A symbolic London

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St George’s Bloomsbury (1730) in imitation of the Mausoleum, the ancient tomb of Mausolus, but guarded by a lion and a unicorn [own photo]
The Man Who Was Thursday
by G K Chesterton.
Introduction and notes by Stephen Medcalf,
Oxford University Press 1996 (1908)

Having enjoyed Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, a thriller about a projected German invasion of Britain published in the first decade of the twentieth century, I was drawn to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. After all, this first appeared in that same decade, in 1908, and ostensibly concerned an anarchist conspiracy, hatched in Britain, to cause disruption by assassinating the Russian Tsar in Paris. The very title promises us plots, codenames and derring-do. But I was to find that Chesterton’s intentions in writing this novel were rather different from Childers’ concern to highlight what he saw was a very real national threat.

The plot, convoluted as it is, can be reduced to a few sentences. Gabriel Syme is a poet who gets drafted in as a police detective by a mysterious stranger to investigate an anarchist conspiracy. He makes the acquaintance of another poet, Lucian Gregory, along with his sister Rosamond Gregory in the West London suburb of Saffron Park (Bedford Park by another name). Lucian calls himself an anarchist poet, and challenges the more conservative Syme to pay a visit with him to an underground (literally underground, as it turns out) anarchist movement.

The poet-cum-detective incredibly then gets elected to the inner cabal of seven Anarchs who answer to the name of the seven days of the week. Syme, as Thursday, gradually discovers the secret of each of the other Anarchs, with a final revelation taking place at the home of Sunday, the leader of the Central European Council.

If the basic plot appears to follow the precepts of the standard detective thriller, the same can’t be said of the content.

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Mysterious and mesmeric

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tale 2017 (2014)

Sarah Perry’s debut novel is a mesmeric tour de force, mysterious but detailed, mythic but realistic, filled with distinctive characters who we nevertheless view as though through fingers. Set near the coast somewhere in East Anglia, perhaps in Thetford Forest on the divide between Suffolk and Norfolk, we could imagine ourselves in the long dry July of 2013 when the temperature averaged around 30°C.

And in this kind of sustained heat, when it’s hard to think, John Coles decides to shut up his London bookshop and head to the Norfolk coast and his brother’s family. When his car breaks down in the depths of a pine forest he comes across a dwelling, and in true fairytale style he is welcomed as a long-awaited visitor, though he knows no-one. Although he wants to correct their mistaken impression his overheated condition continually delays him, drawing him into the mystery of who they think he is, who the residents are, and what they are all doing there.

The novel’s dreamlike structure and atmospheric writing create the illusion of magic realism, heightened by underlying themes drawn from Anglo-Saxon literature, classical myth and the Old Testament, to which is added a sense that almost everything encountered is symbolic. The reader who’s unalert to these undercurrents may well be bamboozled by what they’re presented with and therefore liable to dismiss the novel as incomprehensible; but that would be a mistake.

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Bluebeard’s Castle

tower door

The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter,
Virago Press 1981 (1967)

Bluebeard’s Castle hides
a puppeteer of humans
who defy their fate

Though this is an early work, I found it a much more engrossing read than some of Angela Carter’s shorter stories in the collection The Bloody Chamber. One of the fascinating things about humans is their propensity for confounding expectations, and while it was possible to see where the narrative generally was going, I was drawn to these grotesques (despite their very obvious failings) by their surprising resourcefulness as they tried to cope with Uncle Philip’s cruel and despotic regime and almost overpowering psychic vampirism.

In fact, despite their clearly delineated and sometimes unforgivable vices (unsavoury habits, voyeurism, unmitigated cruelty, incestuous relationships and acquiescent victimhood) you can’t help admiring their positive, mostly creative attributes: Finn’s painting, Francie’s musicianship, Margaret’s jewel-like cooking, Jonathan’s model-making, Melanie’s needlework, even Uncle Philip’s sheer inventiveness and craft.

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An old aquatint and a sailor’s yarn

The Temple at Sunium

Jostein Gaarder:
The Solitaire Mystery
Phoenix 1997 (1990)

For nearly four decades I’ve had a hand-coloured aquatint by the Romantic artist Paul Sandby (after an original by William Pars). Dated 1780, it depicts ‘The Temple of Sunium’, the ruins of which edifice still lie at the last cape every sailor sees sailing south from Athens.

It’s not a very distinguished print (my copy is blemished by water marks) and I don’t know why I particularly liked it then, but I now treasure it for its classical associations: the site from which King Aegeus threw himself into the sea when he thought that his son Theseus had been killed by the Minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth, and a place of worship dedicated to Poseidon, Greek god of the ocean and of earthquakes.

