The moment we all look forward to has arrived: the shortlist of this year’s Diagram Prize has just been published!
Front-runners (in my head, anyway) for the prize, which is awarded to the oddest book title of the year, are surely Divorcing a Real Witch and my favourite, Advanced Pavement Research: Selected, Peer Reviewed Papers from the 3rd International Conference on Concrete Pavements Design, Construction, and Rehabilitation, December 2-3, 2013, Shanghai, China.
The winner is decided by the public and you can vote here.
I wish the very best of luck to all nominees!
The young ladies who attend Miss Primrose Crabapple’s finishing school have a new teacher:
Their new dancing-master was a tall, red-haired youth, with a white pointed face and very bright eyes. Miss Primrose, who always implied [to her pupils] that it was at great personal inconvenience and from purely philanthropic motives that their teachers gave them their lessons, introduced him as ‘Professor Wisp, who had very kindly consented to teach them dancing,’ and the young man made his new pupils a low bow, and turning to Miss Primrose, he said, ‘I’ve got you a fiddler, ma’am. Oh, a rare fiddler! It’s your needlework that has brought him. He’s a weaver by trade, and he dearly loves pictures in silk. And he can give you some pretty patterns to work from – can’t you Portunus?’ and he clapped his hands twice.
Whereupon, ‘like a bat dropped from the rafters,’ as Prunella, with an inexplicable shudder, whispered to Moonlove, a queer wizened old man with eyes as bright as Professor Wisp’s, all mopping and mowing, with a fiddle and bow under his arm, sprang suddenly out of the shadows.
‘Young ladies!’ cried Professor Wisp, gleefully, ‘this is Master Portunus, fiddler to is Majesty the Emperor of the Moon, jester-in-chief to the Lord of Ghosts and Shadows ... though his jests are apt to be silent ones. And he has come a long long way young ladies, to set your feet a dancing. Ho, ho, hoh!’
Need I add that Professor Wisp’s dancing lessons do not end happily? For characters in Lud-in-the-Mist suffer from the same inability as those in a Dickens novel, the inability to notice that a person’s name reflects his personality. ‘Professor Wisp’, for instance, hardly inspires confidence, does it? I wouldn’t entrust my daughter to him...
(Cover of the US first edition of Lud-in-the-Mist, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1927, found here; the novel has not been well served by its cover designers but this one is pretty)
Lud-in-the-Mist, published in 1926, is, in the author’s own words, ‘A Story of Smuggling, Kidnapping and Adventures on the Borders of Fairyland’. If you like classifying novels, this is a tricky one: a fantasy, a comedy (in the older sense) perhaps, a thriller, an allegory, related in jewel-like prose and a wry tone. The setting is Dorimare, a small but prosperous land in what I took to be a sort of early nineteenth century. Lud-in-the-Mist is Dorimare’s capital, a busy port whose life is dominated by a successful and rather complacent mercantile class which for centuries has rejected ‘the tragic sense of life’ from any art or poetry in favour of pragmatism and common sense. Unfortunately for the good burghers, the western border of Dorimare is shared with Fairyland, a country representative of all they fear and despise. However, while even the word ‘fairy’ is taboo in Dorimare, fairy fruit is regularly smuggled in. The eating of fairy fruit, with its unnatural colours and addictive flavours, is strictly forbidden as it causes outbreaks of ‘madness, suicide, orgiastic dancing, and wild doings under the moon’ as well as philosophising and daydreaming. And yet people do consume the banned fairy fruit, traces of an older and more fanciful Dorimarite culture – when fairies were welcome – persist in oaths, proverbs and ancient art, and not everyone in Dorimare is quite as rational as they might appear to be.
One such man is the Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, Nathaniel Chanticleer. Outwardly successful and all that Dorimare esteems, secretly he is prey to an unDorimarite terror of the unknown. When his son Ranulph starts behaving oddly, Chanticleer fears that he has eaten some fairy fruit and anxiously summons Dr Endymion Leer. Leer prescribes a restorative holiday for the boy at the Widow Gibberty’s farm (Widow Gibberty! Again, I wouldn’t entrust my child to someone called Widow Gibberty), some distance to the west of Lud. But strange things are afoot – visions, bleeding coffins, absconding young ladies. Defrocked – are mayors defrocked? Sacked? – as he is, after a bewigged clockmaker’s apprentice plants a stash of fairy fruit in his house, Chanticleer must solve an old murder and restore harmony to the nation.
