Dodie Smith: It Ends with Revelations
Corsair 2012 (1967)
July 1967. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed in England and Wales, decriminalising homosexual acts between consenting males aged 21 and over. In the same year Dodie Smith, now aged 71, published It Ends with Revelations (this title a quote from Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance), a novel which has homosexuality as one of its main themes. Fifty years later Smith’s novel has some curiosity value — a rather strange period read — considering gay marriage is now legal in Britain. To me it also reflects the ambivalence of the times: even at the height of the Swinging Sixties (the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released) Britain’s ruling institutions still retained a reactionary prewar attitude to personal behaviour, and Smith’s novel rather uncomfortably straddles that transition period.
Not long ago – it may be yesterday – there were two children called Alice and Bran. Now Alice and Bran lived in the last house at the end of the estate on the outskirts of a large town. You won’t have heard of this town, so it probably doesn’t matter what it’s called. Every day, Alice and Bran’s parents drove to work in the town and Alice and Bran caught to bus to school. At the end of the day they all came back home, did what they had to do and then went to bed.
On the other side of their house was a wood. Alice and Bran were told never to go into the wood because it was dangerous and you could lose yourself, so they never did. Instead, if ever they went for a walk they took their dog Cerberus around the estate and then came…
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
Faber & Faber 2016 (2015)
It’s extraordinary that for a book with this title the only mention of a burial place for such a fearsome creature comes very late in the book, and yet the reader gets the feeling that this novel is not really about this giant but another, one which is undefined, amorphous. Then there is the inkling, occasioning a little brow-wrinkling, that what the book itself is about is also shapeless and unclear. And hard on that thought’s heels comes the unbidden suspicion — is The Buried Giant a literary case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Is the author, just newly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, offering us something of no real substance, stringing us a line, pulling the wool over our eyes?
This is an ignoble thought, and yet one that must have struck many a reader puzzled over the point of this novel. Yes, there are a few obvious themes — about ageing, about faithful love, about communal forgetfulness and a pathological hatred of outsiders — but as these are explicitly described can there be deeper meanings that elude us? And if there aren’t, is this tale then just an extended parable with no inherent merit?
Bruno Vincent: Five Go Bookselling Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups
Hodder and Stoughton 2017
Maybe you missed it but Saturday 7th October 2017 was Bookshop Day in the UK and Ireland. I was involved in the third Crickhowell Literary Festival so I could hardly be unaware of it. I picked up this bit of free promotional material to see if I’d changed my mind about this expanding series of “Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups”. I found I had not.
Following on from Penguin Books’ re-vision of the classic children’s mid-20th-century Ladybird picture books allied with cynical new texts (on Mindfulness, The Mid-Life Crisis and the like) Hodder and Stoughton sought to cash in on this nostalgia trend with their updating of the Famous Five books. Do they work?
Maryse Joissains Masini et al (editors) Les Architectes et la Ville Livret des Journées Européennes du Patrimoine
Aix-en-Provence et Pays D’Aix
In mid-September the city of Aix-en-Provence and its hinterland hosted a long weekend dedicated to the architecture of the region, ranging from the Gaulish oppidum (the precursor to the Roman town of Aquae Sextius) to 21st-century structures that housed both people and the culture for which Aix is famous. We missed this celebration by a week but, with the help of a booklet in French produced for the occasion and aimed towards students, we were able to explore the city’s historic delights in between enjoying the modern successor to the Roman baths. Aix is most famous for Paul Cézanne but there is more to this ancient provincial capital than its most renowned inhabitant.
Patricia A McKillip: The Riddle-Master’s Game The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976); Heir of Sea and Fire (1977); Harpist in the Wind (1979)
Introduction by Graham Sleight
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2015 (2001)
Explicitly inspired by — but no slavish imitation of — The Lord of the Rings, Patricia McKillip’s trilogy is an epic fantasy that stands on its own merits rather than in comparison with Tolkien’s work. Yes, it starts with a very domestic scene before exploring from one end of a continent to the other, and, indeed, the main protagonist is reluctant to embark on his quest, but in reality the whole feel and mood of McKillip’s narrative is far removed from Tolkien’s, not least because it gives almost equal prominence to a female protagonist. On top of this, the author was only in her late twenties when she began her very mature epic when compared to Tolkien, who was in his sixties when the final volume of LOTR appeared.
The first part begins portentously enough:
“Morgon of Hed met the High One’s harpist one autumn day when the trade-ships docked at Tol for the season’s exchange of goods.”
In one sentence we are introduced to many of the main themes that run through the trilogy. Morgon, Prince of the small island principality of Hed, the High One who has (or rather had) suzerainty over all the lands, the subtle undercurrent of music (the author is apparently an accomplished pianist), the passing of seasons and the routines of social intercourse that will be so rudely disrupted. The young ruler, who had studied and attained high honours in the arcane discipline of riddling, will find not just his heritage challenged as he is plunged into dangers that will threaten the lives of countless peoples. Will he have the strength of will to overcome those dangers, and what part will Raederle of An have to play in the upheavals to come?
A change is as good as a rest, they say, and in my case the rest and the change coincided. Eurostar took us all the way to Marseille, and a week exploring the historic and cultural heart of Aix-en-Provence — when we weren’t swimming in an hotel spa pool in the late summer sunshine — has recharged mental and physical batteries in just the way we hoped.
And now it’s back to more mental stimulation as the third Crickhowell Literary Festival kicks off. Details of what’s on offer this week is on the website here and I’ll no doubt summarise in time what I will have attended in my capacity as steward or as punter. As I look back at the month I see that I’ve been more busy on the literary front than I thought.