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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The First Chapter


Pistols! Treason! Murder! begins as follows [you can read the entire first chapter, from which this passage is taken, for free, here]:

Gerolamo Vano died in mid-air, on a gallows, between the columns at the entrance to Piazza San Marco in Venice, the site of public executions under the Venetian republic. .... The place where Vano died is now an empty piece of sky, but if you stand between the columns and reach up—as high as you can—your fingertips might brush the spot where his kicking feet once passed, marking out an irregular spiral. Its limits were set by the arc of the rope from which he dangled, and its central, zero point was reached only when his body stopped moving.
What glory is there in a common good,
That hangs for every peasant to achieve?
That like I best that flies beyond my reach.

The final three lines are a quotation from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Massacre at Paris, which was published in an unauthorised, pirated copy in 1593, the year of Marlowe’s murder. Throughout Pistols! Treason! Murder!, many similar fragments of literary dialogue are intercut with the narration (as above), or with quotations from Vano’s surveillance reports.[1] Marlowe, Shakespeare and their contemporaries were also, of course, contemporaries of Gerolamo Vano, which might be reason enough to juxtapose their words, even if there were not striking similarities in tone and theme between the two kinds of source, as yesterday’s discussion of The Revenger’s Tragedy suggests. But I chose this particular quotation because it alludes to Tantalus, who was condemned by the gods to reach towards a goal that will always remain outside his grasp. It may also bring to mind the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden, whose fruit is attainable, but only at great cost. [2]

Juxtaposing this layered image with that of Vano’s corpse on the gallows is not entirely original: the same idea underlies the famous protest song, Strange Fruit. But is it Vano speaking here, overreaching himself fatally in his quest for power? Or are these words spoken by the narrator (also, perhaps, overreaching himself), to whom Vano is the elusive object of historical knowledge? The dual attribution – the words ‘belong’ both to Vano and to the narrator – also suggests a possible comparison between Vano’s relationship to early seventeenth-century political culture and my own relationship to early twenty-first century academic culture. Vano is not only my subject: he is my hero, my exemplar – and my warning.

It is also fitting that the first interpolated piece of dialogue in Pistols! Treason! Murder! (not counting the book’s title, which comes from The Revenger’s Tragedy, as I explained yesterday) is a quotation, not only from a play by Christopher Marlowe – who is compared directly with Vano in chapter 2 – but also from a play that only survives in a pirated copy, probably transcribed from scribbled notes taken by a member of the audience during a performance. As with the doubtful authorship of The Revenger’s Tragedy, the play text of The Massacre at Paris itself embodies the kind of garbled transmission and epistemological confusion that also characterise Vano’s surveillance reports. Indeed, the lines quoted here are virtually the only surviving fragment that rises above the level of clumsy doggerel.

One might reasonably ask whether it is realistic to expect the average reader to be aware of these multiple allusions, but this is the wrong question. It is a principle of good writing - and not only writing: design and illustration also - that it communicates its point directly and emphatically to the casual reader, but that it also rewards sustained attention with additional layers of meaning. In choosing quotations to intercut with my narrative, the rule was that they had to be explicable to anyone who knew nothing of their source, but that they also had to offer additional nuances to anyone who cared to check their original context (which is always referenced in the notes at the back of the book).

Thanks to Dan Hallett, who created the illustration above especially for this post.

[1] See the Design section of my website.
[2] The latter allusion is taken up more explicitly on the menu screen of the Pistols! section of my website.

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