Mighty pleased with herself

Balthus: ‘Jeune Fille en Vert et Rouge’ (1944)

The Collectors by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books, 2022 (2014).

‘What a very pretty girl. D’you know who she is?’ ‘No idea,’ said the Bursar, ‘but she looks mighty pleased with herself.’

p 68

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” opines a character in The Winter’s Tale, thus confirming that the tradition for ghostly, tragic accounts has a long and distinguished pedigree. Many and varied are the expected ingredients for such narratives, their purpose to excite shivers of nervous anticipation. The author of this short story duly delivers the shivers with his particular concoction.

In order to give grounding to some aspects of the unspecified ivory-towered institution mentioned in the story Pullman seems to have based it on his own Oxford alma mater, Exeter College, setting it a couple of years after he’d graduated in 1968. But this college seems to be an altogether spookier place, and that’s down to the recipe typically specified for such winter tales.

The ingredients, many chosen from late Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, include a cloistered setting with academics, curious objects which exude a baleful influence, a hint of mysterious or even otherworldly origins, and of course an unexplained death or two. What gives The Collectors its especial flavour is its implicit link with the worlds of Pullman’s His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, but – as with any good winter’s tale – it has to stand on its own merits. Does it do so?

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Watching the story unroll

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner.
4th Estate, 2022 (2021).

‘Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!’

Treacle Walker

Deceptively simple yet cunningly wrought, Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker defies categorisation. Instead of easily slipping into one genre or another it does what many good stories do – it intrigues, enthralls, makes one think, conjures up images, presents distinct characters, and takes us through from start to finish before the stern critic can adjust their spectacles and sharpen their quill.

And, too, Garner does so much with so little. He gives us a limited cast of characters – Joseph Coppock, Treacle Walker, Thin Amren – and conjures up established figures from a classic British kids comic which ran from 1939 to 1963. He sets his story in a mythical landscape which evokes aspects of the Cheshire he knows so well and which feature in much of his writing. And he presents a hazy, elastic timeline which mixes the ancient past, his mid-century childhood, and the timeless feel of a fable or fairytale.

But above all this is the work of a visionary poet, of a shaman who is describing a journey to a spirit world. Nominations for literary and fantasy awards may come his way but we do Garner an injustice if we attempt to pigeonhole what he creates.

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Walls closing in

Winter on the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Black Sheep by Susan Hill.
Vintage Books 2014 (2015)

Whenever he clambered down the steep track home he felt the walls closing in on him and his spirit shrivel and darken.

Chapter 11

Unremittingly bleak, Susan Hill’s novella set in a fictional pit village focuses on the Howker family, sometime in the 1930s. Villages built up around collieries exist only for the colliery’s needs, with the miners’ day based on the progression of shift, meal, sleep and return to work, the chapel or the weekend dance at the Institute bringing some scant variety, and the woman’s role confined purely to servicing the requirements of their menfolk’s work.

Life beyond the pit village of Mount of Zeal can scarcely be imagined by its inhabitants, but at least two and maybe three of the Howker family dream of escaping the misery of the daily treadmill. When they make the attempt, one to try his hand at sheep farming, say, or another to marry outside of the workforce, they run the risk of being regarded as the black sheep of the family.

Will they make their own way in life or will circumstances force them to return to the fold?

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Psychological puzzle

Paris

Maigret Defends Himself
by Georges Simenon.
Translated by Howard Curtis (2019).
Penguin Classics 2019 (1964).

Another way to translate Simenon’s Maigret se défend is ‘Maigret on the defensive’: as a title it’s slightly more indicative of the Detective Chief Inspector’s state of mind, I think, than the more legalistic or pugilistic stance suggested by the version offered in Howard Curtis’s new translation. Because this policier is about two related psychologies — Maigret’s, and that of the unknown person who is trying to tarnish Maigret’s reputation and career — the resulting conflict does rather put him on the defensive.

When Maigret and his physician friend Dr Pardon discuss whether the policeman has ever come across a ‘truly wicked’ and spiteful criminal they are not to know that Maigret will soon feel such a person could exist when Maigret is deliberately placed in a compromising position, threatening to lead to his enforced early retirement.

But his usual patient detecting methods which eventually lead to criminal perpetrators being identified may have met their match when he comes up against entrenched privilege and influence; are he and Mme Maigret facing an uneventful sequestered life in Meung-sur-Loire in place of the metropolitan bustle they’ve become used to? Or will he go against his superiors’ express orders to get to the bottom of matter?

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Thicker than water

Mother and Child: lithograph by Henry Moore

Clara’s Daughter
by Meike Ziervogel.
Salt Publishing 2014.

Sometimes we’re never so alone as when we’re with other people; and yet even in solitude we can find it next to impossible to form a relationship with our inner selves. Meike Ziervogel’s novella cleverly plays with the disconnect between the several roles we play—as parents, partners, professionals, siblings, children—and our authentic selves.

