Back at the beginning of June I opted to do Cathy Brown’s summer reading meme. This involved listing either ten, fifteen or twenty books one aimed to complete between the beginning of that month and the end of August.
Ever cautious I went for just ten titles, but in complete confidence that I would over the 93 days be close to not only reading but reviewing 20 books.
Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf
(Der Steppenwolf 1927, author’s note 1961) Translated by Basil Creighton (1929), revised by Walter Sorell (1963)
Penguin Modern Classics 1963
What is Steppenwolf about? The author’s own note, written in the year before he died, made clear that this novel is essentially about the author himself and the existential crisis he had in the years approaching his fiftieth birthday. Steppenwolf‘s magic realism holds a mirror up to a man not too different from the one we see in a portrait by Ernst Würtenberger, painted when the author was thirty: the pacifist intellectual, his hair cut en brosse, wearing a haunted look:
I am in truth the Steppenwolf … who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him.
The subject of this novel suffers from gout, depression and pains of the head and body; he feels alienated from the bourgeois world around him but can’t quite abandon it; he believes he has nothing to live for, and contemplates suicide with a razor. Is there anything more depressing to read about than a depressive’s mental state?
And yet Der Steppenwolf turns out to be more than this, to go beyond a reiteration of deep depression, and it all begins with a half-glimpsed neon sign over an ancient door:
Paula Bardell-Hedley of Book Jotter is running an open-ended reading project focused on Tove Jansson which she’s calling Tove Trove. She launched it a month ago, in August, when the author and artist would have been 105 — if she’d still been with us.
Best known for her Moomin books (which I’ve yet to fall under the spell of, but shortly hope to remedy) Jansson also wrote novels and short stories for an adult audience. Of these, I’ve read and reviewed what is arguably her best work, The Summer Book (1972), and a collection of stories called Art in Nature (first published as Dockskåpetor Doll’s House in 1978).
After her death in 2001 a selection of tales was put together under the title The Winter Book (2006), a copy of which I intend to read soon. The project is intended to include not just reading books by her but also about her: her art, her life, her philosophy. Paula’s enthusiasm has persuaded me to read more by and about Jansson, and perhaps her enthusiasm may rub off on you too!
In other news
We’re coming up to the end of Cathy Brown’s annual event 20 Books of Summer during which, over three months, I aimed to complete … twenty books. I will, with the final pages of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, have indeed finished a score of titles (yay!) — only it won’t actually be the twenty I listed (oops).
In the frame are seven children’s books (a mix of fantasy and realism), three whodunits (two by Agatha Christie), two classics (one Victorian, the other mid 20th-century), the final two parts of a trilogy (by Robertson Davies), two short non-fiction books (one on environmentalism, one on children’s fiction), and one each of speculative fiction, a graphic novel and a Gothic romance.
A whopping fifteen titles were by female writers. Of the nineteen listed two were library books, and two were borrowed from the shelves of a holiday let within sight of Agatha Christie’s writing retreat on Burgh Island. Just ten of these (including Steppenwolf) will have figured on my 20 Books of Summer wishlist. My 10 Books of Summer, I suppose.
I’m finding time-constrained projects, challenges and events a little, well, constraining, so for the next few weeks I’m going to read just what I fancy. But, contrary to what I’ve just implied, there will be a title or two from my Classics Club list, the odd ‘summer’ book, and at least one ‘winter’ book — can you guess which one it will be?
Charlotte Brontë: Shirley Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1849)
Charlotte Brontë’s follow-up to Jane Eyre turns out to be a curious affair, one in which I found enjoyment and boredom in equal measure. It’s a work that tries to have its cake and eat it and, as a result, fails to completely satisfy. But that’s not to say it’s not worth the effort — on the contrary.
Shirley was first published with the subtitle A Tale, and this I think was to distinguish it from Jane Eyre which had billed itself as An Autobiography. This third person approach proves to be a poisoned chalice (The Professor and Villette were first person narratives, like Jane Eyre) when the omniscient storyteller, unable to maintain a straight face, constantly and self-consciously undermines her ‘tale’ with humorous authorial asides.
