A sad tale’s best for winter

Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)
Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)

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.

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Findism, not escapism

Kidslit: a random selection of children’s fiction

Katherine Rundell:
Why You Should Read Children’s Books
Even Though You Are So Old and Wise
Bloomsbury Publishing 2019

This insightful and beautifully written essay fits into a slim 63-page hardback but contains as many worthy gems as many a longer study. In nearly a dozen sections Katherine Rundell, herself a children’s author, makes a powerful case for juvenile fiction not being inferior to adult fiction but worthy in its own right; and, more than that, it can offer what much adult fiction can’t or won’t.

The author tries to put her finger on what those qualities are and, in my opinion, pretty much succeeds. All this review will aim to do is to give a flavour of the main points she enumerates.

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Yorkshire lasses

Les Sœurs Brontë 1848

An intriguing photographic image, with Les Sœurs Brontë written on its reverse, was found earlier this decade in a private Scottish collection by Robert Haley from Lancashire while he was researching for a book on Victorian photography.

As Haley explains in detail on his Brontë Sisters website this monochrome picture of three young women, two of them facing a third who is looking directly at the camera — and at us — can tell us a lot about when and where it was taken, what processes the portrait went through and, most importantly, who these women really were.

Haley makes a convincing case that the woman with the very frank gaze (possibly because she’s short-sighted) is Charlotte Brontë and the other two her sisters, Emily and Anne. Equally, he argues — using visual evidence — that the woman in the middle with the Jenny Lind hat is Emily, and the figure with the aquiline nose Anne.

The collodion image is likely to have been copied from a daguerreotype taken between the death of their brother Branwell and that of Emily in, he calculates, late 1848, at a studio in York.

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Attention to detail

1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont

Robertson Davies:
World of Wonders (1975)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin 2011

‘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.

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A Grail quest in Catalonia

Joseph Goering:
The Virgin and the Grail;
Origins of a Legend
Yale University Press 2005

South of the high peaks of the Pyrenees and bounded by Aragon to the west and Andorra to the east lies a corner of Catalonia that offers an unexpected but strangely satisfying explanation for the literary Grail’s medieval antecedents.

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Green flash

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.

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Vaults of heart and brain

Manticore, Edward Topsell (1607)

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.

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