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Wolves by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2014, 295 p.

This is the first in my attempt to catch up with this year’s BSFA Awards nominations for best novel. I’ve now read half of them. With two more at hand I’m on track for 6 out of the 8.

 Wolves cover

Wolves is a strange beast, part SF, part mystery, part love story, but never really completely any one of them. Conrad is working in advertising when school friend Michel’s phone call to him to come to meet his girlfriend and view their pet project – building a boat to see them safe through what they divine as the impending apocalypse – throws him into their orbit. How this is all linked to Conrad’s past, his mother’s death and dysfunctional relationship with his father, Ben, is worked out in stages and flashbacks to Conrad’s teenage years. Ben was involved in devising a system of artificial sight for blinded soldiers. Later, Conrad’s company develops augmented reality technology – “with tricks of mathematics and optics, we augment reality, smothering surfaces in warm, spicy notes of brand belonging” – eventually to the point where it can overlay the real world, without its experiencer even carrying/wearing a processing device. As Conrad tells us later, in another context, “the mind cannot retain vanished geographies, and we find ourselves adapting to this new terrain.”

In perhaps the crucial sentences in the book Ralf, the ideas man behind the AR technology, says to his financial backer when queried about what he calls the model, the brain’s importance in perception, “Your model, my model, of what the world is like. We only have models, Mr Vaux. From the little data granted us, we extrapolate a model of the world. This, we call ‘reality’.”

I’m very dubious about Conrad’s contentions that, “When we fall in love with someone, we fall in love first with their world,” and, “Falling in love with a person is hard. Falling in love with a world is easy,” but less so with, “Confusing the two loves is easier still.” He also says, “Stupidity isn’t a lack of knowledge, or a lack of intelligence. Stupidity is a force. It’s an energy.”

Despite the trappings – and the nomination – the book doesn’t really feel at all like SF. The novel’s sensibility throughout is mainstream. Augmented Reality isn’t truly embedded in the story and reads more like an add-on. The book could actually be stripped of its futuristic components and the plot still work as well. The text also mentions Science Fiction, generally thought to be unwise in a work within the genre. However, one thing that can be taken from Wolves is that whatever happens, human relationships will still be as muddled and messy as ever.

Pedant’s corner:- clitoriclectomy (clitoridectomy or clitorectomy,) pretentions (pretensions – though the latter spelling is used later,) queuing (queueing?) populous (populace,) “I rack my head for anecdotes,” (wrack?) stoved in (staved in surely?)
Plus points, though, for “lie of the land.”

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

B & W, 2009, 153 p. First published in 1958.

 The White Bird Passes cover

Janie MacVean lives with her mother Liza in a tenement in “the Lane,” a thoroughfare in an unnamed Scottish town just after the Great War. Watched over by Poll Pyke, Battleaxe and the Duchess, the Lane is a friendly enough place with folks more or less looking out for each other. Despite their poverty stricken circumstances, Janie loves her mother and the Lane. The occasional (finance dependent) trip to see her grandmother, who lives in a much more salubrious house in the country, only serves to highlight Janie’s contentment with her lot. It is on the one such trip in the narrative that darkness intrudes into the book. Janie’s grandmother is friendly enough but her grandfather disapproves. For in the Lane, Janie has no father – and Liza no husband – to protect her.

Through a series of vignettes the details of Janie’s life are slowly revealed, perennial nits being only one of her burdens. Her attachment to it, her ease with it, are both manifest, the web of her relationships beautifully rendered. But things come to a head when the “Cruelty Man” intervenes and Janie is removed from the Lane as being a neglected child. Between Chapters Eight and Nine eight years have passed and we then see Janie, by now adapted to life in the Aberdeenshire orphanage in the shadow of the Cairngorms to which she has been sent, getting ready for adult life.

In an echo of a phrase in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song we are told, “Everybody believed in God on Sundays, then laid Him carefully away with their best clothes for the rest of the week.”

The White Bird Passes gives more of an indication into the realities of life in poor areas of Scotland than did the recently read The Guinea Stamp.

Pedant’s corner:- remarkably – even if it is such a short book – I found only a single typo; the lights lit up she street (the.)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2011, 564 p.

The Thousand Autumns of Jocab de Zoet cover

This novel has been described in a quote on the back cover as a tour de force and I must say it is likely to remain in my mind for a long time. It will certainly figure in my best of the year even if this is still only February.

