‘Telling Tales’ – A Radically Faithful Retelling.

November 16, 2014

On November 15th I was invited to introduce Patience Agbabi as one of the closing authors to read at Literary Leicester, a week long festival of literature staged by the University of Leicester with an exceptional programme of authors ranging from Patience – to Will Self, Carrie Etter and Moniza Alvi. The piece I wrote and delivered on the night may also serve as something of a review and I’ve been asked by a few different people to put it up online; so here it is in a slightly expanded form…

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Patience

I first encountered Patience Agbabi around 7 years ago through WORD! – as after moving from a series of more underground bars we arrived at The Y Theatre and invited her to read as one of our first major, headline acts. At the time she was touring her third collection, Bloodshot Monochrome. The audience crowded into the bar area (the night was very quickly moved into the main theatre) and everyone was blown away. Since then she’s continued to be a busy lady with a resume packed with venues, commissions, countries and books.

Born in London, Agbabi spent her teenage years in North Wales, before progressing to study English Language and Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford. She has toured her work across the world, travelling widely with the British Council and occupying the role of Canterbury’s Poet Laureate – perhaps significantly considering her latest work. The author of two books prior to Bloodshot Monochrome – Transformatrix and R.A.W – her forth, Telling Tales (Canongate,2014) is a retelling of Chaucer’s 14th century Medieval masterwork, ‘The Canterbury Tales’.

Many highly respected names in contemporary British Literature have been unreserved in their praise for this latest work.

“Wonderful” – says, Andrew Motion

“Inventive, innovative and ingenious – zooms right into the 21st Century.” – says, Jackie Kay.

“A brilliant, virtuosic take on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales…If Telling Tales is not one of the books of the year or in line for a major prize it will be proof that the world has grown very dull.” – George Szirtes.

“A Canterbury Tales for a multicultural Britain…Chaucer would have been proud.” – Helen Cooper.

But what do you do with Chaucer in a modern age? What do you do with this story of 24 pilgrims traveling from Southwark to Canterbury (at the time a common quest) each telling a tale to out do the other? The original work is written in an obsolete form of English that few people will understand without a good grasp of Middle English – and arguably an academic background. What’s more, Chaucer writes his tales against a 14th century Medieval backdrop that is not our own – and yet, of course, Chaucer’s major work is an undisputed work of genius. So, what do you do with it? How do you make it understandable for a modern audience?

There have of course been other attempts to answer this question. Writers like Neville Coghill (The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, The Folio Society, 1956) and Peter Ackroyd (A Retelling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Penguin Classics, 2009) have chosen to retell it in modern English. Both are wonderful versions but not without issues in relation to this question; we can understand and relate to the language – but not what it describes. Nowadays we have no Knights, we have no Reeves or Yeomans and then there are even trickier issues…

Anti-semitism was a key feature of Medieval Life – just as one could now say that racism towards other groups is sadly a feature of contemporary life. Chaucer wrote at a time just after the Jews had been expelled from the Britain by King Edward 1st and were largely hated; and so we come to ‘The Prioress’ Tale’ – a tale of it’s time and like all of The Canterbury Tales – for the people. It features a 7 year old, innocent, devout Christian son of widow, who whist coming back from school, practicing a devotional Latin hymn – Alma Redemptoris Mater (Loving mother of our saviour) – finds himself in the Jewish quarter, or as Chaucer has it – in the ‘waspish nest of the accursed Jews’ [sic] by whom, he is brutally murdered – without provocation – for no reason we may assume other than the fact that he is Christian. When it comes to describing the Jewish character, the implication is clear.

To retell such a story would be to perpetuate anti-semitism, racism – and this for me is the crux of the matter. On a retelling enterprise such as this it is important to make a text understandable for the audience for whom you are writing – and at the same time to preserve something of the original – to some extent to be faithful – but how faithful can you be to something that in this particular, limited case – and I hasten to add it is not indicative of the rest of Chaucer’s tales – but how faithful can you be to something which in this case – is hopefully repellent to most modern people?