(Photograph of Hope Mirrlees, undated; found here)
This brief outline might suggest that the fairy fruit is a metaphor for hallucinogenic drugs, and Lud-in-the-Mist has been interpreted by some as a pro-narcotics text. I find that metaphor too narrow and, even if you do not, both fairies and fruit are depicted in too complex a manner to act as a wholehearted endorsement for them. The fruit causes madness and suicide as well as dreaming and philosophy and Fairyland is the land of the dead. Instead, Mirrlees includes as an epigraph a quote from Jane Harrison, the classics scholar with whom she had a very close relationship, which suggests we might see fairy fruit as stimulating:
the impulses in life as yet immortalised, imperious longings, ecstasies, whether of love or art, or philosophy, magical voices called to a man from his man from his ‘Land of Hearts Desire, and to which if he hearken it may be that he will return no more [...]
Thus, while neither fairies nor Fairyland are idealised, they do represent an important dimension of human experience: the Dionysiac. And Euripides showed us the dire consequences of repressing that side of ourselves (but Lud-in-the-Mist is a happier and less brutal tale than The Bacchae). Officially Dorimare turns its back on all that, but in fact as a culture it hasn’t completely stifled its imaginative side: fairies have infiltrated it, fairy fruit is regularly brought into it, satisfying a craving which some Dorimarites feel, while the similarity of the names Chanticleer and Leer suggests that the two men are not so very different from each other after all.
Lud-in-the-Mist dramatises the healing of a sick society, but healing comes at the price of comfort. It requires an acceptance of the shadow side of life, of the pain and pleasure of love, and of the horror of death. Belatedly, Chanticleer discovers a powerful love for Ranulph, to save whom he will rise to heroic deeds. This self-sacrificing love, sharpened by a fear of loss, is in stark contrast to the affectionate tolerance which most Dorimarites consider to be love (and when their daughters dance away to Fairyland, nobody is bothered enough to rescue them). Mirrlees had, of course, lived through the First World War, a conflict which destroyed so many lives and left no one in Europe untouched. How does a society come to terms with that sort of loss? I cannot help thinking that this grief and fear lurks between the lines of Lud-in-the-Mist.
It is also a funny novel and just a bit bonkers. Ho ho hoh! I love it!
A few weeks ago, feeling a bit coldy and a bit January, you know what I mean, I hunted down my copy of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees and reread it. Should you find yourself in a similar state, I highly recommend it, and you don’t have to take my word for it: Neil Gaiman is quoted on the cover being very enthusiastic (‘The single most beautiful, solid, unearthy, and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century ... a little golden miracle of a book’). I don’t think that it qualifies as ‘forgotten’ any longer, being both in print and fairly widely read, but it doesn’t command the same sort of attention as The Lord of the Rings. Nor does Mirrlees’s modernist poem Paris, which anticipated The Waste Land, receive much discussion when compared to Eliot’s work. Yet both Mirrlees’s novel and her poem are very original works. When I’d finished Lud-in-the-Mist I was inspired to find out more about her and also, belatedly, to read Paris, which I’d bought in a volume of collected poems a couple of years ago for my modernist reading project, yes that project which seems to have stalled somewhat. And then I felt moved to post about her, because there aren’t many people who manage to be called ‘the lost modernist’ and write a highly influential fantasy novel and erase themselves from literary history. So today I’m going to write the first of a little series of posts about her and her work.
(Photograph of Hope Mirrlees, uncredited and undated; found here)
‘obscure, indecent, and brilliant’ is how Virginia Woolf described Paris, which her Hogarth Press published in 1920 – it seems that Woolf typeset the poem herself. However, Woolf doesn’t seem to have liked Mirrlees personally, and nor did Katherine Mansfield. They found her ‘pretentious’. Woolf wrote of her:
a very self conscious, wilful, prickly & perverse young woman, rather conspicuously well dressed & pretty, with a view of her own about books & style, an aristocratic & conservative tendency in opinion, & a corresponding taste for the beautiful & elaborate in literature
and deplored at her propensity to change for dinner and match her stockings to the wreaths in her hair. (How I love that.)