But then I think the forced levity may be in reaction to a year of tragedy — her two sisters and her brother all died between September 1848 and May 1849 — and the humour may have been a way to distance herself from the enforced solitude she must then have felt. This dissembling I fancy is a key to unlocking the Chinese boxes which makes up the novel’s construction.
The briefest of brief updates, but first — an apology.
I’m sorry to be behind in reading and commenting on others’ blogs — mainly for good reasons, but I hate to neglect writers and artists I follow: in a week or three I hope I may have started to catch up. The reasons?
It’s the summer.
It’s the Go-Away-I’m-Reading state of mind.
I have grandparent duties.
I’m trying — and mostly failing — to complete the titles in my official 20 Books of Summer list before the start of September.
I’m mostly on Twitter doing a The Wolves of Willoughby Chase readalong called #WilloughbyReads.
I’m reading. Mostly titles not on my 20 Books of Summer list.
I’m composing posts for another blog and for an event in … autumn.
Anything else? Oh yes, I’m scrolling through past reviews to repost because I’m too busy to compose new ones.
Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden
Parragon 1993 (1911)
“Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic… ”
— Colin, in Chapter 23
Acknowledged as one of the best children’s classics of all time and frequently filmed (the latest due in 2020), The Secret Garden is not a book I would have immediately taken to as a child. In fact, it was originally serialised in 1909-10 for a US magazine aimed at adults, and it’s as an adult that I appreciate not just the happy-ever-after narrative but also the nature writing, the period and geographical setting and the characterisation, aspects that would have mostly gone over my head as a pre-teen.
Sometime in the early 1900s Mary Lomax — nine going on ten years old — finds herself not just unloved but suddenly orphaned in India, a place she has lived in since she was born. Spoilt, and unbearably haughty, she is slow to adapt to the cold English climate, particularly when she arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, on the cusp of spring. The novel tells of her gradual warming — both figurative and literal — to Yorkshire and its people, and of her thawing from a cold Missie Sahib to a thoughtful, generous friend.
The catalyst for this change is of course the garden of the title. Prefigured early on in the novel when, still in India, she makes “heaps of earth and paths” for a pretend garden at the home of a clergyman and is taunted as Mistress Mary, quite contrary because she is “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived”. When she discovers and then tends the hidden Yorkshire garden she learns not just to lose that tyranny and selfishness but also to appreciate and love the natural magic that permeates life itself, thus living up to the more positive aspects of her nickname.
Robertson Davies: World of Wonders (1975)
in The Deptford Trilogy
‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ — From the Letter to the Hebrews
Davies’ Deptford Trilogy is completed by this, World of Wonders, and like the New Testament phrase from the Epistle to the Hebrews, is about the evidence of things not seen. As is reiterated a couple or more times in these pages, “Without attention to detail there is no illusion,” and true to this epigram we focus a great deal of attention on establishing how illusion is created, maintained and, ultimately, dispelled when the eye of faith is put to the test.
Here, after the hiatus of the second volume — in which the focus is on David Staunton — we return to the first volume’s narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, ensconced in Schloss Sorgenfrei in the Swiss Alps near St-Gall. It is the early 1970s and our attention is held by the illusionist Magnus Eisengrim, who’s taking part in a BBC drama documentary about the historical illusionist Robert-Houdin (from whom, incidentally, Houdini took his stage name).
Ramsay is recounting the conversations that took place after filming each day, between Eisengrim, the BBC producer, director and cameraman, plus Eisengrim’s colleagues Dr Liselotte Naegeli and, of course, Ramsay, conversations that later continue in London. Through these prandial and post-pradial chats we hear a lot of history, learn a lot of secrets and discover how illusion can fool the eye of the beholder.
