David Lodge The Art of Fiction:
illustrated from classic and modern texts
The cover of this collection of essays features a striking image by Van Gogh of a woman reading a novel. Her surroundings are strongly lit by a bright light, while she herself, her face especially, is in shadow (you can still see the anxiety in her face); the only blemish for me is the clumsily rendered fingers of her left hand.
In a way this perfectly captures the impact of this non-fiction study: a lot of light is thrown on how British and American writers achieve the effects that are found in their works, but we are mainly in the dark as to how ordinary readers themselves may react. (The critics however lapped it up, if the cover quotes are typical.) All that we can be sure of is what the essayist thinks of the extracts he discusses: it is up to each reader to make up their minds whether that works for them individually.
Reader, would you like to know what this individual felt? Then read on.
I do so love synchronicity. Or serendipity. Or simple coincidence, if you prefer. Now this is not to imply causality, oh no. Or fate or destiny working in mysterious ways. No way. It’s simply what two of the terms imply: two or more events where cause-and-effect doesn’t apply but which do occur at one and the same time. Or near enough. Nor is it anything amorphous, like morphic resonance — defined by Rupert Sheldrake as “a process whereby self-organising systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems”, a kind of collective memory palace — because the process that I want to discuss is one that not only has teased a lot of minds over millennia but which also most of us pick up like osmosis from our prevailing culture.
Mum’s nagging again. “Make sure you fit everyone in.” Yeah, yeah, I didn’t want to do this anyway. Except anything’s better than actually being in the picture.
“Check the flash is on if it’s too dark. Actually, don’t do that, the sun’s just come out — there should be enough light now.” OK, OK, do you want the flash on or not? Sophie’s making noisy sighs, shrugging her shoulders, wish she’d stop showing off just because it’s her birthday.
“Come on, Mandy, hurry up, before we lose the will to live!” Ohhh, Mummy, I can’t do everything at once, I’m trying my best, it’s too fiddly and you’re fussing me! Now James is asking Dad when we can start having some cake and Dad is trying to keep things quiet by whispering so no one can hear. And now Sophie’s sighing again.
“Mandy, what are you waiting for? Sophie wants to blow out her candles!” Yeah, right, like that’s what she really wants, and not for you to just shut up. “And Gran is going to starve to death! Get on with it. And don’t cut anyone’s head off!”
Another short submission for the Creative Writing Short Stories class, based on a photo prompt: ‘Write about what happened just before this photograph was taken.’
Gabriel García Márquez Of Love and Other Demons
(trans: Edith Grossman) Penguin Books 1996
Rabid dog bites girl;
parents, priest, bishop, nuns not
bit but rabid too
I don’t regret having delayed completing Of Love and Other Demons for several years as I don’t think I would have appreciated this novella half of much when I first started. My impression then was that this was a slow-moving story with much description but little happening. How wrong I was! The title is so apt as this is an exploration of how obsessions can take precedence over basic humanity. The enigma that is Sierva Maria is the catalyst for upheaval in a coastal Colombian town (a fictionalised Cartagena) of a couple of centuries ago: bitten by a rabid dog but surviving against the odds, her very existence seems to infect all she comes into contact with. Many of these individuals then exhibit a rabidity that has nothing to do with a physical ailment and everything to do with diseases of the mind: irrational superstition, jealousy, inhumanity and, yes, love, but obsessive love akin to that of a stalker. Continue reading “Rabid dog bites girl!”→
In a previous life I was quite into archaeology, young fogey that I was then (old fogey now, of course). My experience includes working on a multi-period hillfort (South Cadbury, Somerset), a Roman villa (Bratton Seymour, also in Somerset) and an early medieval church and Welsh medieval farmstead (Llanelen, Gower). The first lasted a week, the second three years, and the last twenty-one years (from the first recce in 1974 to publication in 1995) with some small investigations subsequently.* The first dig I was involved in coincided with early issues of Current Archaeology, to which I started subscribing, and with very few gaps I have continued to receive the magazine ever since — despite no longer being actively involved with excavation.
It began as a bi-monthly in 1967, becoming monthly exactly forty years later and changing its size once or twice.** Entirely funded from subscriptions (no advertising at all) it encouraged growing loyalty in its readers, to the extent that it now claims some 17K subscribers around the world. Though I’ve since passed on the bulk of my back issues — partly down to downsizing because of moving and partly because theories and techniques and data inevitably move on — I still keep the last year or two of issues to remind myself of where the art of archaeology is now.
