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Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2000, 344 p.

Mr Mee cover

Mr Mee bears several Crumey hallmarks; explanations of concepts from Physics (and, in this case, probability) in literary form, characters from the 18th century, ruminations on literature and philosophy. The narrative is triple stranded: that of Mr Mee himself, in the form of the eighty six year old’s letters to an old friend; the adventures of two Frenchmen, “the Gossips,” Ferrand and Minard, who meet Jean-Jacques Rousseau and precipitate his flight from France; and the meanderings of academic Dr Petrie whose main research interest is those same two Frenchmen. The epilogue introduces a fourth narrator who once installed a Théâtrophone in the bedridden Marcel Proust’s apartment. It casts further light on the preceding stories and has the potential to alter the reader’s perceptions of them, though is perhaps a little too eager to drop in literary allusions.

The unworldly Mr Mee, stuck in his ways and almost drowning in a sea of books, is prompted by his housekeeper, Mrs B, to discover that the worlds of literature and philosophy are available through the less space consuming medium of the PC and the internet. What he finds there intrigues him – and shocks Mrs B into leaving abruptly. His old fashioned attitudes to modern life and his misunderstandings are a source of light humour (“those nice folk at Dixons,” the joys of live video links – a bus stop in Aberdeen and a naked girl reading a book which is of course Dr Petrie’s on Ferrand and Minard, the “sensational and sentimental” fare that passes for Scottish literature in a modern bookshop) unusual in Crumey’s work. His encounter with practical and capable life scientist student Catriona leads the unmarried (and sexual ingénu) Mr Mee to new experiences.

Ferrand and Minard are copyists, whose latest project regarding a new understanding of how the world works is stolen from their flat and whose downstairs neighbour has been murdered. Fearing the blame for the killing they flee to Montmorency, come under the protection of a Bishop Bertier and end up living next door to Rousseau who is said to think the world would be a much better place without books.

Dr Petrie has been captivated by the sexual possibilities involved in his tutoring of a mature (twenty four year old) student called Louisa and imagines his disease symptoms are a reflection of his attraction to her. He believes Ferrand and Minard to have been invented by Rousseau whose Confessions he says are as much a fiction as was the novel Émile.

The text contains a lot of literary reference; not just to Rousseau and Proust but to mechanical poetry and the pitfalls of attributing what happens in a novel to autobiography, (“a person called ‘I’ who is not necessarily oneself.”) Other aperçus include, “the moment in which we live, like the self we inhabit, is the one we are least equipped to understand,” “when faced with an unfamiliar situation, we play the part as best we can; and our scripts come to us from many places,” the contention that “all men write for sex,” and the observation that “out of character” simply means unexpectedly. (Compare Allan Massie.)

Mr Mee is a kind of companion piece to D’Alembert’s Principle; some of that books preoccupations reappear – we hear again of D’Alembert and Diderot and their Encyclopédie – and there is a sly reference to the contents of Crumey’s earlier book Pƒitz. Dr Petrie tells Louisa that “Rousseau’s novel, like Proust’s, is intimately concerned with the nature of writing.” So, too, is Crumey’s, an engagement with what a novel is, or can be, the uses to which fiction can be put and an examination of the ways in which texts can be interpreted. While the book can be read solely for the stories contained within it these other aspects for me add value, elevate it beyond the level of just a novel but, curiously in such a well-crafted literary piece of work, we twice had “chord” for “cord,” even if I was also grateful to be introduced to the useful word “anacoluthon” (lack of syntactical agreement of the latter part of a sentence with the former.)

I had some misgivings about the way Mr Mee’s relationship with Catriona develops. She is depicted as being in control throughout (indeed she is by far the more knowing of the two, about modern life as well as in a sexual sense) but still. However, yet again Crumey has written an intriguing novel, well worth anyone’s attention.

Surviving by Allan Massie

Vagabond Voices, 2009, 208p.

Surviving cover

This is the second book I’ve read this year eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge and the second not set in Scotland. The author has a large back catalogue some of them set in Scotland in various historical eras up to the present but he has also delved into the lives of ex-Nazis in South America, the legacy of the Vichy regime and later twentieth century Italian politics in addition to writing a series of very good novels on the lives of Roman Emperors.

Surviving takes place in modern(ish) Rome. It is undated but the currency being used is the lira which would set it before Italy adopted the Euro in 2002. The story unfolds over fifty short chapters, though since each is indicated by a Roman numeral in bold that should be L chapters.

A group of ex-pat Britons is just about surviving being alcoholics – with a few lapses – via their attendance at AA meetings. A new member, writer Tom Durward, – whose surname surely signals a Walter Scott connection – has guilty feelings due to his orphaned nephew, Jamie (entrusted to his care,) having drowned himself at boarding school years ago. Stephen Mallany spectacularly drops off the wagon just after the meeting where Durward introduces himself.

The web of relationships becomes further disturbed when Gary Kelly, a man acquitted of murder back in Britain, is taken into her home by Kate Sturzo. The book takes a strange turn indeed when the barrister who defended him, Reynard Yallett, also arrives in Rome. The consequences involve murder but the novel reads nothing like a detective story.

