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.”

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A tall story about devilry

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (1563), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

That Hideous Strength
by C S Lewis.
Pan Books 1955 (1945).

“Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said”

C S Lewis, ‘The New York Times Book Review’, 18th November, 1956

Composed during the war years, when That Hideous Strength was finally published in 1945 it was subtitled ‘A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups’. In his original preface Lewis declared that he “called this a ‘fairy tale’ in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled,” before finally characterising it as “a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”

The following year when Lewis abridged it for a new edition it was retitled The Tortured Planet, presumably to make clear its association with Out of the Silent Planet and Voyage to Venus. When that same abridgement then appeared in a new 1955 paperback edition it had resumed its original title and included another preface by the author in which he confessed:

In reducing the original story to a length suitable for this edition, I believe I have altered nothing but the tempo and the manner. I myself prefer the more leisurely pace — I would not wish even ‘War and Peace’ or ‘The Faerie Queene’ any shorter — but some critics may well think this abridgment is also an improvement.

All of which is noted as a preamble to saying that the transformations the novel went through in its first few years are as nothing compared to the complexity that C S Lewis aimed to incorporate in his “fairy-tale for grown-ups”. It contains moralising, it’s true, but it’s also a thriller, a science fantasy, and a repository of ancient myths and legends.

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Big issues

© C A Lovegrove

I’ve noticed an interesting trend — if trend it is — in my reading of late, and it is this. Many of the titles I’ve  consciously or unconsciously chosen seem to have an ‘issue’ at their heart, whether racism, feminism, authoritarianism, environmentalism or some other pressing concern.

Sometimes there’s more than one of these, implicit or explicit, expressed as a factor that one could call the ‘inciting incident’, or as an injustice simmering away till everything boils over.

So, whether the choice of title turns out to be conscious or unconscious two questions rise to my mind. One, is there a reason (or more likely, are there reasons) for this to be the case, if it hasn’t always been so; second, is it a trend other bloggers have noticed?

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Amy’s angst

Illustration by David Parkins

Trouble Half-way
by Jan Mark,
illustrated by David Parkins.
Puffin Books 1986 (1985).

Amy Calver is a girl trapped by her fears and anxieties. She lives in Gravesend, Kent, but it might as well be the world’s end for all the familiarity she has with life outside this southeast corner of England. Her only interest is participating in gymnastics, and life will be rosy if and when she gets a chance to compete in the immanent Thames and Medway Inter-Schools Junior Gymnastic Shield event.

But, as a reserve on the school team, her happiness hangs in the balance when a phone call announces that her grandfather has been taken to hospital, followed by her mother and younger sister going off to keep her grandmother company. She is left with her new stepfather, Richard Ermins, and not only is she not at all comfortable with him as an addition to the family but, since he is a long-distance lorry driver concerned about losing a week’s work and pay, there’s every chance he will not want to leave her on her own.

So her anxieties, already sky-high when she knows that as a reserve she may miss out from actually competing, rocket ever higher when she realises that she may have to leave her familiar environment and travel ‘Up North’ with Richard.

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An uncertain future

© C A Lovegrove

The World According to Anna
by Jostein Gaarder.
Anna. En fabel om klodens klima og miljø, 2013,
translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015.

When the original subtitle of a novel reads “a fable about the earth’s climate and environment” then you know there’s a lesson being offered. Though fables are usually defined as short stories with a human moral featuring animal characters, Jostein Gaarder’s tale is longer than most such fables, and its moral features the animals as victims of humanity’s dubious morality.

With any literary fable there is a worry that increased length may affect effective storytelling, with the moral risking being the tail that wags the dog. Gaarder doesn’t always successfully maintain the balance, I feel, but he does it with style and evident passion and furnished this reader at least with much to think about.

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Still relevant

Black No More:
Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933-1940
by George S Schuyler.
Penguin Classics Science Fiction 2021 (1931).

[Dr Crookman] was naively surprised that there should be opposition to his work. Like most men with a vision, a plan, a program or a remedy, he fondly imagined people to be intelligent enough to accept a good thing when it was offered to them, which was conclusive evidence that he knew little about the human race.

Chapter Three

Imagine if an innovative process involving “glandular control and electrical nutrition” became available, allowing those with a dark skin pigment to become as pale as a majority white population; how many would take advantage of that process and what effect, if any, would that have?

A black US journalist, George Schuyler, did imagine just that in 1930, demonstrating in this, his sharp dystopian satire, a humorous and cynical approach that was underpinned by a realistic grasp of human weaknesses. Interestingly, it appeared just before a major shift in American politics when under Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms the Democratic Party became more socially liberal while the Republicans established themselves firmly as the party of the right.

But what hasn’t changed is human nature, along with the doublethink that still holds sway, especially in the US, all of which makes Schuyler’s narrative so relevant to our contemporary world and its societies ninety years on.

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A jovial comedy

Circe (The Sorceress) by John William Waterhouse: a model for Jadis?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
A Story for Children,
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1959 (1950)

Queen Susan said, ‘Fair friends, here is a great marvel, for I seem to see a tree of iron.’