I say ‘art’ because, despite the massive use of science, technology and statistics in this field, a lot of archaeology’s success is down to the experience and expertise of the excavation directors: it’s not a skill one can merely apply by numbers, though order and precision is essential of course. Also, archaeology is primarily about humans, their relics and their remains, and humans are rarely consistent across time and place. No one size fits all.
So, the magazine aims to “bridge the gap between the amateur and the professional in archaeology”. This means that mainly professional archaeologists write the feature articles in a language that a non-specialist but intelligent reader can follow. News and views and reviews are also included (hence the ‘current’ appellation), often with light-hearted observation thrown in (forget the po-faced stereotype of the academic historian or amateur nerd).
Issue 311 is particularly interesting from my point of view. There’s news about the site of Glastonbury Abbey (a traditional burial place for King Arthur) which recent research both confirms was occupied in the Dark Ages and throws doubt on the antiquity of so-called Dark Age graves (which in the 60s Radford claimed could include Arthur’s). There’s also a feature on British migration in Roman times, showing from the distribution of Romano-British brooches that insular Celts travelled extensively not just in Europe but North Africa and the Levant. And more work has been done on the origin of the bluestones of Stonehenge (Merlin was popularly supposed to have raised the pillars at this ancient monument), linking them to Craig Rhos-y-Felin in Pembrokeshire. Amongst the range of periods covered (from the Romans to Shakespeare’s home, from the late Bronze Age to the Industrial Age) there’s also room for the iconoclasm and wit of contributing editor Chris Catling, who casts his gimlet eye on such issues as how to pronounce Shrewsbury (posh or contemporary? authentic or orthographic?), mummification in Britain and Horace Walpole’s link to what’s claimed to be Shakespeare’s skull.
I think I shall be subscribing for some time to come.
* Not three or twenty-one years in a single span, of course! Usually two seasons of one or two weeks, or even just a long weekend, were the norm each year.
** This is the second in a very occasional series of reviews of anything that doesn’t fit comfortably into the category of ‘book’. This includes periodicals, journals, magazines,minizines and any other non-bookish reading matter that grabs my fancy.
In Hebrew and Christian tradition a seraph (plural seraphim) is a winged celestial being, sometimes imagined sometimes as an angel (from a Greek word meaning ‘messenger’), sometimes as a serpent. It mayn’t come as a surprise, then, to find that this fantasy’s protagonist, Seraphina, partakes of a little of each of these attributes — as author Rachel Hartman, with a degree in Comparative Literature, will surely have known. Young Seraphina often acts as go-between as well as having an affinity for those mythical winged serpents called dragons; and fittingly she is, as St Matthew has it, as wise as a serpent (though not necessarily as harmless as a dove).
In Goredd and its surrounding states humans have kept a truce with the ancient dragon species for many year, thanks to the foresightedness and bravery of its aged queen. But dragons, as we mostly see them, have developed a particular ability over a millennium: they are able to transform into the semblance of humans, though sharing human emotions is not something that comes easily to these reptilian creatures. Continue reading “Wise as a serpent”→
Patrick Ness A Monster Calls
From an original idea by Siobhan Dowd Illustrations by Jim Kay
Walker Books 2012 (2011)
Anyone who knows or knew anyone with a prolonged life-threatening illness may well sympathise, even empathise, with young Conor in this moving story. His mother has for some time been an out-patient at a local hospital but the doctors have to resort to alternatives when her illness fails to respond to the usual treatments. Meanwhile Conor has to hope against hope that things will get better, but at the same time has to cope with a recurring nightmare, bullies at school, a disapproving grandmother and a father whom he sees less and less of, due to a demanding new family across the Atlantic in the US.
While skimming through Zoe Brooks’ online feed of articles about the genre of magic realism (or magical realism) — where Zoe had kindly referenced my post on Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop — I came across an interesting if perhaps contentious article. Colleen Gillard dared to tell us ‘Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories’ in The Atlantic (January 6th) by claiming that British history has encouraged fantastical myths and legends while American tales, coming from a Protestant tradition which saw itself as escaping from insular superstition, tended to focus on moral realism.
The article lines up an impressive array of examples from both sides of the divide. On the one hand you have The Wind in the Willows,Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and on the other you have classics like The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna, The Little Engine That Could, even The Wizard of Oz and The Cat in the Hat.
From my point of view I can see exceptions, especially in British children’s fiction.
Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle Illustrated by Ruth Steed from sketches by the author
The Reprint Society 1950 (1948)
This is the most perfect novel. I can perfectly understand the esteem it’s held in by those who have fallen in love with its characters, its story and its language. Told as though by the 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, I Capture the Castle catches perfectly the introspection and sensitivity of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood; extraordinary that the author, then in her early fifties, was able to portray such an individual with exquisite insight, deliberately echoing the conscious naivety that Cassandra is accused of with an older woman’s own conscious assumption of naivety.
