The angel’s lyre

© C A Lovegrove

Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans
by Luis Fernando Verissimo (2000),
translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jill Costa.
The Harvill Press, 2004.

Edgar Allan Poe. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Dr John Dee. Jorge Luis Borges. The King of Bohemia. How exactly are they and others linked? What does the angel Israfel’s lyre signify? And what precisely happened in Buenos Aires early in 1985 when a victim was found stabbed in a locked hotel room?

Brazilian author Verissimo (the surname translates as “very true”) has concocted a metafictional crime novel in which he – or rather his literary alter ego – conducts conversations with his idol Borges before the latter’s death in 1986, with a view to solving the riddle of how and why a certain Joachim Rotkopf was murdered.

As the novel abounds in literary and historical references, the fact that the murder happens at an Edgar Allan Poe conference naturally leads to discussions about Poe’s The Gold-Bug and The Murders in the Rue Morgue in Borges’s own library. Curiously, and perhaps notably, the Argentine’s own writings, particularly Death and the Compass, are rarely specified.

Continue reading “The angel’s lyre”

A necessary commodity

© C A Lovegrove

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Preface by Hermione Lee,
introduction by David Nicholls, 2013.
4th Estate 2018 (1978).

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

John Milton, ‘Areopagitica’

It is 1959, and Florence Green is minded to open a bookshop in Hardborough, a town on the Suffolk coast. She finds vacant premises for sale, a building of some antiquity but unloved and neglected, and proceeds to buy it with financial assistance from the bank.

However, as the adage goes, though you can lead a horse to water you can’t make it drink, and Hardborough proves resistant to her well-meant plans. In particular Mrs Gamart, who reigns among the town’s upper echelons, decides she wants the premises for an arts centre.

Florence, a war widow who wants to give people the benefit of the doubt, at first seems amenable to giving up ownership; but when she realises Mrs Gamart is trying to preempt what is Florence’s own decision she digs her heels in and sets up shop. Has she misjudged Mrs Gamart’s steely determination, along with where the town’s sympathies may lie?

Continue reading “A necessary commodity”

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.

Continue reading “The hurtle of hell”

Intrinsic irrelevance

Nemesis (1502) by Albrecht Dürer

The Genius and the Goddess
by Aldous Huxley.
Vintage Classics 2015 (1955).

“The trouble with fiction,” said John Rivers, “is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.”

“Never?” I questioned.

“Maybe from God’s point of view,” he conceded. “Never from ours. Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts possess neither.”

Though called The Genius and the Goddess this novella could equally have included the 28-year-old Virgin or the Self-pitying Egotist in the title. It recounts – in the form of a mostly one-sided dialogue – how John Rivers, a British scientist working under the gifted American quantum physicist Henry Maartens in the early 1920s, finds himself compromised, and how as the son of a Lutheran minister he continues decades later to suffer the resulting pangs of guilt.

I have to be honest and say I struggled to enjoy this cross between a Socratic dialogue and a drawn-out drone – warning, a spoiler follows, though it’s mentioned on the cover blurb – of how a jejune man loses his virginity on the night of Shakespeare’s birthday in 1922. Much of it is presented as a monologue describing delayed gratification which, though intriguing at times, verges on the unedifying even when it’s couched in dry intellectual language.

Having slated the novella, can I bring myself to give some more detail and perhaps even praise what came across as more successful? I’ll try.

Continue reading “Intrinsic irrelevance”

A Finnish microcosm

WordPress Free Photo Library

Moominsummer Madness.
Farlig midsommar 
written and illustrated by Tove Jansson (1954), 
translated by Thomas Warburton (1955).
Puffin Books 1971.

‘A theatre is the most important sort of house in the world, because that’s where people are shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they’d like to be if they dared to, and what they really are.”
— Emma, in Chapter 8

It is almost midsummer in Moomin Valley when flakes of ashy soot start falling about the Moomin house. A nearby volcano is erupting, accompanied by cracks in the ground, and soon creates a tsunami, with the sea invading their home. When a strange new house comes floating by their dwelling the Moomin family — Moominmamma, Moominpapa, Moomintroll — along with the Snork Maiden, the Mymble’s daughter and her sister Little My, plus castaways Misabel and Whomper all decamp to the apparent houseboat. This will eventually float into Spruce Creek, during which time the mystified passengers will explore what they’ve embarked on.

