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Agnes Owens: The Complete Novellas

Polygon, 2009, 499 p.

 Agnes Owens: The Complete Novellas  cover

Various encomia adorn both the back cover (“Agnes Owens is one of Scotland’s best yet most overlooked writers,”) and the before-the-title pages of this book. Owens is someone of whose name I’d been aware but whose work I’d never sampled till now, an omission a chance encounter in a local library enabled me to rectify.

Like Birds in the Wilderness1 is a rather rambling tale of an unemployed bricklayer with a fondness for drink who moves to a northern city seeking work, meets a girl, encounters a military type who cryptically offers him unspecified employment, goes hiking in the highlands, returns home.

A Second World War childhood/adolescence figure in both A Working Mother2 and For the Love of Willie.

Betty is the titular working mother, the focus around which the events of the novella orbit. She is married to a war hero, but the only things she and her husband, Adam, have in common are alcohol and two children. As her husband is unemployed she goes back to work to help support the family. Her job takes her into the office of widower Mr Robson. This relationship, like hers with Adam’s friend Brendan, is not what propriety deems it should be. A few final scenes undercut the reliability of the previous narrative by revealing Betty is telling her story to a fellow mental patient.

Any unreliability issues are addressed at the start of For the Love of Willie where Peggy is an inmate in a psychiatric ward who announces to fellow patient, the duchess, her intention to write a novel based on her own life, scrounging or stealing paper to do so. The two phases of Peggy’s life are then told in parallel describing how her wartime employment in the shop of Willie Roper led to her present state. Peggy’s mother tells her warningly, “No man’s as nice as he looks” and also that (men) have habits worse than dogs. Peggy herself tells the duchess that love is only sex with a sugar coating round it. I note here that this novella’s title may be a crude pun.

Bad Attitudes3 revolves around the doings of the Dawson family – recently decanted from a condemned terrace to a new council flat – the busybody downstairs, her across the close neighbour, the local councillor they both consult, the one man who refuses to leave the old terrace, the tinkers who have squatted there and their sister/in-law. It takes a strange turn near the end when two murders are committed in the terrace.

In Jen’s Party Jen lives penuriously with her mum, Maude, and Aunt Belle. Her father is in jail but she thinks he merely left and is well off somewhere with another woman. Belle is a force of nature, blithely careening through life while Maude feels the struggle. Belle organises a party for Jen’s fourteenth birthday which, on the day, brings all sorts of things to a head. The dialogue between Maude and her sister in this story is immensely readable and sparkles with authenticity.

One of Scotland’s best writers? I’m not wholly convinced yet, but she is certainly worth reading. I’ll look for more.

Pedant’s corner:-
1 encyclopedias (why the US spelling?) inadvertantly, skuttled, fruit wellies (jellies,) proprietory, stoney.
2 sprung – though sprang is used later, before I could take if off, dotary – which I’ve only ever seen as dottery before.
3 if she hadn’t seen it for her own eyes. For? It’s usually with.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

Headline, 2014, 538p. Reviewed for Interzone 251, Mar-Apr 2014.

The Citadel contains within its labyrinthine caverns not only the trapped remains of the old gods (bar one) but a supposed treasure trove. By reputation no-one escapes from it alive yet it still attracts adventurers and has guards who must be bribed to allow entry. Sell-swords Wydrin of Crosshaven (the Copper Cat) and Sebastian Carverson, disgraced former Knight of Ynnsmouth, are engaged by the mutilated Lord Aaron Frith of Blackwood to penetrate its secrets. They agree somewhat off-handedly considering the apparent dangers. Amid adventures which in part are curiously reminiscent of the 1980s children’s adventure game TV show Knightmare and Indiana Jones films they succeed up to a point. Sebastian suffers a mortal wound but Frith is restored to fitness – and beyond – by immersing himself in the lake underneath the Citadel. In the process Frith acquires magical powers by which he involuntarily transports our three heroes to Blackwood in an instant when they are threatened by the old god Y’ruen, a dragon, which their foray into the Citadel has raised from its confinement. Frith’s new powers allow him to heal the wounds of both Sebastian and Wydrin.

