Sharp-eyed followers of my posts will have realised I have a thing about maps, real as well as fictional, and any that are a kind of halfway house too. In addition they may have noted that a few of my reviews have been as much about islands as they’ve been about lands.
In fact I even considered what I might include as my Desert Island Books, should I ever be cast ashore on a sea-girt piece of earth with a climate which didn’t rot the binding, curl the pages, or fade the print.
I was curious about which islands I’d actually visited on this blog, and which if any I’d be happy to be a castaway on. So here is a rapid tour of a selection of some of them, some of which you may have sojourned on yourselves, and I shall end with an attempt to settle on my ideal. (Links will mostly take you to my reviews.)
The A26 by Pascal Garnier, Melanie Florence, translator.
Gallic Books 2013.
Roads. Railway lines. Lives. Where do they begin and end? But end they must. Dead.
It’s the early nineties and a motorway is carving its way through the northeast French countryside. The construction of the A26 (the autoroute des Anglais as it now known) in its impersonal way inevitably affects the communities in its vicinity, disrupting lives in unforeseen ways and, in this novella, becoming an unexpected harbinger of death.
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
by J R R Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien.
HarperCollins 2010 (2009)
Middle Earth author | resets ancient Norse sagas | in Modern English.
One of the best-known heroes in Norse mythology, Sigurd is better known as Siegfried from German versions of the legends, and his exploits and interactions – from killing a dragon and re-forging a mighty sword, say, to his relationships with his wife Gudrún, with warrior princess Brynhild and with a host of other personages – characterise him as much as they echo the exploits and interactions of other heroes in other times and cultures.
Here Tolkien attempts a harmonisation of the various early tales, particularly those in the Poetic Edda, and versifies them in English as ‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’ (in ten parts) and ‘The New Lay of Gudrún’, using forms and alliteration modelled on those early originals.
This posthumous publication ought by rights to appeal to a wide range of readers, from hobbit-fanciers to Wagnerites, from poets to psychologists, and from medieval literature specialists to mythologists, but I suspect it will end up satisfying only those whose interests overlap a number of these categories; for any single one of those categories of readers it may well end up a disappointment.
“Never judge a book by its cover, except if it’s a Jeffrey Archer”
— Traditional saying
If, when looking for a good read, we have already been attracted by a title or author or blurb, then that first opening sentence is crucial — especially in an age of channel-hopping, soundbites and eight-second attention spans. Have you switched off yet?
As with all specialist literature, Arthurian prose literature should predispose the sympathetic reader to read on, not move on. Here, for that reader, is the beginning of the classic example of that literature, from the fifteenth century:
Hit befel in the dayes of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned, that there was a myghty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil
(Thomas Malory, in Vinaver 1954).
How did that grab you? Are you on the edge of your seat? Or are you yawning already? And do 20th century re-tellings of Malory follow that pattern?
In the old days, as it is told, there was a king in Britain named Uther Pendragon (Picard 1955).
This is clearly a literary descendant of Malory, but some concession has been made for a juvenile readership in that it is shorter and punchier without losing its poetic, almost biblical cadences.
Here is another opening:
After wicked King Vortigern had first invited the Saxons to settle in Britain and help him to fight the Picts and Scots, the land was never long at peace (Green 1953).
A lot of information is offered, and assumptions made about prior historical knowledge. For this version, the author’s principle is that “the great legends, like the best of the fairy tales, must be retold from age to age: there is always something new to be found in them, and each retelling brings them freshly and more vividly before a new generation” (Green 1953, 13). There are some value judgements here, aren’t there? Malory is not vivid enough for us moderns; and Retellings are always fresh. In some instances there may be an element of truth in these assumptions. Here now is the beginning of T H White’s re-casting of Malory:
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology (White 1958).
There is nothing here initially to suggest an Arthurian setting, but the combination of whimsy and exactitude may be sufficiently intriguing to draw a non-Arthurian further into the book. This is certainly both a vivid and a fresher approach to the Matter. How have other Arthurian authors approached their craft?
“To everything (turn, turn, turn) There is a season (turn, turn, turn) And a time to every purpose Under heaven.”
As we drift past Imbolc and Candlemas, halfway points between the midwinter solstice and the spring equinox, I have been considering how season-centred some of my recent reading has been. And even my current read, Le Guin’s Malafrena, has so far been calibrated by principal periods of the year, especially the long hot summers and the winter feasts.