It soon becomes evident to the reader, if not the Moomin Valley residents, that this is part of a theatre, where both stage and backstage have become separated from the rest of the building. With help from what they at first took to be a ghost they decide to put on a tragic play, but when certain individuals become separated and find themselves in various pickles, it will take a series of lucky coincidences to bring everything to a successful conclusion on Midsummer Day.

But will the Moomins ever get back to their valley?

Continue reading “A Finnish microcosm”

The last Lightning

Nine Lightning F1 of No 74 Squadron RAF display at the 1961 SBAC show, Farnborough. Photo credit: TSRL

Thunder and Lightnings
by Jan Mark,
illustrated by Jim Russell.
Puffin Books 1978 (1976).

‘I wonder if that was the last Lightning of all,’ said Andrew.
‘Well, if that wasn’t, that ought to have been. What a way to go out, eh?’

Chapter 17

This is a tale of oddballs, obsessions and, to some extent, opposites. It is also a well observed sketch of friendship, of the inevitability of change, and of being comfortable with being who you are.

Two schoolboys in 1980s Norfolk are thrown together with nothing to suggest they have anything in common except being outsiders in their school, Andrew whose family are incomers and Victor who would be possibly be identified now as having learning difficulties.

And yet there is more to either than appears on the surface, and they will have more in common than their social backgrounds and familial aspirations would suggest, bonded at first by Victor’s obsession with English Electric Lightning warplanes and then by a comfortable companionship. And yet that easy companionship may be tested by matters outside their control.

Continue reading “The last Lightning”

As symbolic as realistic

Katla eruption, 1918

Moonstone: the boy who never was
by Sjón (Sigurjón B Sigurðsson).
Mánasteinn: Drengurinn sem aldrei var til (2013)
translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
Sceptre 2016.

Reykjavik has, for the first time, assumed a form that reflects his inner life: a fact he would not confide to anyone.

Chapter XIX

This wonderful heartfelt novella leaves a lasting impression of a couple of months in the Icelandic capital as winter approached at the end of 1918. Through the life of Máni Steinn Karlsson — the boy who never was — we the readers experience a tumultuous epoch in history, affecting millions around the world but in such different ways; and Sjón’s writing, using short chapters and the historic present tense, has an immediacy and vividness that both appalls and attracts as it draws us in: it’s not for the squeamish.

Although written in 2013, Moonstone remains strangely relevant in 2022. My reading of it in the middle of a global pandemic also coincides with the eruption of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai volcano on the Pacific Ring of Fire, both of which events echo the arrival of influenza in Iceland, scant days after the explosive eruption of Katla, which forms the background of the novella.

This is stark writing capturing the bleakness of life a century ago, a monochrome diorama shot through with flashes of colour, especially red. But instead of creating distance, as can be the case with some historical fiction, the author includes a kind of epilogue which makes it clear that this story is of personal significance and importance: in an interview he emphasises that it contains “the untold stories of my gay friends and the shadowy existence they were forced to live until recently.”

Continue reading “As symbolic as realistic”

Acceptance

Vintage aftershave bottle (artist’s impression)

Desirable by Frank Cotterell-Boyce.
Barrington Stoke, 2012 (2008)

A witty spin on the old adage ‘Be careful what you wish for’, cleverly linked in with teenage anxieties about being accepted socially for who you are, Desirable is designed to be accessible to readers of all standards as well as entertaining.

When George, the nerdy young male protagonist who’s normally shunned or even bullied by his peers, suddenly becomes instantly popular with his female contemporaries and even teachers, is it anything to do with the vintage bottle of aftershave labelled, significantly, ‘Desirable’? And when that popularity rubs the male students up the wrong way will he realise that there is a downside to his new found acceptance?

You can’t please all of the people all of the time but it is possible to find a select bunch of individuals with whom you do get on: it’s only a matter of circumstances coinciding with being yourself that may bring it about. In the meantime it could prove quite a ride, as Frank Cotterell Boyce’s dyslexia-friendly novella suggests.

From reader to author

WordPress Free Photo Library

The Chronicles of Narmo
by Caitlin Moran.
Corgi Books 2013 (1992).

