Friday, 24 April 2009

A Painful Case? - John Dougherty

A-Level English was a long time ago, and I don’t remember an awful lot of what was said in class about our set texts. I remember our completely missing a very rude bit in Hamlet - it only dawned on me some years later that Shakespeare had smuggled an actual naughty sweary word into an exchange between the prince and Ophelia - and I recall several conversations about A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides being possibly the most boring thing any of us, including our teacher, had ever read. I also remember our wondering how Johnson had acquired such a reputation as a great wit when he clearly wasn’t very funny at all:

Johnson: I’ve got the best bed!
Boswell: If you’ve got the best bed, you must admit that I’ve got the best bedposts!
Johnson: Well, if you have the best posts, we shall have you tied to one of them and whipped!

Brought the house down in 1773, apparently. Maybe it was all in the delivery.

Anyway, one throwaway remark which has stuck in my head was our teacher’s explanation of why Joyce, in Dubliners, had included in his character description of Mr James Duffy, protagonist of A Painful Case, the following line:

“He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.”

Miss’s explanation for this was that it was to round out and press home the fact that Mr Duffy was a bit of a weirdo. I mean, it’s clearly a very bizarre practice. What kind of a strange potato must he have been to do that sort of thing?

I remember keeping my mouth firmly closed and looking down at the desk, not wanting to catch her eye or draw attention to myself, because there in my head was burning the thought: “I do that!

Now, I was well aware that I was a bit of a weirdo, or at least that I’d never quite fitted in at my school. Still, this particular foible didn’t really seem to me to be such a strange habit - certainly not strange enough to be included in a character sketch simply to highlight weirdness. But this was clearly the Official Explanation, and thus all the explanation I was going to get. And so - as with Hamlet and his smuggled sweary - for me it would be years before any further light was shed on this particular issue.

It was only a year or two back, during an exchange on the Scattered Authors’ Society’s discussion group, that I realised: this is actually quite normal. At least, from what others were saying, it seems to be normal among published authors, and so - I assume - it’s probably quite normal among unpublished authors, and quite possibly among people who have never written a book and have no particular desire to. Quite a few of us seem to have little writers sitting in our heads who take details of not just our own lives but also things we observe or hear about, and - in the words of one of Jordan’s managers - write it into book words. Having said that, I don’t often do the full sentences in my head any more. Descriptive words and clauses, yes, and other sentence fragments, but gone - for the most part - are the full sentences containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense; and I think the reason I don’t compose entire sentences internally is that now I compose them onscreen, and not in isolation but as part of something.

Which brings me back to a thought I had not long after our teacher told us that Joyce had given Mr Duffy this habit to show what a weirdo he was, which was: how did Joyce know that some people do this, unless it was something he did - or had done - himself?

Perhaps in Mr James Duffy, Mr James Joyce had put something of his own character. Or perhaps what was being highlighted was not Mr Duffy’s oddness, but the wastedness of his life: here was a man with a head full of sentences, who never wrote them down - and who never moved beyond sentences about himself.

PS - I'm off to London in a few minutes; I'll be running in this year's London Marathon on Sunday. If you're going to watch, do keep a look out for me and cheer me on - I'll be wearing a green Stroud vest with a red and a blue stripe.

And if anyone would like to sponsor me, you can go to


Mary Hoffman said...

Ah, John, those "country matters"!

But, having always done what Mr Duffy did and then some, I had assumed it was "normal" until of my three daughters, I discovered that one did it and the other two didn't.

Yes, that's the one that is now a published writer.

Good luck in the marathon

Elen Caldecott said...

wot's a predicate?

Jon M said...

Good luck John. I'll be running too, we should form a writer's team!

Nicky said...

Yes good luck.
I used to do it, but gave it up.( not the marathon, God forbid, but the past tense thingy)

John Dougherty said...

I didn't know what a predicate was, either, but I knew that if my sentence had one, it would be in the past tense! As it turns out, it's "the part of a sentence or clause containing a verb and stating something about the subject".

Jon, where will you be starting from? I'm on the blue start (going to Excel to register in the morning).

Charlie Butler said...

I shall be composing a sentence in the third person about how I ran in the marathon - but that's fiction writers for you.

Meg Harper said...

Gosh, yes, all the time as a child! If you play with dolls, it's a must! (Because the dolls are 'you' substitutes really!) And I re-ran them to get them better! Not sure I do it now much but maybe that's because I have a different outlet and because my brain is so full of other stuff - whereas as a child, running to school or waiting at bus-stops, there was lots of time and mind-space to fill!