The Jacob de Zoet of the title is a Dutchman who, in order to prove his worthiness to marry his sweetheart Anna, is out to make his fortune in the Dutch trading mission on the island of Dejima off Nagasaki at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (CE) – during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when all other European contacts were banned, as was travel abroad for Japanese. The present tense narration is in the third person, save for a single chapter in first person from the point of view of a slave in the Dutch trading post. Woven into the tale is the history of relations between Japan and the outside world up to that point. While the novel is roughly based on incidents that took place on Dejima around that time I would hazard that the part of the plot involving the Lord Abbot Enomoto is not.

The first part of the novel outlines de Zoet’s endeavours in exposing the various corruptions of previous Chiefs of the post and his interactions with Japanese translators. Reading about the difficulties of translation between Japanese and Dutch in a third language – English – is a bit surreal. The very first chapter, however, introduces us to Aibagawa Orito, the disfigured daughter of a samurai, who is learning to be a midwife under the tutelage of the Dutch doctor at Dejima. Her path and de Zoet’s cross and, despite feelings of guilt at betraying Anna, Jacob becomes attracted to Orito. His hopes in affairs of the heart and commerce are both soon dashed. In the second section, where Aibagawa Orito has been taken away to the religious institution run by the Lord Abbot, the novel takes a sudden left turn as this middle part of the book deals solely with her plight and the efforts of her Japanese admirer, the interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, to free her. The third and concluding part of the novel returns us to Dejima as well as on to the British frigate which arrives to attempt to take advantage of the fall of the Netherlands to Napoleon’s armies.

The book is unusual in that it contains a number of illustrations, mostly anatomical but also two townscapes – well, one townscape and a shrinescape – plus some of “de Zoet’s” sketches of Origo.

While reading I was struck by certain parallels with Science Fiction. There is a type of SF story which also has an isolated trading/diplomatic post many months (or years) travel from home, dealing with and trying to understand a different culture. In Origo’s captivity we have different SF parallels but they are even more marked, as the Sheranui Shrine is a closed society with its own rules and a menace at its heart.

The characters, especially the Japanese, impress. Care and detail is lavished both on them and on the background. Even the minor ones have the ring of truth. That short first person chapter includes a meditation on the internal autonomy of slaves. One member of the Dutch mission tells de Zoet, “Tain’t good intentions that pave the road to hell; it’s self-justifyin’s.” There is also towards the end a very rhythmic paragraph listing the lives/occupations of the inhabitants of Nagasaki which is reminiscent of Auden’s The Night Mail in its metre and rhyming. Then there was the almost impenetrable phrase, “A smoke-dried Dane makes Finn’s Cock of a tangled Vang,” which seems to entangle nautical terms with the history of the times.

A tour de force? It was certainly fascinating and absorbing throughout, likely to remain with me for a long time.

Pedant’s corner:- “A well-travelled round of Edam and sour apples are divided,” (a round is singular;) snonky appears to be a coinage by Mitchell; wistaria (apparently a variant of the more usual wisteria) was repeated several times; “the pair enjoys,” (again; a pair is singular) guarding this natural revile (revile here is in the sense of ravine but I can’t find such a definition anywhere.)

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 2008? (a later reprint of the 1966 edition,) 143 p.

The Girls of Slender Means cover

This is the tale of the young ladies of the title, residents at the May of Teck Club, opposite Kensington Gardens, in the summer of 1945, taking in both VE and VJ days; or to be more accurate, it is the tale of Nicholas Farringdon, “anarchist” and writer, who is introduced to the club by the secretary of the publisher he is trying to get to buy his book The Sabbath Notebooks and who forms an attachment to another resident, Selina. The story is framed by the news of Farringdon’s death as a missionary in Haiti and perhaps explains why he tended up taking that path. 1945 is described in the first and last sentences as long ago, yet was only 18 years before the book’s first publication date. Still, the intervening 18 years might have seemed like a lifetime in those less eventful post-war days.

The book feels a slight work. It is barely more than a novella and while it has a tragedy at its core (not a spoiler as Spark herself tells us so early on) there is not really much more to it.

For such a lauded writer I find Spark curiously unsatisfying. She tends to tell us about her characters rather than reveal them and has a propensity to overuse the repetition of phrases. While emphasis on Joanna’s recitation of The Wreck of the Deutschland is warranted by the plot other such instances are not. And I hate the spelling “connexion”.

The Chalice of Death by Robert Silverberg

In “The Chalice of Death,” Planet Stories, 2012, 91 p. First published as Lest We Forget Thee, Earth, 1958, as by Calvin M Knox.

