Stakes is High

A courtroom trial is, in semiotic terms, the creation of a literary text. And a text of great import: a human being stands before his or her peers and faces up to society’s moral judgement. The entire procedure is carried out as an exchange of words, which are recorded for posterity. It’s a fascinating process, and some notable texts are being written right now.

Let’s start with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, pounding his fist and complaining that the whole trial process is a theatrical fraud. Well, he’s probably right, but then Saddam has his own penchant for theatricality. With Saddam in the hot seat and the cameras rolling, there’s more bad acting flying around the Baghdad courtroom than in a Tom Hanks/Robin Williams buddy film directed by Oliver Stone. We yearn for the days of the Nuremberg trials.

In complete contrast to this spectacle, there’s the quiet crisis of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who faces trial this Friday in his own country. He published a simple, clear message about the ordeal in the current New Yorker. The trial, which has been widely publicized throughout the western world, will take place on Friday. If Pamuk’s name was Ka, a bomb would go off somewhere and the author would escape to Hamburg early Saturday morning. In fact, this whole thing reads so much like an Orhan Pamuk novel that it has everybody’s head spinning. Talk about meta-fiction. We trust that Pamuk will leave this trial a free man, and perhaps he will be struck with a poem as he walks home afterwards.

Regardless of what you think of the death penalty, you might have felt sad at the thought of Stanley “Tookie” Williams facing execution even though his crime was committed decades ago and he had clearly turned his life towards good deeds since then. Williams was executed last night by the state of California. It is jarring to look at the pages for Stanley Williams and realize that, all else aside, the person who just died by lethal injection was one of us, a writer to the core.

All these high-stakes legal battles have me thinking about trials in literature. Inherit The Wind comes to mind (a revival is much needed), and Twelve Angry Men and The Man in the Glass Booth and The Caine Mutiny (this last one is now remembered as a classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart and a boat, but Herman Wouk’s Melvillesque fable was a hit Broadway play before it was a movie, and the play consisted entirely of the courtroom drama).

Kafka wrote a bit about trials, as did Gilbert and Sullivan and Shakespeare. Dostoevsky tended to end his gritty crime stories just before the trials began, as if the judgement of other men was of no consequence. The two greatest trial stories are among the oldest: Jesus facing Herod and Pontius Pilate in the Holy Bible, and Socrates fighting for his life in an Athenian court in Plato’s great Apology (if you haven’t read it, Socrates loses the case, but lands several great punches).

These must be the times that try men’s souls. If I missed any notable courtroom literary classics (by which I do not mean to include My Cousin Vinny), please let me know.

15 Responses

  1. Bernhard Schlink, ‘The
    Bernhard Schlink, ‘The Reader’

    Do you know Bernhard Schlink’s “The Reader”?

    This story of obsession and confusion, shame and guilt, trial and atonement takes place in post-war Germany. It begins with the love affair of Michael, a 15-year old boy, with Hanna, an inscrutable middle aged woman.

    Their meetings are obsessive rituals of reading aloud from the classics and making love, until one day, Hanna suddenly dissapears.

    Years later, as a law student observing war trials, Michael recognizes Hanna in a courtroom. He is shocked to hear that she is on trial for her role as a guard in a Nazi concentration camp. As Michael watches her bizarre attitude during the trial and her wilfull mishandling of her defense, it becomes clear to him that her behaviour must conceal a secret that is more shameful to her than murder: her illiteracy.

    Hanna refuses to defend her innocence. She does not reveal her secret and is sentenced to life.

    Michael is busy with his career, marries, has a daughter, divorces. He is haunted by guilt and emotional numbness, both regarding his personal story and his country’s history and its dealing with it. During his sleepless nights, he reads books into a tape recorder and sends the tapes to Hanna in prison.

