Friday, November 12, 2010

Do not adjust your set

Photo on a Mantel piece
"How could you have known? I'm not reliably where I shouldn't be. Are you moving that pawn, or just patting it?"

"J'aboube." Rafe snatches his hand away.....

...from a distant room a child is crying. Footsteps overhead. The crying stops. He picks up his king and looks at the base of it, as if to see how it is made. He murmurs,
"J'adoube." He puts it back where it was.
Two short and puzzling passages from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the subject of last Saturday's post.

Puzzling, because of the reference to j'adoube: the earliest occurrence of that term in English - at least, the earliest so far located - appears to be in the first decade of the nineteenth century, which is not far short of three hundred years after Thomas Cromwell, in the novel, plays chess with his chief clerk.

Doubly puzzling then, because this is not a thinly-researched novel, rather the opposite. The present writer, a history graduate, was impressed. (I was also pleased to come across a novel which went some distance to overturn the received view of Thomas More, for which we can perhaps blame Robert Bolt.) Moreover, and perhaps unusually where our game is concerned, the chess seems to me to be well-observed, sensibly underplayed and undramatic.

But where did the j'adoube come from? I did wonder whether Ms Mantel knew something we did not:
Dear Ms Mantel

Sorry to bother you, but I have an enquiry about a possible error in your book, Wolf Hall, that I recently enjoyed reading.

While Cromwell is confined at home, just after the death of his wife, he plays chess with Rafe who, absent-mindedly touching a piece, says "j'adoube". Cromwell repeats the term himself not long after.

What is puzzling about this is that there does not seem to be any recorded usage of the French term, in English anyway, until more than two hundred and fifty years after your scene is set. It first appears in print at the start of the nineteenth century and though we can assume that it had been current for some time before then, it seems unlikely that it was used for 250+ years without this practice being referred to in print.

It may be worth mentioning that at the turn of the eighteenth century, France was the pre-eminent nation in chess and had been for some time, not least due to the celebrated Philidor, and this might help explain why a French term came to be preferred. But when Cromwell was playing Rafe, the centres of the chess world would have been in Spain, and Italy.

That said, as far as I am aware there is no record of what was said in English, when adjusting a piece, prior to our first recorded references to "j'adoube" and it is also possible that you have a source which indicates that the use of "j'adoube" is much older than previously thought. If you do, it would be useful to the study of chess history (and indeed literature) to know that this were so!

Yours sincerely

Ms Mantel was kind enough to send a reply (and equally kind not to reply along the lines of "why are you wasting my time with this pointless piffle").
Thank you for your interesting letter. I am sure you are right, & I am aware of the Spanish/Italian pre-eminence but I feel sure there must have been a term with the same meaning - I decided to use the one that would be familiar to readers. Sometimes an anachronism must be judged worthwhile - of course, it is what Cromwell does, he 'adjusts' the King. I hope chess fiends will be forgiving.

All best wishes

Hilary Mantel
Be glad to: one to file under how-could-they-possibly-have-known rather than the more habitual carelessness*. But the question Ms Mantel's letter raises is an intriguing one: was there a precursor, in English, to j'adoube, and if so - what was it?

- - - -

Ludo? What do you mean, Ludo?

Talking of intriguing questions, the inside cover of Wolf Hall is decorated with illustrations from De ludo scachorum: the manuscript by Luca Pacioli, devoted to chess, which is the subject of this passage from Wolf Hall.
Thomas Avery smuggles in to him Luca Pacioli's book of chess puzzles. He has soon done all the puzzles, and drawn out some of his own on blank pages at the back.
Only recently discovered, the manuscript was the subject of some controversy between competing authorities, as to whether or not Leonardo da Vinci might have had a hand in the composition of the problems or the drawing of the diagrams - or that the design of the pieces might have been based on his work.

As the New York Times reported, these were dismissed by Leonardo expert Professor Martin Kemp, who:
emphatically dismissed the possibility that Leonardo had any hand in the drawings. "There is not an earthly chance of them being by Leonardo," he said in a telephone interview.

