“A Letter from John Tzetzes, with Notes for the Uncomprehending”


  • Michael Howitt Simon Fraser University


John Tzetzes, Fiction, History, Byzantium, Nabokov


This short story was written in the context of an upper level undergraduate course run by Dr. Dimitris Krallis this fall at Simon Fraser University—Fantasy in Byzantium—which examined the ways in which Byzantine sources have influenced and been reinterpreted in modern fiction. During the course I was struck by the wonderfully vituperative style of John Tzetzes, a twelfth-century polymath infamous even in today’s scholarship for his endless quarrels over minor grammatical points and his near-eternal grudges. Reading Tzetzes, it is hard not to wonder how such a sharp-tongued character would have navigated a society in which literary and political circles were so close knit. Thus, this story began in part as an attempt to play with the idea of how a person like Tzetzes might have tried to walk back a statement that went too far, or was too direct to be veiled by literary references or allegory.

The challenge for a Byzantine writer was in part finding a way to incorporate the old into the new in a way that both added depth and bolstered the credibility of the author, and in keeping with this, I set out to try to create my own imitation primary source out of quotes from other Byzantine writers, complete with the explanatory notes we sometimes see requested in Byzantine letters or marginalia. Tzetzes’ personality, and some of his nastiest letters, also reminded me instantly of the kinds of characters that show up in the works of Vladimir Nabokov—the eloquently miserable, self-obsessed narrators of works like The Vane Sisters and Pale Fire—and so I have drawn on Nabokov’s characterizations and on the structure of Pale Fire in an effort to combine the old and the new. The text that follows, connects elements of the past and present, history and fiction, tragedy and satire, which I hope will invite further reflection