    Shortly before her release in the mid-70’s, Michael meets her again for the first time since her sudden dissappearing back when he was a boy. It is a weird meeting, a difficult meeting thick with Michael’s ambivalence and Hanna’s shame, and shortly after that, the story comes to its end.

    Even though only the middle part of Schlink’s novel does actually take place is a courtroom, to me, the whole story is a trial story.

  2. Mailer Says Bill Doesn’t
    Mailer Says Bill Doesn’t Suck

    We could mention obscenity trials. Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and several other works down through the years have been banned until a court ruled they were not “obscene” in the legal sense of the word.

    The strange thing about the Naked Lunch trial is that, when the book first came out, writer Norman Mailer didn’t like it, but then he did a one-eighty and decided it was brilliant when he testified. I always wondered if he was just trying to jump on the bandwagon.

  3. Thanks Anemone — no, I
    Thanks Anemone — no, I haven’t read it and I think I will. Also calls to mind a recent novel about a similar subject, Crawl Space by Edie Miadev, which came out earlier this year …

  4. hadn’t heard of meidav before
    hadn’t heard of meidav before – she sounds like someone i’d like to read.

    thanks for the tipp, levi!

  5. Batya Gur, Stone for Stone…
    Batya Gur, Stone for Stone

    … a novel about a trial.

    about loss, sadness, grim determination, excessiveness, society. about being in the right, or not.

    i think there’s an english translation by harper and collins forthcoming.

  6. Caine Mutiny playWell, duh,
    Caine Mutiny play

    Well, duh, the Broadway play by Wouk was entitled “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” ( not just “The Caine Mutiny”), so of course it had to be entirely about the courtroom drama.

  7. True! Just to one-up your
    True! Just to one-up your “duh”, though, I’ll point out that Robert Altman directed an excellent television version of the play several years ago, which was titled “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” but was set in a basketball court, the concept being that there was no courtroom available for the court martial (I’m also guessing that Altman wanted to avoid the familiar courtroom setting to keep his audience awake).

    So, even though it does follow that the play’s script covers only the trial, it does *not* follow that it is entirely about a courtroom drama, since this version took place in a basketball court. Hah.

  8. The Sot Weed FactorJohn Barth
    The Sot Weed Factor

    John Barth produced one of the most ludicrous yet hilarious courtroom scenes I have ever read. I looked it up in case you haven’t read the book, and mention it as it is flu season and laughter is the best medicine. Part 2, Chapter 27. Such lines as “Nobody gets a verdict he hath not paid for” and the ensuing auction of a verdict during courtroom proceedings bring all the iniquities of the trial to the foreground. Unbelievably hilarious, and moreso in the context of the book.

  9. Catch-22 & Hollywood
    Catch-22 & Hollywood Trial Staple

    There’s an interrogation in Catch-22.

    Hollywood trials come out annually: Erin Brockovich, A Few Good Men, A Civil Action, Nuts, and Night Falls on Manhattan. The last is based on a novel. Nuts was a stage play.

  10. To Kill A MockingbirdI must
    To Kill A Mockingbird

    I must look like a loser, responding to my own question, but I just remembered another courtroom classic: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

  11. “I shall make some etouffee.”
    “I shall make some etouffee.”

    – Tommy Lee Jones as Clay “Bertrand” Shaw at the end of the trial in JFK.

  12. A Little DickensCharles
    A Little Dickens

    Charles Dickens really captures the morass of protracted litigation in the first chapter of Bleak House, talking about groups of opposing lawyers lined up with “bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters’ reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. Well may the court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day into the place …”

  13. The Brothers Karamazov…ends
    The Brothers Karamazov

    …ends with the dramatic and sensationalized trial of Dmitri who is accused of murdering his father.

  14. Hi Anemone –I read “The
    Hi Anemone —

    I read “The Reader” several years ago — a very good book. At times I felt it was a bit hard to follow, but it did come together in the end to be a very interesting and intense story. I had forgotten about the courtroom in this until you’d mentioned it. Thanks!

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