A minor ailment has been known to change the course of history.
There are numerous stories of a general or a king who suffered from a head cold or a minor inflammation, whose attention was distracted from duty, resulting in overwhelming defeat and destruction.
Somehow, I doubt that this column will go down in history as comparable to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, but I'm afraid it does fall into that same category. This week, I was confined to the house most of the time by a bad cold, and was half asleep and miserable while I was at it.
Jonathan Rhys-Myers portrays the kitchen boy Steerpike, who demonstrates that anyone, however unprepared, who is willing to work, in a bureaucracy, can attain mastery over everyone. It's all in the BBC film “Gormenghast.”
So, instead of doing what I had planned, here are reviews of a film and a first rate book which I hope you'll enjoy.
Rarely have I enjoyed the challenge of understanding a film on disc, as I did the BBC's ''Gormenghast.'' The work is a presentation of the first two of the novels in the Gormenghast Trilogy, by British author Mervyn Peake.
The trilogy of novels was begun shortly after the end of World War II, and the last was completed in 1959, shortly before the novelist's death.
One of the most natural results of a war - especially a war in which one's own country has suffered horrible losses and destruction - is a tendency to wonder how an entire nation ever agrees to take part in such an enterprise. At a time when what has been lost is so obvious, and what has been gained may be so abstract, it is natural for people to look back through the centuries and to see nations duped, again and again, into ramming their heads against other nations, for the gain of...
In 1946, these thoughts inspired novelist Peake to create Castle Gormenghast and the curious people who live there. Much as I love to read, I would probably not have brushed up against these events, except that in 2000, the British Broadcasting Corporation decided to make a television series based upon them.
The story is a fantasy, yet one which bears many connections to reality. It's one of those situations where one finds oneself wondering why a writer would create such a situation, then suddenly realizing that real people have enacted just such a situation, often with an end which is even more grim than that in the story.
The setting is the Castle of Ghormenghast. Like all true castles, it is not a building, but a collection of buildings, forming a fortress. One character claims that if someone were a good walker, and started at the out edge of the castle, and he walked night and day for five nights and days, he would arrive at the opposite edge of the structure.
The wonders of computer generated vision enable us to see views of this structure, through windows and from balconies, from time to time?
The Castle is the seat of government of the Earldom of Gormenghast. It is never made plain whether this is an isolated political unit, possibly in some other dimension or on some other planet, or whether it is a element of a larger European kingdom. Sometimes things in the story are described as being ''from the outside,'' but at other times, everyone seems utterly convinced that there is nowhere else to go, and no other way to be.
The film begins with the birth of Titus. He is the son of the current Earl, Sepulchrave Groan, and his common-born countess, Gertrude. Even in real life, the wife of an Earl is a countess, and no that doesn't make sense, but it's true.
The noble parents have one other child, the much older Fuchsia. In the book, she is 15 when her brother is born, but she is portrayed in the film by an actress who appears to be in her twenties.
The earl is portrayed by the late Scottish actor Ian Richardson, who was close to the age of 70 at the time. The countess is portrayed by actor Celia Imre, who is shown dressed and coiffed in the style of England's Queen Anne, who ruled around the year 1700.
Gertrude takes one look at young Titus, proclaims him to be uncommonly ugly, and instructs the servants to take him away and bring him back when he is six, so she can see how he is developing. Nearly all the characters have this feeling of isolation from one another.
Clearly a wet nurse is needed, for the child's survival, but an extensive search turns up only a young woman who is about to give birth, despite being unmarried, and who is an outcast, as a result. She comes to love the young earl, but she constantly fills his ears with the claim that her own newborn is his sister, and that he must love her, no matter how he encounters her, later in life.
Life in Ghormenghast proceeds according to historical precedents. An elderly dwarf is the keeper of the records. His book reports that on May 15, the 35th earl had for breakfast, half a fish and a hardboiled egg, which had been dyed blue. Therefore, Titus must eat the same, and if the egg has been mis-dyed, it must be taken away and a new one sought to replace it.
The kingdom is filled with rivalries and competitions. The castle's cook despises the earl's valet. The earl has identical twin sisters, named Cora and Clarice, who perpetually plot against Gertrude, who they believe has taken focus and power away from themselves, when they are truly of the Groan bloodline, while Gertrude is related only by marriage.
Instead of finding cures for diseases, the family's doctor spends much of his spare time dealing with his spinster sister's search for a man, any man.
These roles serve as elements of satire, reminiscent of stories of intelligence agencies who allow acts of terrorism to take place because they do not want to share information with other agencies and armed forces units who endanger other units from the same country because they feel superior to the other units and don't think they should help them.
The fact that the castle cook is portrayed by Richard Griffiths, the earl's valet is played by famed horror film star Christopher Lee, the terrible twins are performed by Zoe Wanamaker and Lynsey Baxter, and the man-hungry spinster is enacted by Fiona Shaw, means that they are fully-realized characterizations whose every inflection and gesture is enriching and explaining.
Into this seething mass comes the kitchen boy. Young, bright, and good looking, this fellow named Steerpike is willing to stir up the valet against the cook, to incite the twins to perform nonsensical plans of destruction, and even to find a man for the doctor's sister. Indeed, he's willing to open a few shirt buttons to distract her from catching him at one of his plots, but for her long range employment, he wants someone else to do the job.
