A book about novels

The Novel Reader by Vincent Van Gogh http://www.vincent-van-gogh-gallery.org

David Lodge The Art of Fiction:
illustrated from classic and modern texts

Penguin 1992

The cover of this collection of essays features a striking image by Van Gogh of a woman reading a novel. Her surroundings are strongly lit by a bright light, while she herself, her face especially, is in shadow (you can still see the anxiety in her face); the only blemish for me is the clumsily rendered fingers of her left hand.

In a way this perfectly captures the impact of this non-fiction study: a lot of light is thrown on how British and American writers achieve the effects that are found in their works, but we are mainly in the dark as to how ordinary readers themselves may react. (The critics however lapped it up, if the cover quotes are typical.) All that we can be sure of is what the essayist thinks of the extracts he discusses: it is up to each reader to make up their minds whether that works for them individually.

Reader, would you like to know what this individual felt? Then read on.

Continue reading “A book about novels”


Training manuals


This post was part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors on Emerald City Book Review which this year ran from October 31st (Halloween) to November 6th (following on from Guy Fawkes). This year’s theme was New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. Lory, who hosts the Week on her review blog, introduced Don’t Bet on the Prince as a “groundbreaking collection of feminist fairy tales and critical essays”.

“Nearly thirty years ago,” she writes, “the work of editor Jack Zipes paved the way for a veritable explosion of creative and scholarly activity in the field since — and yet, as we’re seeing in so many ways today, we may not have come all that far on our journey toward true gender equality. What do stories, old and new, have to teach us today? Can we make out of them workable “training manuals” for the challenges we all face, in what we share as fellow human beings as well as in our differences?

Jack Zipes Don’t Bet on the Prince:
Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England
Gower/Methuen 1986

Fairy tales are never static: they’re always changing according to the teller, the medium, the audience, the prevailing culture. What we call ‘classic’ fairy tales are products of the early modern period, edited and retold by men (or women within a male-oriented or male-dominated culture). Marcia K Lieberman succinctly calls traditional fairy tales “training manuals for girls,” telling them the acceptable ways to behave and what to expect out of life. But these narratives – culturally determined dreamscapes peopled with archetypes – can and should change to reflect our awareness that all is not set in stone. As Jack Zipes, the editor of this now historic collection of tales and essays, writes, feminist fairy tales “explore new possibilities for gender rearrangement”. Continue reading “Training manuals”

Imagining Gormenghast

Four Chinese boys standing in a gateway, Kuling, Jiangxi, China, ca.1900-1932 (Wikipedia Commons)
Four Chinese boys standing in a gateway, Kuling, Jiangxi, China, ca.1900-1932 (Wikipedia Commons)

As I hurtle towards the final pages of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan I have not only been delighting in his panoply of curious names for individuals: I have also, as countless others have too, been captivated by his seemingly detailed descriptions of Gormenghast Castle, so much so that I have been trying to draw up a ground plan of the buildings and surrounds. But, as others have no doubt also discovered, amongst all the circumstantial descriptions, perambulations and measurements the gargantuan edifice remains disturbingly ghostly and mirage-like. All I can offer at the moment are a few thoughts, based on notes taken from the text and from odd research — including from Mervyn Peake: Two Lives (Vintage 1999), which comprises Maeve Gilmore’s A World Away (1970) and Sebastian Peake’s A Child of Bliss (1989). Continue reading “Imagining Gormenghast”

As befits the name


Before I get round to posting a review of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan — which, by the by, I’m enjoying immensely and have nearly finished — I thought I would share with you a few posts dealing with aspects of this first book of the Gormenghast trilogy. Aspects that include time, place, structure … and names.

In times past I used to peruse New Scientist at friends’ or at the doctors’ for the exciting ideas thrown up in all the sciences, however much or little I understood the ins and outs. A thread which was covered in the 90s was the concept of nominative determinism — the idea that people’s names, particularly their surnames, were a factor that predisposed them to follow a particular occupation. Some of these names — Cook, Butcher, Archer for example — would have been borne by some male ancestor who had that job, but many seem to be just puns, curiosities that go into that section of the universal memeplex labelled ‘Ain’t Life Odd?’ You know, a vicar called Vickers, or a poet called Wordsworth.

But fiction has the propensity to be stranger than fact.

Continue reading “As befits the name”

Uncover his face (part 2)

Droeshout engraving

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
The True Face of William Shakespeare:
The poet’s death mask and likenesses from three periods of his life

Translated from the German by Alan Bance
Chaucer Press 2006

Having established, as thoroughly as she could, their documented provenance Hammerschmidt-Hummel arranged for the four primary candidates for Shakespeare’s genuine likeness — the Chandos and Flower portraits, the Davenant bust and the Darmstadt death mask — to undergo various scientific and technological investigations. These included computer montage, photogrammetry, trick image differentiation technique; the idea was to compare the four likenesses to see if there were enough correlations to establish that they were all of the same person. This proved to be the case in terms of proportion of features, head contours and so on.

What also emerged from these comparisons — of Shakespeare from his early 30s (the Chandos portrait), aged 45 (the Flower portrait), around the age of 50 (the Davenant bust) and soon after his death, aged 52 (the Darmstadt death mask) — was clear evidence of
Continue reading “Uncover his face (part 2)”

Reading fantasy

Arundel Castle quadrangle, from an old postcard
Arundel Castle quadrangle, from an old postcard

In a sense all fiction is fantasy, isn’t it? Derived from Latin phantasia, ‘fantasy’ comes ultimately from the Greek word φαντασια, ‘imagination, appearance, apparition’, formed from a verb meaning ‘to make visible’. When we write we create images in the mind of the reader, ‘phantoms’ of what might be real but isn’t; indeed, even non-fiction is always a construct which, while trying to reflect reality, necessarily creates an illusion seen from the particular point of view of the writer.

Nowadays, though, fantasy is genre-specific: it implies magic, imagined new worlds, new eras, often contingent on our own but having no true existence. Sometimes literary snobs call their preferred fantasy ‘magic realism’, as if a different label fools anyone, but of course magic realism is fantasy, pure and simple. Fantasy is often dismissed as not only essentially unreal but also escapist, for people who can’t accept how the world actually is or even was. A shame, this, as fantasy fiction has a way of commenting obliquely on ‘real life’, by which I mean the life of our imagination through which we mediate all that we experience.

How do you read fantasy? Do you race through it for that sense of brief escape? Do you obsess about it, write fan fiction around it, role-play parts in costume, communicate with like-minded individuals and treat the key characters as if they are, indeed, real people? Or do you approach each work as a piece of literature and accord the author a bit of respect for their role as demiurge in the creation of a new world?

Continue reading “Reading fantasy”

Death, wizards and hats

brain, old print
… and still the wonder grew that one small head could carry all he knew.

Terry Pratchett A Slip of the Keyboard:
Collected Non-Fiction
Foreword by Neil Gaiman
Corgi 2015 (2014)

I’ve come late to Pratchett’s writings. I had tried some comic fantasy and sci-fi and found it wanting; it mostly seemed to be trying too hard to be funny and witty. I enjoyed Red Dwarf on TV and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio but somehow on the page much of this genre writing seemed to consist of dull, lifeless things, full of their own cleverness. So, despite everyone saying I ought to try Pratchett, that I’d like his stuff, I resisted it. Perhaps it was the cover illustrations that put me off: “This is a wickedly weird funny book!” they seemed to scream at me.

Finally I recently took the plunge. Somehow the Piaf song Je ne regrette rien now rings a little hollow…

Continue reading “Death, wizards and hats”