In the Blackwood village of Pinehold, they encounter the source of Frith’s misfortunes, Fane, who is torturing the inhabitants to find the secret of the Frith family vault. While wearing a peculiar glowing helmet – which channels the influence of the demon Bezcavar, the Prince of Wounds, an enthusiastic harvester of pain – Fane is immune from harm. His equally cruel henchmen, the Children of the Fog, Enri and Roki, wear enchanted gauntlets to manifest copies of themselves which confuse and confound any opponents. With help from an old woman, Holley, and her magical glass spheres our heroes escape, cross an invisible bridge to the vault, find in it little but maps and return to free Pinehold from its oppressors. Meantime Y’ruen and her indistinguishable brood army – whose members have numbers but no names (though some of them have developed an interest in words and their own individuality) – is devastating the land of Relios.

The three then split up to pursue their own projects before being reunited for the final scenes. Wydrin returns to Crosshaven, Sebastian goes to fight the brood army. On the Hollow Isle of Whittenfarne, Frith meets Jolnir, who turns out to be O’rin, the untrapped god, and, without much protest or questioning, bestows on Frith the power to control his magic. As a by-product Frith realises that the maps describe a weapon.

This is Williams’s first novel and I’m afraid that shows. We start with a torture scene – never auspicious – from the viewpoint of a character who is not even mentioned again for about a hundred pages and is encountered in the narrative just once more – and that after she has already been killed. Chapter two introduces the Citadel and some of its menaces. Sebastian’s erstwhile friend Gallo is killed. Only in Chapter three do we meet our heroes, the two sell-swords, in a tavern, awaiting their client, the tortured party from Chapter one, Aaron Frith, whose escape from torture is dealt with exceedingly sketchily. (Not quite “with one bound he was free” – but near enough.) Descriptions of fights are leaden, we have changes of viewpoint within scenes, suggestions by a character of what to do next are followed by the sentence, “And so they did.” At various points a touch of economy with the prose would not have gone amiss. For example, who else would a cluster of people be in proximity to but each other?

There is also a curious prudishness to the proceedings. None of the characters really swears. (Williams tells us they do but no expletives save two “bloody”s appear in direct speech.) They might as well be neuter for all the sexuality we are shown. The one time even the faintest possibility of sex arises the subject is treated with absurd coyness and the opportunity is snuffed out abruptly. We infer early on, and later are told – but without description – that Sebastian is gay. He doesn’t manifest it in the text. (But he does carry a large broadsword.) Wydrin, I suspect, is intended to be a spiky young woman but instead appears rather foolhardy and unreasonably cocky. All are hauled hither and yon by the necessities of the plot. Gallo’s reappearance as one of the walking dead is a case in point. None of them come across as having agency of their own.

For all these reasons The Copper Promise fails to breathe. There is no sense in it of a life beyond the page, and little but death on it.

The following comments did not appear in Interzone.
I read an uncorrected proof copy so some of these may have been amended for final publication but (among others) there was a “sunk” count of 5, 1 span, 1 sprung, a “scrapped” for scraped, an “octopi,” one instance of vocal “chords,” “every bone felt as though they had shattered,” – one of innumerable failures of verbs to agree in number with their subject nouns; in especial an army is singular – “over take” for overtake, “very almost completely normal,” “it’s” for “its,” the “lay” of things (which wasn’t a song,) “lengths they would go to deceive each other,” “fit” for fitted etc, etc.

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 210 p (+ v page introduction by Ursula Le Guin.) © Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 1972. Translated from the Russian Piknik na obochine by Olena Bormashenko.

This novel is apparently the book on which Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based. Not that I’ve ever seen it, I don’t go out of my way to view SF in its moving picture formats, either in film or television.