It might be an interesting exercise to consider how much fiction relies on not just space — and I’ll discuss this a bit more presently — but on the passage of time, especially certain liminal occasions; for, let’s face it, every moment is a liminal experience, balanced on a fulcrum of the present, between past and future, and frequently fraught with promise and danger.
With a bunch of fellow English students I’m visiting Paris for the first time, the year before the student riots. We briefly consider sleeping under a bridge, but then sensibly head for a youth hostel where my marginally superior French allows me to successfully negotiate for sheets, pillows and blankets. Our seasoned leader (in the sense that he’s been to Paris before) suggests we go for French onion soup at Les Halles early next morning. Very early. We stumble about the smells and sounds and bustle of Paris’ central wholesale market, aware that the French equivalent of London’s Smithfield has a limited life expectancy. It is eventually demolished in 1971.
I don’t revisit the area until 1998: the unloved replacement shopping forum is shunned for the prettier environs of the nearby church of Saint-Eustache with its outside sculpture of an outsize head and hand — this representation of a listening giant by Henri de Miller reminds me faintly of a dismembered corpse.
Smells and corpses dominate the area immediately south of Les Halles. The cemetery of Les Innocents is full to bursting — in fact bodies have already spilled into the basements of neighbouring houses. The foetid smell of decomposition penetrates and permeates everything — clothes, the air, food, breath. The King has decided the cemetery must go, to be replaced by a public open space. The church of the Holy Innocents, the ossuaries or charnel houses, monuments, everything substantial is to be demolished; the bones, the contents of the mass graves, are to be removed to a quarry across the Seine, a complex of underground galleries which will become known as the Paris Catacombs. The whole enterprise will take until 1788 to complete. One year before the Revolution.
Collections of short stories are, I’ve found, tricky things to review compared to a solid novel or longish novella. The reasons are as various as the pieces in the collection can be:
there may be too many individual stories to cover them all in any detail;
mere listing of the contents doesn’t, in my view, constitute a review but often that seems to be main option, which is a disservice to those hoping to decide whether to read the volume;
the selection may be uneven in quality with any poor specimens bringing down the standard of the collection and thus one’s overall assessment;
the variety in terms of subject matter, tone, length and order also make an overall assessment difficult.
But without reviews how is one to tread the labyrinth of the Library of Brief Narratives? I have a number of such collections in my purview waiting for my perusal and assessment so I have those paths to follow.
In the meantime, here is an overview of some of the collections I have reviewed, with brief commentary, for those (like, I think, Cath Humphries) hoping for signposts to new pastures. For this first of two posts I look at collections with a realist slant (links are to my reviews).
Kirsty from The Literary Sisters recently reposted one of their pieces with the title Books about Gardens, which I was so taken with that I’m going to do my version, now, at the height of summer.
As the title suggests, I’m going to refer to books I’ve read, with links to any reviews, that have dealt one way or another with gardens in the modern era. I could have included references to gardens in the wider sense — the Middle Eastern concept of the paradise garden, or Thomas Browne’s 1658 overview The Garden of Cyrus, or turf mazes and labyrinths and the wildernesses of landscape gardening — but I’ve chosen to limit myself mostly to fiction, with just a couple of excursions beyond the paling.
Additionally, I note that these are in the main the grand gardens of English country houses or urban mansions rather than the more modest domestic examples of town terraces and the suburbs or examples from abroad. It’s something I need to address in a future post, whether they exist, say, in Mesopotamian mythology, in Chinese culture, the global tradition of public open spaces or Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories.
Jostein Gaarder: The Ringmaster’s Daughter (original title Sirkusdirektørens datter 2001) Translated by James Anderson Phoenix 2003
The Baltic Sea is well known for its amber, solidified resin from forests around 44 million years old, and frequently trapped in these deposits are various flora and fauna of the period. The most striking image in The Ringmaster’s Daughter, which symbolises one of its major themes, is of a spider caught in this matrix, just like its victims might be caught in its web.
The story that gives the novel its title concerns a trapeze artist who falls and breaks her neck. As the ringmaster bends over her injured body he sees an amber trinket on a slender chain around her neck, which he recognises as one he had given to a daughter he hasn’t seen for years.