The title hints at that disconnect. So too does the narrative, told now in third-, now in first-person, conveying immediacy in its consistent use of present tense but disorientating with some scenes told out of chronological sequence. And as we flit from observing the points of view of one character and then another we find them adrift in emotional seas, the distances between them widening as they float further apart.

Described as a ‘psychological thriller’ — though there aren’t any major shocks, I feel, nor are we confronted with individuals who are psychologically complex — this is really a family tragedy with an ending that, retrospectively, feels almost inevitable. That incipient inevitability doesn’t however stop one engaging with the narrative as it unfolds.

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Tempered by mercy

Inspector Chopra & the Million Dollar Motor Car
by Vaseem Khan.
Mulholland Books/Hodder.

This was Mumbai, after all, the city that not only never slept, but also kept all the neighbours awake by playing loud music all night.

The premise of this locked room mystery is that an expensive vintage racing car has been stolen from a prestige motor showroom in Mumbai and the manager, an Englishman called Jon Carter, calls in retired Inspector Ashwin Chopra to discover its whereabouts as a matter of urgency. Why urgent? Because bloody murders may result from its not being found.

Chopra’s task seems insurmountable, as he has just hours to solve the case with all leads arriving at dead ends. But it’s good fortune that he has a baby elephant in tow, an unexpected gift from a relative, and, with the help of this pachyderm (called, aptly, Ganesha) and the familiar flashes of insight that fictional detectives customarily get, Chopra inches towards the solution.

So, justice will be done, as suits the inspector’s virtuous instincts. But will it be justice tempered by mercy or will a metaphorical pound of flesh be the price to pay for the commission of the crime?

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Godforsaken paths

The third temptation of Christ: Christ and the devil on a pinnacle of the temple.’ Coloured chromolithograph after John Martin. Wellcome Collection.  (CC BY 4.0)

One Billion Years to the End of the World
by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky,
translated by Antonina W Bouis (1978).
Penguin Classics Science Fiction 2020 (1977).

“I was told that this road
would take me to the ocean of death,
and turned back halfway.
Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.”

Yosano Akiko (attributed)

A physicist, a biologist, an engineer, an orientalist and a mathematician walk into an astrophysicist’s apartment. No, it’s not the start of a joke but essentially the main action of this immersive novella by the Strugatsky brothers, also translated as Definitely Maybe: A Manuscript Discovered Under Unusual Circumstances.

Set in 1970s St Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, most of the action takes place in astrophysicist Dmitri Malianov’s apartment while his wife and son escape the city’s hot and humid July oppressiveness in Odessa on the Black Sea. Here he seems to be on the brink of discovering a link between stars and interstellar matter which he dubs ‘Malianov cavities’.

But he is constantly being interrupted, by phone calls, a delivery from the deli, even a visit from one of his wife Irina’s schoolfriends. And he is not the only specialist who isn’t able to settle to achieving a breakthrough — which is where the physicist, biologist, engineer, orientalist and mathematician come in. What is there to link their inability to progress their work, and who or what is causing it?

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Humdrum and lacklustre

graves

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill.
Profile Books 2014 (2013)

Hugh Meredith is a junior doctor in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, lodging near Fleet Street in London and training nearby at the fictitious medical school of St Luke’s. He is drawn into a mysterious enterprise set up by fellow students Walter Powell and Rafe McAllister, namely bringing a dead person back to life. The results of witnessing the experiment come literally to haunt him in this novella by Susan Hill.

The question I asked myself is, does this short story (a little over 100 pages) live up to the reputation that the author’s ghost tales have established for her?

The answer, surprisingly and disappointingly, is no.

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A song unfinished

Carson McCullers

The Ballad of the Sad Café
by Carson McCullers.
Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics,
Penguin Books, 1963 (1951)

A novella, six short stories, along with innumerable themes and motifs are here united, packed into a slim volume of consummate writing which has lost none of its power in the seventy years since first appearing in 1951. Mostly set in Georgia and New York, with one or two fictional locations (possibly the author’s home town of Columbus, Georgia under other names) plus a brief visit to Paris, the stories deal with loneliness, unfulfilled ambitions, and love; they are by turns humorous and heart-rending, wistful and whimsical.

What gives them a special strength is the sense of their being based on lived experiences, certain situations echoing aspects of the author’s own life without necessarily being autobiographical. Add to this a musician’s sensibility in the phrasing, cadence and tempo and it’s unsurprising that these narratives are akin to Albumblätter: these were short instrumental pieces that were popular in the nineteenth century, independent compositions which were then published in collections.

Appearing in various periodicals between 1936 and 1951 the stories were collected under the umbrella title of The Ballad of the Sad Café, and as befits an author who had originally planned to pursue her studies in piano at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music, many of her pieces feature music in one way or another.

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Back home to me

Whooper Swan: engraving by Thomas Bewick

Swan Song by Gill Lewis.
Barrington Stoke 2021

Somehow this was a profounder and more affecting novella than I was expecting. Written for older pre-teens and later readers it’s written from the point of view of Dylan, a lad who hasn’t made a smooth transition from primary to secondary education and has now been permanently excluded from his urban school.