There are multifarous characters, perhaps too many. That there should be such neat connections between some of them stretches believability a bit but Massie’s writing is smooth and accomplished even if he puts into the mouth of one of them the sentence, “We make for ourselves impressions of people and if they act in a way that doesn’t fit that impression we say they’re acting out of character as if they were actors condemned to be typecast,” which is a wonderful get out of jail free card for any author to trot out. He also gives us a piece of metafictional trickery towards the end as Durward muses about writing the whole story up as a novel.

What kind of novel Surviving is, is not easy to pigeonhole. It’s worth a look though.

Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

Charlemagne and Roland by Allan Massie

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007, 232 p.

The last in Massie’s Dark Ages trilogy, this is mainly the life story of Roland, nephew of Charlemagne. As in previous instalments we have the interjections and admonitions of the putative narrator, Michael Scott, to his princely charge (the later Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.) Much less here is made of Scott’s upbringing in the Scottish Border country though there are “editorial” footnotes from Massie himself noting similarities between incidents in Michael Scott’s tale and those of his later compatriot and surnamesake Sir Walter. (The trilogy is meant to be a “found” manuscript which “Massie” has translated from Latin.) Still present, too, are “Scott”’s digressions – at one point a character visits Byzantium, others travel as far as Ethiopia (to collect Roland’s lost wits!) before returning to the German wood where they left him – but the narrative thrust doesn’t falter. The machinations and instabilities of a Dark Ages court are well illustrated.

Since there are precious few historical sources to rely on a novelist has pretty much free reign in describing the times in which the book is set. It will not have been exactly like this but in Charlemagne and Roland Massie has produced as convincing an account as we are likely to get.

Arthur The King by Allan Massie

A Romance. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003, 292 p.

A novel about King Arthur? What new is there to be said?
Well, Massie’s approach is different. This is the second part of his Dark Ages trilogy as told by Michael Scott (known as the wizard) to his pupil, the Hohenstaufen Prince who would become The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

In Arthur the King the focus is not so much on the legend we all think we know as on Arthur the man, a very human creature, from his humble upbringing, through his kingship to his gritty death. The effect is to demystify, to demythologise, to render Arthur into history. Michael Scott has his own reasons for this, to educate the prince, to remind him of a monarch’€™s duty to maintain peace and justice, to underline the burden of kingship but it also serves to emphasise the Hohenstaufen line’s links back to the Roman Empire. It’€™s a nice piece of ventriloquism by Massie and allows the use of wonderful Scottish words like howdumdeid.

In addition he has Scott locate Camelot in Scott’s boyhood environment – the Scottish border country – and mentions, among others, the legend of Arthur still residing in a hollow under the Eildon Hills. There are of course many parts of Great Britain which claim Arthur as their own. Indeed a cave by the Clyde shore at the Havoc in Dumbarton was/is known as Merlin’€™s Cave (though others have it as Bruce’s cave, such is legend.)

In the narrative the point is made that most of the tales of Arthur are actually those of the Knights of the Round Table. Here, there are some digressions of that sort but they are short and we are never away from Arthur for long.

Characters who might have seemed important, like Merlin and Lancelot, are bit parts; even Morgan Le Fay isn’€™t Arthur’€™s main antagonist. Merlin, though an instigator of the sequence of events which lead to the complications inherent in the tale, is disappeared offstage about halfway through.

The main problem with all this is the narrative style. Massie, as Scott, digresses frequently and irritatingly, leading to a certain turgidity in the delivery. I remember this trait as being worse, though, in the first book of The Dark Ages, The Evening of the World, which I read before I started blogging. So much so in fact that I left off reading this one for years.

It probably won’€™t be so long, I suspect, till I undertake the last in this series, Charlemagne and Roland.

The Sins of the Father by Allan Massie

Hutchinson, 1991, 299p.

In Argentina in 1964 two young lovers, Franz Schmidt and Rebecca Czinner, children of German emigrés, decide to marry. When the two sets of parents meet, Becky’€™s father, Eli, a concentration camp survivor now blind, thinks he recognises something about Franz’€™s very affable father Rudi. Despite his reservations about all that the state of Israel represents and his past complicity as an economist with the Nazi regime, he contacts Jewish authorities in Vienna and Tel Aviv. The ramifications of this decision and of the continuing effects of the Holocaust both on individuals and on Israel are the backbone of the book.

Franz’s father disappears. His associates in Argentina reveal Franz’€™s father’€™s past to him and kidnap Becky and her friend in a bid to prevent Rudi’s transportation to Israel. It is too late, a trial date is set and the girls are set free. The love story here is a twentieth century variation on Romeo and Juliet but any animosity between the two families can barely be described as such.

The bulk of the book is set in Israel to where Franz has gone to support his father and try to understand his past actions. Becky joins him to avoid their relationship falling apart. They fall into the orbit of an Israeli journalist who speaks out against the trial. In a rather unlikely coincidence which stretched credulity, another journalist covering the trial turns out to be the former husband of Becky’€™s mother and the lover of a boy whom Franz had an affair with at school.

