04 March 2012

Te Doctor and the Devils, by Dylan Thomas

I picked this up completely randomly in a used bookstore awhile back. It's actually a screenplay for a movie, though apparently it was never actually filmed. And the language of the stage directions is so wonderful, it seems a pity to lose it -

Fallon and Broom are looking at the wares on a clothes-stall. 
They plough and scatter through the clothes, while the stall-keeper, a fat woman smoking a pipe, looks on expressionlessly.
Fallon pulls a shawl from a heap of oddments and tosses a coin to the woman who, still expressionlessly but with the deftness of a trained seal, catches it.

I can't explain exactly what is so beautiful and expressive about the way these directions are written. It's not just the use of these fantastically evocative and almost extravagantly elegant metaphors ("The deftness of a trained seal"), but also the way in which you have the sense of a shared world that you and the author are exploring together - The tavern is crowded. Many of the faces are familiar to us now. There is also the logistical matter of how one could successfully convey some of these things in film. It's funny how instructions work; a kind of meta-language that is also a descriptor of a scene without, in a sense, being responsible for actually evoking it. What makes this work so surprising and fascinating to read is that although the language does a terrific job of conjuring up the scenes, it's almost hard to imagine how they could be executed in reality and still be as effective. It is easy, in prose, to have the audience suddenly catch a glimpse of something in the straw - it's trickier if you have to actually have the straw and the object and somehow control when they actually notice it.

So much for the form of the text. The story itself actually engaged and absorbed me much more than I expected or even wanted it to. It sort of got into my head in a not entirely pleasant way - it's a grim, frightening work in many ways, even though it is simultaneously quite warm and occasionally very funny. The story is of a doctor, here called Rock but based on a real life figure named Dr Knox. He runs a school, and, because he cannot legally get corpses for anatomical study, he buys them on the dl. Perhaps inevitably, he attracts suppliers from the poor neighborhood, and they soon figure out that there are faster ways of getting a body than waiting around to see where one gets buried. It's almost a cliche story, but it is rendered in highly moving and disturbing ways this time around. I was extremely impressed, even though I was also a bit shaken. An excellent book.

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