 Roadside Picnic cover

Aliens have come – and gone; their landing sites spaced over the Earth in a perfect curve. Each of those Zones is deserted, a repository of hell slime, death lamps, shriekers, black sparks, lobster eyes, rattling napkins and strange containers known as empties; not to mention the elusive Golden Sphere, said to grant human wishes. Stalkers illegally brave the dangers to retrieve Zone artefacts for the money they will bring. Scientific institutes study these to try to find uses for them – or even what they are. The scientists studying it are more scared than the rest of the populace because they understand how much they don’t understand. As one of the characters points out, such attempts to gain insight suffer from the flawed assumption that an alien race would be psychologically human. We don’t know what intelligence is; it can’t be defined. In the same conversation the possibility is raised of the stuff in the zone being just detritus, left behind after the aliens merely stopped for a picnic.

Yet the Zone has effects beyond itself. Despite there being no detectable radiation nor mutagens in the Zones, Stalker’s children have weird mutations, emigrants from the areas that became the Zones seem to cause disasters of various sorts in their new locations; corpses are reanimated, the dead return to their homes.

The book follows the evolution of stalking over a few years from an individual – or perhaps team – pursuit to remote probing by robots mainly through the experiences of Redrick Schuhart, a stalker in Harmont, which seems to be in the USA (a father aspires for his son to be President one day.) In our first foray into the Zone the descriptions of its outer edge are eerily premonitory of Chernobyl, its strangeness also prefigures the event site in M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. In the concluding section Schuhart muses while finally seeking out the Golden Sphere, “What man is born for I have no idea.”

There is a temptation either – as according to Ursula Le Guin’s introduction many US SF writers did – to consider any Soviet era fiction to be ideologically based or else to see it as critiquing the system in which it originated. (US writers of course could not possibly be subject to either of these strictures themselves.)

In an afterword Boris Strugatsky says of the brothers’ battles with Soviet editors that (the editors) thought language had to be as colourless, smooth and glassy as possible and certainly not coarse; that SF had to be fantastic and have nothing to do with crude, observable and brutal reality; the reader must be protected from reality. Unsurprisingly you might think, I’m with the Strugatskys on this one.

Roadside Picnic, even forty years after its conception, still stands out as a compelling piece of written SF, well worth its inclusion as a Masterwork. As I hinted earlier its influence can be traced down through the years but merely imagining this scenario as written by a US practitioner of the genre – where a military sensibility may have prevailed instead – underscores its subtlety.

The otherwise excellent translation is into a robust USian: fair enough given its apparent setting but a few infelicities intruded:- “had probably stuck his freckled mug inside, frowned, and went off.” “(His face) hurt. His nose was swollen but his eyebrows and eyebrows were intact.” A “lighting” bolt.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories by Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury, 2007, 242 p.

 The Ladies of Grace Adieu cover

This is not my natural habitat. A book of short stories about Faery – in cod early nineteenth century English complete with “antique” spellings? The same author’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, covered much the same ground and was interesting as a one-off, presenting fairies as less fey creatures than their normal portrayal (and also an everyday part of history) but this collection doesn’t really take us any more beyond that. There are introductions and footnotes by “Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen,” as if the whole thing was to be taken as more than a jeu d’esprit. I can recognise the artifice of it all, the craft, but it doesn’t quite hit the spot for me.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu
Three ladies in the town of Grace Adieu practice magic. A tale “full of all kinds of nonsense that Mr Norrell will not like – Raven Kings and the magic of wild creatures and the magic of women.” In it Mr Strange reads a book which “contained a spell for turning Members of Parliament into useful members of society.” If only.

On Lickerish Hill
Before the marriage Miranda Sowerson’s mother had told her daughter’s prospective husband she could spin five skeins of flax in a day for a month. One year after the wedding he expects Miranda to accomplish this feat and shuts her up in a room. She contrives to conjure up a fairy to help her. A more or less straightforward retelling of a familiar fairy tale.

Mrs Mabb
Miss Venetia Moore’s intended, Captain Fox, has been enticed away from her by the mysterious Mrs Mabb (who never appears directly in the tale.) Strange things happen to Venetia when she tries to find Mabb’s house. She is determined, though.

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse
The Duke’s horse goes into fairyland. He follows, and discovers his fate embroidered onto tapestry. Luckily he has been provided with a pair of scissors.