Lest We Forget Thee Earth cover
 The Chalice of Death cover

This book is (dis)graced by one of the most execrable covers (right) it is possible to imagine. I felt ashamed buying it. Still, I suppose it reflects the times in which the story was first published – though the original Ace Double cover (left) is more restrained. Silverberg is of course one of my SF immortals and the book contains two other early works of his which I shall get round to later. Not that his early stuff is necessarily of great quality; he fairly churned it out. It was only when he came back to the field in the late 1960s that his genius shone through. It is to him, specifically his The Man in the Maze, that my continuing reading of SF beyond that date is due.

In The Chalice of Death, Earth, once the centre of a great galactic empire, has been lost in the mists of time but nevertheless Earthmen act as advisors to the rulers on many of the planets. Hallam Navarre acts as one such to Joroiran VII on the planet Jorus. His rival advisor, the Lyrellan Kausirn, takes advantage of a minor slip to lever Navarre away from influence. As a result Navarre is sent by Joroirdan to locate the eponymous chalice, in the hope it will grant eternal life to the ruler. Since it doesn’t exist that represents a problem. Navarre and his companions, one a half-breed Earthman, the other, Helna Wistin a (female) advisor to the ruler of Kariad, nevertheless find Earth within a chapter or so and a vault there where survivors from the time of supremacy have been kept in suspended animation over the millenia. They hatch a plot to revive Earth’s fortunes and the remainder of the story follows that process.

On even the most cursory examination most of this falls apart. Since we only meet two actual full blood Earthmen (which is the generic term adopted throughout) it is difficult to see how the race has managed to propagate itself over the years – still less for individuals to accede to their positions as advisors. The slightly unsavoury assumption that Earthmen (it’s got me at it now) are intrinsically better than the universe’s other inhabitants was also unexceptional back in the 1950s. And it was amusing to find Navarre using a slide rule for a calculation. But none of this is the point. This is pulp adventure stuff and can only be read as such. No pretentions to characterisation need apply; nor any consideration of literary merit. I read it as a would-be Silverberg completist, without high expectation. I wasn’t disappointed. Nothing could dim my memories of Silverberg’s glory period.

The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan

Bibliobazaar, 2008, 298 p.

 The Guinea Stamp cover

Anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish literature knows the source of this book’s title, a title which jumped out at me from the shelves of a local library. And there the quote lay at the bottom of the title page, the affirmation that position in society is no indicator of moral probity.

The rank is but the guinea stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a that.

When George Fordyce, here, in conversation with his mother, refers to this quote as “that Burns rot” it adds confirmation to what we already knew, that he is the villain of the piece.

Mind you, that title page also has a subtitle A Tale of Modern Glasgow. Given that the novel was first published in 1892 and is set in the 1880s it hardly applies now.

The centre of the book is Gladys Graham, newly orphaned daughter of impecunious painter John, taken in by her skinflint uncle Abel, and transported from her Lincolnshire home to live in his dingy warehouse in Glasgow where she meets his assistant, the steady Walter Hepburn. She slowly softens Abel’s heart and on his death he bequeaths her both a large country house – the ancestral seat of the Grahams – near Mauchline in Ayrshire, plus a fortune to go with it.

It is almost impossible to read this sort of stuff without imagining parallels with Dickens. Not that we see any of him, but what we are told of Gladys’s father says he was Micawberish, her uncle is plainly Scrooge and Walter a mixture of Pip and Oliver with a bit of Bob Cratchit thrown in.

Gladys’s inheritance of course inserts obstacles to her destiny. Her new status certainly does not allow her to remain living in the warehouse with Walter. This throws her into the orbit of society types. It is here that she meets George Fordyce, to whom her indifference presents a challenge to be overcome. Any thought of contact with Walter and especially his wayward sister Liz is to be abhorred. But Gladys’s early poverty has imbued her with a keen sense of herself and of her purpose. She resolves to help the less well off.

When accused by Abel of impudence Liz replies, “Some folk ca’s the truth impidence, because they’re no accustomed to it.” Liz later disappears and Walter fears the worst, “The innocent must suffer for and with the guilty always. There is no escape,” he says and as Gladys’s chaperone, Miss Peck, tells her, “Women are the burden-bearers and the scapegoats always.”

The prose is of its time, but even then it may have appeared overwritten, now it seems dreadfully so. There is a high degree of telling rather than showing and Swan adopts the technique, not so much of foreshadowing, as of outright telling us what is to pass later. There is, too, a touch of melodrama to the proceedings and that title, whatever the twists and turns along the way, always has us in its tram-lines.