‘Madam,’ said King Edmund, ‘if you look well upon it you shall see it is a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof.’

‘By the Lion’s mane, a strange device,’ said King Peter…

‘The Hunting of the White Stag’

When so much has been written and expressed about a children’s classic can there be anything new or even worthwhile added in respect of it? When that classic is C S Lewis’s first instalment of his Narnia septad, a series which has attracted so many contrary opinions for and against, should one risk possibly fanning the flames of controversy?

Speaking as a reader who has had different reactions to each encounter in the near half-century since I first picked it up, and having veered from disappointment to irritation and now to grudging admiration, I feel I may indeed have some new things worth adding to the reams of ink spilt over seven decades and more — even if it’s only to acknowledge that each individual could well have a personal and instinctive reaction which a rational argument mayn’t affect.

I first read this in the 1970s when our first child was growing up and felt that, compared to The Lord of the Rings, this was a poor patchwork creature, a Christian allegory in which the tail wagged the dog and different mythic lore sat awkwardly side by side, all couched in an impossibly patronising text. A more recent read of the Chronicles of Narnia seemed to reinforce my feeling of unease. And so to now.

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Doing it for themselves

William Morris wallpaper design (detail)

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Other Stories
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Dover Thrift Editions, 1997 (1892-1914)

Seven extraordinary tales of what may almost be called ménages désenchaînées are collected here. The epithet ‘extraordinary’ is well deserved because these short stories composed in the score or so years preceeding the Great War are remarkable not only for describing sisters doing it for themselves but also for their literary style.

Gilman offers us tales of women achieving some large measure of agency, overcoming social mores and conventions, initiating change for themselves and others, and challenging contemporary prejudices surrounding supposed female feebleness of mind, body and aptitude.

The title story of this collection may be the best known but I also relished the other six offerings in this selection — and not solely for their feminist perspective, because Gilman’s observational skills emphasised individual propensities to change and adapt in positive ways for the benefit of all, women and men. In this she demonstrated an approach that could really be called humanist.

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A surgeon’s knife

© C A Lovegrove

Good Bones
by Margaret Atwood.
Virago Press 2010 (1992)

— There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest.

There Was Once

This collection of stories cunningly play with reader expectations: they tease, they feint, they nick and draw blood. With a surgeon’s knife Atwood dissects common myths and tropes, performs autopsies on literary classics, male fantasies, human foibles and traditional fairytales. Then, reassembling the parts, she fashions tales that forces us to look anew at what we thought was the case.

The two-dozen plus three pieces in this slim volume are in large part succinct, some barely more than a page or so; others, only slightly less succinct, remorsely hammer home their point while pulling your leg; a few have as a starting or end point a poetic form.

And though some may be seen as taking a feminist standpoint I would argue they are as much humanist, inviting us to take a step back to see not just differences but also similarities, encouraging comprehension more than opposition.

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A novel of anticipation

Felix Nadar c 1860 self portrait by Nadar, (Gaspard Felix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, out of copyright
Félix Nadar c 1860: self portrait by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne,
translated by Edward Roth.
Dover publications 2009 (translation 1874, French original 1865)

From the Earth to the Moon was Verne’s prophetic space romance about space travel. Set after the American Civil War — the conflict coincidentally finishing just as the novel was first published in France — the novel details the implementing of a concept by the President of the Baltimore Gun Club, namely the firing of a projectile to the moon.

From concept, practice is attained in a little over a year: worldwide funding is raised, a site chosen, infrastructure established, a monstrous cannon or Columbiad cast, a giant refracting telescope built to track the projectile, and finally the projectile itself launched.

Several of the details anticipate what was to happen in this part of the world nearly a century later but while this is interesting in itself what surprised me was how more engaged I was in the personalities involved and in the authorial asides than I remember being when I first read it a few decades ago.

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Chosen by myth

Mow Cop Castle (built 1754)

Red Shift
by Alan Garner.
Collins Lion Track 1975 (1973).

I see in my mind’s eye an exposed cliff which has been riven by some past cataclysm: strata from different periods composed of contrasting materials now sit side by side, yet they belong to the same cliff face. In such a way Alan Garner’s Red Shift presents to my imagination: three stories from different eras cleaving together in one extraordinary narrative.

Shifting from the present (Cheshire in the seventies) to the English Civil War in the same part of the world, or to a remnant of the Ninth Legion trying to go native among the Cornovii tribe in the second century CE, the novel slowly reveals how different people in different timelines can somehow be linked by a number of strands: topographical sites, artefact, geology, astronomy, a mythic tale.

As with many Garner novels the book is intensely personal. A native of Cheshire with local family roots stretching back centuries, he sets great store by a sense of place and by objects suffused with age, tradition or ritual. But he also features troubled characters in protagonist roles, a reflection of his own mental struggles over the years, all of which go towards ensuring his narratives have a firm substratum of authenticity and truth.