Mr Simonelli or The Fair Widow
Mr Simonelli tries to prevent any of the five Gathercole sisters from being induced to marry John Hollyshoes, the fairy widower. (This employs the plural “Miss Gathercoles” rather than “Misses Gathercole” – though I accept this may be 19th century usage. However, the possessive of John Hollyshoes continually shifts from s’s to s’ and back again.)

Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby
How Tom Brightwind came to build the fairy bridge at Thoresby. Contains the immortal sentence, “There was, after all, nothing in the world so natural as people wishing to be English.”

Antickes and Frets
In her captivity in England, Mary Queen of Scots embroiders all sorts of garments to try to kill Queen Elizabeth and gain the English throne.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner
While out hunting, John Uskglass, the Raven King, damages the livelihood of a Cumbrian charcoal burner, who then petitions various Saints to gain him revenge. They demur but take the king down a peg.

One of “Professor Sutherland”’s introductions contains the observation that the story following “suffers from all the usual defects of second-rate nineteenth-century writing,” – something of a hostage to fortune in a book such as this.

That Summer by Andrew Greig

faber and faber, 2000, 261 p.

That Summer cover

Scot Andrew Greig’s first book contained poetry. He has since published more poetry collections, non-fiction books on mountaineering and golf, short stories and, so far, seven novels. That Summer (also known as The Clouds Above) was his fourth novel and the first work of his I have read.

The summer of the title is the one of 1940, a fact which could be divined from the book’s cover, showing as it does a Hurricane in flight over a country landscape (with a shadowy female head in the upper background.) There is an elegiac feel to the story from the start, as, sixty years on, a reunion of sorts takes place at a long abandoned wartime airfield; yet the figures seem insubstantial, ghosts of themselves, or of those who cannot come back.

As a novel, That Summer deals with those three perennial literary concerns, love, sex and death. The narration is trifold, with all three intermingled through the book. Two are in first person – from the viewpoints of (Flight) Sergeant Len Westbourne and RDF operator Stella Gardam – and there are intermittent third person passages, some of which describe the ongoing war situation. Len’s comrade Tadeusz Polarcyk and Stella’s friend Maddy feature prominently. We are treated to the relevant narrator’s own thoughts and their perceptions of the other three. All are eminently rounded people with strengths and flaws, feeling entirely real – as do the minor characters.

The scenario could be over-familiar from all those 1950s black and white films – exercises in national myth-making – part of the long shadow which that war cast over those who experienced it (who themselves grew up in the shade of the earlier war, “I begin to think to see why our parents had kept their war to themselves. It was too horrible yet precious, it had gone too deep,” an all too present absence passed on in turn to their children (ie my generation) but in Greig’s hands it is far from hackneyed or clichéd. He captures well the transience and randomness of air combat, the dangers of losing sharpness on leave, the arbitrariness of becoming a casualty of bombing (the mangled, eviscerated, blown-apart bodies,) the heightened perceptions, the snatching at life in the midst of death.

That Summer could have been a mere love story but the quality of the writing elevates it beyond the mundane. It is subtle of Greig to have Len flying Hurricanes rather than the more iconic and glamorous Spitfires. It somehow grounds the story, makes it real. Of the veterans it is observed that, “They were there but even they couldn’t see the true losses.” Len comes to see that, “Everything we have, we lose. So to want something, anything, someone, is the beginning of tragedy. And yet, and yet.” After a particularly gruesome kill he thinks to himself, “What have I done? Nothing. Nothing at all.” Stella realises of Evelyn, a former boyfriend whom she sees one night, “He really does love me. Me, for who I am, not what he gets from me, and with (a) slight shiver (I) knew this would always be rare in my or anyone’s life.” Later in the book she muses, “Wartime is like real life but more so,” and, “How can we love anyone, when they’re just going to die?” but “there’s nothing else to do but love, nothing to be regretted but not loving.” Her first (pre the events of the novel) lover, Roger, whom she meets again accidentally, tells her there is not much more than beauty and sacrifice, “We must take what beauty there is, and sacrifice is all around us.”

