Sunday, 15 July 2012


In the wayback, almost as far back as the dreamtime, there was a television programme/quiz show called Mastermind.  This was hosted by a genial Icelander who spoke better English than 90% of the British population, albeit with a very slight Edinburgh accent, whose name was Magnus Magnusson.  And with a name like that, he could be noting but Icelandic, could he?

The format of the show, which was usually broadcast from a university or similar institution, was for six contestants (or contenders, as Magnus M would always call them) to answer questions in two two-minute rounds.  The first round consisted of general knowledge questions and the second consisted on questions on the contenders chosen specialist subject.  This could be, say, the American Civil War or the works of William Worsdworth or Italian art in the 15th century.

I had a friend - sadly, no longer with us and, even more sadly, he died a bitter and disappointed man - who always said that if were ever to appear on Mastermind his chosen specialised subject would be the novels of Wilbur Smith.  I was reminded of Peter (for that was my friend's name) the other day when I read an obituary in the Daily Telegraph.  Now don't run away with the idea that I habitually read the obituaries in the Telegraph of any other newspaper.  I don't.  Indeed, I rarely even glance at that page of the paper.  Just occasionally I might flick it over and pause as a sub-heading catches my eye: Submarine commander who won an MC at Waterloo or something equally unlikely.  Then I might pause and read a paragraph or two.  But not the other day.  What caught my eye was, Chinese scholar who devoted 70 years to the study of one novel.  70 years?  Wondering just what I had misread as 70 years, I turned back the page to find out.  I hadn't misread; 70 years it said.  Intrigued, I read on.

To be completely frank, the details of the life of Zhou Ruchang did not make particularly fascinating reading but I was interested in finding out a little more about the novel Dream of the Red Chamber which he had been studying for so long.  The obituarist described it as "China's greatest novel, a work so multi-layered and allusive it has spawned its own field of scholarship: 'Redology'".

As you might expect, I searched the internet for more information.  I discovered that I could buy a condensed version of the an English translation from Amazon in America or, from the English Amazon, the three-volume Penguin translation (cost: £32 or so).  But better still, the University of Virginia has been kind enough to put up a translation of the preface and first chapter right here.  I must say, it would probably take me 70 years just to read the book, 70 years of boredom.  I cannot imagine why anyone would want to spend 70 years studying it.  But maybe I'm being unfair.


St Swithun's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mare
That's today - and it's a fine day (although we did have rain in the night).  Mind you, rain is forecast for tomorrow.  Just like yesterday.  This was the gloomy view from the bedroom yesterday afternoon in between the showers and prolonged outbursts.


Uncle Skip, said...

The novels of Wilbur Smith would be an interesting topic, though I'm not so sure I'd actually study them enough to specialized.
I do know that, after my experience with Atlas Shrugged, I probably wouldn't take on "China's greatest novel."

Buck said...

Ah... Mastermind. I rarely missed an episode during my three years in Ol' Blighty and was always AMAZED, in every sense of the word, at the expertise/knowledge on display. American quiz shows are lame by comparison, and when it came to the "specialized knowledge" segment I rarely got an answer correct. Hell, most of the time I rarely understood the question.

There used to be an old joke about the specialized knowledge segment, said segment being "famous historical quotations." I'll cut right to the chase here...

Magnus: Who said "WTF was THAT?"

Contestant: I don't know.

Magnus: The Lord Mayor of Hiroshima.