Friday, July 29, 2011

Five Wounds: Review at 'The Spectator Book Blog'

There is a nice review of Five Wounds over at The Spectator Book Blog, by Isabel Sutton, which describes the book as an 'engrossing and original fantasy'. Here's an extract:

To my amazement, I began to lose my scepticism and turn the pages with a genuine care for the characters’ fates. I squirmed at the gruesome deaths and held my breath as the hero and heroine made their getaway; by the end I was greedy to know what happens, fully absorbed in the throes of the story. My progress was checked, however, when the ending arrived. There wasn’t one pat conclusion, but two. In a final act of literary guile, the book pushes you back to consider how – as well as what – you are reading.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dan's Blog

Meanwhile, over at Dan's blog, he has been discussing the influences on his illustrations for Five Wounds, thus:

Piranesi, Blake, Hogarth

M. C. Escher, Chris Ware

Francisco Goya, Umberto Eco

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Inspirations: The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers

I hate purity
I hate goodness
I don't want virtue to exist anywhere
I want everyone corrupt.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Guest Post at Spike Magazine

Spike Magazine in the UK have now published a guest post I wrote for them on the design of Five Wounds. Below is an extract:

Imagine that the appearance of a book is part of the story it tells, as if it was an artefact created by the imaginary civilisation it describes. Book design becomes an aspect of what the science-fiction community calls ‘world-building’, and as such it applies the principle of ‘Show, don’t tell’ to the surface of the page itself. My fantasy novel Five Wounds uses design in exactly this way.

Thanks to Jason Weaver of Spike for arranging this.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Some Further Comments at 'Shelf Abuse'

I somehow missed some further remarks on Five Wounds by Carl Doherty of the 'Shelf Abuse' site, who concludes:

I couldn’t recommend Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel more. An accomplished, multifaceted work that follows the twisted fates of five sympathetic freaks in what is essentially an alternate-history Venice, its synthesis of words and images is effective enough to change anyone’s preconceptions about them thar picture books.

See here for a more detailed review by Carl. I also wrote a guest post for 'Shelf Abuse' on the influence of comic books on Five Wounds.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Five Wounds: The Art of Grief

Five Wounds is a parable as well as a fairy tale. Throughout, it refers to an invisible, suppressed source: ‘The Art of Grief', an abandoned essay on the deaths of my parents. This essay is never acknowledged directly within the novel, but it is available as a free download on my website for those who wish to investigate.

An example may be useful. In the climactic scene of Five Wounds, one of the characters, Cuckoo, makes the (apparently prosaic, apparently unremarkable) declaration, ‘Yes, that’s my wife’. In the novel, this affirmation clearly refers to another character, Gabriella. But this line is also a hidden quotation from the transcript of a coroner’s inquest that forms part of ‘The Art of Grief’. If one knows this, it should be possible to imagine the original context in which these words were uttered (i.e. as part of a deposition submitted to a coroner’s inquest: think about it). But the whole point of the line in Five Wounds is that it turns the original reading completely on its head. In Five Wounds, one of the most desolate and hopeless moments from ‘The Art of Grief’ therefore becomes a positive, life-affirming confession. It becomes the one fact that is going to save Cuckoo from himself.

‘The Art of Grief’ is a key, which unlocks hidden meanings in Five Wounds. However, the relationship between the two texts is more complex than that of a riddle to its solution or a joke to its punch line, because Five Wounds has an independent life of its own. Its characters act according to their own natures, and make their own choices. They are not mere ciphers, condemned to act out episodes of my biography in a disguised, pathological form. The characters may be fantastic, but they are real within their own world, even when they unknowingly refer to events beyond its borders.

