Watching the story unroll

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner.
4th Estate, 2022 (2021).

‘Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!’

Treacle Walker

Deceptively simple yet cunningly wrought, Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker defies categorisation. Instead of easily slipping into one genre or another it does what many good stories do – it intrigues, enthralls, makes one think, conjures up images, presents distinct characters, and takes us through from start to finish before the stern critic can adjust their spectacles and sharpen their quill.

And, too, Garner does so much with so little. He gives us a limited cast of characters – Joseph Coppock, Treacle Walker, Thin Amren – and conjures up established figures from a classic British kids comic which ran from 1939 to 1963. He sets his story in a mythical landscape which evokes aspects of the Cheshire he knows so well and which feature in much of his writing. And he presents a hazy, elastic timeline which mixes the ancient past, his mid-century childhood, and the timeless feel of a fable or fairytale.

But above all this is the work of a visionary poet, of a shaman who is describing a journey to a spirit world. Nominations for literary and fantasy awards may come his way but we do Garner an injustice if we attempt to pigeonhole what he creates.

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The Dead Hand

Town Hall, Y Trallwng / Welshpool

A Mixture of Frailties (1958)
by Robertson Davies,
in The Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books, 2011.

Monica had heard all her life that Opportunity knocks but once. But when Opportunity knocks, the sound can bring your heart into your mouth.

Chapter Seven

Young singer Monica Gall is at the core of this novel but, as with all the Robertson Davies novels I’ve read (this is the sixth), there is a lot more to his narrative than – in this case – the musical education of an ingénue. The wider aspects of Davies’s mise-en-scène is equally important to him, as it must therefore be for the reader.

Thus the framing device involves a perverse Last Will read in Salterton, Ontario where the previous two instalments of the trilogy take place; as well as a cast of diverse characters we encounter many of Davies’s recurring literary motifs – literature of course, and drama, but also music, pedagogy, Europe, illusion, guilt, humour; and, rambling though the plot may feel at times, there is a sureness of touch and clarity of vision that comes from an author who knows why he wants to say.

And why does he want to say? The novel’s title comes from a passage written by George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax in the 17th century: in it Lord Halifax counsels a softening of personal arrogance and condemnation of others by remembrance of one’s own faults, one’s personal frailties: “they pull our Rage by the sleeve and whisper Gentleness to us in our censures.” And this is Davies’s theme too, the hauptstimme of the final part of his Salterton trilogy: temper judgement with compassion.

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A warm imagination

The Rice portrait, said to be a portrait of the young Jane Austen by Ozias Humphry, painted in 1788 when she was 13.

Catharine, or the Bower
by Jane Austen,
in Catharine and Other Writings
edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 1993.

“[When] the Bower began to have its usual influence over her Spirits, she contributed towards settling them, by taking out a book, for she had always one about her, and reading.”

‘Catharine, or the Bower’

Catharine, also known as Kitty, lives with her aunt Mrs Percival at The Grove, Chetwynde, five miles from Exeter, far from “the hot House of Vice” that is London. We may suppose that, as with her author at the time of writing, Kitty is sixteen years old; but we’re immediately told that, unlike her author, she “had the misfortune, as many heroines before her, of losing her Parents when she was very young.”

When we discover that her aunt is determined to preserve Kitty’s virtue by closely scrutinising, supervising and warning off any young man that crosses the girl’s path, we recognise that Austen is playing on common fairytale tropes; and so our task appears a simple one – to see how the story plays out. Unfortunately, we don’t get the joy of that because this, begun in 1792 as one of Austen’s first essays in novel-writing, remains incomplete.

Though there is evidence that, a score of years later, she was tinkering with this youthful fragment – removing outdated practices such as powdering the hair, and inserting references to the newly instituted Regency – she never did progress with this promising start. Yet, even at this stage, we can recognise some of her trademark themes.

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The hurtle of hell

St Paul’s Cathedral on the night of VE Day, 8th May 1945 (Daily Herald)

The Girls of Slender Means
by Muriel Spark.
Penguin 2013 (1963).

“The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?”

—Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland

With flashbacks to 1945, specifically the period between VE Day and VJ Day, Muriel Spark’s novella has one character – JaneWright, who’s now a news columnist – responding to news of the fate of another by contacting some of her former acquaintances for their reactions.