‘BB’ (D J Watkins-Pitchford): The Little Grey Men
Oxford University Press 2012 (1942)
“This is a story about the last gnomes in Britain,” begins the author’s introduction to this story, winner of the Carnegie Medal in the dark days of the second world war. The author, long the art master at Rugby School in Warwickshire, clearly based his tale on a countryside he knew well for not only is this an affectionate piece of nature writing set on and around a brook, ‘BB’ himself illustrated the text, and included a handful of songs with piano accompaniment credited to, perhaps, his father.
Two gnomes, Baldmoney and Sneezewort, set off one spring morning up the Folly Brook in search of the long-lost Cloudberry who, a year before, had himself gone in quest of the stream’s source. They leave behind the older, rather grumpy, Dodder who’d lost a leg to a fox many years ago; thus begins a voyage upriver, full of delights but also fraught with danger and mortal perils.
The Little Grey Men is charming and old-fashioned (with all that implies), a mini-adventure for us but a hardy expedition for the gnomes that undertake the journey. Will they achieve their goal or will it all end in disaster, not least from the prying eyes of Giants?
Joan Aiken: Midnight is a Place
Hodder Children’s Books 2014 (1974)
‘Nowt said breaks no head.’ — Davey Scatcherd
A dark tale of unspoken secrets and kind words, sharp practices and generosity, bravery and steadfastness, all set in a grim manufacturing town may not sound ideal fare for young readers, and yet Joan Aiken to my mind has carried it off. While there is no “Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills” there is hope and optimism amongst the tragedy and a determination that creativity can counteract the bleaker side of human contradictions.
Orphan Lucas Bell is under the guardianship of Sir Randolph Grimsby, privately educated by a a taciturn tutor at the forbidding Midnight Court, hard by the town of Blastburn. As Lucas turns thirteen he is joined by another orphan, Anna-Marie Murgatroyd who, lately come from Calais, speaks only French.
But relationships between these four individuals is somewhat strained as suspicions sour the atmosphere, already fouled by the smoke and grime from nearby Blastburn. Something has to give and for Lucas and others they find it is a case of out of the frying pan, only to find themselves, almost literally, in the fire.
I’ve just started my reread of Joan Aiken’s standalone title Midnight is a Place (1974) and thought I’d say a few introductory words about the fictional town of Blastburn which features so strongly in this novel, set as it is in both an alternate history (or uchronia) as well as an alternate world (or paracosm).
By the way, it has nothing to do with the move called Blast Burn in Pokémon, a term which postdates Joan Aiken’s first Wolves story. More likely is that she was inspired by the development of blast furnaces in the early industrial period: for example, ‘hot blast’ was a method for preheating air blown into iron furnaces, a procedure invented and patented by James Beaumont Neilson in Scotland in 1828, four years before the Chronicles actually start.
Though not officially part of the author’s Wolves Chronicles the mention of Blastburn in this novel brings to mind its appearances earlier in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase(1962) and later in Is(1992, also published as Is Underground). For the purposes of this and subsequent posts I’m going to assume that they all refer to the same place, and this has implications for Blastburn’s geography and chronology.
Vita Sackville-West: No Signposts in the Sea Introduction by Victoria Glendinning 1985 Virago Modern Classics 2002
At the age of fifty Edmund Carr knows he is dying, with just a few months left to him. On impulse he gets what he calls ‘extended leave’ from his job as a leader writer on a broadsheet newspaper and embarks on a round-the-world cruise. He has an ulterior motive, to spend as much of the voyage in the company of an acquaintance, the widow Laura Drysdale, but without letting anyone know of his fatal illness.
All is going well until he succumbs to the dread “green-eyed monster” jealousy in the shape of his perceived rival, Colonel Dalrymple. He finds an outlet for his feelings by confessing all in a journal, noting that writing is
the most egotistic of occupations, and the most gratifying while it lasts.
No Signposts in the Sea is purportedly his journal entries, undated but, we are led to imagine, written some time in the late fifties. What gives added poignancy to this last novel by Vita Sackville-West is that it in many ways parallels the final years of her life spent on cruises with her husband Harold Nicholson: she was to die aged 70 in 1962, the year after this novella was published.