Mirrlees knew but wasn’t really part of the Bloomsbury circle. She was born in 1887, to an aristocratic mother and extremely wealthy father, and studied first at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and then read classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, during which she broke off an engagement, very probably to the much older illustrator H.J. Ford. Her father’s money meant that she never had financial worries, while her mother’s upper-class lineage was important to her sense of identity. She was extremely clever and also very beautiful. At Cambridge her studies were supervised by Jane Harrison (who is mentioned as J—H— in ‘A Room of One’s Own’) and she and Mirrlees had an intimate relationship, living together, collaborating on two translations from the Russian and referring to each other as the ‘elder wife’ and ‘younger wife’ (the ‘husband’ was Mirrlees’s teddy bear). Woolf was convinced they were ‘Sapphists’ but whether they were or not is unclear but it seems likely.
In 1913 Mirrlees took up residence in Paris, where she met Gertrude Stein, Andre Gide and Anna de Noailles; she was joined by Harrison in 1922 and they studied Russian together. By 1926 she had published Paris, three novels and, in collaboration with Harrison, two translations from the Russian. But then Harrison fell ill, dying of leukaemia in 1928. And it is as if the light was switched off. No more novels, nothing at all for forty years. Mirrlees converted to Catholicism, lost her looks, moved to South Africa. In her later life she returned to England and died in 1978; she never had another relationship as close as that with Harrison.
(Simon Bussy, Hope Mirrlees, c. 1919, private collection; found here)
Unsurprisingly, her work vanished from sight too. The original print run of Paris was tiny (175 copies), and it was not republished until 1973, when it appeared in the short-lived Virginia Woolf Quarterly. This version was significantly altered by Mirrlees to remove the ‘blasphemous’ passages, and again had a limited circulation. All her novels languished out of print until Lud-in-the-Mist was reissued in the United States in 1970 without Mirrlees’s knowledge, where it slowly built up a coterie of fans including Neil Gaiman. Mirrlees did nothing to promote her books or reputation and withdrew her co-operation from a planned biography of herself which might have increased interest in her work. And of course, she didn’t specialise, which never helps: her first two novels are, apparently, romans à clef, her third a fantasy; her first poem was avant garde, her later works much more conventional; and in 1962 she published the first volume of a biography of the antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton, which has been described as ‘eccentric’ (I’d love to read it) and which she never completed. All in all, Mirrlees seems to have done her very best to have a literary anti-career.
However, her moment is finally arriving. Championed by Julia Briggs, Paris is being reassessed as a ‘lost modernist masterpiece’. Lud-in-the-Mist remains in print and easily obtainable. A volume of collected poems, edited by Sandeep Parmar, has been published by Fyfield Books and Michael Swanwick has written a biography, Hope-in-the-Mist (published by Temporary Culture). There’s even a rumour that the other novels might be republished.
Now I know that everyone who visits here enjoys reading, so this might seem a rather shocking, but I have been wondering over the past few months whether perhaps it is possible to be unhealthily obsessed with books. I have noted the following symptoms in myself:
In an attempt to become a more rounded human being I have branched out into the world of Making Things. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have made me any more interesting nor given me any entertaining topics of conversation, perhaps because so far it’s principally entailed making doll’s clothes and it’s hard for most human beings to work up much enthusiasm about tiny shoes made of cardboard. Also, to be honest, everything I have bodged together looks a bit crap. And I don’t seem to improve. I thought that was supposed to happen, you practise a bit and you get better at things?
Here are some doll’s clothes I made. You would not believe how long it took me, nor how frequently my teeth were gnashed. I painted some little boxes as well, but even I can’t bear to humiliate myself quite so far as to post them on the internets. I am only showing you these because this is a quick post due to my guilt at not being a better blogger. I have tons of things to write about but not the time to do so. Uploading photographs is so much easier than actually formulating ideas.
(Florence, being suddenly upstaged by Mister Puss, in a dress originally intended for Bunchy; alas, poor Bunchy had to pass it on to Florence because it was too tight round the arms do you see a pattern here? No wonder Florence is smiling)
Please, tell me your interesting hobbies, I need some inspiration. Or tell me that you have no life beyond reading either.
