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Let Me Tell You

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" now I come to speak. At last. I will tell you all I know...." These are the words of Ophelia at the beginning of this short literally her words, in that her narrative is composed entirely of the vocabulary she is allotted in Hamlet. Within these meagre resources, she manages to express herself on topics including her love for her father (Polonius), her care for her younger brother (Laertes), her puzzlement in the face of the Prince himself, and her increasing sense that she must escape the fate awaiting her in the play. This is no mere technical exercise or prequel to the the use of such a restricted vocabulary means that Ophelia's voice, while direct and passionate, gains musical qualities as words keep recurring in perpetually changing contexts. Paul Griffiths, born in Bridgend, Wales, is a well-known writer on contemporary and classical music.

144 pages, Paperback

First published February 1, 2009

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About the author

Paul Griffiths

93 books27 followers
Paul Anthony Griffiths, OBE, is a British music critic, novelist and librettist. He is particularly noted for his writings on modern classical music and for having written the libretti for two 20th century operas, Tan Dun's Marco Polo and Elliott Carter's What Next? [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Gr...]

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,304 followers
September 9, 2023
So: now I come to speak. At last. I will tell you all I know. I was deceived to think I could not do this. I have the powers; I take them here. I have the right. I have the means. My words may be poor, but they will have to do.

What words do I have? Where do they come from? How is it that I speak?

Paul Griffiths's novel Mr Beethoven was, deservedly, shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize for "fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form." My review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

Had the Goldsmiths novel been in place in 2008, this novel, 'let me tell you', would, I think, have also featured and quite likely won.

The novel is narrated by Ophelia from Hamlet, but, in a cleverly chosen and beautifully executed Oulipan constraint, using only the words the character speaks in the play. As the author explained in an interview (link below):

There are 483 different words, drawn from Ophelia’s part in the Second Quarto and in the First Folio, with modernized spelling. I left out the First Quarto because its “Ofelia” is so different, and it lies outside the Hamlet tradition, but I wanted to draw on both the other texts because each has words not supplied by the other: most importantly, Q2 has “time” where F1 has “tune.”

The 483 figure counts “o” and “o’” as different words. But it strikes me now that “words” isn’t the right word, because I use these things as what one might call “letter strings,” whose possible other meanings are available—including meanings in other languages. For example, Ophelia uses “staff” to mean a stick or pole, but the same letter string (not, strictly, the same word) can also mean a group of people working for the same concern, or an element of musical notation. These are all, to use a term from linguistics, homographs. There isn’t a term for letter string, so I’m going to invent one: “grypheme.” A grapheme (existing term) notates a phoneme; a grypheme is a string of graphemes. There are 478 gryphemes in Ophelian, because the vocabulary includes five pairs of homographs (“o”/”o’” is one). The gryphemes may be combined in ways that their punctuation allows; for example, the very useful “’s” is in the play, and can therefore be applied to any word.

To give one illustration of this, the author and I had been on a Goodreads discussion of Mr. Beethoven, where I had admitted to my preference for heavy metal over classical music. When I purchased a copy of this book via him, it came with a personalised dedication:

What is that music you speak of?
(I know a little of Coldplay)

The name of the band taken from combining two gryphemes from two of Ophelia's lines in the play:

"We must be patient; but I cannot
choose but weep to think they would lay him i' th' cold ground."

"Belike this show imports the argument of the play."

Griffiths plays some clever literary games - for example one section where Ophelia renders, altered to feature her constrained vocabulary, various popular nursery rhymes. Another chapter has a play within the novel and another a banquet with some unusual dishes (anyone for 'Twice-Turned Shoulder of Young Robin, in a stole of rosemary flowers'?)

Oulipan literature can sometimes be too focused on the constraint and not enough on the writing, but Griffiths prose is lyrical and the constraint actually gives the writing a poetic, almost musical, tone. Harry Matthews, the godfather of English language Oulipan literature correctly hailed it as a "beautiful and enthralling work, as well as a great success in Oulipian terms."

The narrator's language is at times literally flowery, due to her famous words in Act IV Scene V. But while her vocabulary enables her to say many things, at other times, it frustrates her:

I cannot tell you what I most wish to tell you, for there are no words for what I would say.

Highly recommended. 4.5 stars

Further reading/listening

A detailed discussion of Griffith's technique:


Another interview when Griffiths responds in the words of Ophelia:


A song cycle based on 'let me tell you' by Hans Abrahamsen performed by soprano Barbara Hannigan:


Other reviews:



