Malafrena, by Ursula K Le Guin.
Panther Books, 1981 (1979)
He would look unseeing out over Malafrena, with a heaviness in him. It was as if a spell was laid upon him here, which he could not break, though he might escape from it; a charm that grew strongest in certain hours, certain conversations.
The spell that binds young Itale Sorde to the family estate in Val Malafrena holds the same charm for this reader: but the French revolutionary motto, Vivre libre, ou mourir (“Live free, or die”), offers sentiments which tug him away from his mountain home. His progressive idealistic impulses draw him to Krasnoy, the capital of Orsinia, leading him to a sequence of events which impact not only on himself but on family, friends and acquaintances.
This restless, roving novel developed from the author’s early forays into writing fiction, fired up by her reading of Russian literature; it has proved to divide opinion, from those who expect something either more radical or in her later more speculative style, to those who relish her way with language and her ability to create a believable alternative reality and credible individuals.
Myself, I fall into the second category and one doesn’t have to go very far to find the reasons.
The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett.
Orion Books 2002 (1930)
San Francisco, 1929. A woman arrives at the offices of Spade and Archer, private detectives, and reveals she fears for her sister’s safety in the company of a man called Floyd Thursby. Her affecting performance sets Sam Spade off on an investigation in which the body count rises to four, bluff is countered by double bluff, and more alcohol and tobacco is consumed than can be good for one’s health.
While remaining in one small corner of California we hear about incidents in London, Constantinople and Hong Kong, and learn of historical events in the Mediterranean. How is everything linked, how does Sam Spade go about his investigations, and how is it that he nearly always seems one step ahead of everybody when by all accounts he should be behind them?
Hammet’s classic crime mystery is as good as its reputation makes it, and while The Maltese Falcon is possibly better known in its incarnation as a 1941 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre I shall always have the immediacy of this text from nearly a century ago paramount whenever I think of the story.
Somehow this was a profounder and more affecting novella than I was expecting. Written for older pre-teens and later readers it’s written from the point of view of Dylan, a lad who hasn’t made a smooth transition from primary to secondary education and has now been permanently excluded from his urban school.
Taken by his mother to stay with her estranged father in Wales he appears to be at rock bottom, friendless in a strange land and offline to boot. But it turns out to be the best thing that has yet happened to him as he learns to look outwards rather than remaining locked in within himself.
Throw away any preconceptions about this being a mere run-of-the-mill feelgood story. It alludes to childhood depression, the difficulties facing one-parent families, loss of loved ones, trauma and the threat of environmental despoliation. And it shows that, given not only the will and the right conditions but also an innate predisposition, it’s possible to see a way through what seems like an intolerable situation.
“Never judge a book by its cover, except if it’s a Jeffrey Archer”
— Traditional saying
If, when looking for a good read, we have already been attracted by a title or author or blurb, then that first opening sentence is crucial — especially in an age of channel-hopping, soundbites and eight-second attention spans. Have you switched off yet?
As with all specialist literature, Arthurian prose literature should predispose the sympathetic reader to read on, not move on. Here, for that reader, is the beginning of the classic example of that literature, from the fifteenth century:
Hit befel in the dayes of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned, that there was a myghty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil
(Thomas Malory, in Vinaver 1954).
How did that grab you? Are you on the edge of your seat? Or are you yawning already? And do 20th century re-tellings of Malory follow that pattern?
In the old days, as it is told, there was a king in Britain named Uther Pendragon (Picard 1955).
This is clearly a literary descendant of Malory, but some concession has been made for a juvenile readership in that it is shorter and punchier without losing its poetic, almost biblical cadences.
Here is another opening:
After wicked King Vortigern had first invited the Saxons to settle in Britain and help him to fight the Picts and Scots, the land was never long at peace (Green 1953).
A lot of information is offered, and assumptions made about prior historical knowledge. For this version, the author’s principle is that “the great legends, like the best of the fairy tales, must be retold from age to age: there is always something new to be found in them, and each retelling brings them freshly and more vividly before a new generation” (Green 1953, 13). There are some value judgements here, aren’t there? Malory is not vivid enough for us moderns; and Retellings are always fresh. In some instances there may be an element of truth in these assumptions. Here now is the beginning of T H White’s re-casting of Malory:
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology (White 1958).
There is nothing here initially to suggest an Arthurian setting, but the combination of whimsy and exactitude may be sufficiently intriguing to draw a non-Arthurian further into the book. This is certainly both a vivid and a fresher approach to the Matter. How have other Arthurian authors approached their craft?
The Moon of Gomrath
by Alan Garner. Endpaper maps by Charles Green, jacket design by George Adamson.
Collins 1970 (1963).