Agbabi manages it. In her version, ‘Sharps and Flats’ she retains the basic story of a young boy who is brutally murdered, whilst removing the racism. He is simply an innocent who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, set upon by people whom he is different to – a rival gang. In her hand it becomes a redemptive tale – told not in the third person of the Prioress but in the first person – as the boy, in death grown to man records a mix tape to his mother from heaven, in the company of Damilola Talyor (who was of course tragically murdered in Southwark) to tell her in text speak and idiomatic street – that he is ok. To quote the final five lines of the piece:

‘Got my chords cut but I’m singing like it’s Sunday
boys got shut up, an I know this, that one day
you’ll come to stay, so peace! Remember what the nuns say,
Love conquers all. I sign off,

Your loving son, J.’

She preserves the magic of Chaucer’s original, where the corpse of the boy sings out from it’s grave to accuse his murders – transforming it into something beautifully drawn, highly impactive and quite extraordinary.

For me, this is the playful story and tension of the collection’s title – Agbabi is telling tales – faithfully preserving Chaucers’ work in countless different ways – whilst she is also telling tales – making stuff up in the most creative way possible – being radical.

She accurately translates Chaucers’ clear picture of the Medieval world with it’s hierarchical structure and varied make up into, as Jeanette Winterson puts it:

“A pilgrimage of punks, badasses, broken hearts, beat poets, silver-tongued fixers, town criers, beauties [and] sinners…”

– a picture of multicultural Britain.

She preserves Chaucer’s playful order but changes the players; the Reeve is a dog…The Wife of Bath is the Wife of Bafa and a Nigerian business woman who is, she insists in one of my favourite lines:

‘…not a feminax’

She exchanges prologues for a glossary of bios – a meta-text that can be read alongside the tales but which independently has as much to say about multicultural Britain.

Agbabi draws on many of Chaucers’ forms but moves them around. For the Franklin’s and Reeve’s Tale, she uses the wonderfully nuanced Rhyme Royal of 7 line, iambic pentameter stanzas, written across a pattern of a,b,a,b,b,c,c – just as Chaucer used it across the Man of Law’s, Prioress’, Clerk’s and Second Nun’s Tale.

Elsewhere she is sometimes faithful to his couplets but then invents and inherits a raft of other forms. Her Man of Law is a 7-sonnet corona. Her Tale of Melibee is a palindrome. The ‘Reconstruction’ of her Physician’s Tale is a deconstruction jazz – or to quote the bio of it’s fictitious physician author:

‘…a part homage to the concrete poems of sculptor Carl Andre.’

Then there’s grime and there’s rap – and in The Merchant’s Tale a collage of northern soul song titles – and in the Clerk’s Tale an overlaid retelling of Sharon Olds’ ‘I Go Back to May 1937’ – or 1967, in this case.

Agbabi’s is a radically faithful retelling, for as the Wife of Bath or Bafa will tell you, there are many ways to be faithful. You can be faithful by being literal, or – by preserving the spirit and essence of something and putting it into a form that makes sense and works for you.

The result is a work overlaid with multiple interpretations and meanings. See it as a inventory of contemporary dialects every bit as rich as those discovered by Chaucer – a comment on the evolution of language as a living thing. It is both an overview of multicultural Britain – and a tour deforce of poetic forms; a way of connecting to the past whilst using it to understand the present – and needless to say, a great read. This is a work that for the richest understanding can be read alongside both its original inspiration and other retellings – but also stands alone as all of the above and more.

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As an adjunct to the above, missing from here amongst other things is what came next – Patience’s 50 minute performance from the book, which was every bit as accomplished as the writing within it.

It would make for too long an entry to discuss this in detail but I would just say that once again here is a work to deeply question the wisdom of dividing page from stage – and to critique what remains for me a false distinction between the two. Good work is for both – as Chaucer, writing before the invention of the printing press surely knew. As the first work to be printed in the English language, Chaucer’s Tales were staged in towns and cities across the UK, both before and alongside being consumed by readers.

If you don’t yet have a copy of Agbabi’s Tales beg, borrow or ideally buy one. If you’ve yet to hear her read from it, do so – she’s very, very good. Listen to her perform and rediscover the forms – hear them out loud to appreciate their successfulness… go to them on the page to remember-discover-discover-remember… the cadences, the silences, the music – and the rising, chiming, pilgrim riding rhythms.

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