Playacting

Dodie Smith: It Ends with Revelations
Corsair 2012 (1967)

July 1967. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed in England and Wales, decriminalising homosexual acts between consenting males aged 21 and over. In the same year Dodie Smith, now aged 71, published It Ends with Revelations (this title a quote from Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance), a novel which has homosexuality as one of its main themes. Fifty years later Smith’s novel has some curiosity value — a rather strange period read — considering gay marriage is now legal in Britain. To me it also reflects the ambivalence of the times: even at the height of the Swinging Sixties (the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released) Britain’s ruling institutions still retained a reactionary prewar attitude to personal behaviour, and Smith’s novel rather uncomfortably straddles that transition period.

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A dark tale for a dark age

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
Faber & Faber 2016 (2015)

It’s extraordinary that for a book with this title the only mention of a burial place for such a fearsome creature comes very late in the book, and yet the reader gets the feeling that this novel is not really about this giant but another, one which is undefined, amorphous. Then there is the inkling, occasioning a little brow-wrinkling, that what the book itself is about is also shapeless and unclear. And hard on that thought’s heels comes the unbidden suspicion — is The Buried Giant a literary case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Is the author, just newly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, offering us something of no real substance, stringing us a line, pulling the wool over our eyes?

This is an ignoble thought, and yet one that must have struck many a reader puzzled over the point of this novel. Yes, there are a few obvious themes — about ageing, about faithful love, about communal forgetfulness and a pathological hatred of outsiders — but as these are explicitly described can there be deeper meanings that elude us? And if there aren’t, is this tale then just an extended parable with no inherent merit?

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Innocence and inanity

A literal translation of Môr a Mynydd o Lyfrau might be “sea and mountain (made) from books”

Bruno Vincent: Five Go Bookselling
Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups
Hodder and Stoughton 2017

Maybe you missed it but Saturday 7th October 2017 was Bookshop Day in the UK and Ireland. I was involved in the third Crickhowell Literary Festival so I could hardly be unaware of it. I picked up this bit of free promotional material to see if I’d changed my mind about this expanding series of “Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups”. I found I had not.

Following on from Penguin Books’ re-vision of the classic children’s mid-20th-century Ladybird picture books allied with cynical new texts (on Mindfulness, The Mid-Life Crisis and the like) Hodder and Stoughton sought to cash in on this nostalgia trend with their updating of the Famous Five books. Do they work?

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A Week in Provence

The statue of Cézanne that stands near the modern hub of Aix-en-Provence: he looks towards Mont Sainte-Victoire while nursing an empty bottle some wag has left for him

Maryse Joissains Masini et al (editors)
Les Architectes et la Ville
Livret des Journées Européennes du Patrimoine
Aix-en-Provence et Pays D’Aix

In mid-September the city of Aix-en-Provence and its hinterland hosted a long weekend dedicated to the architecture of the region, ranging from the Gaulish oppidum (the precursor to the Roman town of Aquae Sextius) to 21st-century structures that housed both people and the culture for which Aix is famous. We missed this celebration by a week but, with the help of a booklet in French produced for the occasion and aimed towards students, we were able to explore the city’s historic delights in between enjoying the modern successor to the Roman baths. Aix is most famous for Paul Cézanne but there is more to this ancient provincial capital than its most renowned inhabitant.

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Questions and quests

An imaginary city by Albrecht Durer

Patricia A McKillip: The Riddle-Master’s Game
The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976);  Heir of Sea and Fire (1977);
Harpist in the Wind (1979)
Introduction by Graham Sleight
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2015 (2001)

Explicitly inspired by — but no slavish imitation of — The Lord of the Rings, Patricia McKillip’s trilogy is an epic fantasy that stands on its own merits rather than in comparison with Tolkien’s work. Yes, it starts with a very domestic scene before exploring from one end of a continent to the other, and, indeed, the main protagonist is reluctant to embark on his quest, but in reality the whole feel and mood of McKillip’s narrative is far removed from Tolkien’s, not least because it gives almost equal prominence to a female protagonist. On top of this, the author was only in her late twenties when she began her very mature epic when compared to Tolkien, who was in his sixties when the final volume of LOTR appeared.

The first part begins portentously enough:

“Morgon of Hed met the High One’s harpist one autumn day when the trade-ships docked at Tol for the season’s exchange of goods.”

In one sentence we are introduced to many of the main themes that run through the trilogy. Morgon, Prince of the small island principality of Hed, the High One who has (or rather had) suzerainty over all the lands, the subtle undercurrent of music (the author is apparently an accomplished pianist), the passing of seasons and the routines of social intercourse that will be so rudely disrupted. The young ruler, who had studied and attained high honours in the arcane discipline of riddling, will find not just his heritage challenged as he is plunged into dangers that will threaten the lives of countless peoples. Will he have the strength of will to overcome those dangers, and what part will Raederle of An have to play in the upheavals to come?

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Cynical but insightful

Nick Yapp: Bluff Your Way in Teaching
Ravette Publishing 1998 (1987)

This fell out of the bookshelves recently where it had somehow got wodged in and unnoticed. I didn’t ignore the irony as I myself had somehow got wodged into school education, only managing to extricate myself many years later by the skin of my teeth (and with my heart in my mouth, just to mix metaphors). I couldn’t finish this when I first came across it for it was much too painful — despite its deliberately humorous take on the state of pedagogy it was too close to the madness that pertained in British teaching at the time, and no doubt still does. Would a revisit bring back the pain?

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Rooms in a doll’s house

Tove Jansson: Art in Nature
Dockskåpet (1978) translated by Thomas Teal
Sort Of Books 2012

Art in Nature presents us with extraordinarily intimate portraits of Finns and others caught up in a variety of situations. Taking its English title from the first of these eleven offerings by Tove Jansson, its original Swedish title was actually drawn from the fifth story, ‘The Doll’s House’. I can only assume it was retitled to avoid confusion with Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, but it is just as apt as a label for the whole collection because many of the subjects have a connection with artistic endeavours, through sculpture, cartoons, drama, novels and painting.

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