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.
What is it about literary landscapes that makes some of us want to be there? And when the places are fictional how can we still put ourselves in those spaces?
Jem Lester: Shtum.
Orion 2017 (2016)
For many of us life already makes huge demands — relationships, health and wellbeing, financial concerns, managing a work-life balance — but when you have a dependent with severe autism those demands are compounded, and can bring one close to breaking point. However much love is given out. Jem Lester’s Shtum is about a man in just such a position; but while it is drawn largely on the author’s own experiences bringing up a son on the autistic spectrum it is nevertheless fiction. Still, autism runs as a major strand throughout. Shtum is also about how its manifestation here fits into a bigger picture involving individuals, institutions and collective responses.