Pedant’s corner:-
There are some antique spellings such as waggon and chaperon plus we had, “in which the Fordyce household were concerned.” A household is singular. Gladys’s first intended chaperone, Madame Bonnemain, is said to be from Shandon on the Gairloch. That would be the Gare Loch. Gairloch is a completely different place.

Deep River by Shusaku Endo

Peter Owen, 1994, 220 p. Translated from Japanese by Van C Gessel.

Deep River cover

I read Endo’s Silence (published 1966) and The Samurai (1980) years ago now but this is the first book of his I have read since. Endo’s writing is unlike most Japanese authors in that it is coloured by his Christianity, specifically Roman Catholicism. Silence dealt directly with the missionary times in Japan, The Samurai with the cultural differences between Japan and “the West.”

Deep River engages with yet another culture, that of India, mainly following a group of Japanese tourists there ostensibly to visit Buddhist sites but each of whom has his or her own concerns. Isobe has lost his wife to cancer but on her deathbed she whispered she was convinced she would reincarnate; he has learned of a possible candidate in India. Mitsuko has a connection to Ōtsu, a man she tormented in her college days who is now doing good works in Varanasi (the book spells this city’s name as Vārānasī throughout.) Numada is a children’s writer who wants to set free a myna bird as an act of restitution. Kiguchi is haunted by his experience on the Highway of Death in the retreat from Burma and wishes to have a reconciliatory memorial service to the fallen of both sides.

(Aside:- It is perhaps understandable that little of the hideousnesses that Kiguchi remembers from the retreat is remarked on in non-Japanese writings. In the aftermath of an ill-advised offensive which duly went wrong the soldiers were left to their own devices and suffered accordingly. But then even in their good times Japanese soldiers were notoriously ill-served by their superiors. In retreat they were just forgotten.)

While the first part of the book chronicles the back-stories of the four main characters it is India that is the true centre of the novel. All four encounter the overpowering nature of that country. The deep river is not only the Ganges at Varanasi but the mass of humanity. Yet even here Endo’s Catholicism makes itself felt. Ōtsu has his own particular take on theology, failing his seminary education by being unable to accept European views and seeing God in all religions not exclusively in one. Nevertheless he clings to what he sees as his Christian beliefs.

The trip coincides with Indira Gandhi’s assassination. This coupled with his experiences on the Highway of Death makes Kiguchi come to the somewhat jaundiced conclusion that, “It was not love but the formation of mutual enmities that made a bonding between human beings possible.”

While the manifestations of Japanese, and indeed Indian, culture may appear odd to western eyes, reading books like this shows that at their hearts people really do not vary much the world over. Here it is religion that is the biggest estranging factor.

Refreshingly the translation is into British English but there were some entries for Pedant’s Corner:- négligé (négligée,) when he laid (lay) in wait, her name in Rajini (is,) when… gets me alone this (like this,) resembling that of his dead wife’s (a possessive too far,) we’d better just lay low (lie,) of the the taxi, “a harmonium, an instrument resembling a harmonica” (it isn’t clear whether this is supposed to mean two different instruments or if a harmonium resembles a harmonica – which it doesn’t,) to eat they daily bread (their.)

A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone

Polygon, 1989 , 257 p.

A Sparrow's Flight cover

Subtitled on the cover “A Novel of a Future”, A Sparrow’s Flight is set in the same post-apocalypse universe as Elphinstone’s The Incomer and features the same lead character, Naomi. Here, on her last night before travelling across to a tidal island (which internal evidence in the text suggests is Lindisfarne) she encounters Thomas, an exile from the once “empty lands” of the west, and is invited by him to return there with him. The lure is that she will discover there something from the past about music.

The novel covers a span of 29 days in which Thomas and Naomi traverse the country east to west, stay awhile at Thomas’s former home then travel back again. The chapters are of varying length and each covers just one of the days. Elphinstone’s future world is one in which the ruins of the past are feared, only low-tech exists; there is no transport, except perhaps for oxcarts and rowing boats for crossing water. Distance is an alienating factor. Once again the incomprehension Naomi has of the local norms is one of the themes. Complicating things are the fact the empty lands’ inhabitants are mistrustful of strangers and that Thomas himself has a past he wants to expiate.

Again, like The Incomer, this is a book in which nothing much happens, especially if you consider the music element of the story as more or less incidental. But quiet lives led quietly are worthy of record. When Thomas and Naomi return to their starting point they have both found things out about themselves and each other, of the importance of relationships and mutual benefit.