“… the world of Magic that lies as near and unknown to us as the back of a shadow…”
This tale picks up soon after the events in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when 12-year-old twins Colin and Susan are still staying in Cheshire whilst their parents are abroad. Evil witch the Morrigan has, along with her allies, finally been defeated, but Susan no longer has the teardrop heirloom, the weirdstone of the title. In its place is a curious silver bracelet, its shape echoing the young moon, and it is the moon — from the title of this sequel to Susan’s crucial role — which runs as one of the leitmotivs throughout this dark tale.
It’s hard to tell, but I’m guessing that these events take place sometime in the late 1950s; the date is immaterial but helps to get a handle on the narrative. Air pollution has driven a group of travellers from North Wales to Alderley Edge in Cheshire. No ordinary travellers these: they are lios-alfar, what we would call elves, and they are resting in the caves underneath the Edge before going on to the Northlands, where they hope to defeat whatever is destroying their kin there. They are let into the heart of the Edge by Cadellin, the wizard who befriended Colin and Susan in The Weirdstone and who still guards the sleeping knights under the hill.
Having recently completed and been impressed by Ursula K le Guin’s Malafrena (1979), a novel set in her imagined country of Orsinia in the early 19th century, I thought I would compose a few thoughts about its history and geography before posting a review.
I’ve already discussed her bleak but beautiful short story collection called Orsinian Tales, in which a series of vignettes detailing lives lived during a thousand years of Orsinian history gives us a flavour of this fictional nation somewhere east of central Europe. Referenced as Orciny in China Miéville’s fantasy The City and the City, Le Guin’s landlocked country is the sort of polity that may well have existed in Europe’s chequered history which — not unlike Miéville’s twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma somewhere at the edge of Europe — seems to have slipped out of most Europeans’ consciousness.
Now may be a good time to set the scene for what we may expect in a review of Malafrena, and for that we need maps and a bit of historical context.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
by J K Rowling.
Ted Smart / Bloomsbury Publishing 1998
“It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
— Albus Dumbledore
A reread of this, the second instalment in the Harry Potter book sequence (following Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), impresses on a number of fronts: the continued fleshing out of the main characters which made them so appealing in the first place; the masterful plotting and juggling of elements, even more evident in a third read; and of course its emphasis on compassion, friendship and loyalty, all of which gain more relevancy during a time of pandemic and political upheaval.*
Harry Potter’s birthday on the last day of July — not insignificantly the same as the author’s — sees him chafing under the vindictiveness of his adoptive family. Escaping from virtual imprisonment he is then mysteriously stopped from catching the Hogwarts Express to school, and so begins a series of incidents that leads not just to the secret of the Chamber of the title but also further revelations about how and why Harry survived the attack by He Who Must Not Be Named.
As the book ends with Harry and Hermione walking “back through the gateway to the Muggle world” we readers with hindsight know that Harry’s current victory will prove just a temporary respite in the wizarding war that has only just begun.
A Lion in the Meadow
by Margaret Mahy, pictures by Jenny Williams.
Picture Puffins 1972 (1969).
“That is how it is,” said the lion. “Some stories are true, and some aren’t…”
Read and reread, its covers mended with yellowing sticky tape, our family’s copy of Margaret Mahy’s classic has survived nearly half a century and has already been read to the children of the child it was first bought for. And the reason I think it has survived is that it doesn’t only work on very many levels but has also been served well by Jenny Williams’ luminous illustrations.
It begins with a boy running in from a field made savannah-like by grasses as tall as his head. “Mother,” he tells her, “there is a lion in the meadow,” but she doesn’t believe him. “Nonsense, little boy,” she replies. From this point we go on to what constitutes truth and what make-believe, who takes charge of storytelling and when does the storytelling stop, if at all.
It has the quality of classic fairytales, full of archetypal figures and incidents, layered by repeated phrases amid mild suspense but at the same time leaving space for one’s imagination to expand into. Pictures work hand in hand with text while leaving us free to interpret what we’re being told and what we’re seeing.
“I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit […]. The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story.”
— Tolkien to the novelist Naomi Mitchison (1954)
These days, when most people have a satnav app on their smartphone, a sense of how places relate to each other may be declining in many individual consciousnesses even as sales of road atlases and street maps continue to drop: less than ten years ago The Times reported that in the UK “the days of the dog-eared road atlas in the glove compartment are numbered: 2014 is expected to be the first year in which the majority of drivers use sat navs.”
This may not necessarily mean that we are losing an ability to navigate, however, merely that driving to somewhere new may be divorced from everyday reality when we’re using a device like a satnav or an app, because we’re able to allow a machine to dictate where we go while we concentrate on something else.
