From whimsy to saga

winged

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien.
George Allen & Unwin (3rd edition 1972)

Wizard at the door?
Twelve dwarves too? You’ll be telling
me a dragon’s next!
I must have spent my childhood and adolescence skim-reading most of the literature I was introduced to, gaining impressionist pictures of those works but missing much of the subtlety of language, characterisation and narrative. Having taken it on myself in recent years to begin re-reading those books with more attentiveness The Hobbit seemed a natural choice.
Rather than merely summarising what must be one of the most familiar tales in modern fantasy I’ve opted to discuss the personal insights that this re-reading suggested to me.

Continue reading “From whimsy to saga”

Each one in its humour

Jizzle by John Wyndham.
Dennis Dobson 1974 (1954)

Fifteen short stories, five of which appeared originally in magazines like Argosy and Women’s Journal, run the gamut of fantasy, nearly all written in a tongue-in-cheek style not usually associated with the author of The Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos.

Though jumping from time-travel to artificial intelligence via surreal fantasy, fairytale, legend and myth, these tales nearly always involve individuals caught up in situations beyond their comprehension or control, often to their discomfiture but mostly to our amusement. Though a couple are told in the first person the majority are fly-on-the-wall observational pieces, thus allowing us the privilege of becoming aware of how matters stand a short while before understanding dawns on the unfortunate victims.

Because victims they generally are: and it’s Fate, in the guise of the author, that determines whether they emerge sadder and wiser or don’t emerge at all…

Continue reading “Each one in its humour”

A modernist milestone

Paul Signac, Portrait de M. Félix Fénéon en 1890 (MOMA, NY)


Félix Fénéon: Novels in Three Lines
Translated and with an introduction by Luc Sante
New York Review Books 2007

A Verlinghem (Nord), Mme Ridez, 30 ans, a été égorgée par un voleur, cependant que son mari était à la messe.

Published during 1906 in Le Matin, a Paris daily newspaper, were short news items under the heading Nouvelles en trois lignes. As translator Luc Sante makes clear in his introduction this heading can either mean ‘the news in three lines’ or ‘novellas in three lines’ and, in the writings of the author Félix Fénéon, the intention must be that it can mean both. For here, indeed in three lines as they appear in the paper’s columns, such faits-divers are novelettes in miniature fashioned from genuine news items, each presented as a précis that can be shocking, humorous or just weirdly banal.

Thus while Monsieur Ridez is no doubt shriving his soul attending Mass his unfortunate wife is having her throat slit by a thief. The juxtaposition of the mundane and the violent that characterises a good many of these nouvelles is, unsurprisingly, a facet of Fénéon himself who, while a supporter of the arts and artists (such as Paul Signac, who painted Fénéon’s portrait) was also an anarchist sympathiser and a suspected terrorist bomber in the 1890s.

Continue reading “A modernist milestone”

Guffaws galore

Attribution: Madmaxmarchhare at English Wikipedia
Attribution: Madmaxmarchhare at English Wikipedia

Sebastian Faulks Pistache
Hutchinson 2006

You might expect, from the title, that this is a culinary offering from the award-winning novelist, but you’d be wrong. The dustcover informs us that this is

A COLLECTION of FANCIFUL, SATIRICAL and SURPRISING parodies, squibs and pastiches inspired by THE WRITE STUFF on RADIO 4

and so it turns out to be. The whole text of over 100 pages is essentially tongue-in-cheek, from the purported etymology of pistache (“a friendly spoof or parody of another’s work” from a possible “cross between pastiche and p**stake”) to its invented author biography (“born in Vilnius in 1969 … educated by Russian monks … His most recent book … runner-up in the Watney-Mann Bookend of Longlists”). He was — and still is — a team captain on BBC Radio 4’s lighthearted quiz The Write Stuff, proclaimed as the station’s “game of literary correctness”. Each weekly programme features an author of the week, in whose style panelists are asked to write a parody on a given theme; I’ve caught the odd broadcast over the years but to my chagrin have never been a regular listener. Was this collection of broadcast pistaches all that it was cracked up to be?

Continue reading “Guffaws galore”

A sad tale’s best

winter sleepwalker

Elizabeth Gaskell The Old Nurse’s Story [and Curious, if True]
Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1852 and 1860)

Nothing is commoner in Country Places, than for a whole Family in a Winter’s Evening, to sit round the Fire, and tell Stories of Apparitions and Ghosts. And no Question of it, but this adds to the natural Fearfulness of Men, and makes them many Times imagine they see Things, which really are nothing but their own Fancy.

— Henry Bourne in Antiquitates Vulgares (1725), quoted in
J Simpson and S Roud A Dictionary of English Folklore (OUP 2000)

Henry Bourne was a curate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the beginning of the 18th century who inveighed against traditions he regarded as popish or heathen. I suspect, then, that he would have given Mrs Gaskell’s short fiction ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ short shrift (or perhaps not, since “giving short shrift” is a relic Catholic phrase) for it perfectly epitomised that winter’s tale told at a Northumbrian fireside which he so hated. Luckily for his mental state he had died over a century before the two narratives included in this slim volume were published, the first in 1852, in Household Words, and the second in 1860, in The Cornhill Magazine.

The first-person narrator of ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ is Hester: an intelligent young girl in the second half of the 18th century she is selected to be nurse to Rosamond Esthwaite, daughter of a Westmoreland curate and Miss Furnivall, herself a granddaughter to a Northumbrian lord. When Rosamond is four going on five her parents both unexpectedly die within a short while of each other, and she and Hester are sent across country to the ancestral seat of Furnivall Manor House, located in Northumberland at the foot of the Cumberland Fells. The subsequent events are here recounted by the older Hester to Rosamond’s children, to whom she has also become nurse.

This is the setting for Continue reading “A sad tale’s best”