In this case, then, one text does not solve the other. Rather, Five Wounds places stolen fragments of ‘The Art of Grief’ in a new setting, which transforms their meaning, as the Venetians studded the façade of the church of San Marco with pieces of marble looted from Constantinople. Here, however, the arrangement is reversed. It is not the loot that shines brightly, but the container, within which the quotations are safely hidden away, like bones in a reliquary.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Five Wounds: Card Games, Part 2

Cuckoo the trickster
[Discussion continues from the previous post:]

One of the protagonists of Five Wounds is a card player: Cuckoo (above). In a crucial chapter of the book, ‘Pick a card, any card’ he explains his theory about the iconography of a specific card in the Tarot pack: trump number 1, ‘The Bagatto’, a name of uncertain origin which is usually (mis)translated into English as ‘The Magician’. The Bagatto, almost uniquely, also has a recurrent and unusual role in game play, in that it is a card to which a high number of points are assigned in the count at the end of each hand, even though it is the lowest ranking Trump card. Cuckoo has a theory on how this role might, pace Michael Dummett, relate to the card’s name and iconography, a theory that is (as far as I know) original, i.e. I’m pretty sure that I invented it. You’ll have to read the novel to find out more, but in that context the point of the digression is that Cuckoo’s theory about the Bagatto offers a commentary on his relationship with his wife Gabriella, to whom he is speaking.

In the early versions of Five Wounds, I specified Cuckoo’s favourite card game as Mitigati, and I described the basic structure of its rules. Mitigati is a Piedmontese game played with a Tarot pack, the rules of which were first described in print by Dummett. Mitigati shares with many other Italian card games a fiendishly elegant scoring structure, in which players are assigned a score at the end of each hand in terms of their deviation from a mathematically average performance. In Mitigati, there are 129 points at stake in each hand, which means that, since there are always three players, the average score for each player in each hand is 43.

How does this work? Let's consider a hypothetical hand, in which player 1 wins cards that add up to 73 points, and player 2 gains an exactly average total of 43; by definition, player 3 must therefore have gained 13 points. The three scores for that hand are then calculated by subtracting 43 from the number of points gained by each player, so that player 1 scores + 30, player 2 scores 0, and player 3 scores – 30. If you add these three scores together, you will always, and again by definition, get a total of 0.

Let’s say that our three players then play a second hand, in which player 1 gains 53 points, player 2 also gains 53 points, and player 3, again unlucky, gains only 23 points. The score for that hand will thus be + 10 for player 1, + 10 for player 2, and – 20 for player 3. These individual scores are now added to those from the first hand to yield the running, cumulative total: player 1 has + 40, player 2 has + 10, and player 3 has – 50. Note that this running total again, by definition, must add up to 0.

The extraordinary elegance (or rigor) of this system is now revealed. The running total continues to indicate the player’s deviation from an exactly average performance, and it does so in the precise ratios in which players will settle their debts at the end of play, since before commencing play, a fixed monetary value is assigned to a point. If our three players were to conclude their game after only two hands, the running total indicates that player 3 should pay player 2 a sum equivalent to 10 times the value assigned to a point, and pay to player 1 the value assigned to 40 points.

This scoring structure is common to many Tarot games. The thing that distinguishes Mitigati among them is that it commences with a bargaining phase, in which each player only receives part of her hand. On the basis of this partial hand, and based on their calculation of the likely outcome of a game played with the cards in their possession, all three players then negotiate by 'asking for' or 'offering' points. If they agree on their respective prospects (that is, if the three bids on the table add up to 0 at any point), then the deal is abandoned.

Much of the art of Mitigati therefore consists in avoiding playing when it is disadvantageous to do so.

The original account of all this in Five Wounds was less detailed than that provided above, but it nonetheless fell victim to the editor’s pen, with good reason. My original point was that Cuckoo’s preference for Mitigati revealed his approach to life, but that point was not made very efficiently or elegantly. The published version perhaps errs on the other side by not providing enough detail about Cuckoo's activities as a gambler. Readers who know nothing about cards will probably assume that he plays Poker. I actually had the ancestors of that game in mind – Primiero or Brag – but it does not much matter, since the description is so generic as to be applicable to any similar game of this type, and that now seems to me to be a weakness in the novel's worldbuilding.

There is, however, one remaining trace of the original account, in which Cuckoo, contemplating his own death, observes that:

When it happened, his face would dissolve into a final nothing. His open, unbreathing mouth would become an exactly average zero.