What starts off as a mildly askant look at a group of mostly young things in a women’s hostel slowly assumes a bleaker hue as we start to get their measure, but we never lose sight of Spark’s razor-sharp asides which, while encouraging us to sympathise with the principal actors, allow those of us dissimilar in age to these girls to view them with a degree of detached compassion.

One might ask how Spark achieves a sense of detachment. It’s essentially to do with the term ‘slender means’ referring here not just to their relative impecunity – this was a time of general rationing, after all – but also (another reflection of the times) to their limited horizons, goals, and even imaginations.

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Cool and aloof

Engraving by Thomas Bewick

The Winter Swan by Sam Youd.
The SYLE Press, 2018 (1949)

Beyond the windows the grey, immense afternoon folded like a cloth across the quiet square, the railed-in trees and the glimpse of meticulous grass. A carriage clipped along the road, its miniature thunder trailed flamboyantly before and after it. When it had gone the clock in the corner of the room ticked more distinctly, marking off the seconds, scratching in the odd corners of infinity.

Chapter Twelve

1949. Rosemary Hallam is buried as the thawing snow starts slipping off the church roof, Cedic Garland her only mourner. Somewhere, somehow, her consciousness drifts into those odd corners of infinity, pausing at key moments in her life, seeing herself as others saw her: she becomes, in death more than in life, “a spy, a reluctant, bewildered eavesdropper on the lives of others.”

Sam Youd’s debut novel, begun when he was only 24 and completed a mere matter of months later, is an assured, lyrical and wise work. In revealing both the agonies and joys of its characters it underlines what the author identified as its main theme — that “relationships matter more than anything and spiritual isolation is hell” — an axiom that remains as pertinent to us now as it did then to the author.

Yet Rosemary, its principal character, does seem spiritually isolated, whether because, orphaned at 13, she has determined not to be bullied by life or whether she is by nature calm and unruffled or, as others mostly see her, cool and aloof. Her last admirer, Cedric, is reminded of a serene swan riding effortlessly over waves; during the course of this novel we get to see how troubled those waves were.

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A kaleidoscopic jumble

Stencil in Barcelona of Roberto Bolaño (Farisori, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Spirit of Science Fiction
(El espíritu de la ciencia-ficción)
by Roberto Bolaño,
translated by Natasha Wimmer (2018).
Picador 2019.

It’s sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century. Two poets reside in a couple of rooms on the top of an apartment block in Mexico City. One, Jan Schrella, is in his late teens and effectively a recluse, penning letters to North American writers of SF; the other, Remo Morán, is 21 and supports the pair with occasional journalism.

The Spirit of Science Fiction consists of a series of episodes, mostly recounted by Remo, interspersed with the text of letters sent to the likes of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr, Robert Silverberg, Philip José Farmer and Ursula K Le Guin. The novella ends with what feels like an incomplete and inconsequential coda set in Mexico City’s bathhouses which testifies to this being an early unfinished work published posthumously.

As a whole it comes across as a kaleidoscope of autobiographical elements, magical realism, hedonism and streams of consciousness, defying the reader to make sense of it all yet conveying very vividly the kind of Bohemian life that Bolaño knew well when he travelled from his native Chile to Mexico and elsewhere.

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Unhallowed eve

Robertson Davies

Leaven of Malice
by Robertson Davies,
in the Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books 2011 (1954).

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November…

Salterton, Ontario, 31st October 1949. An apparently innocuous announcement of an engagement appears in the Salterton paper The Bellman, but it will function like yeast in dough: once the fermentation process starts the components cannot be separated out. It turns out that ferment indeed is the purpose of the notice, the leaven that instigates the action, but whose is the malice that lies behind it, what is their motivation, and do they truly know how far the mixture will rise?

The second of Robertson Davies’s instalments in his Salterton Trilogy brings in some of the characters from the first, but it works equally well in isolation. We are given a picture of the bourgeoisie of a fictional provincial Canadian Town, one blessed with university, cathedral and an independent press, with most of the cast of characters acquainted with each other by name or in person. In such a seething cauldron the chances of submerged rivalries and hurt egos bubbling to the surface are infinite, and so it proves.

Despite the character list approaching (as I estimate) fifty individuals the main actors in Leaven of Malice are easy to distinguish, and what soon emerges as a comedy of manners manages also to be crime fiction without a murder, a courtroom drama without a court, a romance where dislike doesn’t run smooth, and a Halloween tale where some ghosts are eventually laid to rest.

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The original Elizabeth Bennet?

Elizabeth Benet

A repost from 5th May 2013 for Austen in August.

