Bitter aftertaste

Patricia Highsmith: Sour Tales for Sweethearts
Virago 2015 (1975)

Here are four domestic vignettes, all with a bitter ending, by the mistress of the twisted tale. ‘The Hand’ tells us that asking a father for his daughter’s hand may not bring the result the young man making the request expected; nor is the ending what we the readers may have expected. ‘The Invalid, or, The Bed-Ridden’ is a morality tale for those who would feign illness or disability, while in ‘The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife’ the titular character proves she can have her cake and eat it. Finally, ‘The Female Novelist’ features a writer with a heap of rejection slips and a wayward husband; where is she going to get her inspiration from?

Delicious little tales, these, with that unpleasant aftertaste that characterises Highsmith. Three of the pieces involve death, two the result of murder, the fourth might even hint at thoughts of violence. She uses a sparse narrative style, concentrating on description with few adjectives (except when necessary) and fewer adverbs. Occasionally a protagonist’s thoughts are revealed, but they are rarely profound.

The archaic titles of a couple of the tales only helps to distance the writer and the reader from the personnel. Highsmith is like a behavioural scientist, observing rats as they go about in their constrained environments and tweaking the controls to get them to do something out of the ordinary. It’s not a pretty sight, but for the reader it’s morbidly fascinating.

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Looking for the moral

The story is told. I think I now see the judicious reader putting on his spectacles to look for the moral. It would be an insult to his sagacity to offer directions. I only say, God speed him in the quest!

I have noticed that many bloggers post apposite quotes from time to time on their blogs. Stuff from a book they’ve read. Something a writer in the public eye has written or said in an interview. Sometimes they post a collection of quotes they’ve liked, rather as compilers of commonplace books used to do in olden days.

Commonplace books? If you didn’t know they were, maybe still are, a bit like literary scrapbooks but without the cutting and pasting. (At least one hopes not — it would be awful to imagine books being vandalised in such a way, rather as dealers remove prints from vintage books to frame and sell to people who want to add cachet to their mock Tudor semi-detached homes.)

Anyway, I digress.

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Infernal visions

Ruins of gatehouse and keep of inner ward, Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

Jeannette Ng: Under the Pendulum Sun
Angry Robot Books 2017

“Two-thirds of the way through Shirley Caroline Helstone’s eyes change from brown to blue. This is not an unparalleled phenomenon in a novel. In Shirley however it is unexpected, for here Charlotte Brontë is much occupied with the looks of her characters.”
— from the abstract to J M S Tompkins, ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’ Brontë Society Transactions Volume 14, 1961, Issue 1

I very much wanted to like this novel. Described as a ‘gothic fantasy with a theological twist’ Under a Pendulum Sun paraded a magnificent range of tropes and themes for our enjoyment, all centred around that staple Gothick cliché, the mysterious castle. In the 1840s Catherine Helstone travels from her native Yorkshire into the North Sea, en route to the realm that her missionary brother, Laon, has chosen to proselytise. This realm is called Arcadia, also known as the land of the Fae, what we now call fairies. But forget the little people with gauze-like wings from nursery tales, these are more altogether more mysterious, even sinister: and do they even have souls to save?

Jeanette Ng has, uniquely it seems, wedded together two unconnected themes, fairyland and theology, to produce a hybrid that’s pregnant with possibilities. She’s added into the mix the age-old British imperialist dream which in the 19th century sailed under the flags of free trade and converting heathens; she’s then buttressed her narrative with faux extracts from 19th-century texts each prefacing a chapter. So far so intriguing. But then the more we hear of Catherine, the narrator of the story, her secretive brother, a companion Ariel Davenport, castle servants Benjamin Goodfellow and the housekeeper known as the Salamander, plus a rarely glimpsed woman in black, the more mysteries the plot reveals. That’s all before we come to Mab, the Queen of the Fae, and her subjects.

I had high hopes for this unconventional fairytale set in a land with its own out-of-kilter cosmology (the sun really does swing from a Pendulum, and the moon, well, let’s just say it’s unexpected). That I wasn’t entirely won over is not because of the multiplicity of themes — which in fact was what most entertained me and kept me going — but because of other crucially important aspects of successful novel writing. Before I come to those negatives I want to apologise for the longer-than-usual digressions which now follow.