I was reminded of this picture at a highpoint of The Solitaire Mystery, when Hans Thomas and his father hope to finally see his mother Anita, who left them back in Norway many years before in order ‘to find herself’. After a journey in an old Fiat from Norway via Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Adriatic, Delphi and Athens, father and son learn that the mother can be found at a photo-shoot in the temple at Sounion. Why she has left them, why they have sought her after many years of waiting, and what then turns out to be the eventual outcome, all this forms the frame of the story, a metaphor for the philosophical quest that Hans Thomas and his father are simultaneously engaged in on their transcontinental trip.

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A wondrous catalogue

salute

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities
Le città invisibili (1972)
Translated by William Weaver
Vintage 1997

In my late teens or early twenties I imbibed the notion of ‘holiday consciousness’ from something I’d read, I’m not sure what but it may have been from Colin Wilson’s The Occult, published in 1971. The concept I understood to be this: we become so familiar with personal rituals in the everyday places we inhabit that we become not only a bit jaded but in fact almost sleepwalk our way through existence. Holiday consciousness however involves the trick of seeing the familiar as though visiting it for the first time, as a tourist.

After this I took to travelling regular bus journeys and walking daily routes pretending I was not in my home town but in a different city, perhaps in a different country. I noticed new things that I hadn’t before: architectural details, pedestrian behaviours, the quality of light, a different awareness of spaces. It was like being on holiday while staying in one place, and awoke my tired senses and heightened my perception without the need of artificial stimulants or expending money on overseas travel.

I was reminded of this holiday consciousness when recently reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

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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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A sad tale’s best for winter

Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)
Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)

Jostein Gaarder: The Ringmaster’s Daughter
(original title Sirkusdirektørens datter 2001)
Translated by James Anderson
Phoenix 2003

The Baltic Sea is well known for its amber, solidified resin from forests around 44 million years old, and frequently trapped in these deposits are various flora and fauna of the period. The most striking image in The Ringmaster’s Daughter, which symbolises one of its major themes, is of a spider caught in this matrix, just like its victims might be caught in its web.

The story that gives the novel its title concerns a trapeze artist who falls and breaks her neck. As the ringmaster bends over her injured body he sees an amber trinket on a slender chain around her neck, which he recognises as one he had given to a daughter he hasn’t seen for years.

The importance of this tale of the lost daughter is underlined by it being told, with variations, three times during the course of the novel, in the presence of each of the three most important women in the narrator’s life.

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A score of stories

Rye, Landgate

Joan Aiken:
The Monkey’s Wedding, and Other Stories
Introduction by Lizza Aiken
Small Beer Press 2011

In the introduction to this posthumous collection of short stories Joan Aiken describes the three ingredients that have gone into the making of these tales: fantasy elements (“witches, dragons, castles…”), realistic elements culled from everyday life (“mending punctures, winning raffles…”) and, finally, dreams (“an old lady hunting for lost things…”). Unlike her longer novels, the tales aren’t planned but spring from a chance combination of two or more of these ingredients; in The Monkey’s Wedding you can marvel at how these elements appear and re-appear in limitless permutations, always surprising, always entertaining, and always haunting.

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A fountain of youth

Natalie Babbitt: Tuck Everlasting
Bloomsbury 2003 (1975)

Who wouldn’t want to live forever? To extend one’s life so that one could savour life to the full, have new experiences, perhaps even be invulnerable to injury? There are no downsides, surely?

But a moment or two’s thought will soon reveal the drawbacks. Losing one’s friends as they grow old and die; witnessing perpetual change and not only for the better; being feared by other humans, becoming paranoid, lacking a sense of purpose or a reason for continuing. As many a fine mind has pointed out, death gives meaning to life.

This is the dilemma Winnie Foster faces when, constrained and restricted by her family, she determines to escape her bounds and go into the nearby woodland. This one act, determined on at the height of an oppressive summer, combines with two other coincidences to put Winnie in danger, the Tuck family at risk of exposure and to place the threat of Eternal Life for all in the hands of those who would exploit it for gain and unforeseen consequences.