* Of course I lie to make myself seem a bit more exciting and I say that I garden (and that’s true, but my idea of gardening is prancing out on a sunny day and planting out a few seedlings or doing a little light weeding before retiring to a cup of tea, you won’t find me braving February winds or remembering to dead-head every day, which is what proper gardeners do while emitting hearty whoops) and I like to travel, go to the theatre and visit galleries and museums (again true but these days I never do).
Happy new year! I hope that it has started well for all of you, and that you enjoyed the holidays. I am embarrassed to see how long it is since I last posted anything here. The past few weeks have been a blur of work, travelling, talking, having a cold and erm boozing. I spent Christmas with my parents and one brother and his family in England, and very lovely it was too. But last night I dreamt that I was at James-Bond-themed party for bloggers – you were all there, building towers and cities with toy wooden blocks – hosted by Roger Moore; it reminded me that I really ought to write something.
And what better way to start the year than by writing about a novel I absolutely loved? Here is the opening of Fog Island Mountains, the début novel of Michelle Bailat-Jones:
So this is our town, our little Komachi, this little cluster of businesses and houses settled into streets carved out of this volcanic soil, and crisscrossing each other, as we do, as our lives intersect from business to house to supermarket to hospital. And here, today, the wind has already begun to blow, a warning of the approaching typhoon. We are used to these storms, even if they have predicted this one will be big. They say this often, and often they are wrong, although I prefer to be careful, I will tape my windows and buy extra batteries for my flashlight. Because when they do hit, when they strike down on our clumsy structures and on our inept and inelegant lives, these winds do not show much mercy.
Until this great wind comes, the weather will be unstable, as we always are, not needing the excuse of pressure changes or ocean currents. We will watch the sticky, drizzly rain, the green clouds and gusts of wind that hit hard but do not build, not yet, these pre-winds will blow through town and leave us all hanging, waiting, leave us in an uncomfortable stillness, a trapped moment of matte imasu. Yes, waiting. The waiting is the hardest part, and here is Alec Chester, one half of the subject of my poem, of this story that I must tell—don’t worry about me yet, we will get to me soon—and he is watching through a window, watching out to avoid looking in, watching to calm his waiting.
I think this extract gives a good flavour of her style: fluid, precise, concerned with the subtle fluctuations of thought and emotion. The subject, a family’s reaction to a diagnosis of terminal illness, is not one that might strike one as immediately attractive, but while melancholy this is not at all a depressing book: it’s beautiful, but in a restrained rather than a heart-wrenching manner. I’ve read a couple of novels recently which disappointed me a little because their endings felt forced, subject to the demands of the plot, but every development in Fog Island Mountains seems to follow naturally from the characters, making it, for me, very satisfying. Even Kanae’s behaviour, though shocking, is the convincing outcome of her profound feeling that Alec’s death, his forsaking of her, is a form of infidelity.
The Fog Island Mountains are a volcanic mountain range in southern Japan and the place where Alec Chester, an ex-pat South African, has made his home for almost forty years. On a day when the inhabitants of the small town of Komachi await the arrival of a big summer typhoon, Alec is told that he has terminal cancer. He receives the news alone, because his wife Kanae has failed to accompany him to the doctor’s appointment. In fact, unable to face the truth, Kanae hides away and betrays Alec. Meanwhile, Alec and Kanae’s three grown-up children struggle with their own sorrow as well as their mother’s behaviour. When he checks himself out of the hospital and vanishes into the gathering storm, they – and the townspeople of Komachi – fear the worst.
Taking place over a few days, the novel is structured around the different phases of a typhoon, culminating in ‘Landfall’, when the strongest part of the typhoon strikes the land. The typhoon acts as a metaphor, I think, on several levels, but most particularly it reflects the suppressed and only partially understood emotions of the two central characters: ‘They [Alec and Kanae] are the words and this storm.’ It also allows us to see them in a larger context, as part of and subject to the forces of nature. Weather, mountains, forests and wild animals press constantly in on the ordered life of the small town and thwart human intentions. All of this helps the reader to accept what will happen to Alec.
