Here are links to our initial selection from the magnificent anagram tales by Nicolas Robertson. They group neatly in three trilogies—first, Mozart operas:
- Barcelona (Lear—Bacon)
- Igor Stravinsky (Gran visits York)
- Johann Sebastian Bach (Hosanna! J.S. Bach)
The visions emerging here make up a kind of Esperanto fiction—it’s most rewarding to follow the gnomic texts with the aid of the explanatory stories. Here’s a general introduction by Nick himself:
The anagram stories Stephen Jones has been resolutely issuing arose from a specific combination of circumstances. First, amongst professional classical music singers, the 80s and 90s were a high point for tours, residencies, and CD recordings, all of which furnished extended periods of having to sit patiently around—time used in various ways, crosswords, knitting, books and magazines; there were not yet smartphones or iPads, had they already existed it’s unlikely that these texts would ever have developed.
But in 1984 I had been introduced to the work of Georges Perec and the Oulipo, which added to my early enthusiasm for Mots d’heures: gousses, rames and an appreciation of word games of various sorts (though I never enjoyed or was much good at Scrabble, oddly: I think it was the element of competition which spoiled it). Such games had a much more serious aspect for me (as indeed, to a hugely greater extent, they did for Perec), through their function of creating “potential literature”—Oulipo is “Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle”, freeing up through constraints. Having always been keen on writing, I nevertheless had found myself unable, every time I tried, to write imaginative fictional narrative; what began as a collaborative pastime (many anagrams, and certainly the best ones, were deduced by colleagues, once I’d proposed a source text or name) gradually morphed into a generator of unlikely yet rigorously underpinned stories.
As to the process, during recording sessions etc. I collected from volunteers and compiled my own anagrams, which I then joined up in whatever form of narrative appeared possible, permitting myself any old punctuation but always (the few exceptions are noted in the text) sticking rigorously to the sequence of repeated anagram matrices, with the same x letters repeated each time, never overlapping nor transposing—no cheating for effect (however tempting). At first that was as far as I thought of going, but it soon appeared that there was another level of interpretation waiting to be exploited, the “potential literature”, and I spent some months, or even years (in the case of Lili Boulanger and Johann Sebastian Bach) extrapolating the story I felt the anagrams were perhaps telling.
In addition to the nine Steve has published, there are six more which survive—several were wholly or partly lost during the course of time and specifically in a fire in our house in Portugal which destroyed most of my papers (and books) in 2009: the survivals are in great part due to Steve himself, and Charles Pott, a notable contributor, who had kept copies, backed up by a handful I’d managed to consign to the internet (most of the stories also predate the days of web-based email).
These other pieces are:
- Israel in Egypt (anagrams only, stitched together but without parallel text, 1989)
- Die Entfuhrung (sic—no umlaut, nor the missing ‘e’ it would represent) / Aus dem Serail (introduction + anagrams only, 1991)
- Salzburg (introduction + anagrams of Beethoven’s Leonore/Beethoven’s Fidelio + story, 1996—probably the most substantial piece of the whole run)
- Alceste (raw anagram list + anagrams + story, 1999)
- Merano (intro + raw anagram list + anagrams + story + epilogue, 2000)
- Oslo (raw anagram list + anagrams + sort of story + epilogue/more story, 2000).
These last two were envisaged as being integral parts of my reactions to the celebrations at the time of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, and the many concerts in which I took part during that year. The last anagram piece I wrote of this sort (there’s since been an acrostic anagram sonnet for Fernando Pessoa) was indeed Johann Sebastian Bach, compiled between 2000 and 2021. There’s a hope that the complete set may eventually interest a publisher…
I still can’t write (and don’t believe I have written) fiction. I was just following where the letters led me.
Nicolas Robertson, August 2021.
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[SJ:] With my penchant for zany indexing (see here, and here), I can’t resist compiling a selective general index of some of the more striking people, places, and themes that adorn the plots so far (just the anagrams, not the extrapolations!), and allowing characters to mingle freely after being trapped within the bonds of the individual stories that generated them. In the absence of page references, you can have fun working out which tales the entries belong to.