by Ursula Le Guin.
Panther Books 1976
These eleven tales set in the Ten Provinces of the imaginary country of Orsinia are bleak yet beautiful, vivid but melancholic, tinted with the grey dust of limestone plains, the wet surfaces of urban streets, and the golden light of autumnal groves.
Peopling these landscapes are quarrymen, nobles, musicians, factory workers, doctors, academics; whether eking out their lives in the Middle Ages, the Thirty Years War, or the tumultuous years of the twentieth century, characters speak of the fragility of human existence, of their cautious optimism and of individual heroism.
Writing during the long postwar period of the Cold War Ursula Le Guin invests her subjects with the humanity they deserve, allowing us episodic views of a land that draws not on one specific country but from many Central and Eastern European polities; extraordinarily she depicts an entirely credible geographical entity rooted in reality, despite telling us in the final tale in this collection, set in 1935, that
all this happened a long time ago, nearly forty years ago; I do not know if it happens now, even in imaginary countries.
Within a rustic framework sits a family consisting of a couple, their children (two with their spouses) and grandchildren, with the adults toasting the viewer.
The youngsters are tucking into the food and drink with a will, but the family aren’t forgetting their charitable duties: in the adjacent side panels individuals who are hungry and destitute are being attended to by the servants and given food and warm clothing.
Two, four, six, eight, Mary at the cottage gate Eating cherries off a plate, Two, four, six, eight.
As we hurtle towards the end of this most eventful, least forgettable year, and we approach the day when we are encouraged to trust that peace may come to people of good will, let us pause awhile and contemplate one version of the image that is associated with Christmas, the Madonna and Child.
With this final visit to the canvases of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery for 2020 I present you with my thoughts on a Renaissance painting called The Madonna of the Cherries by Netherlands artist Joos van Cleve, who died around 1540 or 1541, leaving his wife a widow.
Existing in several versions, with the composition sometimes reversed, the Bristol example caught my eye for various reasons, some of which may resonate with you too.
The Jewel Seed by Joan Aiken, illustrated by Peter Bailey.
Hodder Children’s Books 1998 (1997)
What is the Jewel Seed, and why are various people looking for it? These are the questions teen orphan Nonnie Smith keeps asking herself in this rumbustious fantasy novelette penned by the indefatigable Joan Aiken.
In ten action-packed chapters we discover how it is that Nonnie becomes parentless, how a twice-stolen shirt leads her into dire danger, how she comes to stay in northwest London and what befell her there. Along the way we encounter witches, a mysterious lodger and an even stranger cat, and wonder how a grandfather clock, apples, snakes, bootlaces and a three-note musical motif fit into the bigger picture.
And for those who like to rummage beneath the bubbling surface of her cauldron’s concoction there are hints as to the ingredients the author has selected to add to her rich stew.
Sacred Stones. The standing stones of West Wales: their history and traditions
by Terry John. Gomer 1994
Where I currently live in Pembrokeshire [November 2014] it’s hard to escape standing stones. If I go out our gate and walk in a clockwise direction, in the course of a five-mile walk I will pass three of them, one unnamed, another two all that remains of a complex called Cornel Bach.
If I go on another clockwise four-mile road walk I’ll pass two stones, one unnamed, another — possibly not in situ –all that remains of some stones at the aptly named Temple Druid. Within a relatively short walking radius I can pass the only surviving prehistoric stone circle in the area at Gors Fawr near Mynachlogddu or another complex at Meini Gwyr near Glandy Cross in Carmarthenshire.
Up on the nearby Preseli Hills there is a stone enclosure called Bedd Arthur or Arthur’s Grave, and a pair of menhirs called Cerrig Meibion Arthur or the Stones of the Sons of Arthur. And of course the hills are where the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried — reputedly. You can hardly take a step without tripping over one.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tail 2019 (2018)
Anyone with a certain religious upbringing, be it Catholic or Baptist for example, will know how deeply a sense of guilt can be ingrained, and how much the gleeful reminder by elders God is watching you! may reverberate down the years. Add to that the concepts behind complicity theory, which postulates that in dehumanising an out-group one shares the guilt of what is done to them by others from the in-group, and one can imagine the febrile atmosphere that Sarah Perry conjures up in this haunting — in all senses of the word — novel.
Helen Franklin, 42, is working in Prague, and we meet her in the winter of 2016 as she comes to understand what is agitating her friend Karel Pražan. Already trying to escape an as yet unknown transgression in her past, she learns from the manuscripts Karel shows her of the figure of Melmoth, Melmotka, or Melmat, a woman who becomes the personification of all that dogs Helen’s current empty existence.
Through the streets of the Czech capital, through Brentwood, Manila, Heathrow, Cairo and the Black Sea we follow the trail of this mysterious woman who witnesses man’s inhumanity to man via those rendered complicit by association. Will Helen, punishing her body with anorexia, come to redeem herself, or will she submit to despair?
“Behold there was a very stately palace before him, the name of which was Beautiful; and it stood just by the highway side.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Reading Susanna Clarke‘s novel Piranesi awoke all kinds of echoes for me. The repetition, especially, of the narrator’s paean of praise to the place in which he resided — The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite — reminded me of texts such as John Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress and the refuge to which Christian sought entry, the Palace Beautiful, the way to it guarded by a pair of chained lions (not unrelated to Aslan, I suspect).
But there were other literary reverberations which were set up in my mind, stretching from classical Greece and Rome to this century; in the event that you may find of interest I’ve put together the following illustrated essay.
Be warned, though: in discussing the ideas behind various works of fiction I shall be giving away the odd secret or spoiler so, if you haven’t read them, you may want to skim over or even skip the text and just enjoy the illustrations.