The background to the novel’s birth is easily sketched in: successful playwright Dodie and her husband Alec Beesley moved to the US during the war because Alec was a conscientious objector, and she wrote the novel partly out of homesickness, setting it in a ruin based on the real-life Wingfield Castle in Suffolk. Wingfield is here transformed into Godsend Castle, hired by the Mortmain family, and is where father James Mortmain struggles unsuccessfully to commence the “difficult” second novel that plagues many writers. The family gradually descend into genteel poverty until the arrival of new landlords from America, when everything changes utterly.
Susan Cooper Over Sea, Under Stone
Illustrated by Margery Gill
Puffin Books 1968 (1965)
Simon, Jane and Barney Drew go to the attractive Cornish fishing village of Trewissick for the summer holidays, where their Great Uncle Merry has secured a holiday home for them and their parents. Attractions include a busy harbour, beaches, walks and a carnival featuring Trewissick’s famous Floral Dance. There’s even a resident dog, Rufus, to add to the fun. The signs are promising for the Drew children to have a wonderful break.
But the signs are not to be trusted: why is the boy whom they encounter on the harbour quay so horrible? Are the nice Norman and Polly Withers all they seem? Why should Jane be wary of the vicar Mr Hastings? Is Mrs Molly Palk the housekeeper as friendly as she appears? And why does Great Uncle Merry keep disappearing?
Joan Aiken really was an extraordinary author, one whose work I’m still exploring but for whom I have the greatest of respect as well as fondness. She had a gift for composing in different genres and for different audiences, displaying now a sense of poignancy, now a touch of mischief, by turns sprinkling magic dust or holding a mirror up to human nature. And she accomplished all this with no hint of the grandeur or hauteur often associated with the archetypal Great Writer.
Though she frequently wrote for adults Joan remains best known as a children’s author, especially for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels. I’ve promised myself a reread of all twelve titles but I’ve been an ardent fan for some years now, making copious notes, some of which I’ve already included on this blog.
Attached are some draft notes on common motifs I’ve noticed in the series; they’re not complete, and I know there must be mistakes, but you can see where I’m heading with this. Joan will have been familiar with international folktale types and motifs, but I’ve not consciously followed these; instead, I’ve just listed some of the more obvious patterns Joan seemed to reiterate in most of the books. Now I know that throwing motifs together is not a substitute for good storytelling, rather a way of structuring the narrative to conform to audience expectations; used clumsily it too often smacks of cliché and lazy authorial habits. Nevertheless, when employed in conjunction with wit and imagination and peopled with characters you can really care about (like the near ubiquitous Dido Twite) a solid framework of motifs can only help a story’s architecture to withstand all the withering attention that the critic will condescend to heap on it.
Whether you’ve read any — or indeed none — of the Wolves Chronicles (also called the James III sequence) you might still enjoy seeing how the idées fixes I’ve identified permeating the series are echoed in other literature, from myths and legends through fairytales and classics to modern novels and films.
Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories Introduction by Helen Simpson
Vintage Books 2006 (1979)
Feminist — Gothic — retellings — magic realism — fantasy. Yes, the short stories in The Bloody Chamber are all these and more, but to label them is to limit them. For me they are simply wonderful expeditions into the imaginary landscapes of the mind. They may, as Helen Simpson writes in her introduction, reflect and refract “a variety of portraits of desire and sexuality — heterosexual female sexuality” and, as retellings of traditional fairytales, allow her to explore “ideas of how things might be different” from the male-dominated world of the past. But, polemics aside — and I in no way want to deny how important it remains to challenge the masculine consensus — the stories must work as narratives in their own right: the reader, whatever their gender or their politics, must be eager to push on to see what the narrative brings us next.
By subverting, or expanding, or reconfiguring familiar fairytales Carter does indeed so change them that we are unsure whether the traditional narrative will survive intact. The ten stories take those old stand-by tales Continue reading “Fairytales defamiliarised”→
I was interested in the results of a Goodreads online poll listing responses to the question “Where do you usually buy books?” — interested for two main reasons. First, for the fact that physical books were clearly still very much popular; and secondly because a good third still rely on their local bookshop for their purchases.
True, internet giant Amazon accounts for a hefty quarter of the total, though since many other online booksellers do some business through Amazon that seeming exclusivity may be mitigated to some extent. The category “online, elsewhere” is clearly a catch-all though: does ‘elsewhere’ include charity shops, shoplifting, housebreaking, book piracy, secret presses and so on?
