Posts may be a little more intermittent over the next few days: I am stewarding at the fifth Crickhowell Literary Festival, directed by Emma Corfield-Walters of Crickhowell’s bookshop Book-ish and by Anne Rowe, author and Emeritus Research Fellow at Kingston University. To top it all I’m also involved in a couple of musical performances.
After that I shall be away for a few days but shall still attempt to keep up a flow of posts, though one or two will be reposts from the archives. If I’m a little less assiduous at this time about liking or commenting on posts in blogs I follow I apologise in advance — you know it’s not personal!
“Why don’t you tell me what made you become interested in photography?”
“I suppose it seemed a way of trying to fix moments as they went past. To try to capture them and give them some physical existence. Stop them from being lost for ever. Not that it necessarily works like that.”
Summer, 1939. Eight decades ago, with the prospect of war in the offing, a dig at the site of some mysterious mounds in Suffolk was under way. We now know that Sutton Hoo was the site of the largest ever ship burial in Britain, with the most unimaginably magnificent treasure forming the grave goods of a king of the East Angles. But when landowner Edith Pretty asked for an archaeologist to excavate the mounds nobody was prepared for what was to emerge from inside one of them, known as Mound 1.
What John Preston aimed for here was an imaginative reconstruction of those momentous events. While taking some major liberties with the timeline — sequences are occasionally telescoped — and inventing the odd individual he has nevertheless managed to conjure up a believable series of fictional accounts by key players for the novel’s backbone. In fact Diggers would be just as apt a title as The Dig has proved to be.
Here’s another banner-waving bookish post which I hope you’ll find at least entertaining, even if not especially enlightening. But don’t decide on which option (or indeed either) till you’ve struggled your way through to the end!
You may remember the Bookish Deadly Sins tag I’d borrowed for a post. You may have wondered if there was a corresponding piece on the sins’ counterparts at the other end of the moral spectrum.
Well, wonder no more: this Bookish Heavenly Virtues tag is one I’ve borrowed from Ola and Piotrek, from their effervescent Re-enchantment of the Worldblog (Ponowne Zaczarowanie Świata in Polish), itself inspired by the Deadly Sins exercise.
John le Carré: A Murder of Quality
Penguin Books 2011 (1962)
‘Carne isn’t a school. It’s a sanatorium for intellectual lepers.’
George Smiley, ‘retired’ from the secret service, is asked to discreetly investigate a crime at a boarding school of ancient foundation in Dorset, a murder seemingly predicted by the victim herself in a letter to a Nonconformist Christian periodical.
What he finds at Carne School is an establishment “compressed into a mould of anomalous conventions,” one that — hidebound by a veneer of religiosity — is “blind, Pharisaical but real.” It is, furthermore, part of a larger Dorset community that is composed of inimical groupings: town and gown, North versus South, class snobbery, different educational opportunities, differing religious traditions, even hypocritical sexual mores.
Smiley (down from London) is the outsider who has not only to negotiate social traps but also delicately sidestep probing questions about himself if he is to assist the local police in identifying the killer.
Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities Le città invisibili (1972) Translated by William Weaver Vintage 1997
In my late teens or early twenties I imbibed the notion of ‘holiday consciousness’ from something I’d read, I’m not sure what but it may have been from Colin Wilson’s The Occult, published in 1971. The concept I understood to be this: we become so familiar with personal rituals in the everyday places we inhabit that we become not only a bit jaded but in fact almost sleepwalk our way through existence. Holiday consciousness however involves the trick of seeing the familiar as though visiting it for the first time, as a tourist.
After this I took to travelling regular bus journeys and walking daily routes pretending I was not in my home town but in a different city, perhaps in a different country. I noticed new things that I hadn’t before: architectural details, pedestrian behaviours, the quality of light, a different awareness of spaces. It was like being on holiday while staying in one place, and awoke my tired senses and heightened my perception without the need of artificial stimulants or expending money on overseas travel.
I was reminded of this holiday consciousness when recently reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
Don’t you ever wish you could walk into a painting? Step in, nose around corners, peer down corridors, approach closer to a distant view through an opening?
That’s what many traditional representations try to do: invite you to explore an interior, marvel at the illusion that this could be a real space, a looking glass in which you aren’t reflected but an invisible fourth wall through which you could walk, like Alice, into an imaginary theatre set.
