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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Emotional landscapes

Nina Bawden: Squib
Illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Puffin Books 1973 (1971)

‘Little children understand magic,’ her mother had said once. ‘It’s a gift you lose as you grow older.’

Squib is a marvellous tale about how children of a certain age look to fairytales to help them make sense of the world. In a little waif which they call Squib Kate sees either a changeling or the ghost of her younger brother swept out to sea years before; siblings Sammy and Prue want Squib as an otherworldly playmate but are worried that he’s guarded by a witch in a wood; Prue and Sammy’s brother Robin wants to pursue ‘useless’ subjects like Latin and classical Greek at school but sees himself as a reluctant hero when wrongs need to be righted and Squib needs rescuing.

And the adults, have they truly lost the gift of understanding magic? Kate’s mother — an illustrator of children’s books — believes that ‘in real life there aren’t any right true happy endings. You have to get used to things as they are.’ Meanwhile, Robin’s mother was once a competitive swimmer but thinks she will never have the need to demonstrate her skills in this department again. Is life so cruel then that dreams face being forever dashed?

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An unhappy ménage

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome
Introduction and notes by Pamela Knights
Wordsworth Classics 2004 (1911)

The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ.

Even this passage, full as it is with the exhilaration and joys of sledding in the snow, is full of the portent of tragedy: the night is hollow — it opens out below them like the abyss — the sound of the organ evokes both weddings and funeral services. The settlement of Starkfield, desolate both by name and by nature, has a secret in the form of Ethan Frome which a visitor, an engineer, seeks to penetrate. It is a sad tale, yet one with an unexpected ending.

Ethan, sometime in the late 19th century and somewhere in the mountains of Massachusetts, is cursed with a loveless and childless marriage and a failing timber business, any prospects of advancement and intellectual satisfaction denied to him due to having a semi-invalid hypochondriac partner to support.

When his wife’s cousin, Mattie, saved from destitution by coming to stay and help in the house, proves younger, more convivial and attractive compared to Zenobia, he can’t help but feel a lighter heart when Mattie is in his presence. But things come to a head in the dead of winter when Mattie is faced with banishment.

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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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Both real and magical

Newgale beach, Pembrokeshire

Cath Barton: The Plankton Collector
New Welsh Rarebyte 2018

Winner of a New Welsh Writing Award for 2017 in the novella category, The Plankton Collector is one of those dreamlike pieces that at odd moments rises unbidden to the surface of this reader’s thoughts like a bubble from unknown depths. To describe it as magic realism is not the whole story, yet the narrative does in fact drift like a leaf on a pond from one magical moment to another before catching on the rocks of reality, the reality of authentic lives lived with pain and sorrow and maybe, ultimately, hope.

We begin at the seaside with a beautiful piece of nature writing, as lyrical, say, as anything Charles Kingsley wrote in Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore. Here we meet the Plankton Collector himself, a shapeshifter who sifts sand and shells for living creatures, ultimately to show them how they might fit into the mysterious patterns of existence.

Lest the prologue, all told in the historic present, should appear too airy-fairy we may note that it is titled ‘In the Beginning’—as with Genesis we shall find that all is not perfect in the garden, that there’s a worm in the bud which will upset a family’s idyll for some time to come. The novella gropes towards a resolution that at times seems just out of our grasp.

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Bly spirits

The figure on the tower at Bly, Essex: a contemporary illustration to The Turn of the Screw

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
in Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw
Penguin English Library 2012

Here is the ideal kind of story to read as autumn sets in, the nights get longer and our wilder imaginations take hold. Or perhaps not, if we are of a nervous disposition or cursed with an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began this. A ghost story, certainly, set in an old country house, mysterious goings-on, and two children under the supervision of a governess with issues of her own. What would I encounter? Poltergeists? Subterfuge? A storm in a teacup? None of these, it turns out, and to some extent I’m as mystified as before though, I have to admit, in different ways.

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A publishing scoundrel

Lord Byron (1813) by Thomas Phillips

Henry James: The Aspern Papers
Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1888)

Miss Juliana Bordereau lives with her niece Miss Tina in a run-down Venetian palazzo; it is here that a literary researcher — nameless throughout this novella — manages to track the pair down and inveigle them into letting him stay as a lodger. His ulterior motive is to gain access to any papers rumoured to exist pertaining to the late American poet Jeffrey Aspern, all for eventual publication.

Nine chapters detail the narrator’s underhand machinations, first to pull to wool over the eyes of the elder Miss Bordereau and secondly to gain the confidence of Miss Tina. James conjures up a kind of apologue or moral fable from what initially appears to be a factual first-person account but which increasingly makes us suspect the researcher is an unreliable narrator.

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Heart and soul

Philip Pullman: Clockwork, or All Wound Up
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
Corgi Yearling Books 2004 (1996)

Delicious fun is how best to describe this tale within tales. Here we find Pullman telling a story, in which a storyteller tells a story, out of which frame a character steps into life. Like an old-fashioned clock the mechanism of Pullman’s fairytale fantasy gets wound up and “no matter how much the characters would like to change their fate, they can’t.” And by story’s end we find out exactly how the characters all, literally, “wound up”.

This story is set one winter’s evening in a German town called Glockenheim (“home of the bells”). Glockenheim has a great clock overseen by the town’s clockmaker Herr Ringelmann (“ringing man”), whose apprentice Karl is supposed to be installing a mechanical figure for the clock on the morrow. On the eve of the installation worthies and others gather in a tavern to hear the traditional ghost story told by Fritz the local author. Unfortunately neither apprentice nor writer has completed his creation. Can lowly serving girl Gretl provide the key to completing the tale?

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