Icons and eye cons

2nd-century CE funeral portrait of a Roman Egyptian officer wearing a gold wreath (detail). Faiyum, Egypt

Wandering among Words 10: Pupil

What’s the link between a celebrity and a chrysalis, between a student and a pet, and between a marionette and a metaphorical apple? And, indeed, what are the links between them all?

Let’s take a closer look at this; and for looking we need an eye, and something to look at. So I shall start with the notion of the icon, and then range widely between observers and the observed. And where better to start than with one of the funerary portraits from Faiyum in Egypt, a painting done from life to be placed with the mummified body after death?

Here then is an exemplar of the Greek word eikon, meaning a likeness, image, or portrait; and like many portrait icons from later Christian traditions the subject gazes frankly out at the viewer with dark, dilated pupils. The look is almost mesmerising, reminding one of the proverb that the eyes are the window to one’s soul. Or, as Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre, “The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.”

We try to judge character from such icons, don’t we; but even though these days ‘icon’ usually has one of two popular meanings — a digital symbol used on social media, or an object or indeed celebrity judged to have ‘iconic status’ — both of course are visually presented, requiring the eye of the observer to appreciate them.

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Inquisitive journeys

The Prospect of Glasenbury Abby

Stukeley Illustrated:
William Stukeley’s Rediscovery of Britain’s Ancient Sites
.
Compiled by Neil Mortimer.
Green Magic 2003

Doctor, antiquarian, archaeological fieldworker, interpretative artist, Fellow of the Royal Society and inspirer of modern druidry — William Stukeley (1687-1765) was all these things, almost a personification of the Age of Enlightenment. Neil Mortimer reminds us that his “multifarious interests” included antiquities, astronomy, architecture, natural history, botany, geography, music, history and theology, leading him to make extensive tours around Britain over some fifteen years, resulting in the publication of the first illustrated edition of his Itinerarium Curiosum, or ‘An Inquisitive Journey’.

The author here gives us rather more than a mere potted history of this long-lived scholar. Though in later years he was regarded as somewhat dotty, a fellow antiquarian was to pen this appreciation of him:

“There was in him such a mixture of simplicity, drollery, absurdity, ingenuity, superstition and antiquarianism, that he afforded me that kind of well-seasoned repast, which the French call an Ambigu, I suppose from a compound of things never meant to meet together.”

William Warburton

But Mortimer’s intention in this volume was not to offer us a detailed biography but instead to provide a selection of examples of Stukeley’s draughtsmanship, from general prospects to ground plans, from bird’s eye views to imaginative reconstructions, from meticulous illustrations recording small finds to bust portraits of friends, vandals … and himself. The more than a hundred engravings presented give a good overview of Stukeley’s accomplishments and represent a fine tribute to the man.

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Death in that remark

Monet’s Rouen Cathedral: setting sun (symphony in grey and black). Amgueddfa Cymru, my photo.

Heartstones
by Ruth Rendell.
Arena Novella, Arrow Books 1988 (1987)

“There is death in that remark, the sound of death.”

Antigone’s response to Creon, in Sophocles’ play, as translated by Elvira.

Psychologically as well as intellectually this novella is as satisfying as it is perplexing. Written by one of the doyennes of crime fiction, Heartstones has intimations of unnatural deaths but without a sleuth leading the reader through to a revelatory conclusion.

To me Heartstones is a modern-day equivalent of a Classical Greek tragedy, one that’s transposed to an anonymous cathedral town (probably near the south coast of England) and played out with a limited cast, and sundry bystanders as chorus. With passing references and quotes from Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea there’s no doubt the author wanted us to make this particular connection, but Greek drama isn’t the only echo we are meant to hear: almost everything seems to have a symbolic significance, from the title to the house the fated family live in, and on to the stories told about the building.

At a little under eighty pages there’s a lot packed into this volume, but we ponder the genres Rendell hints at — crime fiction, Gothick romance, ghost story, horror tale, psychological thriller — particularly when the novella begins and ends with references to poison.