The story is narrated by an old spinster, Azami, who devotes much of her time to caring for wounded wild creatures. She relates it to the Japanese myth of kitsune, which means ‘fox’ or ‘fox spirit’. I don’t know a lot about kitsune, but very crudely they are foxes who can take on human, usually female, shape. Often they marry a human and bear his children, staying loyally by his side for many years until discovery or harassment by dogs drives them back into their fox shape and they flee. There seem to be lots of stories about them as tricksters or seductresses. Kanae, an otherwise strong person, behaves a little like kitsune, but the mysterious Azami has kitsune elements too. We learn a little about her from her memories of her past, brought up by her grandparents, but much of her life remains hidden from the reader.
Although Azami narrates the story, it is told in close, almost stream-of-consciousness style which exposes the characters’ innermost thoughts. Thus as fictional characters they have no privacy; as inhabitants of a small town, their business is soon known and discussed by everyone, broadcast on the local news. If kitsune fear exposure, the novel, with its examination of character and event, is their enemy.
Near the beginning, Azami writes that Alec is ‘one half of the subject of my poem’ and the text is laid out with white space between practically every paragraph, so that it does indeed look like a prose poem while reading as a novel. The long, flowing sentences draw the reader on, but the white spaces encourage the reader to pause and circle back into the preceding paragraph. This gives an unusual rhythm to the text and pushes one to reflect on each block of words, paying the kind of attention that is often only bestowed on poetry. The action is unhurried and pays attention to small details, shifts of thought, the making of tea, the falling of rain.
When Azami reaches the ambiguous end of her tale, she starts again:
I pull out that first sheet of paper, and I am reaching for my pen and thinking hard for that first word, and when it comes to me, it will all come so easily, and there will only be one story to tell, and it is this one, and so I begin...
This is a tale she is always writing and rewriting. Azami’s obsession with this one story made me wonder if in fact it was her own, and that in a way she was an older Kanae? In any case, her presence in the text and her comments remind us that this is a construction, hovering between the written and the oral, even as, submerged in the characters’ consciousnesses, it feels ‘real’. Atmospheric, profound, this was the deserving winner of the Center of Fiction’s first Christopher Doheny Award.
She’s been coming for as long as I can remember, this same fox, her auburn face now nearly white, and if I am calm enough, if I am quiet, she will let me come near her, and if you were to enter my garden at this hour, you might be surprised by the sight of an old woman with her hand settled carefully atop the head of a fox...
(I can’t stop quoting!)
(Solomon Alexander Hart, Milton Visiting Galileo when a Prisoner of the Inquisition, oil on canvas, 1847; Wellcome Library; photograph by the Wellcome Library; found here)
Perhaps you remember back in March that the British government introduced tight restrictions on prisoners receiving parcels, including books? Well, Barbara Gordon-Jones, who has a doctorate in English literature and is in Send prison for arson, challenged the decision. On Friday the High Court judged that there was ‘no good reason’ to prevent prisoners from receiving books and that in fact to do so was unlawful. (You can read the full judgment here.) Hurrah for an independent judiciary! And also well done to the lawyers who acted pro bono for the claimant.
As I’m sure you already know, the latest Shiny New Books is online and packed with reviews and interviews and an Advent quiz. I’ve already forgotten that Christmas involves buying presents for other people and identified about twenty books I want for myself. I defy you to be more altruistic if you click through.
I have written two reviews this time. The first is of Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. I didn’t actually write ‘perfect stocking-filler’, but... The second is The Portrait, the English translation of a powerful Dutch novel by Willem Jan Otten. Although short it wasn’t always an easy read, but it poses some interesting questions. And the narrator is a canvas.
(Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen at her desk at home in Rungstedlund, 1955; from the archives of her Danish publisher, Gyldendal; found here)
Recently I read a biography of Isak Dinesen by Judith Thurman (and very good it was too). Thurman naturally enough discusses Dinesen’s work and the circumstances which gave rise to it, and of course discussed the only novel she published, The Angelic Avengers. This was written during the war while Denmark was under the ‘protection’ of the Nazis; Dinesen just made it up as she went along for ‘a little fun’, in contrast to her manner of composing her tales, which involved much more polishing, and published it in Denmark in 1944 under the pseudonym Pierre Andrézel. (I don’t know if there’s any significance to Andrézel, it makes me think of donkeys! Because of the French âne and Dutch ezel.) The press quickly discovered the author’s true identity, although Dinesen steadfastly refused to admit she had written it, and it was judged by the standard of her tales and savaged. Perhaps because this experience was so upsetting, perhaps because she herself felt that the book was substandard, Dinesen only publicly acknowledged The Angelic Avengers as a work of hers in an interview with the Paris Review in 1956 (the English translation, which she made herself, was published in 1946 and 1947 when she was desperate for money; another possible reason for her to distance herself from it).