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Contemplating the Narniad

Ptolemaicsystem
The spheres of above the Earth: Luna, Mercurius, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jove, Saturn, the Stars and the Empyrean

Planet Narnia:
the seven heavens in the imagination of C S Lewis
by Michael Ward.
Oxford University Press 2008

It is of supreme importance [in the construction of the human person] that children hear good fables and not bad. — Plato The Republic

I have been on the look-out for Michael Ward’s study of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia ever since his 2009 BBC TV documentary The Narnia Code (also the title of a condensed version of Planet Narnia published in 2010). The seven titles of the so-called Narniad have garnered praise and criticism in almost equal part, frequently fixated on the author’s Christian subtext. Sometimes there have been attempts to ascertain Lewis’ grand design for the Chronicles: why seven? Does each have a distinct theme? Is there a hidden meaning other than that obvious subtext?

Michael Ward has come up with a closely-argued and fully-referenced proposition that Lewis, long enamoured with classical and medieval literary traditions, fashioned his sevenfold book series according to the seven pre-Copernican heavens, each ruled by a ‘planet’. The Narniad (as the sequence is sometimes known) “was a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planet Suite; each one of the seven heavens gave the key to a different Chronicle” (page 251). Above the earth in the pre-Copernican universe were a set of concentric spheres: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above that were the stars, the Primum Mobile and the Abode of God.

Each book of the Narniad is based on the mood, atmosphere and characteristics of one of these bodies as personified in pagan mythology and appropriated by medieval Christianity. Lewis, so Ward suggests, wanted to suffuse each book with those planetary aspects that he had assigned to them, such as joviality, saturninity, mercurialness and so on.

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A small but pretty town

Crickhowell, St Edmunds and the Vale of Usk from an old print by Henry Gastineau (1830-1). This view is taken from the top of the Norman motte looking northwest

Crickhowell
through the eyes of the visitor 1740-1910
by Robert Gant, William Gibbs and Elizabeth Siberry.
Crickhowell District Archive Centre 2021

Crickhowel [sic] is a small but pretty town … very close to the river, which looking upwards from the bridge, is truly picturesque in its windings and the character of the landscape on either side. It is a charming ‘bit’ for the painter.

Miles Birket Foster, 1864

This handsome and profusely illustrated booklet of some hundred pages has a history of its own, revised in 2009 after its first appearance in 1981 and now expanded from its previous 1780-1870 range to include new images from as early as 1740 and as late as 1910.

Along with reproductions of maps, prints, engravings, paintings and sketches is an informed and informative text, drawing on material in the Crickhowell District Archive Centre as well as that found online and in collections including the National Libraries of Wales and of Scotland, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and institutions in New Zealand and Canada.

But this publication has more than merely local interest: it could serve as a template for how such historical guides focused on visitor experience may be successfully produced, and it shows how even an apparently out of the way small town may feature in national or even international consciousness when figures such as Lord John Wesley, Nelson, the Duke of Clarence and Compton Mackenzie stayed locally, and aristocrats fled here escaping the French Revolution.

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Polished reportage

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An Advertisement for Toothpaste
by Ryszard Kapuściński.
Selected from Nobody Leaves (2017),
translated by William R Brand.
Penguin Modern: 16, 2018 (1963)

The name of the late Ryszard Kapuściński was one that vaguely registered with me but until now I’d not read anything by him. I note now that controversy has followed his adoption of what has been dubbed ‘literary reportage’ and ‘magic realist allegory’ but to me, coming fresh to his work via this selection of four pieces, it first resembled the category known as creative nonfiction.

As a genre, creative nonfiction purports to present what’s factual in a literary fashion, and that’s what characterises these journalistic essays. Known as a reporter describing overseas events with first hand experience, Kapuściński instead here turns his attention on his native land, postwar Poland under communism.

Integrating himself in the action he gives the quartet of reports a veneer of actualité but glosses them with the polish of prose poetry. In doing so he, a born storyteller, invites us round his hearth, shapes his narratives into fables or short stories, and infuses them with a surrealism that gives them a fairytale quality.

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At a crossroads

Comus with his charming-rod about to compel the Lady to drink the potion. William Blake 1801.

Doomsday Morning
by C L Moore.
Gollancz Golden Age Masterworks,  2019 (1957).

Set in the early years of the twenty-first century, Catherine Lucille Moore’s speculative novel is also a thriller, the action moving from the midwestern prairies of America to the East Coast and then California. For a tale written in the 1950s there is much that would appeal to male SF fans of the time: gadgetry, a hard-bitten, hard-drinking protagonist, lots of doublecrossing, and of course violence and explosions.

But there is more to Doomsday Morning than meets the eye. The fifties in the US was of course when McCarthyism was at its height and Moore’s plot has more than a hint of authoritarian repression. It is also, for all SF’s outward credentials as pulp fiction, a very literary novel, with allusions to Shakespeare, Chekhov, Steinbeck and Milton embedded in the text.

It’s also prescient in many ways in its anticipation of driverless traffic, covert electronic surveillance and the US’s alarming propensity to lurch towards totalitarianism when the conditions for it are prepared.

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