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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Midgard myths re-mixed

Sigurd fights the dragon
Sigurd fights the dragon

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
by J R R Tolkien,
edited by Christopher Tolkien.
HarperCollins 2010 (2009)

Middle Earth author | resets ancient Norse sagas | in Modern English.

One of the best-known heroes in Norse mythology, Sigurd is better known as Siegfried from German versions of the legends, and his exploits and interactions – from killing a dragon and re-forging a mighty sword, say, to his relationships with his wife Gudrún, with warrior princess Brynhild and with a host of other personages – characterise him as much as they echo the exploits and interactions of other heroes in other times and cultures.

Here Tolkien attempts a harmonisation of the various early tales, particularly those in the Poetic Edda, and versifies them in English as ‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’ (in ten parts) and ‘The New Lay of Gudrún’, using forms and alliteration modelled on those early originals.

This posthumous publication ought by rights to appeal to a wide range of readers, from hobbit-fanciers to Wagnerites, from poets to psychologists, and from medieval literature specialists to mythologists, but I suspect it will end up satisfying only those whose interests overlap a number of these categories; for any single one of those categories of readers it may well end up a disappointment.

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Digging with a squat pen

© C A Lovegrove

Death of a Naturalist
by Seamus Heaney.
Faber 1999 (1966)

It’s fascinating to read this collection of nearly three dozen short poems, individually each a gem, collectively a story of childhood and young adulthood leading to marriage. It very much reminds me of an album of photographs, or even those selections of instrumental miniatures called Albumblätter or Feuilles d’Album.

What do we observe? Scenes of countryside activities from the author’s childhood in County Derry, glimpses of individual lives in Belfast, reminiscences of a honeymoon taken, a sojourn on the islands of Aran. Vignettes they may be but they’re vivid and intense, self-contained and demanding to be savoured.

I’ve met one or two of these before, for example Blackberry-picking, which inspired me to write ‘I Hunted Dragons Once’, but to encounter them in their entirety is a very different experience. Too many to comment here on each individually, it’s also hard to make a selection of favourites because each one has its own merits; but try I must.

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Ensnarèd chastity

Ludlow Castle © C A Lovegrove

Comus (1634) by John Milton,
edited by A W Verity.
Cambridge University Press 1927 (1909)

Come, Lady, while Heaven lends us grace,
Let us fly this cursed place,
Lest the sorcerer us entice
With some other new device.

With these words we’re taken to the nub of John Milton’s masque, which is that a wicked magician has entrapped a maiden, and that rescue may be at hand if nothing further awful happens. This is the stuff of fairytales, and we may expect a happy-ever-after ending, but this isn’t necessarily a given: after all it’s from the Stuart period, when nearly every bit of art had a political dimension, as it had been in the Tudor era.

And we may consider the audience of this intended narrative, the Earl of Bridgewater, lately ensconced in a castle on the Welsh borders where he might oversee a people possibly still uppity about being absorbed into English culture through new laws and a new official language. How would Milton bestride the fence between his Puritan leanings and the royalist sponsor it was written for?

This critical edition of the text has a certain historical value, it being more than a century old, but it still has much to say of worth, I think. Still, the play’s the thing, as another playwright wrote; and whomsoever’s conscience is caught Comus retains a certain curiosity for its poetry and for its concession to the masque genre with, admittedly, a rather sober frivolity.

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A shoreless kingdom

Cover illustration of a generic Middle European walled city for Le Guin’s Malafrena by an uncredited artist for Panther Books 1981

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.

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The ogre, the fairy, and the bird

The lighthouse, by Peter Scott (1946)

The Snow Goose
by Paul Gallico,
illustrations by Peter Scott.
Michael Joseph 1946 (1941)

This classic novella is so well known but I have to confess I’ve never got round to it until now. Yet it was worth the wait to enjoy this little offering of bittersweetness, a story with one foot in fable and the other in fact, to relish the natural world it celebrates and the poetic language it’s couched in.

Published eight decades ago in 1941, amidst the dark days of war and threatened invasion, The Snow Goose is set in a specified time and place but also retains a universal appeal, talking as it does about local suspicions and latent love, about conflicts and about kindness.

It also has the ring of authenticity in being inspired by real places and people and events, and while clearly highly fictionalised there is a kind of truth about it that becomes almost mythic.

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Betwixt and between

Simurgh

East, West by Salman Rushdie.
Vintage 1995 (1994)

“East, West, home’s best.” — 19th-century proverb *

If one has a foot in two regions where then is home? In these nine short stories — three published for the first time in this collection — Salman Rushdie explores the disorientation that some experience when cultures collide.