Visiting Bath Abbey in April this year [2013] I chanced on this curious memorial on the east wall of the south transept.

Close inspection revealed the name of one Elizabeth Benet (sic), widow of William Bathurst Pye Benet (died May 4th 1806), who herself died at the age of 80 in 1826. Could Jane Austen, who lived in Bath between 1801 and 1805 (not to mention visits there in the 1790s), have met this real-life Elizabeth Bennet, clearly a grande dame in Bath society?

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A life of one’s own

© C A Lovegrove

Lolly Willowes,
or The Loving Huntsman
by Sylvia Townsend Warner.
Introduced by Sarah Waters.
Virago 2012 (1926)

In her introduction to this novel Sarah Waters avers that there are “a great many pleasures to be had from reading Lolly Willowes,” and I cannot disagree with her. When the title character talks about trying to find “the clue to the secret country of her mind,” when she declares that the purpose of becoming a witch is to be neither harmful nor helpful (“a district visitor on a broomstick”) but to escape it all, “to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others,” she adumbrates the chiefest virtue of the many pleasures the book offers us: the desire to find and to be oneself.

But there is more.

Here there is humour in great dollops; here is the expression of impatience with mundanity; here is delight in nature, in countryside walks, in books and in herbs; here there’s numb distress in the deaths of loved ones; and there are also striking similes and metaphors which are as precise as they are mysterious.

So when this novel is, rightly, recommended by readers whose judgement I value, I can do no worse than in my turn recommend it to innocent readers. For though superficially whimsical and light-hearted this is template for how to stand up for oneself, a testament to being true to oneself, and a tirade against those who’d try to make one conform to senseless deeds and ways of thought simply because they’re customary.

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A song unfinished

Carson McCullers

The Ballad of the Sad Café
by Carson McCullers.
Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics,
Penguin Books, 1963 (1951)

A novella, six short stories, along with innumerable themes and motifs are here united, packed into a slim volume of consummate writing which has lost none of its power in the seventy years since first appearing in 1951. Mostly set in Georgia and New York, with one or two fictional locations (possibly the author’s home town of Columbus, Georgia under other names) plus a brief visit to Paris, the stories deal with loneliness, unfulfilled ambitions, and love; they are by turns humorous and heart-rending, wistful and whimsical.

What gives them a special strength is the sense of their being based on lived experiences, certain situations echoing aspects of the author’s own life without necessarily being autobiographical. Add to this a musician’s sensibility in the phrasing, cadence and tempo and it’s unsurprising that these narratives are akin to Albumblätter: these were short instrumental pieces that were popular in the nineteenth century, independent compositions which were then published in collections.

Appearing in various periodicals between 1936 and 1951 the stories were collected under the umbrella title of The Ballad of the Sad Café, and as befits an author who had originally planned to pursue her studies in piano at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music, many of her pieces feature music in one way or another.

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The necessary passion

Le Guin’s endpapers map of Orsenya in The Complete Orsinia

The Complete Orsinia:
Malafrena | Stories and songs
by Ursula K Le Guin,
edited by Brian Attebery.
Library of America 2016.

I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to be that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.

Introduction, ‘The Complete Orsinia’

A land-locked country somewhere in Europe. Known as Orsenya to its inhabitants and as Orsinia to the outside world. A land with its own language, culture and history but not so dissimilar to those of its neighbours. Yet beyond the writings of its only chronicler little is known about it. Although that chronicler is sadly no longer with us, she has nevertheless provided us with glimpses into lives lived at various points in its history; a few lives are those of the powerful but most are of ordinary people, though that’s not to say they’re not extraordinary in their own ways.

Containing Orsinian Tales (1976) and Malafrena (1979) you might, if you already have copies of both, wonder what the advantage of acquiring this compendium could be. Well, apart from the convenience of having the two titles in one volume there are the additions: two extra short stories published subsequently, in 1979 and 1990, and three short Orsinian songs, plus supporting material. That material — Le Guin’s 2015 introduction, an extensive chronology of the author’s life up to 2014 (she was to die in early 2018) and notes by the editor on the texts — renders this one-volume edition well worth the outlay.

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Lilith, the dragon and the frog prince

River Arno

New Penguin Parallel Text:
short stories in Italian / Racconti in Italiano.
Edited by Nick Roberts, Penguin Books 1999

A volume of nine short stories by nine 20th-century Italian writers has been with me for a score of years, not exactly studiously ignored but still incomprehensibly remaining unread. I’m not too sure why I hesitated because in translation they’ve been very satisfying, and although I’ve only read a selection of paragraphs from each story in the original the experience has been equally enlightening. At a time of pandemic only virtual travel is possible, so these brief narratives have evoked Italian life and lives really well when physical travel has been out of the question.