Pedant’s corner:- than you lead me to believe (led made more sense,) picked her her nightshirt, sprung, whistled under is breath.

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig

A Modern Romance. faber and faber, 2002, 312 p.

 Electric Brae cover

Love, sex and death. Of the three main preoccupations of the novelistic art only the last might truly be expected from what is a deeply Scottish novel. But as its subtitle suggests, Andrew Greig’s first novel Electric Brae is a love story. And while a modern romance can also be expected to deal with sex what there is here is not graphic and is absolutely necessary to the tale.

The generally linear narrative isn’t entirely straightforward and moves from first to third person and back again, ditto from past to present tense, but does so seemingly naturally, without jarring, and also uses Scots words and phrases organically and unapologetically.

Set against a background of the transition to, and the years of, Thatcher’s premiership and the jolt to the Scottish psyche that produced, the story starts with the meeting, on a mountain in Glencoe, between Jimmy Renilson, an engineer on the rigs whose voice bears most of the narration duties, and the man who becomes his best friend and climbing partner, the committed socialist Graeme. This is before we encounter the love interest, Kim Russell (though it’s really Ruslawska,) a woman about ten years younger than Jimmy and possessed of eyes that beguile him. As these three plus Graeme’s girlfriend Lesley and others in their circle orbit round each other the course of true love – here explicitly acknowledged as an addiction – fails to run smooth. It rarely does, or else we’d have no story; and the canon of literature would be rather empty.

Kim is a troubled soul, given to self-harm and driven to produce art works that fail to assuage the core of her angst. “All art is exaggeration,” she says, “that’s the trouble with it.” But all the characters give off the air of real breathing people, except perhaps for Mick DeTerre, an anti-establishment activist, who seems too broad brush.

Significant locations in the book roam all over Scotland, ranging from Eyemouth in the Southeast, up to Aberdeen, Orkney and later Shetland, Fort William and Ben Nevis in the West, Dunbar notably, and finally Prestwick. The art of rock climbing and some individual Scottish climbs are described at various points. It is a longstanding ambition of Graeme and Jimmy that they will one day “knock off” the Old Man of Hoy, preferably together.

Without shying away from the sentimentality that can lurk beneath the reserve, the novel does however touch on the heart of Scottishness and what differentiates it from its southern neighbour, in especial the inability of the Scottish male to acknowledge “the squishy stuff” of emotion, to admit even to friendship.

It addresses too the Scots shrinking from pretentiousness. At one point Jimmy remembers Lesley telling him that, “Graeme must conclude any intelligent statement with an expletive. As if to apologise for his articulacy,” adding for our benefit, “Clinging to the wreckage Lesley calls it.” Graeme says, in contrast to Scotland about the Falklands War, [Editorial insert:- sorry; police action] “England’s gone off its heid wi this war,” and on the failure of the miners’ strike, “Everyone for themselves these days, eh? It’s no the Scottish way.”

Jimmy himself has more than a few observations about Scotland and the Scots:-
“Deferred gratification, we love it. It lets us square Calvinism with hedonism.”
“Who are we? I wondered. We don’t even speak consistently. We’ll say ‘yes’ and ‘aye’ and ‘yeah’ in the same conversation, alternate between ‘know’ and ‘ken’,1 ‘bairn’, ‘wean’ and ‘child’2 and not even know why.”
“We’re a small country with blurry boundaries.”
“Have I mentioned that good sex is wonderful, a human joy, even in Scotland?”
Of the places listed over the radio in his childhood as in danger of snow and ice, “Some places, like some people, you love before you’ve ever met,” and on being accused of sentimentality over his love of the Scottish landscape, “Someone said sentimentality is the expenditure of emotion on an unworthy object. Do you think this country’s unworthy?”
“We’re living in a banana republic that disnae even have its ain government to be corrupted.”
“Scots prefer the bludgeon of sarcasm,” (rather than use irony.)
“A culture of stoic suffering is limiting but has its uses.”

He notes after a sojourn abroad that, “while he’d been away the value of property had gone up and on the whole that of people had gone down,” and “Great to be back in Scotland, the home of constructive criticism,” along with, “Judging by the estate agent’s at the top of the wynd, where people used to have a home, now clients invested in a property.”
“Mrs Thatcher had done us one great service for she was a litmus test. Three times she dipped the UK into her solution and each time the bottom part came out blue and the top pinker than the time before. We had forgotten we were different, and that difference went deeper than a taste for haggis, Murrayfield and Hampden and an inability to take seriously anyone called Nigel.” [Editorial insert:- This last sentiment, true enough when Electric Brae was first published in 1992, has become even more apposite in the past decade.]