These aren’t polemical essays, however, but character studies, thumbnail sketches which allow us insights into individual lives with all their comforts and dilemmas, and as such are a joy to read. They include vignettes, parodies, fables and mini-tragedies, each item with an independent life but all linked by themes, imagination and wit.

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Bleak but beautiful

Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik)

Orsinian Tales
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.

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Bittersweet symphony

Piazza (image credit: Polina Kostova /Pexels)

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.

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The Beloved Child

Piranesi
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.

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More brief narratives

I recently mentioned that I had several collections of short stories in hand which I intended to get round to in the near future using the tag the Library of Brief Narratives. It’s my intention to include as many short story titles as I can bear throughout 2021, but to get off to a flying start by reviewing a couple of them in December.

I’ve already listed selections and collections with or including realist themes. Now, as a further amuse-bouche for you all, comes another listing of titles with a more speculative range of genres, from SF and fantasy through fairytales and on to horror and suspense.

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A tease

The Fool from the Marseille tarot deck

Utz by Bruce Chatwin,
Picador 1989 (1988)

Tyranny sets up its own echo-chamber; a void where confused signals buzz about at random; where a murmur or innuendo causes panic…

Chatwin’s final fiction, the novella Utz, is a tease in that nothing is quite what it seems. In 1967, a year before the Prague Spring, the unnamed narrator travels to Prague for some academic research where he hears of and meet Kaspar Utz, a collector of Meissen china figures. Behind the Iron Curtain is not of course the ideal place to amass a collection of kitsch artworks but Utz has agreed they will all go to a state museum after his death.

The novella opens with the collector’s funeral; the inevitable question then becomes, What has happened to the porcelain figures? And then, What will the Czechoslovak state now do? But here’s the tease: the narrator takes his time to render this question an urgent issue for the reader. And this being a Cold War story, some of the participants have to learn to be as secretive as the Soviet-era country they are living in.

As for the surname of the German-born baron whose life we are introduced to, will it surprise you to know — despite utz bearing “any number of negative connotations: ‘drunk’, ‘dimwit’, ‘card-sharp’, ‘dealer in dud horses'” — that it’s very possible that the word derives from the German verb uzen, ‘to tease’?

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Gothick Dreams

An 1835 illustration for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

“I waked one morning [in 1764] from a dream, of which, all I could recover, was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine filled with Gothic story), and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down, and began to write…”
— Horace Walpole, in a letter

At the heart of early Gothick literature — I use the spelling ‘Gothick’ to differentiate it from historical or architectural meanings of Gothic — broods The Castle.

And when I say ‘Castle’ I mean those edifices, usually ancient abbeys or mansions, with a clutch of qualities which we immediately recognise, namely antique origins, some of which may be ruinous, harbouring histories of romance, the supernatural, even horror, and — at its heart — mysteries in the form of eldritch scandals or objects, accessed via secret passages, tunnels, caves, crumbling staircases and hidden doors.

The attraction of stories that include these edifices is twofold: first, the intellectual satisfaction that comes from following a confusing trail that may or may not lead to answers; and second, the curiosity that has its roots in psychology, dreams, even nightmares, with an inkling that the skull may itself be the castle and that, within it, the brain’s convolutions hide the ultimate mystery. Let’s have a look at these two aspects.

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Two brothers

Haworth Church and Parsonage

Ashworth by Charlotte Brontë,
in Unfinished Novels.
Introduction by Dr Tom Winnifrith,
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

“When Edward and I were in penury, kept chained together by want, and abhorring each other for the very compulsion of our union, I used to endure worse torments than those of hell. Edward overwhelmed by his strength and bulk. He used his power coarsely, for he had a coarse mind, and scenes have taken place between us [of] which remembrance to this day, when it rushes upon my mind, pierces every nerve with a thrill of bitter pain no words can express.”
— Sir William Percy, in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘The Duke of Zamorna’ (1838)

In discussing Ashworth, one of the four items in Tom Winnifrith’s collection of Charlotte Brontë’s uncompleted tales, I want to focus on a motif that she kept returning to in her novels, that of two brothers in conflict, a motif which only disappeared with Villette, her last finished work (published in 1853, a couple of years before her death).

One brother, who may be called Edward, was often (as with Sir Edward Percy) described as having a “savage, hard, calculating barbarity” while his younger sibling, frequently named William, was altogether more gentle and sensitive. In varying degrees of intensity that fraternal rivalry was pursued in narratives for roughly two decades until her writing tailed off before her tragic death.

I’ve already discussed this aspect in a review of The Story of Willie Ellin (1854) but in outlining Ashworth I want to consider how the unfinished fragment forms a link between Charlotte’s juvenilia and her later work and speculate about why her Two Brothers theme seems to be a continuing obsession.

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