A few years ago a bought a book from Oxfam titled Something New, Volume Two. It was a mysterious and strange book by a writer called Automathes that included a strange array of essays. I now know that this was Richard Griffith, husband of Elizabeth Griffith the playwright and he was a writer of numerous other works. Most confusing in Something New were a serious of essays signed ‘Tria Juncta’. The first made a bet that Tria Juncta’s forthcoming work would be mistaken for Laurence Sterne. The next made all sorts of astounding claims for his ability to control his body, being able to be incidentally happy, asleep or kill people from afar.
While Tria Juncta was styled as Automathes friend, he was of course another pseudonymn for Richard Griffith and his Tria Juncta books were collected as The Koran: Or, Essays, Sentiments, Characters, and Callimachies, of Tria Juncta in Uno, M.N.A. or Master of No Arts.
In Something New, Tria Juncta says, “I had a considerable wager depending with a friend of mine, that the work would pass current on the world as writing of Mr Sterne’s.” If this bet is true, Griffith cheated. The first book of The Koran outright claims to be a posthumous autobiography of Laurence Sterne. To be fair Sterne and Griffith had met, and Griffith claimed that Sterne had given him notes to work up, though to be also fair, Griffith doesn’t seem to have been the most truthful of people. There are real biographical details in the book, from the career of Sterne’s father, his dabbling in church politics and even a claim for the real inspirations for the Tristram Shandy characters of Le Fevre and Uncle Toby.
Even though this first volume claims to be an autobiography, there’s still time to fit in short essays much like those in Something New. There’s some critic-needling, laughing at how his books are well spaced to pad them out. There are many articles about morality, particularly ‘mechanical christians’ who do the right things without feelings of compassion, compared to the genuinely kind-hearted people (like our author) who occasionally make mistakes. There are also discussions of the morality of Sterne and his work. One, ‘Triglyph and Tristram Compared’, talks about a critic and novelist called Triglyph, who was too harsh on Sterne and his occasional use of rudeness - it’s no surprise that Triglyph was also Richard Griffith, the name he used to write a novel called The Triumvirate; or, The Authentic Memoirs of A. B. and C. He’s wonderfully shameless.
There’s one essay called ‘Cardinal Virtues’, where they are listed as, “Build houses, rear trees, write books, get children”. I like the forward-looking, build for the future element of these virtues. Leave the world with more houses, trees, books and people. It’s a glimpse of the positive, likeable person that Griffith reveals in his writings (as opposed to the pub-bore he also sometimes sounds like).
The second book starts off with Tria Juncta talking about his favourite groups of threes and announcing that his essays were too long in the last book and that he wants to invent a new form he calls callimachies. These are short, snappy thoughts about various things which, to a modern reader, feels a bit like scrolling through one person’s tweets. It’s a surprisingly effective form, Griffith veers between serious, silly, pedantic, generous in quick succession and the reader is pulled through, wondering what will be next.
There are callimachies making a recommendation for limited peerages and reform in the House of Lords, others stating that, “men tire themselves in search of rest,” and others saying that, “kindness can never be cancelled, not even by repaying it.” In one, he argues for the death penalty, saying it’s fine if one innocent person is accidentally killed for every ten guilty people as it’s better to get evil people out of the world then save the odd innocent one. He then realises what he has said and remarks how it’s the first time he’s ever had a political thought that went against humanity. He’ll often be honest if he can’t remember where a quote is from. Another of the callimachies says, “live to learn, and learn to live”. He then pauses and calls the phrase ‘quaint’ - essentially he’s realised that it’s in ‘live, life, laugh’ territory and a little naff.
This book includes a message to a Kit, who “was master of a kind of inverted wit, this consisted of a remarkable quickness of misapprehension. He would often pretend to mistake some word in a sentence, for another of similar sound, and, by commenting, or running a parody of it, contrive to throw the speaker into an embarrassment.” There’s no way of knowing if this is in reference to Kit Smart, but they did move in similar circles and it’s certainly something I can imagine Smart doing.
The third book was the weakest. It took a similar, callimachie, short style but instead of being his own musings about things and sketches of people he knows, it was a collection of anecdotes from what he’s read. The selection shows an interest in women’s history and includes anecdotes about women philosophers, athletes and poets. He suggests that Descartes, “Cogito ergo sum’ should have used the Latin word for doubt, as Descartes is doubting, therefore he is. There are lots of anecdotes about naughty popes to show how silly papal infallibility is. There’s one about how red-headed people are great, because their red hair shows their passion and their’s more affection in warm passions then lukewarm ones. Otherwise, the third book is filler.
In my reading of Richard Griffith, he still remains an elusive figure. He’s sententious and stuffy (and way too pedantic about Latin) but he has some genuinely funny jokes and quirky ways of looking at the world. I’d like to find the novel he wrote under the name of Triglyph and the love letters he wrote and published with his wife. He’s not lost me yet.