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Gentlemen & Players reading guide

 

From the publisher: “The place is St Oswald's, an old and long-established boys' grammar school in the north of England. A new year has just begun, and for the staff and boys of the school, a wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork and Information Technology rule the world and Roy Straitley, Latin master, eccentric, and veteran of St Oswald's, is finally - reluctantly - contemplating retirement. But beneath the little rivalries, petty disputes and everyday crises of the school, a darker undercurrent stirs. And a bitter grudge, hidden and carefully nurtured for thirteen years, is about to erupt. Who is Mole, the mysterious insider, whose cruel practical jokes are gradually escalating towards violence - and perhaps, murder? And how can an old and half-forgotten scandal become the stone that brings down a giant?”

  Joanne Harris says that critics do like to predict what’s going to be in her books, and that they often get it wrong. In a statement reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, she writes “You may also be aware of how I feel about being pushed, stamped, marked, labelled, briefed, debriefed and numbered”. Besides it’s pretty obvious that the setting of this novel has been influenced by Joanne Harris’ years of teaching at Leeds Grammar School.

  I’ve now read the book, and in my considered opinion; “Gentlemen & Players” is one of Joanne Harris’ best, up there with “Holy Fools”, “Sleep, Pale Sister” and “Chocolat”. Joanne Harris’ years at Leeds Grammar School obviously came into good effect. One of the new teachers at the St. Oswald’s, Keane, is a dedicated writer as well as a teacher, just as Joanne Harris was, so the scenes involving him seem to be particularly telling. The book is a thriller, of course, and Joanne Harris draws the reader expertly in, and does not let go until she has given you a few shocks and surprises. Yet Joanne Harris does use devices that might irritate readers with an author of less power (such as naming characters “Bishop” and “Knight” in a novel where the anti-hero views his evil machinations as a kind of chess game). However, she is expert at the subtler arts too. I did guess the identity of the villain some way from the end, but I had to admire greatly Joanne Harris’ audacity at bringing the whole thing off, and besides, I’ve read all of her books in depth, so I should know how she ticks by now. Equally delightful is her creation of Roy Straitley, who cheekily speaks his mind in Latin, which in itself seems to confirm his air of redundancy, as he’s only allowed to get away by saying such things because most of his audience are ignorant of the language he teaches. If her American publishers disliked the ending of “Holy Fools”, then I suspect that they will dislike the resolution of “Gentlemen & Players” even more, for there is no “Hollywood Ending” here (unless you count such dark films as “Strangers on a Train”). Yet most readers will applaud Joanne Harris’ aplomb, and for her determination to write her stories as she desires to. St Oswald’s is such a rich world that I’ve no doubts that Joanne Harris will want to return to school in her writing again. Although I doubt that there’s anything left to write about St. Oswald’s, especially given the state that the venomous Mole leaves it in…

Authortrek rating: 10/10

Kevin Patrick Mahoney

 

There now follows a reading guide to the novel:

 

“Gentlemen and Players” is a term referring to class differences and snobbery

 

“Gentlemen and Players” - is also the title of a short story by E. W. Hornung, starring Raffles, “the gentleman thief”

 

“Hic magister podex est” – King, 1 p. 29 – means “this teacher is an arse”

 

“Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant” – King, 1 p. 35 – the famous “Hail Caesar, those who are about to die, salute you”

 

Barry Hines – King, 3 p. 55 – most famous for his novel “A Kestrel for a Knave”, which was filmed as “Kes”. Barry Hines worked as a teacher, and like Joanne Harris, he was born in Barnsley

 

“Quid agis, Medice” – King 5, p.71 – “What’s up, doc?” (Bugs Bunny’s catchphrase)

 

“There is a world elsewhere” – King 5, p. 77 – is from Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” (3.3.132)

 

lamprey – King 6, p. 93 more about this strange parasite

 

“vae” – King 6, p. 94 – means “alas!”

 

“cimex” – King 6, p. 95 – is a bedbug

 

“pactum factum” –King 8, p. 103 – “a done deal”

 

“stercum pro cerebro habes” – Knight 1, p. 115 – “Look, you have shit for brains”. Think it should be “stercus” rather than “stercum”

 

“sous-fifre” – Knight 1, p. 116 – is French for “underling”

 

Jacques Prevert – Knight 1, p. 116 – was also well known as a screenwriter, most famous for “Les Enfants du Paradis”

 

“Fac ut vivas” – Knight 3, p. 132 – i.e. “get a life”

 

“Juden ‘raus!” – Knight 3, p. 132 – means “Jews out!”

 

gerundive – Knight 5, pp. 142-143 – is a troublesome beast, as I know all too well from my days of learning Latin

 

“O tempora! O mores!” – Knight 5, p. 147 – Cicero’s still lamenting the times and the customs of his age

 

Horatius – Knight 5, p. 147 – more about this valiant defender

 

“modo fac” – En Passant 2, p. 187 – as expressed by Nike, “Just do it”

 

“Bwana, the natives, they will not enter the Forbidden City” – En Passant 2, p. 189 – possibly a reference to “Tarzan and the Forbidden City”, which would have been part of Straitley’s popular culture when he was younger

 

“somewhere between mild embonpoint and genuine avoirdupois” – En Passant 2, p. 190 – i.e. somewhere between corpulence and being of real weight

 

“Why doesn’t he just hand me the hemlock bowl and have done with it?” – En Passant 2, p. 193 – a reference to Socrates’ death sentence

 

“pone ubi sol non lucet” – En Passant 7, p. 227 – “put it where the sun doesn’t shine!”

 

“There’s a Jonah on board” – En Passant 8, p. 233 – a reference to the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale

 

“The Happiest Days of Your Life” – Check 5, p. 284 – more about this film

 

picador – Bishop 1, p. 316 – more about this bullfighting custom

 

“High Plains Drifter” – Bishop 5, p. 354 – Joanne Harris is a fan of Clint Eastwood movies, and she has said that they influenced the creation of Vianne in “Chocolat”. The “man with no name” in “High Plains Drifter” is the most disturbing of these roles

 

“Vale, magister” – Queen 10, p. 447 – “Goodbye, teacher”

 

Scis quid dicant” – Mate 5, p. 488 – “you know what they say?”

 

“He, la Reinette. Ca va pas?” – Mate 5, p. 493 – could be translated as, “Hey, the little queen. How are things?” Julia replies that “things are going well”

 

Visit our Joanne Harris page

Holy Fools Review

Chocolat Review

Blackberry Wine Review

Sleep, Pale Sister Review

Evil Seed Review

Five Quarters of the Orange Review

Coastliners Review

Gentlemen and Players

Jigs & Reels

 

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