Here is the second of my wordy wanderings through selected works of art in Bristol’s Museum and Art Gallery, this time courtesy of Fred Elwell’s view of a house in Beverley, East Yorkshire.
Angela Carter: Heroes and Villains Introduction by Robert Coover
Penguin Modern Classics 2011 (1969)
“When I was a little girl, we played at heroes and villains but now I don’t know which is which any more, nor who is who, and what can I trust if not appearances?”
— Marianne, Chapter 6
In a post-apocalyptic Britain young Marianne runs away to join the gypsies. Or that would be the equivalent if Carter’s novel — fifty years old now — were a traditional folk ballad. The author was a stalwart of the folk music revival in the sixties and would have been familiar with Scottish ballads like ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ in which the female protagonist is attracted to the life of travellers.
Now it would be a gross simplification to say Heroes and Villains is essentially an escape from a pampered existence to an imagined romantic way of life but that, nevertheless, is the basic plot that drives the narrative. And yet Carter instils so much ambiguity and ambivalence in her novel while interweaving conceptual shreds and patches into the warp of her novel that the exotic elements distract the eye from the apparent plainness of the garment.
[…] At eighteen the true narrative of life is yet to be commenced. Before that time we sit listening to a tale, a marvellous fiction; delightful sometimes, and sad sometimes; almost always unreal. Before that time, our world is heroic; its inhabitants half-divine or semi-demon; its scenes are dream scenes; darker woods and stranger hills; brighter skies, more dangerous waters […]
At that time—at eighteen, drawing near the confines of illusive, void dreams, Elf-land lies behind us, the shores of Reality rise in front.
— Chapter VII
I’ve mentioned before now about humour in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (here) and I want to expand a bit on that in this post, but I also wish to draw attention to a curious feature in this novel that I’m not aware of being discussed elsewhere (though I’m happy to be corrected on that): fairies.
The adult novels of the Brontë sisters are not, as far as I know, associated with either humour or faërie, so you may understand why these two features stuck out like the proverbial thumbs in what is otherwise a romantic but realist historical novel, set before Charlotte was even born.
I hope to persuade you that, despite some appearances to the contrary, Shirley (1849) has much about it of the fairytale, and contains more laughs than expected even though Charlotte recounts all with a straight face: the passage of 170 years hasn’t hidden all its impish secrets.
Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf
(Der Steppenwolf 1927, author’s note 1961) Translated by Basil Creighton (1929), revised by Walter Sorell (1963)
Penguin Modern Classics 1963
What is Steppenwolf about? The author’s own note, written in the year before he died, made clear that this novel is essentially about the author himself and the existential crisis he had in the years approaching his fiftieth birthday. Steppenwolf‘s magic realism holds a mirror up to a man not too different from the one we see in a portrait by Ernst Würtenberger, painted when the author was thirty: the pacifist intellectual, his hair cut en brosse, wearing a haunted look:
I am in truth the Steppenwolf … who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him.
The subject of this novel suffers from gout, depression and pains of the head and body; he feels alienated from the bourgeois world around him but can’t quite abandon it; he believes he has nothing to live for, and contemplates suicide with a razor. Is there anything more depressing to read about than a depressive’s mental state?
And yet Der Steppenwolf turns out to be more than this, to go beyond a reiteration of deep depression, and it all begins with a half-glimpsed neon sign over an ancient door:
Diana Wynne Jones: The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1: Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet
There is sometimes an assumption that if a novel’s protagonists are youngsters then the novel can only be for other youngsters to read. This is not always the case, and for me many of Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘young adult’ stories can and ought to be enjoyed by youngsters of all ages, reasoning which prompts me to resist tagging this volume as ‘children’ or ‘YA’.
It is also sometimes assumed that fantasy is a lesser genre than more mainstream novels. I don’t accept that needs to be so, and the author herself has made clear that to dismiss fantasy as escapist is a mistaken attitude (http://wp.me/p2oNj1-bd). The best fantasy has as much to say about the human condition as more literary examples, and Jones’ fantasy mostly falls into this category. Add to that the fact that Jones attended lectures by Tolkien himself at Oxford (he mumbled a lot, apparently) then this series of four related fantasy novels deserves to be taken seriously.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s said. On that basis, I shall expend no more than a thousand words on a late 15th-century painting I recently saw on loan from the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
What I intend to do is draw out the narrative explicit and implicit in this late medieval Flemish image, and go a little beyond the core details contained in the adjoining gallery label.