Profile Image for Hannah.
201 reviews15 followers
March 24, 2019
i can't write a review for this book without drawing attention to the absolute shitshow that is the cover of it. I have to say that of all the book covers I have come across this takes the cake, and unfortunately somewhat sets the stage for this book. A brilliant idea poorly executed. The brilliant idea being that this book is written entirely from the words allotted to Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet. It is impressive how much Griffiths manages to write with this, and the words never come across as repetitive. One merely begins to notice motifs that recur in the book, and his reuse of words in different contexts and their different meanings is very interesting. The story however was a little boring, not particularly developed, and I had to push myself to finish the book.
Profile Image for Greg.
47 reviews9 followers
July 24, 2016
Ophelia tells her story using only the vocabulary that Shakespeare allows her character in Hamlet.
For just another Oulipo-inpired stunt this turns out to be quite a solid and satisfying novel (as do many Oulipo-inspired stunts, as it happens).
There is a terrific interview with Griffiths in the latest Music & Literature (#7).
Reality Street Editions has suspended operations just this last week. While they say that titles will remain in print for the time being, I'd grab a copy of this while you can.
Profile Image for Koji Mukai.
70 reviews3 followers
November 1, 2016
This is Ophelia's story told in her own words - not just meaning "in first person" but also using only words assigned to Ophelia's speeches by Shakespeare. This deliberate restriction gives this short book its tone, language-wise. However, the Ophelia of this story (called O, since she never speaks her own name in "Hamlet") has a modern character and the story twists the fourth wall in a very interesting way. These aspects might appeal to readers who usually do not care for Shakespeare and are more into science fiction.
Profile Image for Kiana.
986 reviews45 followers
August 1, 2022
I’ve said before that Ophelia, out of all of Shakespeare's characters (with the possible additions of Malvolio and Titania), deserves a better story. Hamlet has never been close to my heart (a scary statement to make when one’s community is made up of literature and theatre lovers)—"Cheer Up, Hamlet" pretty much sums it up for me—but I’ve always been fascinated by Ophelia’s character (and Gertrude's, but that's a different subject). Other attempts to retell Ophelia's story have left me disappointed, despite having some good ideas—Lisa M. Klein’s Ophelia and its 2018 film adaptation being the most prominent—but Paul Griffiths’s Let Me Tell You might come the closest to the story that I’ve fantasized about. Griffiths primarily works in music and this is an experimental novel, so Let Me Tell You often reads more like a collection of poetry than a proper story. But, skies, it’s a beautiful exercise in poetry and a haunting glimpse of a young woman raised in an environment of abnegation and loss.

From a technical level alone, the fact that Griffiths constructed 130 pages of comprehensible prose from Ophelia’s limited words in Hamlet (every word in Let Me Tell You is spoken by Ophelia in the play) is commendable. But it’s also a tremendous feat of imagination and expression, offering new interpretations of Ophelia’s relationships with Polonius, Laertes, and Hamlet, as well as characters we never see in Shakespeare’s play, such as Ophelia’s mother and childhood maid. For however vague her memory and wording are, Ophelia herself still comes across like a real person—not knowing the fine details in no way prevents readers from seeing the character’s heart. Admittedly, there are times when the text is maddening in its inability to be more specific (Ophelia spends pages on end talking about a love and yet we never find out who it is) but that’s also kind of why it works. And, in a strange way, Ophelia’s stream-of-consciousness, flowery narration, heightened passion (the “hands” section of the text is downright beautiful), and introversion make an intriguing mirror to Hamlet’s self-indulgent tangents and reflections in the original story.

The only part of Let Me Tell You that I truly disliked was when Ophelia’s childhood maid lays out the entire plot of Hamlet to her, essentially informing Ophelia of her—and everyone else’s—destinies ten years before they come into effect. I get that Griffiths is trying to challenge the concept of predetermination and let Ophelia “tell her own story”/“break the narrative,” but I found that doing so on such a literal level removed a great deal of the source material’s dramatic impact rather than heightening it.

But that is a small quibble for a novel(la?) that otherwise knocked my socks off. Let Me Tell You is beyond clever and phenomenally (and probably painstakingly) constructed. This is Ophelia as I wanted to (at least slightly) know her. Well worth the purchase.

4 stars.
Profile Image for Kim Lundstrom.
51 reviews
August 14, 2017
Fascinating idea: a novel written using only the words Ophelia speaks in the play. I love the idea of sifting through O's own words in search of who the character really is. It's strange, atmospheric, and a little creepy in places. Makes me want to read Hamlet again.
Profile Image for Cobertizo.
318 reviews15 followers
November 19, 2020
Paul Griffiths y Hans Abrahamsen escriben sobre el tiempo. Un tiempo, el suyo y el de nadie más. Uno lírico que arrastra a los compases, curva los versos y los vuelca sobre mapas de color mate. La conjugación tímbrica se desata del compás y de la nota al pie de página que los pretende asir. ¿Cuántos compositores y escritores lo intentaron sin conseguirlo?. Más que armonía, 'Let Me Tell You' tiene color y tiempo. Sonido en el tiempo. Porque puede no haber espacio. Pero tiempo es lo que siempre hay en música. Puede no haber frecuencia. Puede no haber armonía y contrapunto. Pero siempre, siempre hay tiempo. Y de tiempo y timbre, únicos, sosegados, embelesados al huir uno del otro, está colmado el vibrato de Barbara Hannigan. Mundo aparte. Uno de viajeros solitarios. Uno donde tu rostro sea mi lección de música. En el que yo canto.
Profile Image for Andrea.
16 reviews
February 16, 2019
A bit of a slog, especially in the beginning, which briefly picks up around discussions of Hamlet and then becomes a slog once more. Clearly written as an experiment. Occasional flashes of brilliance.
Profile Image for Auli.
37 reviews3 followers
June 7, 2016
Oulipolainen pienoisromaani, joka uudelleenkertoo Ofelian tarinan käyttämällä vain Shakespearen Ofelialle antamia sanoja. Erikoinen ja epätasainen pieni kirja, joka loppupuolella kuitenkin nousee huikeisiin hetkiin kuvaten Ofelian ihmissuhteita, persoonaa ja ratkaisua - hänen on erottava kohtalosta, joka häntä näytelmässä odottaa. Niukkuudesta ammentava kauneus on toiminut inspiraationlähteenä Paul Abrahamsenin upealle laulusarjalle Let me tell you, jonka ansiosta minäkin tähän kirjaan tartuin.
Profile Image for Barry.
Author 136 books121 followers
December 9, 2008
An attractive oulipian challenge--a movella-length monologue by Ophelia, constructed only from the vocabulary assigned her in Hamlet--disappointingly fulfilled by the illustrious music critic.
Author 4 books5 followers
January 14, 2009
Have a review of this coming out in Review of Contemporary Fiction . . . Oulipo meets Shakespeare!
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