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To try to understand

Octavia E Butler in 2004

Kindred by Octavia E Butler.
Foreword by Ayòbámi Adébáyò.
Headline, 2018 (1979).

Dana Jackson finds herself called back to early nineteenth-century Maryland from 1970s California on her 26th birthday, and it keeps happening again and again over the next few days and weeks. She soon realises it’s because she has to save her ancestor Rufus Weylin from dying—whether by drowning, a fire, a beating, or an attempt to commit suicide—before he has a chance to continue his bloodline and for her to exist.

But Dana, in a mixed marriage with Kevin a decade after agitation for Civil Rights had initiated change in American society, has a culture shock to endure: Maryland was a slave state, and Dana’s arrival on the Weylin plantation as an independent educated black woman is not a welcome development for the white owners, Tom and Margaret Weylin, Rufus’s parents.

What counts as a few weeks in 1976 equates to several months and even years as Dana (and, for a long spell, Kevin too) gets marooned in a period dangerous for slaves, freed blacks and white sympathisers alike. All the while Dana has to forge a tricky relationship with her ancestor Rufus, a red-haired five-year-old, and later a man in his twenties, who isn’t always kind to her despite being (unbeknown to him) her kindred.

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“Africa is not fiction.”

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Africa’s Tarnished Name
by Chinua Achebe.
Penguin Modern Classics 28. 2018 (2009)

Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that?

‘Africa Is People’ (1998)

Chinua Achebe is regarded as a giant not just of African but of world literature, yet it has taken me a while to read anything by him. Being an academic as well as a man of letters his is a legacy of factual writings as well as of fiction and so for me provides a legitimate way into his body of work.

This volume in Penguin’s Modern Classics is a selection of essays and speeches taken from a collection entitled The Education of a British-Protected Child, published in 2011, two years before his death. The four pieces range in date from 1989 to 2008, and I propose discussing them in chronological order rather than the order published here. This way I hope to get a sense of any common themes spread over a score of years as well as any changes of emphasis.

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Extraterrestrial parasites

The Possessors
by John Christopher.
Sphere Books 1978 (1965)

The Possessors had a long memory, but not long enough to encompass their origins.

With this opening sentence Sam Youd, writing as John Christopher, establishes that this is speculative fiction. But for all its SF credentials, The Possessors is grounded in human relationships and idiosyncrasies, exposing how a disparate group of individuals isolated in a skiing chalet cope with personal demons and with each other when the chips are down.

With its setting in the Swiss Alps near the fictional village of Nidenhaut we are at times reminded of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; but when an avalanche cuts the chalet off from the village the group quickly have to develop a siege mentality as, one by one, the residents start to become other, forming a threat to those left and, ultimately, humankind. Are they changed because of a physical trauma, a psychological weakness, an unknown virus or, as the two locals fear, possession by devils?

Make no mistake, the author is misdirecting us with the title, for this novel is not really about the Possessors: it’s about the possessed.

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Many avenues to explore

hemlock

Fire and Hemlock
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Mammoth 1990 (1985)

Fire and Hemlock is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ more haunting books, with characters, situations and references that linger long after a first reading. It’s well known that the plot outline is taken from Northern ballads recounting the stories of Young Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, especially as she heads each chapter with quotes from the ballads and refers explicitly to the tales in her text.

The tales of a young man lured to the Otherworld by a fairy, and in the case of Tam Lin then rescued by a young woman, are purloined and brought into the 20th century, along with a heady mix of The Golden Bough and a whole host of other plots and characters.

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Circles within circles

Porquerolles (credit: Bourrichon)

My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon.
Translated by Nigel Ryan (1956).
Penguin Red Classic 2006 (1949)

The bells were still sending their circles of sound into the air.

Chapter 8

A petty crook has been shouting his mouth off about mon ami Maigret in a  popular hotel bar on one of the Îles d’Or off the southern French coast. The next day he is dead, shot first and his body mashed. Chief Inspector Maigret, shadowed by a colleague from Scotland Yard, is despatched to Porquerolles to investigate, leaving a drizzly late spring Paris for a balmy Mediterranean island.

