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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