Generally, however, when we become familiar with layout and directions we can rely on what’s called a cognitive map.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. Puffin Books revised edition 1963 (1960).
Reading this at the end of the sixties, fresh from the enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, I felt confused and slightly underwhelmed. Despite its nod to Arthurian legend (sleeping king, Wild Hunt, sage wizard) and genuine sense of menace I missed the complexity of Tolkien’s saga, with its multiple locations, characters and interweave of plots. Nor did it share the light touch of The Hobbit despite featuring two youngsters in their early teens.
Perhaps the book’s misfortune was to be of its time, partly satisfying a hunger for epic fantasy but appearing, in contrast, as a pale imitation of The Lord of the Rings. Garner, whose first novel this was – he wrote it in his mid-twenties – recognised such weaknesses by first providing a revised edition for Puffin Books and later virtually disavowing it as “a fairly bad book”.
To dismiss it, especially now, would be unfair. For all the similarity of motifs – dwarfs, elves, underground mines, wizard, evil lord, powerful talisman, trolls, a final near-hopeless battle – what strikes me more on this re-reading four decades on are the differences. This is set in a corner of Garner’s native Cheshire, not in a secondary world like Middle Earth; the names and figures draw not on an invented mythology but directly from native traditions and languages, from Welsh, Manx, Irish and Norse folklore and literature (for example Angharad, Fenodyree, Morrigan and Grimnir, respectively); the main protagonists are not adult halflings but two, as it turns out, not-so-ordinary children; and the story is set not in some faraway land many millennia ago but in a here-and-now mid-twentieth century, with trains, waterproof macs, bikes, electric torches and ramblers. Even if the past is never far away, beginning with the milk-white steeds of the legendary but unnamed king…
“To everything (turn, turn, turn) There is a season (turn, turn, turn) And a time to every purpose Under heaven.”
As we drift past Imbolc and Candlemas, halfway points between the midwinter solstice and the spring equinox, I have been considering how season-centred some of my recent reading has been. And even my current read, Le Guin’s Malafrena, has so far been calibrated by principal periods of the year, especially the long hot summers and the winter feasts.
It might be an interesting exercise to consider how much fiction relies on not just space — and I’ll discuss this a bit more presently — but on the passage of time, especially certain liminal occasions; for, let’s face it, every moment is a liminal experience, balanced on a fulcrum of the present, between past and future, and frequently fraught with promise and danger.
With a bunch of fellow English students I’m visiting Paris for the first time, the year before the student riots. We briefly consider sleeping under a bridge, but then sensibly head for a youth hostel where my marginally superior French allows me to successfully negotiate for sheets, pillows and blankets. Our seasoned leader (in the sense that he’s been to Paris before) suggests we go for French onion soup at Les Halles early next morning. Very early. We stumble about the smells and sounds and bustle of Paris’ central wholesale market, aware that the French equivalent of London’s Smithfield has a limited life expectancy. It is eventually demolished in 1971.
I don’t revisit the area until 1998: the unloved replacement shopping forum is shunned for the prettier environs of the nearby church of Saint-Eustache with its outside sculpture of an outsize head and hand — this representation of a listening giant by Henri de Miller reminds me faintly of a dismembered corpse.
Smells and corpses dominate the area immediately south of Les Halles. The cemetery of Les Innocents is full to bursting — in fact bodies have already spilled into the basements of neighbouring houses. The foetid smell of decomposition penetrates and permeates everything — clothes, the air, food, breath. The King has decided the cemetery must go, to be replaced by a public open space. The church of the Holy Innocents, the ossuaries or charnel houses, monuments, everything substantial is to be demolished; the bones, the contents of the mass graves, are to be removed to a quarry across the Seine, a complex of underground galleries which will become known as the Paris Catacombs. The whole enterprise will take until 1788 to complete. One year before the Revolution.
‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’
by J M Barrie, in Peter Pan etc, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1906/1902)
Before Peter and Wendy (1911) there was this, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), published with illustrations by Arthur Rackham; and before that there was the stage play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904) following on from The Little White Bird (1902), from which Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was later extracted.
Amongst all this convoluted literary history are mingled clues to Barrie’s own psychology, hints about his relationship with his mother and his deceased brother David, and his relationship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother, Sylvia. Fascinating though these aspects may well be to many readers I’m more interested in the story which unfolds in the six chapters and the impact it may have on the innocent reader.
I say “innocent” reader, but it’s hardly easy to banish from one’s mind the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter and Wendy and in the many versions and retellings that have sprung up in the century or so since the play first saw the light. Here, instead of a boy “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees” we find a week-old baby who matures without getting older, and instead of the varied geography of Neverland the action takes place almost exclusively in one of London’s Royal Parks.
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.