Green flash

Vita Sackville-West:
No Signposts in the Sea
Introduction by Victoria Glendinning 1985
Virago Modern Classics 2002

At the age of fifty Edmund Carr knows he is dying, with just a few months left to him. On impulse he gets what he calls ‘extended leave’ from his job as a leader writer on a broadsheet newspaper and embarks on a round-the-world cruise. He has an ulterior motive, to spend as much of the voyage in the company of an acquaintance, the widow Laura Drysdale, but without letting anyone know of his fatal illness.

All is going well until he succumbs to the dread “green-eyed monster” jealousy in the shape of his perceived rival, Colonel Dalrymple. He finds an outlet for his feelings by confessing all in a journal, noting that writing is

the most egotistic of occupations, and the most gratifying while it lasts.

No Signposts in the Sea is purportedly his journal entries, undated but, we are led to imagine, written some time in the late fifties. What gives added poignancy to this last novel by Vita Sackville-West is that it in many ways parallels the final years of her life spent on cruises with her husband Harold Nicholson: she was to die aged 70 in 1962, the year after this novella was published.

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Vaults of heart and brain

Manticore, Edward Topsell (1607)

Robertson Davies: The Manticore (1972)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin 2011 (1983)

To live is to battle with trolls
in the vaults of heart and brain.
To write: that is to sit
in judgement over one’s self.
— Henrik Ibsen, extract from a letter, quoted twice in the novel

David Staunton is a criminal lawyer, trained to operate in logical fashion; in a moment of crisis he acts on impulse to seek help, only to find himself plunged into a world in which he has to access parts of himself, parts where rationality has no part to play.

Among so many other things The Manticore turns out to be an exploration of two different ways of apprehending reality: the Platonic modes of Reasoning and Understanding or, as the protagonist comes to know them, the Jungian concepts of Thinking and Feeling.

This novel follows on immediately where Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business left off, in the aftermath of a magic show in a Toronto theatre. In a drunken outburst from the auditorium David publicly demands to know who killed his father, ‘Boy’ Staunton. The enigmatic answer leads him to an analyst in Switzerland: here he delves into the labyrinths of his mind and the caverns of the Alps; here he observes the Comedy Company of the Psyche and examines the figures in the Cabinet of Archetypes, all in a bid to reach the understanding that has eluded him so far.

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Marvels that defy

Our Lady of Guadeloupe

Robertson Davies: Fifth Business (1970)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin Books 2011 (1983)

This is a saga of three boys — the narrator Dunstable Ramsay, his contemporary Percy Boyd Staunton, and Paul Dempster, ten years their junior — told over the space of half a century from their origins in a small town in Ontario across two continents and on to a final chapter in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.

Yet, of course, it is more than that: this is a tale of love gained and lost, of magic and miracles, of action in a theatre of war to that of the theatre of illusions. We are presented with evidence both of abilities and disabilities; amongst all the fun and games there is, nevertheless, an underlying sense of futility. Rabelais is reported to have said on his deathbed, “Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée”; but for us the show hasn’t ended, for happily this is just the start of a trilogy.

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The Island of the Mighty

Harlech Castle: Four Square to All the Winds That Blow (1898) by Henry Clarence White (National Museum of Wales)

W J Gruffydd:
Folklore and Myth in The Mabinogion
University of Wales Press 1958

This slim booklet (with a little under 30 pages of text) reproduces a lecture given at the National Museum of Wales in 1950. However, despite a slightly misleading title discussion ranges a little more widely than it implies: it doesn’t deal exclusively with the several native Welsh tales in the collection commonly called the Mabinogion, nor is it limited to folklore and myth — fairytale is also involved (sometimes argued as a subgenre of folklore, other times as distinct), and literature too of course, the texts having come to us in written form with evidence of substantial editing.

In fact, a large part of the lecture is taken up with discussion of the nature of fairies in Welsh traditions; but I’m leaping ahead, as poet and academic William John Gruffydd begins with an attempt at defining what ‘folklore’ actually is.

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A remarkable narrator

gwenllian

Andrew Breeze:
The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’
Gracewing Publishing 2009

Four medieval stories in Welsh — Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, Manawydan Son of Llŷr and Math Son of Mathonwy — form a unique cycle of tales drawing in characters, motifs and tale-types from Celtic mythology and folktale, all set in the recognisable medieval landscape of Wales and adjacent parts of England. If they didn’t exist our understanding of Celtic myth and legend would be immeasurably the poorer, but our knowledge of the circumstances of this unique retelling and, very importantly, the author and their motivations for setting it all down are severely hampered by lacunae, scholarly suppositions and sometimes wild speculations.

The premise of this book is easily told.

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Cleansing the heart

Thomas De Quincey:
On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts
No 4 Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1827)

A note in this postcard-sized publication, issued to celebrate eighty years of Penguin paperbacks, tells us that the 26-year-old author was somewhat affected by the Ratcliffe Highway murders in London’s East End in late 1811. We know from The Maul and the Pear Tree how deeply traumatising for the public those violent killings were, and De Quincey apparently was to write more than once about them over some three decades.

In 1827 he wrote this witty satire for Blackwood’s Magazine—a piece which, incidentally, I fancy the Brontë siblings would have eagerly pored over—in the course of which X. Y. Z. (De Quincey’s pseudonym) quotes verbatim a lecture to the fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder. As the magazine editor noted, “We cannot suppose the lecturer to be in earnest, any more than Erasmus in his Praise of Folly, or Dean Swift in his proposal for eating children.” But we can also suspend our disbelief for a while to examine the outrageous claims of the anonymous lecturer, all written in a perfectly learned and civil style. Entitled the Williams’ Lecture on Murder (in honour of the supposed perpetrator of the Ratcliffe Highway atrocities) the text is full of Latin and Greek quotations which fortunately are here translated for us in square brackets.

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Winners and losers

Malcesine, Lake Garda: photo by kries [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Rumer Godden: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita
Introduced by Anita Desai
Virago Modern Classics 2015 (1963)

Speaking as someone who has holidayed there, I can confirm that Lake Garda is a jewel, one of Italy’s many natural delights and the largest of its lakes, nestled at the foot of the Dolomites. When viewed from Limone on the western shore the picturesque town of Malcesine is dwarfed by the bulk of Monte Baldo rising behind it two kilometres into the sky, but in Malcesine itself the eye is drawn by the waters, to the craft which ply its surface and the changing outlook determined by the time of day and the weather. It was so in the nineties, and it was so in the early sixties when this novel is set. But for one of the main characters in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita trouble is looming, just as Monte Baldo looms above the seemingly impregnable castle of Malcesine.

Fanny Clavering is unhappy in her Home Counties village of Whitcross: she rattles around her home, her army officer of a husband is often abroad, her children preoccupied with their own lives. She finds herself attracted to Rob Quillet, who is directing a film in the vicinity, and they begin a chaste affair, meeting clandestinely for quiet meals and outings. There comes the inevitable moment when, rejecting her husband Darrell’s advances, she escapes, divorcing her husband and eloping with Rob to the Villa Fiorita near Malcesine. Here she discovers an idyllic existence on the borrowed property, one she had hardly ever dreamed of. But, like the sudden squalls that sometimes buffet the lake, a tempest is on its way to the villa in the persons of her two youngest children, Hugh and Caddie.

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