Alon Preiss Returns to Work and Thinks about Chaucer

I’ve been sitting around watching the world get colder, wondering if it’s getting cold enough soon enough and worrying about climate change, but distracting my mind with this and that, as usual, and so here are a few of my observations. 

Returning to Work

I’ve been going back to “in-person work” (which is what everyone calls the activity formerly known as “work”), where I do office stuff when I am not writing this column or my critically acclaimed novels. For the last near-two years, of course, I was standing in the kitchen and working from a shelf above my dishwasher. Covid, you know.

That was horrible, but going back to the office has its drawbacks. 

Everyone loves top ten lists, but I could only think of five, so here are the top five reasons going back to work isn’t great. 

  1. I have to brush my teeth before noon;
  2. I have to wear my trousers, but I don’t remember where I put them; 
  3. For the last 18 months, I really thought that Tom in accounting was growing on me, that I was getting to like him a lot better these days, that maybe pandemic had mellowed him, or me. But now that I am back at work, I realize that the reason I never liked him is that he smells horrible;
  4. Theoretically, riding the subway for 90 minutes a day means that I get 90 minutes less work done every day, but that’s not really true. I wouldn’t spend those 90 minutes working. I also wouldn’t spend those 90 minutes doing anything valuable. But, theoretically, riding the subway for 90 minutes a day means that I get 90 minutes less work done every day;
  5. This one isn’t funny, but it is true: returning to work, the end of the pandemic, beckoned for nearly two years as the great solution to our problems, but in reality, it didn’t improve our lives, it just deposited us back to 2019. If you loved 2019, this was fine; if you had problems, resentments, work issues in 2019, now you’ve got them all again, and nothing is better. 

On Chaucer

I recently watched A Knight’s Tale, that great 2001 Heath Ledger historical medieval rom-com, which I have been meaning to see for the entirety of the last twenty years, ever since I was a man in my early middle age. A really great movie, and, oddly, Geoffrey Chaucer, of all people, is a major character in the film, who appears shortly after writing The Book of the Duchess but before The Canterbury Tales. Played by Paul Bettany, he is the most compelling character in the film, a hopeless gambler, a showman, a romantic. 

Wow, now I want to read Chaucer. 

This is how life works, sometimes; I am a pretty big defender (or apologist) for Julius Caesar, but it’s Ciarán Hinds’s Julius Caesar (from HBO’s Rome) who really should have been dictator for life. Maybe the real guy was just as good. I can’t say. I just know the guy from HBO’s Rome.

I also think Sigmund Freud was a good fellow, and I have to remind myself that I’m really thinking of Sigmund Freud from D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel. The real guy, I don’t know so much about. 

Well, back to Chaucer: For reasons unknown, the pronunciation of the English language changed irrevocably between 1400 and 1700, which is why it is so difficult to read Chaucer today, which is a shame since, in A Knight’s Tale, Chaucer seemed like such a cool guy. 

This change in pronunciation is called the “Great Vowel Shift.” 

This terminology bothers me: the “Great Vowel Shift” also included a shift of many consonants. So calling it the Great “Vowel” Shift is inaccurate. If it is a great alphabet shift, just call it that. 

The “Great Vowel Shift” term was coined by a 19th century Danish linguist named Jens Otto Harry Jespersen, who seems to have been more than a little careless with his use of language. 

Anyway, I am going to read Duchess, which does seem to be a pretty good story, but note the following caveat, from Joshua J. Mark in the World History Encyclopedia, on another reason it is difficult to read:

The letter ‘Y’ stands for ‘I’ but stresses on syllables follow the rhyme of the poem and so the ‘Y’ is sometimes sounded as ‘ee’ and sometimes as ‘ee-uh’. The word ‘quod’ or ‘quoth’ means ‘to speak’ and a ‘sweven’ is a ‘dream’. Other words, which may at first seem strange, are intelligible within the sentence’s context where the spelling of a previous word, closer to modern English, will make the meaning clear. 

This is a problem, right? So try this “Duchess” stanza on for size: 

That I have lost al lustihede.

Suche fantasies ben in myn hede

So I not what is best to do.

But men myght axe me, why soo 

I may not slepe, and what me is?

But natheles, who aske this

Leseth his asking trewely.

Myselven can not telle why

Wow! That’s difficult to get through. (But I like the way Chaucer spelled “ask” as “axe,” confirming my suspicion that he was originally from the Bronx.) 

So here is another idea: how about we fix Chaucer’s spelling, so people can read it?

There has been a little movement, not really very reputable, to translate Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. After all (and this is my point), audiences around the world have the pleasure of watching Shakespeare in a language they can understand. 

Really, the best version of “Hamlet” that I am aware of is No-Fear-Shakespeare’s graphic novel. The illustrations are dramatic and perfect, the language is vivid, the story is gripping and understandable and, because it’s a graphic novel, Hamlet is a teenager, the way Shakespeare intended, which makes his surly-teen behavior more understandable. 

Purists scream that the play cannot be fully enjoyed without Shakespeare’s original language, but it’s also true that The Iliad flows better in the original ancient Greek. 

There are some translations of Chaucer, but no spell-check versions of which I am aware.

Anyway, Geoffrey Chaucer, I’ve got your back. 

See you next time. 


Alon Preiss is the author of In Love With Aliceavailable NOW from AmazonBarnes & Noble or from ANY BOOKSTORE IN ANY TOWN OR CITY IN AMERICA

Chaucer in the office Image design by Steven S. Drachman, using an original photo by Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels