Tame by modern tastes

mist

Arthur Machen The Great God Pan Parthian Books 2010

Tame by modern tastes:
supernatural horror,
Victorian-style

When I was young I swore by H P Lovecraft while my friend Roger championed Machen. At the time I thought The Hill of Dreams pretty insipid compared to anything with Cthulhu in it. Several decades on I felt that I have to give Machen another chance, as it were, and this edition of The Great God Pan (and the two companion pieces in this volume, The White Pyramid and The Shining People) provided the opportunity.

I still now find Machen fin-de-siècle novels a taste I have yet to acquire. Continue reading “Tame by modern tastes”

Half sick of shadows

Georgian door

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility
Edited with an introduction by Tony Tanner
Penguin English Library 1980 (1811)

Because [Elinor and Marianne] neither flattered herself nor her children [Lady Middleton] could not believe them good-natured; and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.

With a title like Sense and Sensibility it’s easy to think this is merely a novel of contrasting dichotomies. Elder sister Elinor is the sensible one (“sense”) while her younger sister Marianne is the sensitive one (“sensibility”);  Continue reading “Half sick of shadows”

Confounding expectations

dunes

Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands:
a Record of Secret Service

Penguin Popular Classics 1995 (1903)

I don’t normally seek out thrillers, even classic ones such as The Riddle of the Sands, and though this has historic interest – set just before the Second Boer War and scant years before the death of Victoria – it’s not a period I’m particularly interested in. Add to this that it’s about sailing on the North Sea coast of Germany when dismal autumnal fogs abound and it sounds like a novel I would normally pass over. But after an initially slow but deliberately drab beginning the story picks up, starts to tease the imagination and, even for the recalcitrant landlubber, sparks admiration for the enthusiasm and bravery of the two protagonists. Continue reading “Confounding expectations”

Plots worth digging over

plotsChristopher Booker
The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories
Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd 2005

I was attracted to this book for a number of reasons, not least by the fact that its title told you exactly what it was about, reinforced by the witty cover by photographer Jonathan Ring showing a pile of books reflected in a metal film canister. And I was predisposed to like this because of the mix of stimulating ideas that books, both fiction and non-fiction, promise the reader. (Mind you, I tend to read anything, from cereal packets to greetings cards, so it may not take much to stimulate my negligible intellect.)

Booker’s identification of the principal narrative structures underlying the best examples of stories, novels, plays and films is attractive and, viewed retrospectively, intuitively right. Those seven plots Continue reading “Plots worth digging over”

Shakespeare’s The Tragedie of Cymbeline

Scene-II-Act-IV-From-Cymbeline-By-William-Shakespeare-1564-1616
Henry Singleton Scene ii Act IV from Cymbeline http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Henry-Singleton/Scene-II-Act-IV-From-Cymbeline-By-William-Shakespeare-1564-1616.html

Shakespeare was christened on April 26th, 1564, four and a half centuries ago. To mark his birth — traditionally set on St George’s Day, feast day of England’s patron saint, though his actual birthday is not known — Lizzie Ross and I will be looking at one of his more obscure plays, The Tragedie of Cymbeline, act by act until we get to April 26th. We tweeted a similar dialogue with our views on the graphic novel Watchmen.

CymbelineAccording to IMDb a modern version of Cymbeline is due to be released as a film this year, set in New York and starring Ed Harris, Dakota Johson, Ethan Hawke and Milla Jovovich among others. This will be a far cry from either Iron Age Britain, when Cunobelinus ruled from Camulodunum — now Colchester in Essex — or from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicle The History of the Kings of Britain, which in turn supplied Cymbeline as a fantasy character to later inspire Shakespeare via Holinshed’s Chronicles.

But despite the title, this is not primarily a tale about the king — as we will no doubt see.

 

Characters that stick in the memory

Charles Dickens (aged 27 in 1839) by Daniel Maclise Wikipedia Commons / National Portrait Gallery
Charles Dickens (aged 27 in 1839) by Daniel Maclise
Wikipedia Commons / National Portrait Gallery

Charles Dickens Great Expectations
Collins Classic, HarperPress 2010 (1861)

Characters stick in
my memory: Estella,
Joe, Miss H. And yours?

I find it hard to distinguish between the images furnished by my first reading of this and by the BBC serialisation in the 60s. I suspect that the TV version came first and influenced my rather rapid reading of the novel where I omitted all the characterisation, social commentary, landscape descriptions and comedy in favour of rooting out the plain narrative. So, Great Expectations for me then was a mix of two themes, the rags-to-riches story of Pip and the boy-meets-girl-but-it-doesn’t-go-smoothly tale of Pip’s infatuation with Estella, and hang the rich tapestry of life in early 19th-century rural Kent and teeming London which Dickens grew up with.

I’m so glad I gave this a second chance, and that with maturity and experience am able to more fully appreciate the subtleties and nuances of Dickens’ story. Continue reading “Characters that stick in the memory”

No place

yucatan2
The Yucatan peninsula: More’s model for Utopia?

Lorainne G Stobbart Utopia, Fact or Fiction?
The Evidence from the Americas  Sutton Publishing Ltd 1992

It is 1492, when Columbus sails the ocean blue. Though it is that tipping point when the European consciousness is suddenly expanded by the knowledge that it has genuinely discovered a New World, it takes Columbus until 1498, when on his third expedition, to realise that he has touched on the mainland of ‘a very great continent, until today unknown.’ He explores the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad and the shores of Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama before his death in 1506.

But he is not the only explorer. Continue reading “No place”

A secret never to be told

San Vitale mosaics
Justinian and his court, San Vitale, Ravenna (Wikipedia Commons)

Procopius The Secret History
Translated and introduced by G A Williamson
Penguin Classics 1981 (1966)

I’ve never yet been to Istanbul — formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium — but I have been to Ravenna on Italy’s east coast. Here the visitor can glimpse some of the glory that was Byzantium of old in the form of the magnificent mosaics, located in various surviving structures such as the Arian Baptistry, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and the Basilica of San Vitale. Amidst splendid religious mosaics of Christ’s baptism and the Adoration of the Magi are more secular images, in particular of the 6th-century Emperor Justinian I, his Empress Theodora and possibly the general Belisarius. These are icons meant to impress, and it’s noteworthy that the heads of the two imperial figures are each surrounded by a nimbus — what we recognise as the halo associated with Christ and the saints but which was also, as here, applied to rulers or heroes. To see these figures so bedecked with jewels and crowns and aureoles one would be rightly suspect a measure of self-glorification; but in truth, if their contemporary the writer Procopius is to be believed, no two individuals were less suited to being portrayed thus in a Christian context.

Justinian, Theodora
Justinian and Theodora, San Vitale, Ravenna (Wikipedia Commons)

Continue reading “A secret never to be told”

Bookcheats

books

#bookcheat: literature classic (or maybe classic literature) summarized in 140 characters or less

Do you recognise the following books based on descriptions I’ve tweeted using the #bookcheat hashtag? They’re either familiar classics of their genre or that rather amorphous category, modern classics. (The tag is sometimes defined as ‘we read the books so you don’t have to’.)

Anthropoids adopt orphan, future lord of jungle also English milord. Concrete jungle a challenge, loses heart.

See, it’s easy! Try this one:

Alternate history by lofty châtelain in alternate history. Authentic? Chance, and Dick, will tell.

No? Perhaps you haven’t read the same SF as me. And I do agree that it reads a bit like a cryptic crossword clue. Here’s a work I reviewed recently:

Graphic novel graphic & novel: vigilantes pawns in megalomaniac plot to end all wars. Will it work? Will it hell!

This may find you traipsing all over the place:

Hubby works overseas, then Med cruise with mates before return. Is wifey faithful? Gold-diggers made to bow out.

There, that was a gift. Final one:

Quintessential kids novel, sometimes insular, when beast joins quartet to revive family fortunes.

You really don’t need any clues to solve the last riddle…

Kingsley’s riddle

Linley Sambourne
Linley Sambourne

Charles Kingsley The Water-Babies:
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby

Edited with introduction and notes by Brian Alderson
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press 1995 (1863)

The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in 1863, exactly a century-and-a-half ago this summer. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself pretty much a half-century ago in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:

Come read me my riddle, each good little man:
If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.

Continue reading “Kingsley’s riddle”

A critical yet teasing tone

Jane Austen?
A putative Jane Austen portrait

Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice Everyman 1993

To my deep shame I have never before now read this classic (and I’m not counting skimming pages, nor watching the TV and film versions). I’m not sure whether it was false pride or male prejudice that stopped me (the label ‘romance’ would have been enough to put me off when I was younger) or simply laziness (most probably this), but I now know what I’ve been missing: a witty but perspicacious novel, not as hard to comprehend as parodies suggested, and, though set in a period of history I’m not over-familiar with, a primary social document on manners and presumptions in the Napoleonic era. Continue reading “A critical yet teasing tone”

A classic feelgood story

E Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers:
Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children
in Search of A Fortune

Puffin 1995 (1899)

Bastable orphans
hope to reverse ill fortune
but land in pickles.

This was the first of Nesbit’s successful children’s books which began life as a serial and which was published in book form in 1899. Dedicated to the scholar and journalist Oswald Barron, its dedicatee furnished the name of the narrator who recounts the ‘adventures of the Bastable children in search of a fortune’ to revive the failing career of their widower father. The children (Dora, Oswald, Dicky, Alice, Noel and Horace Octavius) use the time when their father cannot afford to send them to school to seek for ways to make money in order to return the family to its former comfortable estate.

This is a charming story which reflects the middle-class gentility prevalent in England more than a century ago (observed in detail in A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book) before the horrors of the First World War changed things forever. The children’s approach to fortune-seeking, influenced by their reading and popular culture, gets them into scrapes from which their honesty and honorableness generally rescue them.

Continue reading “A classic feelgood story”