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Light on a crime

Postcard of former lighthouse, Delfzijl, Holland: built 1888, set on fire May 1940 by Dutch troops, rebuilt 1949, then demolished (1981) for a harbour extension

Georges Simenon: Maigret in Holland.
Un Crime en Hollande (1931) translated (1940) by Geoffrey Sainsbury.
Harvest / Harcourt Brace 1994.

A tale that features the beam from a lighthouse, a young woman who eventually marries a lightbulb salesman and Jules Maigret, a police inspector who is expected to throw light on crimes, is — paradoxically — full of shadows and dark corners. Knowing a little about the Chief Inspector’s reputation we can expect him to deliver the goods in his steady methodical way, but the investigation will be hampered, first by his not being able to speak Dutch, and secondly by a small cast of characters who as expected have their own secrets to hide from him and from the close community they all live in.

Maigret travels to the northern end of Holland to assist a French criminology lecturer, Professor Jean Duclos, who has been caught up with the murder of a teacher in the Dutch port of Delfzijl. Duclos was found in possession of the revolver that killed Conrad Popinga, but there soon emerges a houseful of suspects and bystanders who could have had a motive for murder. And one common denominator among these motives turns out to be unrequited love.

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Awe, or just plain Aw?

Wandering among Words 6: Awe

I’m no etymologist but I do like exploring the genealogies of words: quite often these interrelated family trees reveal the real power of both the spoken and the written word, a kind of magic that’s so much stronger than the weak usage ancient roots are treated to over time.

I’ve already looked at some loose groupings of words and phrases and their meanings: (1) Water, (2) Corvid,
(3) Time, (4) Strangers, and (5) Upside Down. I now come to awe.*

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A little piece of Middle Earth

Looking towards Buckland Hill from the Black Mountains, with the Brecon Beacons beyond

Seamus Hamill-Keays
‘Tolkien and Buckland: An Analysis of the Evidence’
Brycheiniog: Cyfnodolyn Cymdeithas Brycheiniog /
The Journal of the Brecknock Society XLIX 2018

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote that The Shire of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee” — that is, around 1897 — and “based on rural England and not on any other country in the world.” And yet, in South Powys, Wales, there’s a persistent local tradition that Ronald based the easternmost outpost of Middle Earth’s Shire in the Vale of Usk, in particular between Brecon and Abergavenny. Buckland in LOTR was suggested to be based on Buckland near Bwlch, and Frodo’s house at Crickhollow was presumed to be inspired by Crickhowell.

In addition, Tolkien is reputed to have spent time at nearby Talybont in the early forties while putting LOTR together. When I examined the evidence, such as it was, I concluded that “if the Buckland and Crickhollow of The Lord of the Rings really were inspired by the Buckland and Crickhowell of the Usk valley then [the visit] happened before the forties,” when the trilogy was complete. But I had no real inkling when exactly that could be.¹

“The closest [Tolkien] admits to first-hand contact with everyday Welsh is on coal-trucks marked with placenames, railway station signs, a house inscription declaring it was adeiladwyd 1887 (‘built 1887’), all presumably from one or more holiday trips to places far to the west,” I wrote. “That Tolkien visited Wales at some stage seemed undeniable to me; but when?” A recent article by Seamus Hamill-Keays, kindly brought to my attention by the author, plausibly suggests the answer, buttressing his hypothesis with a wealth of supporting material.

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Hell hath no fury

Rural uplands somewhere in Mid Wales

Jan Newton: Remember No More
Honno Press 2017

Detective Sergeant Julie Kite has upped sticks from Manchester to rural Mid Wales, her transfer determined by her husband Adam accepting a post in a local school, teaching history. Not unexpectedly, she’s already conflicted about the prospect, not least because Adam has strayed down the path of dalliance in the recent past.

And on her first day in her new job she finds she’s landed slap bang in the middle of a murder investigation.

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