Robertson Davies: The Manticore (1972)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin 2011 (1983)
To live is to battle with trolls
in the vaults of heart and brain.
To write: that is to sit
in judgement over one’s self.
— Henrik Ibsen, extract from a letter, quoted twice in the novel
David Staunton is a criminal lawyer, trained to operate in logical fashion; in a moment of crisis he acts on impulse to seek help, only to find himself plunged into a world in which he has to access parts of himself, parts where rationality has no part to play.
Among so many other things The Manticore turns out to be an exploration of two different ways of apprehending reality: the Platonic modes of Reasoning and Understanding or, as the protagonist comes to know them, the Jungian concepts of Thinking and Feeling.
This novel follows on immediately where Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business left off, in the aftermath of a magic show in a Toronto theatre. In a drunken outburst from the auditorium David publicly demands to know who killed his father, ‘Boy’ Staunton. The enigmatic answer leads him to an analyst in Switzerland: here he delves into the labyrinths of his mind and the caverns of the Alps; here he observes the Comedy Company of the Psyche and examines the figures in the Cabinet of Archetypes, all in a bid to reach the understanding that has eluded him so far.
Eva Ibbotson: The Secret of Platform 13
Macmillan Children’s Books 2009 (1994)
A quest to find a missing prince. A portal that opens for a few days every nine years. A rescue mission by a hand-picked team. Obstacles to be overcome — or else disaster follows. Eva Ibbotson writes a witty narrative that combines a comedy of errors with incipient tragedy, likeable protagonists with a dastardly antagonist, familiar landmarks with an insular fairyland straight out of legend.
Forget cranky critics who archly suggest J K Rowling ripped off ideas from this fantasy for her Boy Who Lived series: bar an access to a magical world via a platform on Kings Cross Station in London — Platform 13 as opposed to Nine & Three Quarters — and a boy rudely separated from his parents (and forced to sleep in a cupboard) there is little else that they share … apart from the usual staples of witches and wizards, fantastic beasts and non-magic users.
The secret of platform 13, revealed in the first few pages, is that there is a kind of wormhole to the Island in the disused Gents toilet on Platform 13, access to which is available only during a narrow window of opportunity. Inhabitants from both worlds can use this ‘gump’ but actually very few non-magical people are aware of it. When the baby prince’s nostalgic nurses make a return visit to London they’re devastated when their charge is kidnapped whilst they’re buying fish and chips, and the Island’s Royal Family have to wait another nine years before an attempt can be made to rescue him.
1867. It’s almost halfway through Victoria’s reign, the American Civil War has not long finished and nouveau-riche industrialists are creating castellated Gothic residences to suggest spurious ancient heritages. From Cyfarthfa Castle (1840) in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales to King Arthur’s Castle Hotel (1899, now the Camelot Castle Hotel) near Tintagel, Cornwall these bastardised edifices stand as monuments to limited imaginations and dubious tastes.
Avalon Castle in Worcestershire is just such an edifice in this mystery romance laced with murder and intrigue by Staffordshire author Rosemary Craddock. Along with family secrets, suspicious deaths, concealed rooms and hidden drawers we have faint Arthurian echoes: damsels in distress and a lady in the lake, for example.
As suits this genre there are also stereotypes out of the pages of Jane Austen, the Brontës and Georgette Heyer, even fairytales such as ‘Bluebeard’, rubbing shoulders with railways, the telegraph and the arms industry.
Tomorrow sees the official start of 20 Books of Summer (as announced by the redoubtable Cathy of 746books.com) and though I’ve rather jumped the gun by already finishing my first book (1) I intend to post the requisite number of book reviews before the event ends on September 3rd. If I somehow don’t get through twenty titles it’ll be 15 Books or even 10 Books of Summer that I’ll be observing.
However, as — too soon — we’ll be at the halfway point of the year in four weeks, this seems as good a time as any for a retrospective. Am I pleased with my progress? Will the quality of what I’ve completed matter more than the quantity? And, more to the point, can I make it all sound entertaining enough to keep your interest?
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.