A few hints of the author’s Scottishness make themselves felt. Stella spent a couple of schoolyears in Scotland. Len’s squadron is posted to Aberdeenshire for a rest period and he spends three days walking in the Cairngorms.

For those who survived the war, its long, nigh-on six years, these were the days of their lives; what followed, a slow descent. And 1940 was the crux. (“In a way it was all rather exciting, being bombed.”) By accumulation of detail Greig shows us this and, by doing so, also shows us what it might have felt like to be alive in Britain, that summer.

Rising Sun by Robert Conroy

Baen Books, 2012, 343 p.

I spotted this when the good lady was returning Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel to the local library. As a sucker for altered histories I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Rising Sun cover

The set up here is that Japan won the Battle of Midway. Hawaii is withering on the vine, Japanese forces have invaded Alaska, raided the Panama Canal and occasionally bombard the US west coast. The sole substantial US aircraft carrier remaining is the Saratoga.

The novel focuses mainly on US Navy officer Tim Dane (who speaks and reads Japanese as a result of a pre-war visit there) though other characters – particularly his nurse girlfriend, Amanda Mallard – are given viewpoint scenes. The plot involves the lack of knowledge the Japanese have of the Saratoga’s whereabouts. A sub-plot involving a German saboteur, Wilhelm Braun, a former official in their embassy in Mexico, folds into the main narrative towards the end. We are given two token sympathetic Japanese characters (one belatedly sympathetic) and one German, Johann Klaas; but neither are all the USians in the book noble, good and true.

The scenario doesn’t really tell us anything new about the Pacific War nor illuminate history to any great degree. Effectively we spend the book waiting on the inevitable (given the author’s nationality and the publisher’s address) US victory.

I must say that for me Japanese Admiral Yamamoto’s tactics in the final battle of the book did not quite ring true; but had it been otherwise the novel would have had to continue well beyond its 343 pages.

This is the sort of thing that Harry Turtledove seems to perform effortlessly. Conroy’s prose is as efficient and his characterisation may (I would put it no higher) be slightly better but the immersion in the milieu feels less deep. I doubt I’ll read any more by him.

Pedant’s corner:-
There are several instances of omitted or repeated words. Britain is named as “England” (though the adjective used for the UK’s forces is “British.”) In a scene involving Johann Klaas, his name is mistakenly given as Braun in one sentence.

Scorn, My Inheritance by William Graham

Scotsoun, 1997, 200 p, including 26 p glossary of Scots words.

Scorn, My Inheritance cover

The author information tells us Graham was a “Founder Member, Preses and Hon vice-Preses of The Scots Language Society.” He was editor of the Scots Word Book and The Concise Scots-English Dictionary has a dedication to him, “whose generous gift of manuscript material made this dictionary possible.” An award in his name is given every year for the best piece in Scots published in Lallans, the magazine of the Scots Language Society.

Scorn, My Inheritance is that rare thing, a novel written almost entirely in Scots. The very few exceptions are those parts where certain characters, due to their position or inclination, speak or write in English. The 26 page glossary may be necessary for those with little knowledge of Scots – and even for those with a greater acquaintance – but with some background the general gist can be got merely from the context. Even so some of the Scots words employed do not appear in the glossary.

Tommy Proudfuit lives with his Uncle Ben on a smallholding of four greenhouses growing tomatoes and chrysanthemums. For two or so years his life has been complicated by the presence in the house of Uncle Ben’s bidey-in Big Katie. The novel starts with Tommy discovering a piece of graffiti on the school lavatory wall which reads “Tommy Proodfit is a basturt.” The subsequent fight with the perpetrator leads to a belting from the headmaster Mr Fairservice (the book is set in the 1950s when such chastisement with a leather strap was an everyday – every hour – occurrence in Scottish schools) and a conversation where Fairservice says Tommy is wasting his potential by not sticking in at his schoolwork and arranges to visit Tommy’s home to discuss his shortcomings.