Taken by his mother to stay with her estranged father in Wales he appears to be at rock bottom, friendless in a strange land and offline to boot. But it turns out to be the best thing that has yet happened to him as he learns to look outwards rather than remaining locked in within himself.

Throw away any preconceptions about this being a mere run-of-the-mill feelgood story. It alludes to childhood depression, the difficulties facing one-parent families, loss of loved ones, trauma and the threat of environmental despoliation. And it shows that, given not only the will and the right conditions but also an innate predisposition, it’s possible to see a way through what seems like an intolerable situation.

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The ogre, the fairy, and the bird

The lighthouse, by Peter Scott (1946)

The Snow Goose
by Paul Gallico,
illustrations by Peter Scott.
Michael Joseph 1946 (1941)

This classic novella is so well known but I have to confess I’ve never got round to it until now. Yet it was worth the wait to enjoy this little offering of bittersweetness, a story with one foot in fable and the other in fact, to relish the natural world it celebrates and the poetic language it’s couched in.

Published eight decades ago in 1941, amidst the dark days of war and threatened invasion, The Snow Goose is set in a specified time and place but also retains a universal appeal, talking as it does about local suspicions and latent love, about conflicts and about kindness.

It also has the ring of authenticity in being inspired by real places and people and events, and while clearly highly fictionalised there is a kind of truth about it that becomes almost mythic.

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The love you take

Photo © C A Lovegrove

In the Sweep of the Bay
by Cath Barton.
Louise Walters Books 2020

“… And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make.”
— The Beatles, ‘The End’ from the album Abbey Road

Cath Barton’s new novella, as much as her debut The Plankton Collector, focuses on individuals and their relationships; as before, she presents her tale as a series of vignettes which invite us to observe without intruding, to sympathise while yearning for resolutions which may or mayn’t come.

That she manages to offer us portraits which feel both authentic and honest is testament to her skill and makes the novella such a delight to read. What could have been an exercise in sheer nostalgia becomes a bittersweet reflection of hopes and dreams succeeding and failing, of love blighted by suspicion, and of truths both revealed and covered over.

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An abyss next to you

Image: WordPress Free Photo Library

Serpentine
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books 2020

“That horrible endless bottomless— It must be like having an abyss right next to you every moment, knowing it’s there all the time . . . Just horrible.”

A year after the events in Lyra’s Oxford, but well before the action described in The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra and Pantalaimon are off on an archaeological dig organised by Jordan College, investigating a settlement of the Proto-Fisher people in the Trollesund region of Arctic Norroway.

While there they take the opportunity to visit Dr Lanselius, consul to the witch clans of the north, whom the pair want to ask about the separation that the witches can achieve with their dæmons. But Lanselius already knows about Lyra and Pan’s ability to separate, the result of the trauma that took place when Pan couldn’t follow Lyra to the Land of the Dead in The Amber Spyglass.

When Pan and Lanselius’s serpent dæmon go out of the room to converse, not only does Lyra know the consul has the same ability but she is also able to discuss the other separation that has taken place since they came back together, one which has meant their former easy familiarity is not only strained but is resulting in a growing alienation she finds most distressing.

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A wanting, a yearning

Lark by Anthony McGowan.
The Truth of Things 4,
Barrington Stoke 2020 (2019)

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was meant to be a stroll, a laugh.

A lark.

Going for a walk on the Yorkshire moors when you’re underprepared is never a good idea. Especially when snow is on the way,and you’ve set off later than you should have. And when you’re responsible for your brother who has learning difficulties.

Teenager Nicky and his older brother are filling in time before their mother flies in for a visit with the boys and their father, from whom she’s divorced. As a way to distract them from excitement mixed in with some anxiety, their father suggests a little expedition on a walk he used to do as a lad.

But Nicky is inexperienced and underestimates the dangers involved; it’s a lot of responsibility to load onto his shoulders. It’s all very well to buoy up Kenny with stories he has thought up — until they find themselves embroiled in a real-life story which mayn’t have a happy ending.

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Battles lost and won

SS Normandie 1932-46

Chess by Stefan Zweig
(Schachnovelle 1941),
translated by Anthea Bell.
Penguin Modern Classics 2017 (2006)

I had projected the chessboard and chessmen into my mind, where I could now survey the positions of the pieces on the board by means of the formulae alone, just as a mere glance at a score is enough for a trained musician to hear all the separate parts of a piece and the way they sound together.

Chess is a taut psychological tale, fascinating for both its narrative and for its almost autobiographical character. Set on a liner going from New York to Buenos Aires in 1941, this is a novella of triumph and tragedy depicting a battle of wits between mismatched players, a parable of its own time and for all time. Knowing that this was the last fiction by the author before his suicide Chess takes on an extra piquancy, but the reader doesn’t need to be overly aware of this detail to appreciate the story for its own sake.

In this edition the novella is a scant eighty-odd pages, which allows one to see how the composition is structured, the major themes that are employed, the counterpoint which is brought into play and the key instruments, each with their own tone colour, that come to the fore as in a piece of chamber music.

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