Feeling his investigative style cramped by the English detective observing his famous methods Maigret finds himself additionally seduced by the sounds, smells and sights that assail his senses. Can he make progress in solving the mystery of who on the island would want Marcellin dead, and why?

As is familiar from many Maigret stories Simenon gets the reader to figuratively sit on the detective’s shoulder, sharing his thoughts and overhearing his quickfire questioning; the reader also has time to get caught up in descriptions of locale and prevailing atmospheres before Maigret’s final suspect or suspects are fingered.

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The necessary passion

Le Guin’s endpapers map of Orsenya in The Complete Orsinia

The Complete Orsinia:
Malafrena | Stories and songs
by Ursula K Le Guin,
edited by Brian Attebery.
Library of America 2016.

I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to be that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.

Introduction, ‘The Complete Orsinia’

A land-locked country somewhere in Europe. Known as Orsenya to its inhabitants and as Orsinia to the outside world. A land with its own language, culture and history but not so dissimilar to those of its neighbours. Yet beyond the writings of its only chronicler little is known about it. Although that chronicler is sadly no longer with us, she has nevertheless provided us with glimpses into lives lived at various points in its history; a few lives are those of the powerful but most are of ordinary people, though that’s not to say they’re not extraordinary in their own ways.

Containing Orsinian Tales (1976) and Malafrena (1979) you might, if you already have copies of both, wonder what the advantage of acquiring this compendium could be. Well, apart from the convenience of having the two titles in one volume there are the additions: two extra short stories published subsequently, in 1979 and 1990, and three short Orsinian songs, plus supporting material. That material — Le Guin’s 2015 introduction, an extensive chronology of the author’s life up to 2014 (she was to die in early 2018) and notes by the editor on the texts — renders this one-volume edition well worth the outlay.

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When it becomes personal

© C A Lovegrove

Too Good to be True
by Ann Cleeves.
Pan Books, 2016.

“Do you think Anna Blackwell committed suicide?”

Maggie answered straightaway. “Not in a thousand years. She adored her daughter. There was no way she would have killed herself and left Lucy without a mother.”

Chapter 7, ‘The School’

Shetland detective Jimmy Perez is urgently invited down to the Scottish Borders village of Stonebridge by his ex-wife Sarah, who wants to get to the bottom of the circumstances surrounding a young teacher’s death. Was the prescription drug overdose fatally administered by Anna herself, unable to cope with gossip about her supposed relationship with Sarah’s second husband, or by persons unknown? The local police think there are no suspicious circumstances but what could Jimmy discover with a bit of judicious sleuthing over a couple of days?

Taking care not to step on the toes of a colleague in the local police force, Jimmy begins a methodical but quiet investigation, witnessing the rumours, half-truths and intrigues common to small communities. A number of suspects suggest themselves to him, but it isn’t until an attempt is made on his life that he gets a real inkling of what really happened on the night Anna died.

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Farther up, farther in

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From Spare Oom to War Drobe:
travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self,
by Katherine Langrish,
introduction by Brian Sibley.
Darton, Longman & Todd, 2021

C. S. Lewis changed my life. He certainly influenced the way I thought, though it didn’t quite work out as you might imagine.

From the Afterword.

In a way that doesn’t quite apply to Middle-earth, Narnia’s magic seems to affect adults and children quite differently. And adults who only read C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia in childhood tend to report a nostalgic delight, unlike readers like me, who only became acquainted with them in later life, and whose visits have proved rather more troublesome and even disturbing.

Katherine Langrish has done both, the initial visits and the later return, and this (along with being an accomplished writer herself) puts her in a good position to provide this guide for readers of more mature years. She began honing her skills as a writer with what we’d now call fanfic, eagerly writing her own Tales of Narnia, so when she subtitles her book ‘travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self’ she attempts that difficult balancing trick of simultaneously imagining herself at that impressionable age while observing from her adult perspective.