To avoid this meeting Tommy takes himself off to the cave up the hill where Neddy Bain, sometime assistant at the smallholding, is sheltering. It is here that the novel lurches into something beyond what the scenario up to then might lead us to expect. Tommy witnesses a confrontation between Neddy and Jake Carson where he finds the pair helped carry out a jewel robbery in Glasgow for which they have both been in prison and are seeking the loot which the third member of the gang – now dead, perhaps at Neddy’s hand – is supposed to have stashed in the area after he was released first. This is not a gratuitous scene. The connections between these gangsters and Tommy’s peculiar domestic circumstances are unravelled in the rest of the book.

Despite setting the book in the Clyde Valley Graham uses (among others) the words loun and quine which are North East coast specific and simply don’t appear in discourse in the Central Lowlands. I was well over thirty and working alongside a North-Easterner before I heard the word quine (as quinie) in everyday speech. This is the drawback of trying to impose a universal “Scots” language. To my mind (and ear) the Doric of the north-east is distinct in vocabulary from Lowland Scots. To mix the two injures verisimilitude.

The various set pieces in the novel, the confrontation between Neddy Bain and Jake Carson, the ongauns between Ben and Katie, the wild storm which damages the greenhouses show well enough that Scots can be an effective literary vehicle. The characterisations are agreeably complex. And the novel works as a novel even if the conclusion does seem somewhat rushed.

The introduction by George Philp is at pains to point out that he as editor has made great efforts to ensure that the spelling system used is consistent, uncontrived and eye-friendly – in order, he says, to help learners. To that end the “oo” sound is rendered as “ou” throughout (to avoid “dour” reading as if it were an entrance/exit) and the “ih” sound is given as “ui.” This is encapsulated in the spelling of Tommy’s surname as Proudfuit (hence pronounced Proodfit and not the “English” Proudfoot.) The trouble with this is that any learners are liable to read our, out, about and house and indeed the first syllable of Proudfuit in the same way as they do in “standard” English. And the “ih” sound in guid, wuid, shuin (and the second syllable of Proudfuit) they may still read as “oo.” Indeed many Scots speakers and readers pronounce the Scots word for shoes as “shoon” not “shin.” Also – against Philp’s stated spelling preference – we have “hure” not “whour” as the Scots for whore. As in English, such attempts to impose order may only serve to create more problems than they solve. It is relatively easy to spell stour as stoor, keep oor, oot, aboot, hoose as Scots spellings and still recognise dour as sounding the same. (In this regard I would submit it would simply not be credible to spell the cartoon character as Our Wullie rather than Oor Wullie.) Guid has a long provenance and is easily recognisable, wuid and shuin perhaps less so. And since this is a novel in Scots why is “Tommy” not “Tam?”

Reading Scorn, My Inheritance was an interesting and rewarding exercise nonetheless. But perhaps not really one for learners.

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

Bloomsbury, 2012, 429 p.

 Waiting for Sunrise cover

Actor Lysander Rief (whose mother is Austrian) travels in 1913 to Vienna (where else?) to seek a cure for his unusual sexual dysfunction from fellow Englishman Dr Bensimon. At his first consultation, Hettie Bull, a sculptor – she corrects him when he says sculptress – bursts into the waiting room, cadges two cigarettes from him and jumps the queue. Her later invitation for him to “sit” for her leads to an affair which is complicated by her relationship with artist Udo Hoff. Bensimon’s treatment according to his theories of parallelism, combined with Hettie’s attentions, cure Rief’s problem. (The setting being what it is it is no surprise that Lysander has a brief encounter with a Dr Freud in a café. This may be thought a gratuitous touch by the author though.) A fine start then but things take a strange turn when Lysander is falsely accused of rape and has to flee Vienna with the help of British embassy officials.

When the Great War starts he enlists as a private soldier. His past catches up with him when he is asked to repay his debt to the UK Government by travelling to Geneva – via an excursion to the Front – to help unravel a spying operation. The Germans have apparently been forewarned about British attacks on the Western Front. (I found myself beginning to question the narrative here. Troop and matériel build-ups for Great War offensives were difficult to disguise from the enemy. Lack of sufficient ammunition and also of knowledge of how to break down defensive positions – this latter applied to the Germans too – was sufficient to explain the failures of attacks.) For the purposes of story we must take the premise as read though.

