career; and Bill Nighy, on whom I have a massive man-crush*** from, well, everything, was the original Bernard; and both of them are playing those roles in my head when I read Arcadia.  It’s like saying, Oh hey, I traveled back in time and saw the original production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe with William Shakespeare playing Oberon, so WHY CAN’T YOU MEASURE UP, NEIL GAIMAN?****

***My little sister and I got fed up with having no word to describe our feelings for male actors we adore but don’t have crushes on.  We can say “crush” to describe how we feel about Ben Barnes, and “girl-crush” to describe how we feel about Carey Mulligan and Helen Mirren, but there is no word for how we feel about Nathan Fillion and Johnny Depp.  So we decided to say “man-crush”.  It is officially the most useful word I coined in the 2009 holiday season (with “snuddle” a close if nauseating second).

****Confession: Before I ever saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I read Susan Cooper’s heart-wrenching King of Shadows, in which a lonely orphan boy travels back to Shakespeare times to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Shakespeare takes care of him.  While playing Oberon.  I think that may actually be why I have never seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that satisfied me.  That, or the Royal Shakespeare Company is massively overrated.

Arcadia gives us alternating scenes in past and present, gradually unfolding the little drama that took place in the old days between a poet called Chater and another called Byron.  Stoppard manages to maintain intellectual and emotional suspense while exploring chaos theory, the intersection of science and humanities, and the limits of human knowledge.  While, also, being very funny:

Thomasina: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

Septimus: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

Thomasina: Is that all?

Septimus: No…a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well-hugged, an embrace of grouse…caro, carnis, feminine: flesh.

Thomasina: Is it a sin?

Septimus: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh.  QED.  We had caro in our Gaulic Wars: ‘The Britons live on milk and meat’ – ‘lacte et carne vivunt’.  I am sorry the seed fell on stony ground.

Thomasina: That was the sin of Onan, wasn’t it, Septimus?

Septimus: Yes.  He was giving his brother’s wife a Latin lesson and she was hardly the wiser after it than before.

Phew.  Dizzy from all the wordplay.

Tom Stoppard, y’all.  Arcadia.  I almost got to see it in London but then did not, and I really wished I had organized my schedule better.  It’s a magnificent example of the above-mentioned double-plotline sort of story, the standard to which all others of this type should aspire.

Arcadia gives us alternating scenes in past and present, gradually unfolding the little drama that took place in the old days between a poet called Chater and another called Byron.  Stoppard manages to maintain intellectual and emotional suspense while exploring chaos theory, the intersection of science and humanities, and the limits of human knowledge.  While, also, being very funny:

Stomping around my bedroom late at night

I do not appreciate the suggestion that Oscar Wilde’s cleverness consisted in paradoxical epigram.  I will accept gracious tributes to Wilde’s way with epigrams, like Dorothy Parker’s:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit.
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Thank you, Dorothy Parker.  You have lovely qualities and could bang out epigrams with the best of them.

I will not, however, sit idly by in the face of any slighting reference to Oscar Wilde that implies that he was not as witty and charming as he is renowned to be, but only fooled people into thinking he was by inventing, and then saying, little paradoxes.  WRONG.  He was exactly as witty and charming as he is renowned to be, and I will argue you into the ground on this point; and trust me, you will get tired of arguing about it before I will, because I will never get tired of arguing (about Oscar Wilde).

Last night I was reading The Invention of Love, my current favorite Tom Stoppard play.  It is set at Oxford during the youth of A.E. Housman, and also on the rivers Styx and Acheron following the death of A.E. Housman (because Tom Stoppard can do things like that).  The play is about Housman, studying Latin and being quietly and hopelessly in love with a classmate, while Oscar Wilde and British concern over homosexuality are always in the background, for Housman to take no notice of.  Viz:

Pollard: Ruskin said, when he’s at Paddington he feels he is in hell – and this man Oscar Wilde said, “Ah, but—”
Housman: “—when he’s in hell he’ll think he’s only at Paddington.”  It’ll be a pity if inversion is all he is known for.

I read this line and went straight into a snit.  I was all, “Um, Alfred Edward, you are cute and all, but out of you and Oscar Wilde, only one of you graduated Oxford with a double first, while the other (I’m not naming names) failed to pass Greats.  I think you will find that Oscar Wilde is a bit more than an epigrammatist.  I mean if it’s a pity he’s only known for anything, it’s—”

Oh.  Inversion.


And then I sat up and gazed at the book and read it over twice, and I said, “Oh, well played, Tom Stoppard.”  And then I got up out of bed and strode around the room waving my arms around and talking to myself about how good Tom Stoppard is.  I did this, you see, because the alternative was me drunk-on-wordplay-dialing one of my friends, and I really don’t think any of my friends would appreciate getting a late-night phone call demanding their vocal appreciation for a play on words that hinges on a term for homosexuality that’s completely out of date.

That is pretty good, though, eh?  Inversion?  Get it?  Get it?

Booking Through Thursday

I like this one:

This can be a quick one. Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

So here are my fifteen books that will always stick with me, more or less in the order in which they entered my life:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
Jane Eyre
, Charlotte Bronte
Emily Climbs, L.M .Montgomery
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
, William Shakespeare
The Chosen
, Chaim Potok
The Color Purple
, Alice Walker
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
, J.K. Rowling
, Eloise Jarvis McGraw
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
The Invention of Love, Tom Stoppard
I Capture the Castle
, Dodie Smith
, Julian of Norwich
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie

These are all books that left me breathless.  Is that what we were after?

Lovin’ on Tom Stoppard

Speaking of The Mousetrap, here is a Tom Stoppard anecdote.  If you have never seen The Mousetrap and you don’t know whodunit and you don’t want to, don’t carry on reading this paragraph. You have been warned.  Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Inspector Hound is a parody of The Mousetrap and those country house type mysteries, and it’s also a parody of theatre critics.  And it steals lots of plot elements from The Mousetrap, as the title The Real Inspector Hound suggests, which might have caused the Mousetrap people to object.  But!  But but but!  They couldn’t!  Because if they objected publicly, and it got into the newspapers, then even mentioning the title of The Real Inspector Hound would give away the ending to The Mousetrap.  To me that is very funny.

I love Tom Stoppard.  Why have I not said anything at all in this blog about Tom Stoppard?  I love Tom Stoppard.  When I was in high school I went through this phase where I didn’t want to read anything but Tom Stoppard plays.  (It was a brief phase – my plays phases always are.)  Tom Stoppard is a genius. I shall reread some of his plays and review them here soon, so that I can quote him.  He writes the Britishest plays I have ever seen, and he is an absolute master of one-liners.  If you haven’t read anything by him, you should get on that.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the obvious place to start; Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth are fun, The Real Thing has an excellent line about Beethoven and entertains me hugely; Indian Ink and Arcadia are associated closely in my mind, and they’re both very good; and The Invention of Love is an extremely sad but still brilliant play about A.E. Housman.

Tom Stoppard.  I tell ya what.