A wanting, a yearning

Lark by Anthony McGowan.
The Truth of Things 4,
Barrington Stoke 2020 (2019)

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was meant to be a stroll, a laugh.

A lark.

Going for a walk on the Yorkshire moors when you’re underprepared is never a good idea. Especially when snow is on the way,and you’ve set off later than you should have. And when you’re responsible for your brother who has learning difficulties.

Teenager Nicky and his older brother are filling in time before their mother flies in for a visit with the boys and their father, from whom she’s divorced. As a way to distract them from excitement mixed in with some anxiety, their father suggests a little expedition on a walk he used to do as a lad.

But Nicky is inexperienced and underestimates the dangers involved; it’s a lot of responsibility to load onto his shoulders. It’s all very well to buoy up Kenny with stories he has thought up — until they find themselves embroiled in a real-life story which mayn’t have a happy ending.

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Hopeless, hapless, helpless

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño,
Chris Andrews translator 2010
Picador 2011 (1999)

Paris, April 1938
Young widow Madame Reynaud approaches Pierre Pain, war pensioner and mesmerist, with an unusual request. Would he attend to César Vallejo who is dying in a Paris hospital? The doctors have no idea why he is expiring, nor why he is hiccupping. Perhaps Monsieur Pain, with his unorthodox skills, can help?

Thus begins this novella by the late Roberto Bolaño, and the reader is soon plunged into a world of paranoia and mystery set in a miserably wet capital on the eve of war. Can we believe what we read when it’s told by such an unreliable narrator? Especially when he doesn’t seem to know what’s going on either?

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Battles lost and won

SS Normandie 1932-46

Chess by Stefan Zweig
(Schachnovelle 1941),
translated by Anthea Bell.
Penguin Modern Classics 2017 (2006)

I had projected the chessboard and chessmen into my mind, where I could now survey the positions of the pieces on the board by means of the formulae alone, just as a mere glance at a score is enough for a trained musician to hear all the separate parts of a piece and the way they sound together.

Chess is a taut psychological tale, fascinating for both its narrative and for its almost autobiographical character. Set on a liner going from New York to Buenos Aires in 1941, this is a novella of triumph and tragedy depicting a battle of wits between mismatched players, a parable of its own time and for all time. Knowing that this was the last fiction by the author before his suicide Chess takes on an extra piquancy, but the reader doesn’t need to be overly aware of this detail to appreciate the story for its own sake.

In this edition the novella is a scant eighty-odd pages, which allows one to see how the composition is structured, the major themes that are employed, the counterpoint which is brought into play and the key instruments, each with their own tone colour, that come to the fore as in a piece of chamber music.

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An unhappy ménage

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome
Introduction and notes by Pamela Knights
Wordsworth Classics 2004 (1911)

The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ.

Even this passage, full as it is with the exhilaration and joys of sledding in the snow, is full of the portent of tragedy: the night is hollow — it opens out below them like the abyss — the sound of the organ evokes both weddings and funeral services. The settlement of Starkfield, desolate both by name and by nature, has a secret in the form of Ethan Frome which a visitor, an engineer, seeks to penetrate. It is a sad tale, yet one with an unexpected ending.

Ethan, sometime in the late 19th century and somewhere in the mountains of Massachusetts, is cursed with a loveless and childless marriage and a failing timber business, any prospects of advancement and intellectual satisfaction denied to him due to having a semi-invalid hypochondriac partner to support.

When his wife’s cousin, Mattie, saved from destitution by coming to stay and help in the house, proves younger, more convivial and attractive compared to Zenobia, he can’t help but feel a lighter heart when Mattie is in his presence. But things come to a head in the dead of winter when Mattie is faced with banishment.

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House of Secrets

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Nina Bawden: The Secret Passage
Puffin Books 1979 (1963)

After an idyllic upbringing in Kenya three young children — John, Mary and Ben Mallory — suddenly lose their mother, only to be sent to a bleak seaside resort in England to stay with their ‘disagreeable’ Aunt Mabel, the landlady of a boarding house. To the trauma of losing one parent is added the mysterious disappearance of their father, a complete change of environment and the ministrations of a relative who is not only distant but seemingly resentful.

Bewildering as their new life is, there are further mysteries: how does Aunt Mabel survive when lodgers are few are far between and the two she does have appear not to pay rent? Why did their aunt have to move from a grander house next door, and are the rumours of a secret passage between the two buildings based on reality? And does one of the children truly see a face at the attic window next door or is it their imagination?

This, the earliest of Nina Bawden’s books for children, has an assured touch and a strong narrative, the action tipping over from one fraught incident into another until the final resolutions bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, even though it’s a close-run thing. This Puffin edition has a note that when republished in 1979 the opening chapters were shortened, but nothing essential appears to have been lost in the condensing.

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Both real and magical

Newgale beach, Pembrokeshire

Cath Barton: The Plankton Collector
New Welsh Rarebyte 2018

Winner of a New Welsh Writing Award for 2017 in the novella category, The Plankton Collector is one of those dreamlike pieces that at odd moments rises unbidden to the surface of this reader’s thoughts like a bubble from unknown depths. To describe it as magic realism is not the whole story, yet the narrative does in fact drift like a leaf on a pond from one magical moment to another before catching on the rocks of reality, the reality of authentic lives lived with pain and sorrow and maybe, ultimately, hope.

We begin at the seaside with a beautiful piece of nature writing, as lyrical, say, as anything Charles Kingsley wrote in Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore. Here we meet the Plankton Collector himself, a shapeshifter who sifts sand and shells for living creatures, ultimately to show them how they might fit into the mysterious patterns of existence.

Lest the prologue, all told in the historic present, should appear too airy-fairy we may note that it is titled ‘In the Beginning’—as with Genesis we shall find that all is not perfect in the garden, that there’s a worm in the bud which will upset a family’s idyll for some time to come. The novella gropes towards a resolution that at times seems just out of our grasp.

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Shelfmark 400

A municipal library, Prague © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0
A municipal library, Prague © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sophie Divry The Library of Unrequited Love
Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds
Maclehose Press 2014 (2013)

I wanted to describe the battle between order and disorder, between love and bitterness, between conservatism and revolution. Shouldn’t literature always try to answer these two questions: what does it mean to be human? What is life? — Sophie Divry

Here is a short fiction about books and book-lovers, libraries and librarians, infatuation and infuriation. And how can one not be drawn by a novel with this particular title? Especially one which has been reduced in a sale, with a recommendation from the bookshop assistant that he’d only taken a short while to read it? (Perhaps that’s why it was at a bargain price: it had been ‘pre-read’.)

Other than long-dead authors there’s only one name in this book: Martin. Martin is a serious scholar using the facilities of some municipal library in the Paris region, ensconcing himself in the Geography and Town Planning section (Dewey class 910) located in the basement. He is lusted after by a frustrated spinster librarian who is fascinated by his neck, like the spine of a book. On this occasion she has discovered a hapless reader who while asleep had been locked in by mistake overnight, and takes the opportunity before the building officially opens to the public by subjecting him to a rant. A rant which for approaching ninety pages is one long paragraph.

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