Joan Aiken would have been 95 today. Born on 4th September 1924 in the historic Jeake’s House in Rye, East Sussex, she produced a distinguished body of literary work of extraordinary quality as well as quality. Regular readers will know that I am a major fanboy of hers, as a glance at the tag Joan Aiken on this blog will confirm.
There’s more to her fiction than The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, fine and deservedly famous as it is, and though I’ve barely read a fraction of her published work I’m constantly amazed by her range, from novels to non-fiction, short stories to book sequences, fairytale retellings to Austen homages, and much more besides.
Find out even more on the truly marvellous Joan Aiken website and on the equally delightful blog run by her daughter, the nonpareilleLizza Aiken, here. My photos of the downstairs rooms of Jeake’s House, where Joan lived until 1929 when her parents divorced and is now a superior B&B, are in this post.
Christianna Brand: Nurse Matilda Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
Bloomsbury 2005 (1964)
And as they spoke — lo and behold! — there was a knock at the door, and there stood a small, stout figure dressed in rusty black; and she said, ‘Good evening, Mr and Mrs Brown, I am Nurse Matilda.’
She was very ugly — the ugliest person you ever saw in your life!
With this unpreposessing description we are introduced to a character who had figured in stories told over generations in the author’s family. In Nurse Matilda and its sequels Christianna Brand gives her version of a type of governess that would have been familiar in Victorian and Edwardian times, dressed in ‘rusty black’, stern in manner and almost witch-like; yet beneath a harsh exterior one hopes for a matronly individual with children’s best interests at heart.
The Brown household consists of the parents, the regular assortment of staff, and “a huge family of children; and they were terribly, terribly naughty.” Terribly naughty is almost an understatement: an uncountable number of Brown offspring (the author dares the reader to identify them all) are the most devilish of imps in hell you can imagine, over whom their parents and an endless succession of despairing “nurses and nannies and governesses” are unable to exercise any control.
But the arrival (only marginally less spectacular than that of Mary Poppins) of the much vaunted Nurse Matilda “in rusty black” promises to put a damper on the mayhem; a sharp rap on the floor with her big black stick — a counterpart of the more famous parrot-headed umbrella — is ever the prelude to the children learning lessons the hard way. “Your children will require seven lessons,” the parents are told, and that’s what the little terrors get.
Paula Bardell-Hedley of Book Jotter is running an open-ended reading project focused on Tove Jansson which she’s calling Tove Trove. She launched it a month ago, in August, when the author and artist would have been 105 — if she’d still been with us.
Best known for her Moomin books (which I’ve yet to fall under the spell of, but shortly hope to remedy) Jansson also wrote novels and short stories for an adult audience. Of these, I’ve read and reviewed what is arguably her best work, The Summer Book (1972), and a collection of stories called Art in Nature (first published as Dockskåpetor Doll’s House in 1978).
After her death in 2001 a selection of tales was put together under the title The Winter Book (2006), a copy of which I intend to read soon. The project is intended to include not just reading books by her but also about her: her art, her life, her philosophy. Paula’s enthusiasm has persuaded me to read more by and about Jansson, and perhaps her enthusiasm may rub off on you too!
In other news
We’re coming up to the end of Cathy Brown’s annual event 20 Books of Summer during which, over three months, I aimed to complete … twenty books. I will, with the final pages of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, have indeed finished a score of titles (yay!) — only it won’t actually be the twenty I listed (oops).
In the frame are seven children’s books (a mix of fantasy and realism), three whodunits (two by Agatha Christie), two classics (one Victorian, the other mid 20th-century), the final two parts of a trilogy (by Robertson Davies), two short non-fiction books (one on environmentalism, one on children’s fiction), and one each of speculative fiction, a graphic novel and a Gothic romance.
A whopping fifteen titles were by female writers. Of the nineteen listed two were library books, and two were borrowed from the shelves of a holiday let within sight of Agatha Christie’s writing retreat on Burgh Island. Just ten of these (including Steppenwolf) will have figured on my 20 Books of Summer wishlist. My 10 Books of Summer, I suppose.
I’m finding time-constrained projects, challenges and events a little, well, constraining, so for the next few weeks I’m going to read just what I fancy. But, contrary to what I’ve just implied, there will be a title or two from my Classics Club list, the odd ‘summer’ book, and at least one ‘winter’ book — can you guess which one it will be?
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.