He said that there was no resemblance between the drawings and Leonardo's work. Nor did he find the designs particularly compelling, he said.

Asked whether Leonardo might have designed the actual chess puzzles, Kemp said he doubted that. While Leonardo was interested in geometrical games, Kemp said, no information in surviving manuscripts suggests that he played chess.
This was considerably less hopeful and enthusiastic than the assessment of the chess correspondent of the Times of London, who had suggested that Leonardo
may well have supplied the original designs for the pieces.
and mentioned
the alluring possibility that Leonardo himself composed the problem...the possibility that Leonardo did compose this puzzle is enticing and by no means impossible.
Not, to be fair, that Ray was alone in displaying rather less scepticism than he might: the Guardian's Italy correspondent was no better, not in that respect at least.

You can always rely on Ray to go one better, though. While the Guardian piece ends with Pacioli's advice on bookkeeping - advice which is, as it happens, recycled in Wolf Hall - Ray ends his with a plug for a book published by his friends and publishers, Hardinge Simpole. The author of that book, chess historian Richard Eales, is quoted in his article.

There is no doubt that Richard Eales is a reputable chess historian. There is also no doubt that he is married to Ray Keene's sister.

As Ray should mention, but - unaccountably - does not.

[* albeit somebody has missed that the first "j'adoube" is in fact misspelled "j'aboube".]

[Thanks to JB and of course to Hilary Mantel]

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Bleh said...

I don't really see why Keene should mention the guy is his brother-in-law. It doesn't really add essential information on the topic.

Anyway greeting to the Keenewatchblog. You'll get him in the end.

Jonathan B said...

Do you know, I've absolutely no memory of whatever it was that I did to earn a thank you for this.

Jonathan B said...

Bleh, my dear old thing, you seem to feel that this blog is out to 'get' RDK. Perhaps you missed the series of posts entitled 'Ray Could Play'?

ejh said...

I don't really see why Keene should mention the guy is his brother-in-law.

Because you're supposed to declare an interest if you're recommending people buy something and the potential beneficiary is somebody to whom you are connected. That's straightforward enough, and any professional journalist would be aware of this.

ejh said...

JB - I couldn't remember either for a moment, but then I did - you posted the letter!

Jonathan B said...

Ah. Well that doesn't seem enough to warrant a mention, but anyway you're most welcome.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the term used (assuming it was even necessary in the absence of the "touch-move" rule) was the same as the correct term now?

"I adjust"


Bleh said...

My dear S&B Bloggers,

it would be interesting to see what percentage of your posts mention mister Keene. I'm willing to accept he is not a very nice person but does he really warrants that much interest? Even more so that mister Keene seems to carry on merrily.

Anyway you shouldn't underestimate the us knows us mentality in journalism in general. For instance in rock journalism it is quite common: the journalists depend on the rock bands for scoops and interviews and repay by favorable reviews.

ejh said...

Richard - quite possible, but I wonder. Given that

(a) chessplaying was a pursuit largely of the nobility

(b) it was a game, in its then-modern form (powerful queen and so on) imported from elsewhere in Europe

one wonders whether the terminology would also have been imported, and one assumes that the nobility would have been concerned to know and use that terminology. That terminology might indeed have been French, or perhaps more likely Italian, or even Spanish - I don't know enough chess history to say. Or there might indeed have been recourse to the vernacular.

Rafe, in the novel, is not from the nobility: nor was Thomas Cromwell, in origin, either in the novel or in real life. But Cromwell was part of the court, and fluent in several languages.

Then again, use of the vernacular was an important theme at the time, (especially in relation to the Bible, and religious services) so there might have been a purpose to using an English "I adjust" on principle, as it were.

Or, for that matter, there may have been no term at all, because touch-move might not have been an established principle until much later!

Anyway, the real point is that although there are all these possibilities, I don't actually know, and it doesn't seem to me that as yet, anybody does know. If they do, I'd be glad to know more about it.

Bleh - the degree of our interest in Ray seems to me smaller than the degree of your concern with that interest. If you follow.

As a general point, "why are you writing about X?" never strikes me as a very purposeful question. It's a blog.