Intrigued by this, I ordered a copy at once! I must say that I think the savaging was completely unjustified, although yes yes, her tales are greater works of art. Perhaps it is to Dinesen what Orlando is to Virginia Woolf. It’s fun, a playful gothic tale of damsels in distress that’s perfectly suited to these chill dark days. It is set in Victorian England and is indeed quite silly, but there is more to it than pure melodramatic escapism and it is all written in Dinesen’s delightful, elegant prose.
[Zosine] once more turned towards the others. ‘No one, no one on earth,’ she passionately exclaimed, ‘can realize what I have gone through, what I have experienced during these days and nights! It is a terrible thing to be deceiving all the people round you! But at the same time it has in it a kind of fascination. It is an affair to exert all one’s faculties. It is a fatal game; it is wicked, I believe! But still it is a game, one feels as if one might go on for ever! But now I am more tired than I had thought it possible to be! It is when danger is over that one sits down to die. I am happy, but my strength has gone, and I am changed! I believe I have grown old!’
Orphaned Lucan Bellenden, daughter of a scientist, is forced to flee her position as a governess by the unwelcome proposition of her employer. She seeks refuge with her schoolfriend, the wealthy Zosine. However, Zosine’s fortunes are about to change drastically, and the two girls try to find work via a London agency, through which they are selected by the philanthropic, kind Reverend Pennhallow and his wife to be their companions in place of their lost daughter and receive a proper education. But all may not be as it seems – dah dah daaaaah! (For once I’ll try not to spoil the plot.)
The oppression of women is a core theme in The Angelic Avengers.The two girls must support each other and save themselves from the dreadful fate which awaits them. The masculine world is portrayed as threatening and exploitative. A male employer may propose that his children’s governess become his mistress, and her only recourse is flight (Dinesen admired Jane Eyre and there are many references to it in The Angelic Avengers: here the Mr Rochester figure is abusive). Without a male protector, young women are vulnerable; poorly educated but not working class, their avenues of employment are few and mainly labelled ‘governess’. Men devise, run and are the consumers in the (female) white slave trade. Of course the girls end up happily married at the end (I don’t think that’s a spoiler!) to nice young aristocrats whose inherited fortunes seemingly are not founded on the pain of other human beings, but in a nice twist on the traditional fairy tale of the hero who wins a princess at the conclusion of his adventures, these young men are very much rewards for the heroines’ bravery and spiritual strength rather than active helpers or interesting characters.
For when the girls face a terrible evil, the young men are no help at all, nor is the rich papa. The only support Lucan and Zosine receive comes from another woman, an apparently mad black former nanny, even more dispossessed than they, yet courageous and loving. The central moral question the book poses through their plight is: how does one respond to evil, particularly when one is powerless? Zosine and Lucan each find slightly different answers to that question. Revenge, as it turns out, causes moral sickness in the administrator. The book argues that the destruction of evil requires forgiveness and compassion. This cannot have been an easy message to write or to read in ‘protected’ and post-war Denmark.
This is a melodrama, and thus there are a lot of extremes and far-fetched elements, some of which involve playing with literary conventions and expectations of the gothic. In another echo of Jane Eyre, the fortune of Zosine’s beloved papa has been built up in the West Indies – on slave labour. Through Olympia, the nanny, Dinesen shows this distressing basis to European wealth: yes, Dinesen’s language isn’t what we would use today, and Olympia herself doesn’t question an order in which she is expected to serve, but her story of the horrible white man feeding on slave flesh is a vivid metaphor for the exploitation of the black West Indians by the whites. Whites preying on blacks, men preying on women: the nineteenth century is an ugly time.
