and the consequences of lying
[ being the latest driblet from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books]
Writing is, fundamentally, a conversation with yourself. That’s it, in the nutshell. (The nut shell of your own head, of course.) Remember to listen to yourself and answer your own questions when you can. Don’t just talk. Be polite. Try to finish the conversation as you would want to with anyone else. Beyond that it’s a dressing up, or down—to gussy or hone. If you can’t talk to yourself, you can’t talk to anybody, so forget about the whole thing. If what you’ve done with your words embarrasses you, revise. Never tell the truth if the lie is better. (A lie is less likely to embarrass you or anyone else.) But tell the truth if you must. And if, after an appropriate period of absence, your words confuse you, revise or recant. If your tone seems strident, soften that. If it feels too serious, make a joke of it. If you can’t laugh at your own joke, remove it and replace the blunder. If the whole thing bores you, toss it in the round file with your other failed efforts—but keep a copy. You may be in a better mood at a later time. And always keep in mind (the afore mentioned nutshell) nothing written is ever lost.
Everything I have or that I do myself is founded on this simple act of self-consciousness. All the books. All the debt. My shop. My own history. Everything. And it was always thus. Most of what you read that was written prior to 1776 was produced by clearheaded clerks with a distinct awareness of the gibbet. They can more easily and fairly be forgiven for their occlusions and embroidery. But where they stand tall is in the language they used to deceive. Perhaps that was why they worked so well with the words—that industry being the one outlet for their own artistry, and what might survive the parching of their bones. And the traditions for this in English go back to its beginnings.
As you may have read, the events at Hastings had a far reaching consequence and are felt even to this day, as I sit here and write, nearly a thousand years later. But likely not in the way you first assume. There have been hundreds of books and thousands of theses on the subject and I don’t wish to add to that lot, but I do enjoy thinking about the whole thing and especially those consequences. You might recall, this particular battle occurred on the 14th of October in the year 1066—nine hundred and forty-eight years ago to be exact. Normans (a recalcified form of Swedish Viking with French manners) under the leadership of William the Bastard, invaded England, which was then under the united rule of Harold Godwinson, previously an Anglo-Saxon thegn, grandson of Wulfnoth, and cousin to King Sewyn (Sven) Forkbeard of Denmark. Harold had married into the Danish clan of King Cnut and was also a nephew of the previous English king, Edward the Confessor. For his part, William was a descendant through hanky-panky of Rollo the Fat (aka Gaange Rolf) and a clan of pirates (aka Vikings) who had invaded France just a few generations before and taken possession of the area at the mouth of the River Seine for its lucrative trade potential. In any case, despite the cool names, neither Harold nor William had any more right to be king than any other thug of the moment. It was all a matter of force of arms. Literal, and metaphorical, rape. And they were each pretenders to a shaky and makeshift throne less than a hundred years old to begin with. The Anglo-Saxon Germans had invaded (immigration we call it today) England five centuries before, following the collapse of the Roman Empire, displacing the Britons of Arthurian fame, and establishing much of what we think of being ‘England’ today, which was then divided into seven kingdoms. In the tenth century, one of these kings, AEthelstan, strong-armed his way to uniting most of the lot before he died. However his successors were soon overthrown by a Dane, the afore mentioned Sven Forkbeard. In any event, what all that raping and pillaging amounted to (given our inability to feel their pain over the centuries) was an alloyed and strengthened steel of language more powerful than any sword. Certainly there were other traditions of importance, but language was the key to all else. If you cannot put it into words, it cannot be remembered. And the words become the history.
This then all becomes the fault of one John of Worcester and his like, may they roast. John was the Anglo-Saxon monk who wrote a favorable account of the Norman invasion (lest his head be removed from his body) and this became the history we now know. If not for the writing of such chroniclers as John of Worcester, and the Irish monk Marianus Scotus of Regensburg in Germany, a refugee from another Viking, King Olaf of Dublin, we would have none of it. And you must remember, all of that history was written (all of it by hand and then transcribed to each copy by another fault-prone and obedient scrivener in fear of bodily separation or worse, damnation) and approved by the authorities of the moment, so you know that very little of it was true. And so it goes. You see, the fiction I write today has deep roots.