The importance of this tale of the lost daughter is underlined by it being told, with variations, three times during the course of the novel, in the presence of each of the three most important women in the narrator’s life.
I don’t think I’m the only person to be intrigued, even fascinated, by make-believe fictional books that appear in real fictional books. The kind of books that you could almost credit existed once, indeed heartily wish did exist in fact, whether or not you have any intention of reading them.
While reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising I recently did a little list of these works that I’d really like to imagine as existing and available, if not in our own then at least in some parallel universe. Various websites have selections of such fictional books — for example, Wikipedia’s is here — but I’ve deliberately not consulted these, relying instead on memories of novels I’ve read (all links are to my reviews or posts) or intend to read soon.
The sources for the fictional books are listed afterwards: the books themselves are in no particular order other than as they occurred to me.
My relationship with books is a bit like that one has with passengers in a slow-moving lift, a relationship which is perfectly illustrated by a visit to my bedside table. Here, alongside reading glasses and case, watch, alarm clock, notebook and pen sit a couple of piles of books. (We won’t talk, just now, of the ones that sit out of sight in the top drawer.) I’m a rather faithless reader, picking up books that take my fancy, sometimes sticking with one for the duration but mostly flitting from one to another. I like to pretend that I do this because different titles advantageously inform each other; but it may simply be that I have a goldfish brain, unable to sustain a thought for long.
“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” — Ray Bradbury
In Europe in recent years we seem to have suffered a number of terrorist attacks without precedent, along with reports of covert interference in the internal politics of several nations by foreign powers. It’s easy, I’d imagine, to believe that things are worse than they have ever been but history shows that international espionage, anarchist acts (“the propaganda of the deed”), political assassinations and terrorist atrocities are nothing new.
In fact it’s not just history text books that reflect on attempts to upset the established order, benign or malign as it may be. So does fiction, and it’s interesting to look at novels that come out of a particular period, such as fin-de-siècle London and the years before the Great War, to see how past generations of writers reacted to acts of aggression in times of perceived peace.
I have a confession: I’m not a fan of Arthurian fiction.
There, I’ve said it. Why so? It comes from a half century of involvement in Arthurian matters, from archaeological research to editing a society journal, during which I came into forced contact with innumerable theories about ‘rex quondam’ in fiction, in non-fiction and creative non-fiction. Some were plausible, most were speculative, and whole libraries of them were, frankly, preposterous. So in a way I’m the last person to be enthusiastic about this particular literary genre.
And yet, there are aspects I delight in. In amongst the many servings of clichéd tropes (many even falling far short of Steinbeck’s 1976 Malory-inspired The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights) there are gems that catch the eye. Three overlapping areas I’ve noticed concern the King himself, Merlin and the Grail, so I shall divide this discussion into these three sections. Also, along the spectrum shading from history to legend is another axis taking us from an imagined past to a future via a notional ‘present’. To keep things a little focused I shall confine myself to the 20th century; needless to say this is neither a comprehensive survey nor an impersonal one.
“Who’s the daddy?” is a Cockney phrase used to imply the dominance of the speaker — to which the statement “You’re not the boss of me now” could be seen as an optimistic rejoinder — but, too often, the daddy turns out to be a bad ‘un. The big bad boss figure — the bully boy or the strong-arm man, sometimes a threatening witch-like figure — is a powerful archetype which, reflecting real life, often appears in literature, from children’s tales to classical legends. The ‘baddie’ reaches their apotheosis in fantasy literature, where no end of baddies are the mainstay of the conflict that drives the plot along until, for the most part, they are defeated. Indeed, ‘Overcoming the Monster’ is claimed as one of the seven basic plots* that all narratives rest on.
I’ve been more than aware of these baddies in recent reading and so would like to explore this theme a little bit, though this post won’t be more than a very superficial skimming over of a deep ocean of antecedents, analogues, varieties and meanings.
I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…
I’m not great with self-imposed challenges, as you may have noticed: I didn’t complete an author alphabet challenge a couple of years ago, barely started on an attempt to read more authors not from an Anglo-American milieu, stalling on my task of reducing my to-be-read pile of books. In fact by instinct I’m a bit of a flibbertigibbet, strolling from one random title to another, as the mood takes me.
Only, my randonneur leanings may not be as random as I thought.
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.