That she succeeds is of huge benefit for her readers if, like me, one is persuaded to both see with the eyes of one of the target audience and also observe with the mind of the adult critic. Like before and after photos placed side by side of a slightly decrepit house in the process of restoration one is able to see the details of the original building as well as the work done in revealing its materials and structure, all before it’s reassembled into an edifice fit for purpose and a new lease of life.

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When two wrongs make a right

I’ve now resumed my reread of The Lord of the Rings with Book II in The Fellowship of the Ring and it’s time to talk about another aspect of the saga: morality. Not in a theological sense, however, but related to Latin mores (in the sense of social norms) — and then I want to link everything to the so-called just world hypothesis or, if you prefer, the just world fallacy.

As I will try to argue, the narrative in The Lord of the Rings can be seen to operate on these two levels: from the viewpoint of the hobbits different social norms (or the lack of them) apply to the different peoples of Middle-earth, but Tolkien also implies that his secondary world is also a just world, chiefly through the sayings and counsels of individuals like Gandalf and Elrond but also in the way that events pan out.

As is fitting I shall be referencing some established scholars who’ve covered this ground before me, but will also attempt to give my own spin on it all; whether I’ll have anything really new to say remains to be seen.

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Patrons and politicos

The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance by Paul Strathern. Pimlico 2005

Despite their name (medico means physician in Italian) the Tuscan de’ Medici family rose to prominence as bankers in the 14th century beginning with Cosimo the Elder. With money comes power, and by 1531 the family became hereditary Dukes of the powerful city state of Florence, then Grand Dukes of Tuscany.

Two centuries later, however, the Grand Duchy became bankrupt and then sputtered out with the death of the last Duke, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, in 1737. Over some four hundred years the family had held sway in Tuscany as monarchs in all but name.

Paul Strathern’s chronicle of the rise and fall of the Medici family charts the characters who made it as merchants, dukes, popes, queens, scientists, patrons and villains from Medieval to Enlightenment Italy.

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What the rules are

© C A Lovegrove

A Palace of Strangers by Sam Youd.
The SYLE Press 2019 (1954)

When I have read novels chronicling family life over years, over generations, I think the thing I have most admired has been the way the incidents were set, in time. It is not until one rises to tell such a story that one realizes the art involved — the art, and the artifice. For events do not fall out as conveniently as one would like.

‘A Palace of Strangers’ Part Two, Chapter V

Hinted at by its quote from the prophet Isaiah in the title, A Palace of Strangers explores the disconnect between two of the Abrahamic religions as it affects one particular family, the Rosenbaums. But there are other disconnects too, between siblings and between cultures during times of piece as well as war. And there are those who inhabit a No Man’s Land — agnostics and atheists, and second generation immigrants — who find neutrality is often no different from being regarded as in opposition.

Though it covers barely a half century Sam Youd’s family saga is intense, absorbing and believable, all the more impressive for its apparently accurate portrayal of religious cultures — Catholicism and Judaism — which he wasn’t himself a part of. Though at times the author’s and the narrator’s lives may have overlapped I didn’t get a sense of the latter merely being a mouthpiece of the former; in fact I was largely unaware of the ‘art and artifice’ that Youd has his narrator admire in real memoir writing.

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Dark portraits in the gallery

in medias res

Now that you’re back
by A L Kennedy.
Vintage 1995 (1994)

Opening a collection of short stories is a little like getting into a lift (or elevator, if you prefer) — you never know who’ll get in, for how long they’ll ride, whether you’re likely to engage with them or what relationship, if any, they are likely to have with each other. Your curiosity may or may not be piqued, you may wrinkle your nose at the smell or be embarrassed at the enforced intimacy, however transient.

What you do know is that, like any passenger in the lift, you’re unlikely to be vouchsafed someone’s life story, that your experience will only produce brief and probably blurry mental snapshots of your fellow travellers.

And so it is with this collection of A L Kennedy vignettes. In virtually every tale the reader arrives in medias res — you pass through gates straight into the midst of the action (such as it may be), trying to guess at characters, motivation, context, relationships, tone; and as each story concludes you never quite know if you’ve got a handle on it all, if your grasping at the situation attains something substantial or merely thin air.

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