The Hound of Ulster
by Rosemary Sutcliff, illustrated by Victor Ambrus.
Red Fox 1992 (1963)
Cuchulainn is the great hero of the Ulster cycle of hero tales, some dating back to at least the 7th century CE. There has been much discussion about how much they owe to historical events and how much to myth, legend and folklore. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the saga she treats the main characters as real humans with real emotions, albeit often with superhuman and even supernatural attributes.
She follows the traditional episodes of many hero cycles across many ancient cultures: conception, birth, childhood feats, weapon training, wooings, then the apogee of a career followed by the inevitable descent towards tragedy.
Throughout her version of the saga she brings her telltale skills as a storyteller — sympathy with her material, a poetic sensibility, a fine sense of pace, and the ability to delineate key personages in a huge cast and imbuing them with distinctive traits and appearances. Despite a preponderance of male warriors, druids and giants, several females make their mark, and not merely to weep for fallen warriors.
“Prague is one of the most interesting towns in Europe. Its stones are saturated with history and romance; its every suburb must have been a battlefield. It is the town that conceived the Reformation and hatched the Thirty Years’ War. But half Prague’s troubles, one imagines, might have been saved to it, had it possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.”
— Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel”
Prague. Not a city I’ve ever been to but it wears a kind of aura as the capital of the Czech Republic — a country right in the physical centre of Europe and an apt symbol of the heart of the continent — and is thus a place I feel I ought to visit.
Being set centrally in what is deemed Mitteleuropa—nestled within Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria—Prague has also been at the crossroads of movements of people, with a turbulent and troublesome history, and yet historically it seems to retain a mystical attraction for freethinkers and revolutionaries.
And of course as the main city of ancient Bohemia it has a huge cultural capital in fictional terms, as I have discovered from recent, current and future reads.
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
by Kazuo Ishiguro,
Faber and Faber 2010 (2009)
This quintet of brief narratives told by different musicians and one music-lover, all told in the first person, describe relationships and acquaintances which never quite run smooth. Though ‘nocturne’ strictly describes a nighttime piece of music some of these stories have a daytime feel even when their tones can be dark.
The settings vary, moving from Venice to London, the Welsh Marches to Beverly Hills, and ending in an unnamed Italian town piazza.
The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust, Volume Two
by Philip Pullman, illustrated by Chris Wormell.
David Fickling Books / Penguin 2019
“Dæmons don’t exist.
We might think they do; we might talk to them and hold them close and whisper our secrets to them; we might make judgements about other people whose dæmons we think we see, based on the form they seem to have and the attractiveness or repulsiveness they embody; but they don’t exist.”
— From Simon Talbot’s ‘The Constant Deceiver’
Intellect and emotion may be the dualism that governs the human condition: imagination may be the link that binds them together. In The Secret Commonwealth the rift between Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon which was brought about in The Amber Spyglass (and which became more evident in Serpentine) is now an apparently unbridgeable chasm. Lyra’s absorption with treatises and fiction dominated by intellectualism has only served to further alienate her from Pan; it doesn’t take much to push the dæmon to begin a search for Lyra’s lost imagination, and that nudge comes with Pan witnessing a murder.
Where the His Dark Materials trilogy developed into individual quests through various worlds to arrive at a resolution, and La Belle Sauvage turned into an epic voyage through flooded countryside to safeguard a one-year-old, The Secret Commonwealth combines both as we follow key players from Brytain across Europe to the Asia Minor in just one world — Lyra’s. As we follow those players, Pan, Lyra, and Malcolm (along with one other) we learn just how much danger they’re in, are given clues concerning the bigger picture, and learn about great movements of peoples in that world which not only echo contemporary events in ours but also throughout the ages.
At nearly 700 pages the middle book of Philip Pullman’s second trilogy following the career of Lyra Silvertongue is almost impossible to characterise succinctly, let alone summarise — even if that was desirable — so I shall resort to impressions: impressions of mood, of characterisation and of possible significances.
by Susanna Clarke,
Bloomsbury Publishing 2020
I am the Beloved Child of the House …
How else to describe this novel than as labyrinthine? Not only is it set in a physical maze-like structure but its narrator must, like Theseus, thread a path through confusing and sometimes conflicting revelations about who he is, what he’s doing there, and why his memory seems to be faulty.
He is named Piranesi by a colleague whom he thinks of as the Other, an older male who appears occasionally — usually twice a week — for an hour or so at a time, but otherwise his curious life is bound up with the House, with the seasonal tides that wash through some of its rooms, and with his journals in which, like a good scientist, he has been recording his explorations and annotating his observations.
But all is not well in the House: it is crumbling, worn away from the tides and the storms that invade the House; and when talk turns to death and killing Piranesi starts to realise that all he has taken for granted is based on uncertain, maybe even mendacious foundations.
The Magician’s Nephew
by C S Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Fontana Lions 1980 (1955)
In this, the penultimate Narnian chronicle to be published, C S Lewis describes how Narnia came to be. The Magician’s Nephew is set around 1900, the heyday of Sherlock Holmes and Edith Nesbit’s Bastable family adventures, in a suburban London street perhaps similar to Nesbit’s Lewisham (the place recalling the Narnia author’s own surname). Here Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke make friends in a walled garden behind a house terrace before explorations down a secret attic passage lead them in unexpected directions.
There can be few readers who haven’t read, or at least heard of, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, even if they’ve only encountered the first (and possibly the best) instalment, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Less familiar perhaps is the genesis of this world, and The Magician’s Nephew fills in these details admirably.
Biblical imagery is mingled with motifs drawn from classical mythology (such as winged horses) and some overt moralising, all leavened with attempts at humour; but to me what comes over strongest in a second reading is a depiction of different aspects of human love.
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.