Jacket 32 — April 2007        link Jacket 32 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

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Caroline Bergvall

Short aside to ‘The Franker Tale’.

A poetic project based on The Canterbury Tales, with their strong characterisation and combination of social satire and commentary, their reliance on verbal exchange and narrative action is inevitably caught up in the telling of tales, in the multi-facetted construction of a story. The narrative level of textual exposition needed to be at the forefront of the composition. Thus the overall function of language play, the handling or flagging up of linguistic and idiomatic treatment, the translative operations between Middle English and contemporary English, would find themselves subsumed to narrative progression. This did not necessarily mean a greater degree of descriptive meaning, nor a moral tale, but it did presume a more linear and developmental progression, a more plot-led writing than I had previously worked with. Gender games and sexual violence are rife in The Tales. Gendered assumptions that implicitly perpetuate social violence on various body genres are rife in the public statements of many contemporary leaders. The composition of ‘The Franker Tale’ dealt with various chaucerian and contemporary socio-sexual motifs.

It is a plot in itself to work in Middle English. Yet Chaucer’s Middle English seemed closer to contemporary English than expected. Hardly surprising perhaps, since it is Chaucer’s flexible and intensely rich and varied idiom that has become the model for our own English. It seemed that the greatest differences were lexical rather than structural. Its syntax, its verbal tense and lack of declension were familiar. Even the unfamiliar aspects of Chaucer’s vocabulary were tinged with familiarity for the French national that I still am. At the end of the 14th century, Southern England had been dominated by French and had witnessed the development of its complex hierarchical culture of literary romance and courtly love. And in its Northern parts, many city names and dialectical terms were still a strong reminder of the early Viking conquest and settlements. Although Chaucer was himself, for all intents and purposes, as French as he was becoming English, his decision to work in a spoken English idiom only added to the richness and versatility of a linguistic region that was starting to strongly de-frenchify its cultural language and de-latinate its vocabulary’s antecedents. At any rate, the fixing of the English language was still very much up for grabs, so what better place to be for a writer listening than within a language’s active Maelstrom of influences and confluences at different points of its history? The dispersed, intensely regional dialects of Chaucer’s days are again to be found, this time in the inventive and adaptive languages of today’s many anglicised and post-colonial worlds, at-home and abroad.

I did wonder what kind of translative operations could transport the reader from various aspects of contemporary English to Chaucer’s Middle English and back. Chains of variations could be created from the diachronic and homophonic use of vocabulary. To engage across the centuries in a crochet of allusions or puns: there you have the principle and seeming insousciance of linguistic games. Such a poetics, made in parts of a transhistoric and multilingual vocabulary, favours narrative and associative insights and might function as a kind of aleatory bridging of linguistic realities. Poetically, lexical indecision ended up releasing cumulative, often metonymic, narrative chains. Not acts of translation exactly, but rather small, discreet dynamics of variance and similarity between Chaucer’s Middle English and various contemporary words that informed the progression of the tale. It was my intention to try to keep the historic reality of cultural and linguistic traffic an aspect of these translative associations. This very historicity would reinforce the arbitrariness of the sound-sense features of individual words, the naturalised, rather than essential, connection of language to its referent world.

The intertextual dimension of The Canterbury Tales, their reworking or downright appropriation of pre-existing literary texts, notably early French romances and Boccacio’s Decameron, as well as the embedded use of all sorts of active knowledges in the service of literary enjoyment and social satire, makes an early claim for the coming of literature as an endless resifting of its own sources for both formal and critical ends. What became fascinating was not only the many levels of appropriated and redistributed texts, but the many forms and personas Chaucer deployed to mask and unmask these. He tells the entirety of The Tales through a poet-reporter who reports, “as heard”, the telling of tales by his pilgrim companions, both male and female, who in turn tell tales and impersonate, often across gender, the speech of other female and male characters, who in turn often feel the need to add their own words to it. This labyrinth of address, this narrative confusion and constant handing over of gendered voices allows The Tales to cover a whole flurry of issues, sub-issues, diversions, retractions and opinions. It buries any leading authorial voice deep inside the workings of the texts and wide across their many dialogic voices. It avoids while stating, it plays while uncovering. The ridiculing of pedantic knowledge, the showing up of social snobbery, religious corruption, spiritual bankrupcy, love gossip and professional disputes, all these are prominently discussed and acted out in the various tellings of told tales.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given this structure of continuous links, there is a recurring attention to the discursive rules and laws that codify bodies into genders, genders into stories, the feastings, seductions and games of gendered love as much as its syntactical regulation. It exposes the arbitrary conventions of gender as surely as the words used to represent and naturalise them. The allowance for sexual violence, notably towards the female sex, is conceived in terms of narratives that see sexuality mainly as an extension of ownership and hierarchy. This structuring of violence deep inside the female body, or any differential body, persists today, albeit not always blatantly, at a collective as much as at an individual level. In the late pope’s writings, the charismatic, prolific, and ultra-conservative Pope Jean Paul II, one can read his calls to women’s faith as a surrender of their body. In ‘The Franker Tale’, quotes or quoted events provide many specific character voices (‘the painter’, ‘the pope’, ‘the medieval speaker’) and the text progresses through quoted or reported sexual-textual imbrications and along series of linguistic and translative events. The latter attempt to carry out a language of jest as much as one of redress against the persistence of pernicious religious influence on social subjects’ physical and psychological development. In a final instance, all this directs a poetic tale towards a form of explicitly disguised public address. Art must fart.