Despite all this, The Angelic Avengers never takes itself too seriously. Something Zosine says to Lucan has been picked out as an epigraph for the novel, and it’s very fitting:
You serious people must not be too hard on human beings for what they choose to amuse themselves with, when they are shut up in a prison, and are not even allowed to say that they areJane Eyre prisoners: if I do not soon get a little bit of fun, I shall die!
Oh, and I’ve just discovered that it was made into a film in the US in 1948!
Despite the unseasonably warm weather, days of sunshine and late flowers, the early dusk, leafless branches and occasional morning mists are a reminder that autumn is very much with us and for once I’ve noticed it in my reading habits.
Isak Dinesen: The Life of Karen Blixen, by Judith Thurman – I’ve been rereading some of Seven Gothic Tales and it seemed the moment to find out more about Tanne/Isak/Karen/the Baroness, a fascinating, brilliant and troubled writer. The great moment of her life was the time she spent running her coffee plantation in Africa where she felt a deep affinity with the Kikiyu and Maasai; the many years she lived back in Denmark were a disappointing coda for her, but for us quite the reverse since it was then that she wrote her famous tales. This is a very good biography, all the more because its subject always preferred a good story to mundane truth and so it must have been difficult sometimes to weasel out fact from what we might boringly consider fiction.
The Angelic Avengers, by Isak Dinesen pretending to be Pierre Andrézel – Thurman explains that Dinesen wrote this, her only novel, during the Second World War, but afterwards practically disowned it. It’s gothic, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s by Isak Dinesen, so I bought a copy and read it. More in a separate post, but it’s a lovely read.
A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness – It’s totally Harriet’s fault that I bought this (for the princely sum of 1p, sorry Deborah) and there was much to entice: a witch, a magic book, the history of alchemy. And really it’s a tribute to the author that she painted her hero, Matthew, so believably that I hated him so very, very much. I could not bear him or the slushy love scenes (yes I am the person who shouts at James Bond to stop kissing the lady and get on with the adventure! and I was doing the equivalent here), and the pace just slowed to nothing in the middle. And yet. I read the whole thing, and once my loathing of Matthew abates I expect I shall read the sequel, which is set in 1590 in England and may involve Marlowe, Shakespeare and the ‘Wizard Earl’, Henry Percy. I can’t really resist that.
The Carbonel books, by Barbara Sleigh – I think I last read these when I was about twelve, but they are just as good thirty years later and absolutely the ticket for a fuzzy-headed cold. Carbonel is King of the Fallowhithe cats, but has to enlist the help of Rosemary Brown and her friend John when his kingdom is threatened. Mrs Cantrip, the local witch, is a marvellous character – cantankerous, sloppy, lazy and unable to resist livening up the washing-up with a spot of magic; needless to say I identified strongly with her although my nose isn’t quite as big as hers. Yet.
A Dead Man in Deptford, by Anthony Burgess – Now that I look at what I’ve been reading, it seems clear to me that I was inspired to pick up this novel about Christopher Marlowe by A Discovery of Witches. It’s written in a sort of Elizabethan-inflected English, and so far there’s been drinking, fighting, wordplay, theatre and espionage, what you’d expect really; I’m enjoying it more than the Harkness (sorry again Deborah).
Apart from that I’ve read a couple of books for the in-betweeny edition of Shiny New Books, which comes out at the beginning of December. Both books were splendid, but more I cannot tell since the editors of SNB are famed for their disembowelling of bloggers who let slip too much before the magazine’s publication. And I can barely wait to get started on Fog Island Mountains, the first novel by Michelle Bailat-Jones, who maintains a lovely blog at pieces. It slid through the letter-box a couple of days ago and is described as ‘A haunting and beautiful reinterpretation of the Japanese kitsune folktale tradition, [...] a novel about the dangers of action taken in grief and of a belief in healing through storytelling.’
What have you been reading? Any recommendations? And are you looking forward to any new publications in the next few months?
(Black-and-white illustration by V.H. Drummond, from Carbonel, by Barbara Sleigh (Harmondsworth: Longman Young Books, 1973; first published 1955; from here)
Posted at 11:20 AM in anna airy, children's books, christopher marlowe, isak dinesen, michelle bailat-jones, nanni balestrini, twentieth-century literature, twenty-first century literature, twenty-first-century art | Permalink | Comments (7)
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