The inevitable outcome results and in a coda the lives of the main characters thereafter are described through the medium of Becky’€™s English cousin Gareth of whom up to then we had never heard.

The Holocaust is a sensitive subject and while Massie treats it obliquely he is clearly attempting to deal with serious issues. In this respect it is unfortunate that he renders the sentence Arbeit Macht Frei under which Franz’€™s father was photographed during the war with an “s”€ at the end of its first word. His control slips at times too. This humdinger of a sentence leapt out at me. The evening was spread out peacefully as they left the hotel, and looked for a taxi. This, with its strategically placed comma, can only mean, “The evening looked for a taxi.”

If I was to sum this up in one phrase it would be, densely written but flawed.

Nero’s Heirs by Allan Massie

Sceptre, 1999, 248p

This comes with an encomium from Gore Vidal on the front cover, ‘Master of the long ago historical novel.’ Since Vidal’s own Roman excursion Julian was no petty achievement this is high praise.

The book is essentially the reminiscences of Scaurus, an offshoot of ancient Roman aristocracy; in his youth an intimate of Vespasian’s son Titus and friend of Titus’s brother Domitian – all of whom were to become Emperor – as well as an admirer (and, much later, lover) of their sister Domatilla.

Written as a series of letters to Tacitus in reply to requests from that historian to provide background for his endeavours, interspersed with the narrator’s own reflections on his early life, it provides a close-up view of the turbulent Year of the Four Emperors that followed the death of Nero. Accordingly, the focus is not quite as sharp as it was in some of Massie’s other Roman novels; events are sometimes related at a distance. Hence, while Nero’s Heirs is always readable, there are some passages which read more like history than the dramatisation usual in a fictional narrative.

I suppose they are only to be expected in a work set in this period but the asides on early Christianity struck a wrong note for me. I would have thought that someone of Scaurus’s upbringing would most likely have paid scant attention to the doings and beliefs of a then minor, not to mention proscribed, religious sect whose adherents were mainly slaves. (No matter how beautiful his slave was.)

Massie is certainly in control of his subject matter, though, and his knowledge of the times shines through.

The novel concentrates more on Scaurus’s relationship with Domitian than either Titus or Vespasian, as he is present in Rome, with Scaurus, at the appropriate time while the others are busy quelling the Jewish rebellion in Judæa. The traits which would come to the fore when Domitian succeeded to the imperial purple are well foreshadowed by Massie, a study in the jealousy of a younger son for an older, apparently more favoured, brother.

A finely written example of the novelist’s art, Nero’s Heirs is also a painless way of immersing yourself in the history of the early Roman Empire.

One Night In Winter By Allan Massie

The Bodley Head, 1984

Dallas Graham, a former writer with one novel long behind him, now runs an antique shop. He has a more successful and still sexy wife who has affairs from time to time and who reacquaints him with Candida, a woman he knew years before. Dallas writes about this past, relating the tangled circumstances of Candida’s involvement in a high profile murder, as if his former self was a character in a novel and he has little connection to him. These passages are interspersed with others set in the contemporaneous world in which Dallas is writing.

In the 60s – there is a reference to what can only be the Torrey Canyon – Dallas falls into the orbit of a well-connected businessman and charismatic womaniser called Fraser Donnelly who is a flouter of conventions of all sorts, with thuggish tendencies. Donnelly has a coterie of hangers-on who appear to varying degrees mesmerised by him. Candida is a friend of Fraser’s much put upon wife Linda and wishes to protect or even free her from his influence.

Dallas interacts with a few of these characters – who curiously spend a lot of time talking about the drawbacks of being Scottish and the merits or otherwise of independence. (Is this a reflection of the fact that the novel was published in Thatcher’s time, before devolution? It does not seem a necessary part of Dallas’s story, except as a philosophical illustration of his (and most Scots?) inability to escape his upbringing.)

Things come to a head on a sojourn to Crete where Donnelly behaves in a way which upsets the local inhabitants and takes coarse delight in informing Candida that he has subsequently buggered Linda.

This incident seems less than startling nowadays – Bridget Jones appeared to accept the act with equanimity in the film. But it is supposed to have occurred in the 60s and attitudes were different then. Candida and Dallas are suitably revulsed.

Partly as a consequence, Dallas begins to spiral loose from Donnelly’s orbit and, one night in winter, after a drinking session, is beaten up by Donnelly who apparently feels scorned. Due to Donnelly’s belligerence, Candida senses Lorna is in danger and asks Dallas to fetch the police, but he is caught drunk-driving and they ignore him. That same night Donnelly is murdered, the trigger being his attempted rape of his latest hanger-on, Caroline. Candida attempts to cover up the crime but is doomed to failure.

The trial which follows fails to bear out Dallas’s perception of the truth of what happened. There is a strange parallel here with The Fanatic which also featured a trial whose outcome was a foregone conclusion.

There is a coda set in the 80s present where Dallas is revealed still to drift through his life.

One Night In Winter was fine while I was reading it and the prose is elegant and readable enough but in the end, beyond Candida’s self sacrifice, it all seemed rather inconsequential.
Perhaps it had more resonance in the 1980s.

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