The authors whose names were familiar to me were Italo Calvino and Primo Levi, so it was interesting to comes across Leonardo Sciascia, Goffredo Parise, Stefano Benni and Antonio Tabucchi, while the female contributors who were included were Dacia Maraini, Susanna Tamaro and Sandra Petrignani. Nick Roberts (who translated a couple of the pieces) has done a great job selecting a variety in terms of subject, tone and style; and English versions by Avril Bardoni, Sharon Wood, Ruth Feldman, Tim Parks, Edward Williams, Charles Caroe and Chris Roberts have — as far as I can tell from my very limited command of Italian — have been very readable without being departing from the originals.

And what of the stories themselves? Here are psychological portraits, tales with a sting in the tale, insightful social narratives, reported conversations, a youngster’s stream of consciousness piece, even a satire, all very different and, like courses at a dinner, each needing a little time to savour and digest before moving on.

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Dark portraits in the gallery

in medias res

Now that you’re back
by A L Kennedy.
Vintage 1995 (1994)

Opening a collection of short stories is a little like getting into a lift (or elevator, if you prefer) — you never know who’ll get in, for how long they’ll ride, whether you’re likely to engage with them or what relationship, if any, they are likely to have with each other. Your curiosity may or may not be piqued, you may wrinkle your nose at the smell or be embarrassed at the enforced intimacy, however transient.

What you do know is that, like any passenger in the lift, you’re unlikely to be vouchsafed someone’s life story, that your experience will only produce brief and probably blurry mental snapshots of your fellow travellers.

And so it is with this collection of A L Kennedy vignettes. In virtually every tale the reader arrives in medias res — you pass through gates straight into the midst of the action (such as it may be), trying to guess at characters, motivation, context, relationships, tone; and as each story concludes you never quite know if you’ve got a handle on it all, if your grasping at the situation attains something substantial or merely thin air.

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Just deserts

Lipizzaner horse and rider, from a vintage postcard

The Star of Kazan
by Eva Ibbotson.
Macmillan Children’s Books 2008 (2004)

‘Oh God, she had to believe that her mother was good. How did people live if they thought their mother was dishonest?’
— Chapter 37

Two striking images, among so very many, stand out for me in this novel: one is of a Lipizzaner horse and its rider, working together as one, and the other is of an armoured fist sometimes accompanied by the motto, ‘Stand aside, Ye Vermin Who Oppose Us’. And between the two uneasily sits the figure of 12-year-old foundling Annika who finds herself emotionally torn between the community which has raised her and the family she never knew she had.

Brought up at the turn of the 20th century in a Vienna then at the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she is raised below stairs in an academic household, loved and repaying that love in countless ways. She is quick to learn, to make friendships, to develop and enjoy skills such as cooking. But all the time she harbours dreams of her birth mother coming to claim her, explain her abandonment and then whisk her off to a new life.

But when that day does come and she is taken to North Germany to live in a castle, she finds that dreams are rarely the same as reality — and in her innocence she is unable to accept that people can be dissembling and not have her welfare truly at heart.

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Talking ’bout Tolkien

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

— Chapter III, The Fellowship of the Ring.

I first heard about J R R Tolkien in 1967, from a fellow student who brazenly flourished under my nose her three hardback volumes of The Lord of the Rings given by her parents. She enthused about it so much that, when the one-volume paperback (minus the appendices) came out in 1968 I promptly bought myself a copy from my rapidly-depleting student grant and first immersed myself properly in Middle-earth.

How had I not heard of him before, or his works? — because by this time the third edition of The Hobbit had been published in 1966, and hobbitomania was starting to make itself manifest in popular culture — and yet all of that had somehow passed me by. I am one of those who barely remembers the sixties because I sleepwalked my way through them, and for a few decades more.

Anyway, that was the start of my involvement with the work of what Paul Kocher called the Master of Middle-earth. I read The Lord of the Rings pretty much every ten years or so until my 1968 edition with its Pauline Baynes cover eventually fell apart: sometime, probably in the new millennium as the Jackson trilogy opened in the cinemas, I acquired a pre-loved 1993 edition with appendices and a John Howe illustration of Gandalf on the cover.

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