I remain fascinated by card games, which are a constantly evolving artform, but one with an open and continuous history, in which newer forms do not always displace their older variants. Like Cuckoo, I am fond of gambling metaphors, and I believe that card games offer the most sophisticated versions of these metaphors – but I no longer play Mitigati.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Five Wounds: Card Games, Part 1

Once upon a time, in another life, I was an expert on gambling in Venice, and on the history of card games in general. In the former capacity, I did a lot of original archival research, and I published an article on the subject in Past and Present, which is the only thing I’ve ever written that is cited on a regular basis (e.g. by Wikipedia). In the latter capacity, my ‘expertise’ was entirely second-hand, derived principally from works by David Parlett and Michael Dummett. Nonetheless, I was actually awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship to write a book on the history of fortune (i.e. a book on how people have understood the concept of fortune, from a historical perspective), although in the event I got distracted in the archive by Gerolamo Vano, the protagonist of my first book, and I therefore wrote about him instead.

From about 1995-98, I played a lot of obscure historical card games, many of them described by Parlett. One of Parlett’s great insights was to identify common motifs that recur across different card games, the rules of which can therefore be analysed comparatively as well as historically, as if all card games were derived from a common language or system of differences. Card games are therefore analogous to other aspects of popular culture, such as folk tales and songs, even though the ‘content’ of a card game is otherwise quite different to that of a folk narrative. Games can thereby be classified by reference to shared structural motifs, which the rules of any particular game rearrange and combine in various ways, in much the same way that folk tales and songs rearrange story motifs.

Thus the common structural element that links all trick-taking games (‘tricksters’ as Parlett calls them, here meaning something quite different to the ‘tricksters’ of folk tales) manifests itself in different ways according to the other elements with which this basic motif is combined. In trickster games, a category that includes Whist and Bridge, one player leads with a card, and the other players ‘follow suit’ if possible (this is the origin of the metaphor). The highest card played from the opening suit wins the trick, unless it is ‘trumped’ by a card from a designated trump suit, which ranks higher than all the other suits.

Whist and Bridge are both 'plain-trick' games (according to Parlett's classification), in which only the total number of tricks won counts, and the individual cards within the tricks are of no consequence after they have been played and captured by the winner of the trick. By contrast, many variant tricksters from continental Europe are 'point-trick' games, in which each individual card has an assigned numerical value, and the score for each player is calculated at the end of the hand by counting the value of all cards won by that player. This latter family of games includes the German classic Skat, and Picquet, once a very popular game all over Europe, including England.

In Italy and elsewhere, Tarot cards are also used to play games – indeed, this was their original purpose, as Dummett's research has clearly demonstrated – and these games are always of the point-trick variety. In Tarot games, the famous named cards (Death, The Moon, etc., and of course The Bagatto, which features prominently in Five Wounds) are part of a permanent suit of trumps (or ‘triumphs’), which perform exactly the same function in play as the designated trump suit does in Whist or Bridge.

The four suits with which English and American players are familiar (diamonds, hearts, spades and clubs) are derived from French models, but elsewhere in Europe, different suits are used. In Italy, standard packs of cards usually have the suits of Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons, which are only familiar in the Anglophone world from the Tarot (but in fact the Tarot suits derive from the 'normal' Italian pack, and not the other way round). The precise rendition of these suits, however, varies from region to region. In Spain, Switzerland and Germany, there are different suits again (for example, Germany has Leaves, Acorns, Hearts and Bells). The French suits probably originated as a visual simplification of the German, to facilitate printing, but they in turn were ‘translated’ from the Italian suits, the Italian pack being the oldest in Europe.

An interesting aspect of the history and form of playing cards is that the images on the cards can also be analysed structurally, in terms of variation and recombination of repeated iconographic motifs, but this analysis is entirely independent from the mathematical analysis of the games played with the cards. The only obvious correlation between the iconography of the cards and the structure of the games is in the order of the court cards: so that Kings rank above Queens in play, and so on. Otherwise, as Dummett says of the Tarot pack:

[T]he iconography of the cards had no bearing upon the purpose for which they were originally invented or used [i.e. to play games].

[Discussion continues in the next post:]