The French title of this novella — Comment je suis devenue célèbre en restant chez moi! — misses the punning of the original English by omitting the anagram of the author’s surname and the clear reference to The Chronicles of Narnia. And yet it accurately describes how the fledgling journalist drew almost exclusively on her home circumstances while still in her early to mid-teens to win prizes and awards (such as The Observer’s young reporter competition) as well as penning this comedic family portrait, published when she was still 16.

She slims down the chaos of being the eldest of homeschooled siblings by reducing the number from an actual eight to a fictional five — Morag, Lily, Aggy, Josh and Poppy — but, one suspects, only marginally exaggerating incidents with witty hyperbole.

Twelve chapters purport to chronicle life in the Wolverhampton family from one Christmas to the next but the conceit is followed very loosely, with random incidents reported and threads reappearing now and again. I have to be honest here and say it became a bit tedious towards the end but as a tour de force by a young author the whole is extraordinary.

Continue reading “From reader to author”

A comedy of terrors

Londres, le Parlement. Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard, Claude Monet (1904), Musée d’Orsay

Symposium by Muriel Spark.
Introduction by Ian Rankin.
Virago Modern Classics 2006 (1990)

When I say this is a delicious story I mean this: that there are several figurative flavours to savour as well as it being centred on a dinner party held in a London residence at the end of the Thatcher years.

The first flavour consists of the main characters, nominally ten but drawing in many acquaintances so that a mental sociogram is required to relate them all to each other. The second flavour — sharper, more piquant — is made up of undertones of violence and criminality, and menace and death.

But the strongest flavour the author serves us is down to the sauce, laced of wry humour and mordant commentary, which permeates every page of this longish novella and which had me virtually smacking my lips. What a feast she has prepared for the reader, one she prefigures in her epitaphs from Lucian and Plato which refer to certain symposia that either ended up in the shedding of blood or acknowledged that the genius of comedy was the same as that for tragedy.

Continue reading “A comedy of terrors”

Three’s company

La Parisienne (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Amgueddfa Cymru, Cardiff, author photo)

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig.
Brennendes Geheinnis (1913)
translated by Anthea Bell.
Pushkin Press 2017 (2008)

There was dangerous unrest in the air here, covert, hidden, alarmingly mysterious, something moving underground in the woods that might be just to do with the spring season, but it alarmed the distraught child strangely.

Chapter 14, ‘Darkness and Confusion’

In this delicious novella, first published in 1913 but probably set in the 1890s, Stefan Zweig tantalises the reader by gradually shifting our point of view from a would-be seducer to the child of the intended victim. In so doing he reminds us that, as adults, our actions and our words have untold effects on young minds and that playing life games with them may result in unplanned consequences.

The story is mostly set in Semmering, an alpine resort in Austria, with a denouement in Baden bei Wien. Semmering had been made accessible in the 19th century by a spectacular mountain railway, which led to a demand for hotels in the town to accommodate wealthy Viennese tourists; it’s to Semmering that a Baron arrives for a spring break and to scout out likely females for dalliance.

His eyes alight on a woman with a young boy in tow, but she initially plays coy. He decides to befriend the twelve-year-old Edgar who, frail and clearly lonely, seems to be the best route to getting better acquainted with his planned conquest. How will Edgar react when his new grown-up ‘friend’ and his mother then seem to share a ‘burning secret’ to which he isn’t privy?

Continue reading “Three’s company”

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.

Continue reading “A song unfinished”

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.

Continue reading “The ogre, the fairy, and the bird”

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’?

Continue reading “A tease”

The love you take

Photo © C A Lovegrove

In the Sweep of the Bay
by Cath Barton.
Louise Walters Books 2020

“… And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make.”
— The Beatles, ‘The End’ from the album Abbey Road

Cath Barton’s new novella, as much as her debut The Plankton Collector, focuses on individuals and their relationships; as before, she presents her tale as a series of vignettes which invite us to observe without intruding, to sympathise while yearning for resolutions which may or mayn’t come.

That she manages to offer us portraits which feel both authentic and honest is testament to her skill and makes the novella such a delight to read. What could have been an exercise in sheer nostalgia becomes a bittersweet reflection of hopes and dreams succeeding and failing, of love blighted by suspicion, and of truths both revealed and covered over.

Continue reading “The love you take”