He complains to a later lover, the Englishwoman Ruth, “All this stuff everyone talks about these days, about taking responsibility, taking charge, taking decisions, taking on board – it sounds like too much taking to me.” “Jimmy,” she said, “you’ll never adjust to the Eighties. That’s why I live up here – because most of you still believe the dream might just work. You still seem to think we’re interdependent… You won’t find many still believe that down South.”

Jimmy also sums up the Scottish mind-set, “You’re asking me to think, to come clean at this hour in the morning, with three-hundred close-hearted, tight-lipped Protestant years sitting on my neck?” More generally he muses, “Climbing’s no dafter than roping your happiness to someone else,” and, “It was hard but nothing compared to what we do to each other.”

Though the author does let Jimmy off a large moral hook a touch too easily near the end (though not an arguably greater one) and the symbolism is at times forced, all in all this is superb stuff, about the importance of relationships and mutual dependency.

And the Electric Brae? Apart from being one of the place names in the radio snow reports it is not mentioned at all in the book except in the excerpt from A Fly Fisherman’s Guide by H O N MacCaig that is quoted as a frontispiece. The Brae itself is a hill in Ayrshire that seems to defy gravity. In this sense of disorientation it is a great descriptor for the appearance of madness that love can take.

1If you’re from the East coast.
2“bairn” and “child” if you’re from the East coast, “wean” and “child” if you’re from the West.

Pedant’s corner:- “Next weekend I’d cragging again with Graeme.” “born away on a receding tide” (borne) Lichtenstein (Liechtenstein.) “The longer you stay, bigger the bill will be when you leave.” Glamourous. “It didn’t looked played much.” “He stared back the Old Man.” Seperate. “Half of last the night.” “She hadn’t asked me too” (“asked me to” makes more sense,) Betty (Bette?) Davis, Casopeia (Cassiopeia) glaxy (galaxy,) self-centered (self-centred,) schlerosis (sclerosis,) whaft (waft,) whispy (wispy,) a whailing (wailing?) wall, smoothes.

Several Scots words appeared in unusual spellings; greit (for weep) is more usually greet, fousty (foosty or at a pinch foostie,) bisom (a rare variant of besom,) plouk (plook,) cheuchter (definitely teuchter,) wheich (definitely wheech.)

Ragnarok: the end of the Gods by A S Byatt

Canongate, 2012, 179 p – including bibliography and 15 p on Thoughts on Myths.

 Ragnarok cover

This is Byatt’s retelling of the myths of the Norse/Germanic Gods, an interest in which she had indulged during her childhood and rekindled often in the time since. As an author so many years later her entry into the tale is via “the thin child in wartime,” a child who may be a barely disguised version of the young Byatt, a child who reflects on the copies of Asgard and the Gods and Pilgrim’s Progress she had available to read.

That these myths should have resonated with the young Byatt is not too surprising. A child growing up during the Second World War (and who was convinced her father would never return from it) may well have thought the end times were upon her. Adults may have thought so. The contrast with Christian mythology – so milk and water in comparison – perhaps presented the greatest interest. As the child reflects, “It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control.”

It is in the nature of the beast that a myth has to be told. Hence we are not shown anything here except, perhaps, in the sentences relating to the thin child. As Byatt says in her “Thoughts on Myths” afterword, Gods do not have psychology, they have – at most – attributes. Hence in the main body of the book incident is piled on incident. Things happen; but they have a driving force. “Stories are ineluctable. At this stage of every story, something must go wrong, be awry, whatever the ending to come. It is not given, even to gods, to take foolproof, perfect precautions.”

Ragnarök (the word is always spelled this way in the text but in the title has no umlaut) means judgement of the gods; judgement as in trial, not sagacity. For her notional thin child and for Byatt herself the bleak end to the Norse tales is more satisfactory than a return to, or a resurrection of, what had gone before (with which some cleaned up versions end.) “This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain.” In this they may be the opposite of novels, which by and large do.

Some new words to me were eft, gage – as in a gage of honesty – and chaunting as a (not very opaque) variant of chanting but for Pedant’s Corner we had a shrunk count of 1, plus iceflo without its terminal e, stove in (staved in,) and beseeched (besought.)

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