Tuesday 27th December

Eerie calm? Hogg upset and responsible for last Christmas (6,7)

I have the long drive south to try to digest the news. It hardly helps that the only song that anyone wants to play on the radio is ‘Praying for Time’ by the late, great George Michael:

Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late.
Well, maybe we should all be praying for time…

Can I really be just three days from the end of my life? Will anyone even notice that I have gone? Ot will there be another funeral next week at which assorted relatives will glumly chomp canapés? Will Phil even remember my playlist and cut short his honeymoon to be there? I think we know the answer to that one …

I make an effort to recall the days I spent with Uncle Alan and his anagrams and his matchsticks. Those bonking beetles. The idea of my mother and Uncle Alan, her brother-in-law … one Hogg and the wrong Mrs Hogg … making the beast with two backs is too ghastly and implausible to contemplate. Just once, I asked? Just three times, my mother admitted, not daring to look me in the eye. Did Dad find out? A shrug of the shoulders. He knew. He never said anything but he knew.

Should I confront the old fool with the news? What if he never knew at all? I don’t want to be the one to tell my father that he has been cuckolded and his only son is not his son at all. Besides, he is still my Dad. He has earned the right to be called ‘Dad’ after three decades of scraping a beta-beta-alpha in that role. We’ve had our differences and I’ve dismissed him as a bigoted dinosaur on dozens of occasions but the fact is we are still making each other cups of tea and lusting after Victoria Coren Mitchell together.  We may not share quite as many genes as I had originally thought, but does it really matter so much?

And what of my name – Alan Alexander Hogg? Was I really named after the esteemed owner of Cotchford Farm? Or was I always an ‘Alan’ in my mother’s eyes … at least until Dad guessed the truth?

Somewhere around the Nottingham exit my thoughts turn to my mother’s odd recollection of her grandfather, Nicolas Elston, the Parisian émigré. Elston! Wasn’t that the name Felix Yusupov went by in his Univ days? Count Sumarokov-Elston.  Yes, that was it. He didn’t want to be Prince Felix in this strange new environment. Being a mere count would allow him to stay under the radar. And once he and Irina and their baby daughter had escaped the clutches of the Bolsheviks, they did wind up in Paris. But they had no further children, as far as I am aware. Perhaps Felix had a mistress? In Gay Paris of the post-war period and early 1920s, it would have been rude not to.

The idea is ridiculous, of course. The man was plainly a homosexual. And yet, and yet … we know he did father one girl, after all. Could I possibly be Felix Yusupov’s great-great-grandson? I am as sceptical as you are, gentle reader.

Maybe if, against all odds, I am still alive in the New Year and inherit a few bob from Uncle Alan, I will fork out for a DNA test.  But how would we get any Yusupov DNA to compare it with? Perhaps there is some kind of Parisian registry of births? Dad could tell me where to look.

The flood season is officially over after a relatively rain-free Christmas. Traffic is flowing normally on the Botley Rd and the sandbags have left the doorways on Osney Island. Dad has moved all the carpets and furniture back downstairs and I am glad to have missed the major clean-up operation that must have taken place. I picture Dad directing operations while Gwen is down on her knees with a scrubbing brush.

Dad? I can’t suddenly stop thinking of him as “Dad” …

But my newly-ex-father is nowhere to be seen at home in Swan St. Well, I say “home”; I am acutely conscious that I am expected to leave our little tin shack on Frog Island so that Dad can indulge in a spot of free love. But what is the point of traipsing around town looking at grotty bedsits when I may have only days left to live? I would much rather do something useful. So I set about researching Ozzie’s plagiarism case. It’s not too difficult to track down the prehistoric doctorate that Ozzie is supposed to have copied. Ah, here it is. I skim over the abstract:

Suspense in the English novel from Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad

Abstract: Because of critical neglect, there is no established terminology to describe techniques of suspense. Borrowing from Aristotle, Koestler, and others, a new body of concepts is suggested and importantly, a distinction of tense is established, between types of suspense which relate to the narrative past, present, and future.

The classical world’s intuition of a connection between mental uncertainty and the physical state of hanging has conditioned Western man’s notion of narrative suspense until a comparatively recent date. Eighteenth-century theories of the sublime helped to create an understanding that suspense was not necessarily painful.

Through an analysis of novels by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, and Conrad, an attempt is made to identify and evaluate the most common suspense strategies in the period’s popular genres, notably the Austenian romance, mystery, and tragedy. The Austenian romance is compared to the detective story in that narrative presentation is determined by the need to control the reader’s expectations, and to achieve an ending which is both satisfactory and surprising.

I can see that there are a few tenuous links here to Ozzie’s book but the whole emphasis of this ancient thesis is radically different. It isn’t a history of genre. It’s a nuts-and-bolts analysis of the nineteenth-century novel. I download the doctorate itself and spend a very congenial hour or two dipping into it. It comes from a golden age of literary criticism, mixing the structuralism of the likes of Todorov and Frye with the more radical post-structuralist theories of Barthes and even the dreaded Derrida. But it is a work that is also somehow out of time, exploring a byway of the jungle of literary theory that has not been glimpsed before or since – it is sui generis.

I wonder if the author ever tried to get it ‘properly’ published and, if so, what the commissioning editors at OUP and CUP would have made of it? Sorry, son, we really don’t know how to position this. Or maybe: come back when you’ve got a proper job. But there were no jobs in academe in the early 80s and this quirky tome languished in the Bodleian stack where it no doubt sits to the present day. How many other thousands of doctorates have suffered a similar fate?

But here’s the rub. On the left-hand side of the Oxford University Research Archive webpages, you can see the figures for Views and Downloads. At the time of writing, 27 people have viewed the summary-page and just four have gone on to download the actual thesis. I can’t tell how long this resource has been here but it seems to have been wearing a cloak of invisibility.

As it happens, I know a chap called Graham who works in the university’s IT department, so I drop him a line, expecting him to plead ignorance or confidentiality. But no, he says the information is freely available to anyone who asks. So I get him to check up on the access-history of this particular document. And what do you know? All those four downloads of the thesis have taken place in the last two months. In other words, long after it could have had any influence on the writing of Ozzie’s book.

What about the original hard copy, sitting somewhere deep beneath the earth, possibly in the lost city of Atlantis, I ask? Can one find out how often it has been summoned up? Of course! Every movement has been tracked for the last twenty years. Et voilà – the original Bodleian copy of Suspense in the English Novel has not been requested by a single reader in the whole of that period.

I call Ozzie to tell him the good news.

“Yeah, I’d come to a pretty similar conclusion myself. I could see that the online version had only been accessed by a handful of readers. But someone can always claim that I found it on another website.”

“What other website? It doesn’t exist on any other website. It barely exists on this website!”

“God, I hope you’re right, Alex. I don’t suppose it’s going to be enough to satisfy Vlad the Impaler, but it’s a start. Who knows, maybe I’ll get a new contract after all. Anyway, where are we off to  on Thursday night? As Best Man, surely you can insist on somewhere with no vegetarian options, can’t you?”


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