Monday 16 September 2019

To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek: Novel told in 14th-century England dialects feels like linguistic dressage

Fiction: To Calais, in Ordinary Time

James Meek

Canongate, hardback, 400 pages, €21

Bold conceit: James Meek again shows an interest in pastiche and genre games
Bold conceit: James Meek again shows an interest in pastiche and genre games
To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek

Fourteenth-century England was a polylingual place. As Ranulf Higden recorded in his Polychronicon, there were such differences between north, south, and central Englishes that a speaker from one might "barely understand" another.

To Higden, from the south of England, the Northumbrian dialect was "practically barbarian" in its foreignness - a judgment he happily extended to the Northumbrians themselves.

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On top of that, every dialect had been "corrupted" by uneven influxes of Danish and Norman, creating "strange usages" and vocabularies, all varied by location and social standing. To exacerbate matters, the English nobility had, "against the manner and usage of all other nations", taken to schooling their children in Norman French rather than their "birth-tongue".

By the time Higden sat down to his work, Anglo-Norman was also giving way to the more fashionable, more foreign Central French as the language of real status. Add to this the Latin that clerks and doctors like Higden spoke and wrote, and you have a linguistic salmagundi that is hard to imagine in the age of a standardised tongue.

That rich collation is what James Meek tries to evoke in his fifth novel, To Calais, in Ordinary Time. Set in 1348, the book follows three characters, each from a different social and linguistic stratum, brought together on the road from Malmsbury to the newly taken Pale of Calais.

At the top of the social pile is Berna, or rather "the Lady Bernadine". A knight's daughter, she is equipped simultaneously with the advantages of her class and the disadvantages of her sex: educated and superior, but about to be married off to an unchosen husband. A Francophile and quasi-francophone romantic, she escapes from her father's house clutching a manuscript of the 'Roman de la Rose', determined to follow her true love, the noble Laurence, to his new lands in Calais.

With her is lowly Will Quate, a villein from her family estate, sent to join a company of archers in defence of the new English possession. Handsome and with Robin-Hood-esque powers of bowmanship, he too has natural advantages, but is undercut by his status and, it emerges, his sexuality.

Finally comes learned Thomas Pitkerro, a Scottish-born scholar and lawyer, returning from a commission at Malmesbury Abbey to his home in Avignon.

As readers attentive to dates will have realised, the "ordinary time" of the title - an Ecclesiastical term for periods between major festivals - is in fact far from ordinary. The Black Death has just arrived, and the characters' already fraught journeys are complicated by a backdrop of apocalyptic darkness.

The major formal conceit here is Meek's decision to represent - in what is broadly speaking modern English - the distinct languages spoken by his central trio. It is light-touch stuff compared with the dense pseudo-Old-English of Paul Kingsnorth's 2014 novel The Wake, the most directly comparable text of recent times.

Here, Will's peasant Middle English is marked by medievalisms like "out-take" for "except" and "steven" for "voice", along with various now-obsolete verb forms like "shet" for "shot", combined with a general restriction to verbs and nouns drawn from Saxon roots. Berna's upper-class Middle English has similar grammar but a vocabulary restricted to French roots, giving rise to expressions like "Hab ne trembled nor blanched. He regarded her disdainously."

Thomas's Latin letters back to Avignon, translate, as it were, into modern but rigorously, and often ridiculously, Latinate English. Sentences like: "The splendid vigour of his honest, inquiring countenance, combined with the illusion of social unity conferred by the common direction of our movement, stimulated me to abandon my concession to his ignorance", are par for the course.

It is a bold conceit, and one that fits with Meek's interest in pastiche and genre games. His Booker-longlisted 2005 novel The People's Act of Love performed a not-dissimilar act of historical ventriloquism by taking the reader to an early 20th-century Russia evoked in the clipped tones of Constance Garnett's translations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008), set in 9/11's immediate aftermath, both poked fun at Tom Clancy-type thrillers and used them as a generic model, much as To Calais, in Ordinary Time does with medieval romance.

But the prevailing feeling here is one of witnessing linguistic dressage, of Berna, Will and Thomas being manoeuvred through their tale using only a few pre-prescribed verbal motions, carefully held back from showing other signs of life or will.

It's a shame because there is, beneath it all, a thought-provoking tale with real satisfactions to it. I wish Meek had slackened the reins a little and let the story gallop.

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