For Madmen Only

Hermann Hesse (1907) by Ernst Würtenberger

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:

MAGIC THEATRE
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY

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Toothsome fun

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.’

Well!

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.

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A curate’s egg examined

Oakwell Hall, Birstall, W Yorks

Charlotte Brontë: Shirley
Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1849)

Charlotte Brontë’s follow-up to Jane Eyre turns out to be a curious affair, one in which I found enjoyment and boredom in equal measure. It’s a work that tries to have its cake and eat it and, as a result, fails to completely satisfy. But that’s not to say it’s not worth the effort — on the contrary.

Shirley was first published with the subtitle A Tale, and this I think was to distinguish it from Jane Eyre which had billed itself as An Autobiography. This third person approach proves to be a poisoned chalice (The Professor and Villette were first person narratives, like Jane Eyre) when the omniscient storyteller, unable to maintain a straight face, constantly and self-consciously undermines her ‘tale’ with humorous authorial asides.

But then I think the forced levity may be in reaction to a year of tragedy — her two sisters and her brother all died between September 1848 and May 1849 — and the humour may have been a way to distance herself from the enforced solitude she must then have felt. This dissembling I fancy is a key to unlocking the Chinese boxes which makes up the novel’s construction.

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Misselthwaite magic

Enclosed garden, Charleston, East Sussex

Frances Hodgson Burnett:
The Secret Garden
Parragon 1993 (1911)

“Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic… ”
— Colin, in Chapter 23

Acknowledged as one of the best children’s classics of all time and frequently filmed (the latest due in 2020), The Secret Garden is not a book I would have immediately taken to as a child. In fact, it was originally serialised in 1909-10 for a US magazine aimed at adults, and it’s as an adult that I appreciate not just the happy-ever-after narrative but also the nature writing, the period and geographical setting and the characterisation, aspects that would have mostly gone over my head as a pre-teen.

Sometime in the early 1900s Mary Lomax — nine going on ten years old — finds herself not just unloved but suddenly orphaned in India, a place she has lived in since she was born. Spoilt, and unbearably haughty, she is slow to adapt to the cold English climate, particularly when she arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, on the cusp of spring. The novel tells of her gradual warming — both figurative and literal — to Yorkshire and its people, and of her thawing from a cold Missie Sahib to a thoughtful, generous friend.

The catalyst for this change is of course the garden of the title. Prefigured early on in the novel when, still in India, she makes “heaps of earth and paths” for a pretend garden at the home of a clergyman and is taunted as Mistress Mary, quite contrary because she is “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived”. When she discovers and then tends the hidden Yorkshire garden she learns not just to lose that tyranny and selfishness but also to appreciate and love the natural magic that permeates life itself, thus living up to the more positive aspects of her nickname.

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Voyage upriver

The ‘Roi des Belges’, the Belgian riverboat Joseph Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889

‘BB’ (D J Watkins-Pitchford):
The Little Grey Men
Oxford University Press 2012 (1942)

“This is a story about the last gnomes in Britain,” begins the author’s introduction to this story, winner of the Carnegie Medal in the dark days of the second world war. The author, long the art master at Rugby School in Warwickshire, clearly based his tale on a countryside he knew well for not only is this an affectionate piece of nature writing set on and around a brook, ‘BB’ himself illustrated the text, and included a handful of songs with piano accompaniment credited to, perhaps, his father.

Two gnomes, Baldmoney and Sneezewort, set off one spring morning up the Folly Brook in search of the long-lost Cloudberry who, a year before, had himself gone in quest of the stream’s source. They leave behind the older, rather grumpy, Dodder who’d lost a leg to a fox many years ago; thus begins a voyage upriver, full of delights but also fraught with danger and mortal perils.

The Little Grey Men is charming and old-fashioned (with all that implies), a mini-adventure for us but a hardy expedition for the gnomes that undertake the journey. Will they achieve their goal or will it all end in disaster, not least from the prying eyes of Giants?

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The Alps, the Arctic and the Creature

Aurora Borealis (WordPress Free Media Library)

John Sutherland: Frankenstein’s Brain,
Puzzles and Conundrums in Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Masterpiece
(including John Crace’s ‘Frankenstein Digested’)
Icon Books 2018

Frankenstein is, despite its iconic status, so full of inconsistencies and plot holes that it’s a wonder it holds together at all. In fact, those weaknesses have meant that subsequent treatments of the narrative — in film, on stage, in comics, in parodies and retellings — have tried to gloss over, patch up or even reconfigure Mary Godwin Shelley’s story, with the result that those reading the novel for the first time are often confused, their expectations confounded. Where is the laboratory? Why are we caught up in Arctic ice? How come the monster isn’t called Frankenstein?

Literary critics of course have the answers, editors give lengthy details of history, chronology, context, differences in text and so on, but usually in academic language buttressed by obscure scholarly papers and archived documents. Up steps John Sutherland, an academic with a light touch making the inaccessible accessible with bite-size chapters, contemporary references and online links, and using humour to demystify a two-centuries-old classic.

Add to that an appendix with one of Guardian writer John Crace’s digested reads, meaning that if you’re still resistant to Mary Shelley’s original you can pretend you know all about it with a handy (and very funny) cheat.

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Good to go

Framework

Another year starts, and we’re all encouraged to plan ahead… Well, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I don’t have targets. I don’t set challenges.

What I have instead are goals: something to generally aim for but no pressure other than satisfaction at reaching them or even making the initial effort.

A better metaphor might be a framework: something that provides shape but the cladding for which is more random and the amount of cover more arbitrary. Imagine a big wide open goalmouth, the posts set wide apart and the crosspiece high, the netting a patchwork of different materials and loosely spread over. It’s pleasing to get the ball in the net but, heaven forfend, I’ve never had dreams of being a Premiership player…

So, Reading Goals. (No, not Reading Gaol, that was Oscar Wilde.)

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