What Rief finds in Geneva links back to his time in Vienna and entangles his mother in the plot. Of her and in a curious echo of Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel (which I read recently) we had, “Lysander supposed that if you were an attractive woman in your early fifties you don’t advertise the fact that you have a son who is almost thirty.”

The book is sprinkled with musings on the magnitude of the undertaking – for all the belligerent countries – that was the Great War and of its importance. “Something old was going…disappearing… and something new was inevitably taking its place.”

The phrase “waiting for sunrise” appears frequently through the book, but subtly, as if arising from the particular scene’s narrative.

Boyd certainly knows how to tell a story – and tell it well.

Pedant’s corner:-
Elevator; Rief is (half) English, what’s wrong with “lift?” Gratz for Graz, “thistle down” for thistledown, kicked the mud of his boots, a “span” – though it was in dialogue.

Fleck: a Verse Comedy by Alasdair Gray

A Comedy in Verse Derived from Goethe’s Tragedy of Faust. Two Ravens Press, 2008, 104 p.

Fleck cover

Gray is multi-talented; playwright, novelist, artist. A graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, he illustrates his own books (and those of others) in a distinctive style. His first novel, Lanark, instantly established him as one of the most important Scottish novelists of his or any generation. His left wing politics are not hard to discern and his enthusiasm for Scottish independence and Scottish culture has displeased some.

Fleck does what it says on the tin; reworks Faust in a modern idiom with the main character recast as a Scottish scientist, Fleck. Other characters include God, Nick and the journalists Pee and Cue. The book also includes a postscript by the author where he discusses the appearances of the devil in the Bible (there are only two,) Satan’s co-option by the established church to police sensuality, the evolution of the Faust story and its influence on Gray personally, and the drawbacks of Goethe’s version. Finally there are five Gray poems which deal with God. A packed 104 pages then.

Verse is a surprisingly good vehicle for Gray’s updated tale. (Or perhaps not surprising if you think of Shakespeare.) The rhythm of the iambic pentameter is a fine motor. And it throws up nicely judged juxtapositions, “Broadcasters think the public is a fool/ so sounding stupid is their golden rule.”

Very little that Gray has written is not worth reading. Fleck is no exception. Not just the play but the postscript and poems too.

Pedant’s corner: Labelling a year as Anus Domini looks like it may be a misprint but I wouldn’t put it past Gray to have used it deliberately. But oughtn’t tug-of-wars for supremacy be tugs-of-war? Bismark for Bismarck.

Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2010, 199 p. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith. © Éditions Albin Michel 1940. First published in English as The Modern Jezebel by Henry Holt and Company 1937.

Jezebel cover

I hadn’t intended reading a Némirovsky again for a while but the good lady picked this up in one of our local libraries – there are five within easy distance; one walkable (but not as walkable as Kirkcaldy Central was when we lived there) – so I took the opportunity to delve once more into her œuvre.

At the start of the book Gloria Eysenach is on trial for the murder of a young man whom she visited frequently in the weeks before the shooting. The trial is described along with Gloria’s inadequate efforts to explain her actions. Thereafter the novel tracks back to her earlier life and follows the train of events that led to her being in the dock.

For a while I felt that this wasn’t Némirovsky at her best; things seemed to drag, the set-up felt almost banal. However with the circumstances leading up to the death of Gloria’s daughter, Marie-Therèse, my interest was regained; though by that point the exact identity of the murder victim wasn’t too difficult to fathom.

Perhaps the most affecting sentence in the book is, “Life is sad when all is said and done, don’t you think? There are only moments of exhilaration, of passion…”

Jezebel ends up as a fine portrait of a selfish woman, too vain even to be aware – still less take care – of the interests of her own children. This is something of a theme for Némirovsky and she is perhaps better when she avoids it. Jezebel is still a fine novel though.

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