Local bookstore 31,674 (32.3%) Amazon 26,230 (26.7%) Online, elsewhere 21,583 (22.0%)
I don’t. I have a library card and friends who like to share 17,903 (18.2%)
Direct from the publisher 732 (0.7%)
As of 3rd January 2016 98,122 total votes
A total of nearly a hundred thousand responses is not to be sneezed at, and I’m guessing fairly representative of English-speaking book buyers. I’m also heartened by the numbers of those who borrow or share books, especially where public libraries are concerned. As I’ve recently noted, over the last year a quarter of books I’ve read have come from the library. Over the same period I’ve only acquired four books online, not tackled yet because only purchased just before Christmas with Amazon gift vouchers; it’s actually exceedingly rare for me to order anything over the internet.
The rest of 2015’s reading comes from a total mix of sources — borrowed from friends or family, bought from charity shops or genuine book outlets, and rereads from my own bookshelves. Years ago I used to get review copies direct from a British publisher of scholarly Arthurian titles, but that fount has long since run dry; this year I’m aiming to include a handful of independent titles sent to me for review.
Every reader is different, of course we are. But though I’d like to think that many, perhaps most, of the followers of this blog would plump for buying their books at their local bookshop (if such a one indeed exists for them) I suspect the results may yet surprise me. Feel free to input your response here — but don’t delay, the poll closes in a week!
You may not remember me but we were introduced at Shona’s party. There wasn’t time to say hi or anything because Shona’s surprise present interrupted everything just then! Anyway, I hope you don’t mind me contacting you out of the blue but I thought nothing ventured, nothing gained. Hope you don’t mind.
To Scott From Trudi
So, hi Scott Sorry I don’t remember you from the party, things were a little bit lively. Not sure why you’re contacting me, where’d you get my email?
Sorry, didn’t mean to spook you. I got your email off Shona’s newsletter where she’d cc’d everybody. It’s just that I heard you’d gone to do History at Leicester Uni at more or less the same time as me, and I didn’t remember our paths crossing. I was in the same year as Natalie and her gang but I guess you must have been the year ahead or behind. Anyway, no worries, I’m not stalking you or anything, just wanted to compare notes if that was OK.
Anyway, I’ll back off if you’d rather not chat.
All the best, Scott
Hi Scott You were in Natalie’s year? Wow, she was something else, wasn’t she, what’s she doing now, you any idea? Sorry I was a bit suspicious, you hear so much about weirdoes contacting you out of the blue. Did you know Jeremy too? I had a bit of a thing for him but he didn’t come back for his third year and we kinda lost contact, but then I was with Kevin for two years before finals. And you? What are you doing?
That’s weird, Jeremy was at school with me! But when we went to Leicester we kind of made new friends. I know he suddenly swapped courses to do French, but then I lost contact too. He must have done his year abroad then, you know his mum was Swiss so perhaps he skipped a year. Me, I’m in some boring job, I’m not sure you really want to know, do you? Just really wanted to chat to someone about uni, life, the universe, anything rather than office politics. But that’s OK, just happy to get this off my chest. Don’t worry if you don’t want to chat.
Scott, don’t be a misery! I remember, you must be the guy that had the tee saying Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost! Look, where are you, are you close to town? Do you want to meet up for coffee somewhere? I often meet friends in Caffe Nero behind the Exchange, when’s good for you? You don’t need to wear a flower in your buttonhole but for goodness sake don’t wear that t-shirt or I’ll pretend I don’t know you!
* * *
So, this is how the emails between Scott and Trudi could have panned out. But they could so easily have taken a very different direction, couldn’t they?Continue reading “Winter chills”→
We’ll Always Have Paris
Harper Voyager 2009
An abiding image for me comes in the short story called ‘Remembrance, Ohio’. A couple apparently find themselves in a hot dusty town, uninhabited. They can’t agree on its name — is it Remembrance? Coldwater? Inclement? — or which state they’re in — Ohio? California? Nebraska? All they know is that they have found a familiar-looking porch on which to sit and reminisce, although they can’t quite recall precise details. Their confusion is heightened by half a dozen strangers who are searching for them. To escape they burst through the front door of the house, and slam it, and turn.
“There was nothing behind the front wall of the house except strutworks, canvas, boards, a small meadow, and a creek. A few arc-lights stood to each side. Stenciled on a papier-mâché inner wall was STUDIO #12.”
It’s all a façade, part of a movie set built on some Californian backlot, we assume. For me this fleeting image encapsulates the spirit of this collection of around a score of short stories: Continue reading “Apple-pie surrealism”→
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.