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Into the woods

George Frederic Watts Little Red Riding Hood (1890: public domain)

Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat
Faber & Faber 2015

An impressive debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat thoroughly deserves its plaudits. Part magic realism, part fairytale, part contemporary fiction (at one stage the 9/11 event is playing out on television) Kate Hamer has created an unputdownable story that has had many readers finishing it in a night, though I steeled myself to stretch it out a bit longer. Its theme is a harrowing one for anyone with a child, namely the disappearance of that child without a trace. The author swaps between two viewpoints, the mother Beth Wakefield and her daughter Carmel, so we see developments through both their eyes; and, as time goes on, we too begin to wonder if there will be any optimistic resolution to Beth and Carmel’s tale.

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A tale told anew

The red dragon and the white found fighting under Vortigern’s castle

Horatio Clare: The Prince’s Pen, or Clip’s Truth
New Stories from the Mabinogion, Seren 2012

Imagine a dystopian future: most of England is reduced to an archipelago; the world is ruled by some nefarious world order; and only Pakistan and Wales have held out, the latter relying on its geography to mount a guerilla war against the occupying forces — much as it did in ancient times against the Romans and the English. Into the frame step sibling warlords, Ludo and Levello, who assemble a team to plan and coordinate an effective resistance. Barely literate, they rely on hackers and scribes to ensure their success, and thus it is that Ludo’s scribe, Clip, comes to be the narrator of this future history, providing the title and subtitle of Horatio Clare’s thoughtful novella.

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When the hurlyburly’s done

1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont
1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont

Ray Bradbury Something Wicked This Way Comes
Gollancz 2008 (1962)

This is a haunting novel, a haunting not necessarily due to ghosts but to images and ideas lingering in the mind’s eye long after the last page is shut. The title (taken from words spoken by the Second Witch in Macbeth) sets the tenor of the story, as much a novel of magic realism as it is a tale of terror. The horror is compounded by being set in an ordinary and very provincial early 1930s town in Illinois where, one is supposed to assume, nothing much happens. Continue reading “When the hurlyburly’s done”

Stones of eternity

waukegan-carnegie-library
Public Library, Waukegan, Illinois

As the northern hemisphere nights start to draw in, the crisp air almost crackles and the mist is a miasma creeping over streets and fields, our thoughts turn to things that go bump in the night. In preparation for a review of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, timed to coincide with The Emerald City Book Review’s annual Witch Week, I thought I’d like to share here a few thoughts on aspects of this Halloween thriller. And I shall start with Green Town’s public library, based on the Carnegie library in Waukegan, Illinois that Bradbury knew so well as a child in the 1930s:

Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. […] This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered.

After this passage, which promises exotic experiences to come, the library — though it remains no less enticing — starts to take on a more sinister aspect:

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Rabid dog bites girl!

Medieval dog (http://www.medievalists.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Medieval-Dog.jpg)
Medieval dog (http://www.medievalists.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Medieval-Dog.jpg)

Gabriel García Márquez
Of Love and Other Demons 
(trans: Edith Grossman) Penguin Books 1996

Rabid dog bites girl;
parents, priest, bishop, nuns not
bit but rabid too

I don’t regret having delayed completing Of Love and Other Demons for several years as I don’t think I would have appreciated this novella half of much when I first started. My impression then was that this was a slow-moving story with much description but little happening. How wrong I was! The title is so apt as this is an exploration of how obsessions can take precedence over basic humanity. The enigma that is Sierva Maria is the catalyst for upheaval in a coastal Colombian town (a fictionalised Cartagena) of a couple of centuries ago: bitten by a rabid dog but surviving against the odds, her very existence seems to infect all she comes into contact with. Many of these individuals then exhibit a rabidity that has nothing to do with a physical ailment and everything to do with diseases of the mind: irrational superstition, jealousy, inhumanity and, yes, love, but obsessive love akin to that of a stalker. Continue reading “Rabid dog bites girl!”

Lingering alchemical imagery

Alchemical sun and moonJeanette Winterson
The Battle of the Sun
Bloomsbury Publishing 2010

It is London in 1601, but things are not quite as history would have us believe. The life of the young protagonist, Jack, is about to take a turn away from the future planned out for him, and he goes from being a pawn in a game played by others to one where his resourcefulness and bravery lead to his transformation into a person of some power.

The Battle of the Sun comes over as dreamlike, with figures from alchemical treatises, supernatural happenings and irrational actions all assuming an aura of reality and plausibility, as often happens in dreams. Jeanette Winterson’s declared mode of writing here is to let the action emerge from the situations she conjures up, and much of the first part of the book introduces characters and places and scenarios that seemingly lack resolution until a character from another of her children’s novels — Silver from Tanglewreck (2006) — intrudes herself, at which point the plot gathers momentum and a sense of direction before reaching a satisfying conclusion. Continue reading “Lingering alchemical imagery”