Landmarks

Built in 1758, Perrott’s Folly, Edgbaston, Birmingham towers 96 ft or 29 metres. Photo credit: Dominic Tooze.

I began my latest reread of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in April this year and got to ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’ at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring in July, when I decided to have a bit of a pause for the summer.

Along the way I used the tag Talking Tolkien in several posts whenever I felt constrained to discuss aspects of Tolkien’s writing or themes that struck me strongly as I read, or featured reviews of Tolkien-related titles.

In September I intend to pick up the journey again with The Two Towers, the middle section of the ‘trilogy’ (in fairness not a description that the author favoured) and I hope you will again join me, if not with the reading then at least with comments on my reviews and discussions.

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Jester song

Batman Vol 3: Death of the Family
by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV,
illustrated by Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion and Jock.
DC Comics 2013.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…

Hamlet, Act V Scene 1

In the medieval period the suggestion is that monarchs would keep jesters to amuse them, to be the butt of jokes possibly but also to speak truth to them in seeming jokes and enigmatic statements.

One of the underlying themes in this graphic novel is of Batman being a monarch in a court composed of his extended ‘family’ of Alfred Pennyworth, Commissioner Gordon, Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing and so on; in which case the masked detective’s murderous adversary the Joker positions himself as the perpetually grinning jester.

This collected edition of Nos 13 to 17 of the Batman comic, which includes ‘backup’ related stories by an extended team of writers and artists, was part of DC Comics’ reboot of their titles of a decade ago, going back as it were to basics but with a 21st-century sensibility; but this was a sensibility which didn’t hold back on graphic violence while, at the same time, being surprisingly mimsy about strong language.

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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.

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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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“Africa is not fiction.”

WordPress Free Photo Library

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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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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