In a society in which nearly everyone is seeking more and more titles and more and more income, but where virtually no one intends to do any more work, someone who comes in from the outside with energy and ideas, can become everybody's badly-needed assistant.
As Steerpike, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, probably best known as Henry VIII on the television mini-series ''The Tudors'' gives a brilliant performance as a person who can show anyone the face they wish to see. He can go from sneering contempt to groveling obsequity in a snap of your fingers. He is an utterly ruthless and yet somehow irresistible attraction to these wildly diverse situations.
The four segments of the show last about one hour each. If you're not sickbound, it might be too long for you, but I'm glad I saw it all and the fact that I watched it a bit at a time, doesn't seem to have taken away from the flood of ideas of how it compared to real life, with which I was assaulted, throughout.
Author Peake suffered from Parkinson's disease, and died long before he could complete all the ideas he had outlined for the Groan family and their castle of Ghormenghast. I enjoyed this first look at books one and two very much.
The library's online catalog isn't working, at the moment, but I know for a fact that the video is available through Jamestown's Prendergast Library.
THE FRY CHRONICLES
I have written past columns about the writing of English writer and actor Stephen Fry. He is probably best known in our country as an actor, since he played the title character in the biopic ''Wilde,'' he plays a regular role in the television series ''Bones,'' and he even plays the hapless man Steerpike digs up for the horny sister of the doctor in ''Ghormenghast.''
The thing which I like best about Fry's writing is that he never becomes coy with his readers. If he doesn't want to share something with us, he never brings it up. If he hints at having spent a term in prison, during his youth, he comes right out and tells us where he was sentenced, why, and the fact that he was guilty as charged of taking a credit card belonging to someone outside his family and enjoying a term of free spending, until he was arrested.
Fry has already published an autobiography of his childhood, which he gave the remarkable titled ''Moab is My Washpot.'' ''The Fry Chronicles" gives a short overlap with that book, in case a reader hasn't seen it he then goes through his days as a student at Cambridge University's Queens College, and his achievement of popular and financial success, having authored the new book, behind the 1980s revival of the musical ''Me and My Girl,'' and having a number of successful television series, largely shared with his university classmate and friend Hugh Laurie, known to Americans as the irascible Dr. Gregory House in the television series "House."
What appeals to me, as a reader, is Fry's astonishing ability to remain in touch with why he has done things, how he felt about doing them, how people around him helped or hindered him, and truly examining these things' effect on the lives of others.
He writes, for example, about his seemingly innate ability to take tests. He says that through his school and university years, he possessed the astonishing ability to adapt one successful essay into the answer for any number of essay questions. He describes, for example, the sensation of having his one essay win scholarships and places in the university, away from students who knew more than he says he did, and who had worked harder and more effectively than he had.
He describes the sensation of having his solitary effort - because he could write it all down in a relatively short time - beating out good friends who had to struggle with the time limit on an exam, because they knew more than there was time to write down.
Clearly, the man is blessed with any numbers of personal talents. The fact alone that he has managed to name every single chapter in the book with a word beginning with the letter ''c,'' and has never stretched the content nor the meaning of the word to better fit in the title, gives you a hint.
If you are a fan of ''You Tube,'' the computer site on which anyone may post short film clips of almost anything, you can get some idea of Fry's talents as a performer. There are dozens and dozens of clips, by Fry, some of them going back to his days at the University, and being hilarious and entertaining, up through contemporary debates in which he has participated, with complete seriousness, on the subject of morality and science.
For reasons I'm sure you'll understand, I especially enjoyed a chapter he wrote on criticism, in which he describes the challenge which he faced when hired as a book critic when he finally was assigned to write about a book which was so bad, both in style and content, that he absolutely had to tell the truth, and couldn't make polite allusions. He describes himself as ''usually a kindly-meaning weasel.''
He describes a number of things which approached being ''the stinker,'' then finally the one which compelled him to the truth. It was an autobiography of a nephew of Prince Rainier of Monaco, Fry eventually wrote: ''A shatteringly vulgar and worthless life, captured in shatteringly vulgar and worthless prose.''
I know there are those in the area who think I can be harsh as a critic, whom I often try to convince that I do my best to water down criticism, without distorting the truth. Those folks should consider his quotation above, and reconsider.
Most of all, the actor, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, goes further to demonstrate and explain the effects of that condition than anything else I have read, both fiction and non-fiction.
The book ends when Fry has had a number of television and professional theater experiences. He has written and appeared in several seasons of ''Black Adder,'' but hasn't yet been hired to portray Wilde, for example.
To me, it was insight into an astonishing and fascinating mind, and a glimpse behind the wooden panelling of college rooms at Oxford and castles where young Europeans invite their school friends home for a weekend in the country, all observed in a wry and beautifully expressive manner.
''The Fry Chronicles'' has 425 pages in paperbound edition. It's published by Penguin, dated 2010, and has been marked for sale at $23.54.
The online catalog at the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System won't download for me, but it will probably be back up by the time you read this and you can look it up for yourself.