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John Macnab by John Buchan

Polygon, 2007, 274 p (+ v p introduction by Andrew Greig.) Returned to a threatened library.

 John Macnab cover

I would not normally have picked this up but when I saw the cover and that the introduction was by Andrew Greig I realised his The Return of John Macnab (on my tbr pile) must have some relation to this original, first published in 1924.

In it, three professional men, one a Cabinet minister, all bored with their lives, get together as “John Macnab” to send out a challenge to three Highland landowners that they will poach a stag or salmon on their land, remove it, then later return it, with money for charity depending on the result either way. The book is merely the unravelling of this premise and the delineation of the incidents which occur in its prosecution. It does give a peek at the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ brigade of the Western Highlands in the 1920s.

It is none of the three gentlemen however who is the book’s most rounded and intriguing character. That accolade belongs to Janet Raden, daughter of the owner of one of the estates to which “Macnab” issued his challenge. To their host Sir Archibald Roylance, who has fallen tongue-tiedly in love with her, she at one point says that the old aristocracy is dying because it deserves to, “We’ve long ago lost our justification.” However, in his introduction Greig says of her, “Like all Buchan’s good women she is essentially a chap,” a view to which there is more than a grain of truth.

It is not too surprising in a book concerned with field sports that descriptions of landscape should be prominent but this also places it in common with a swath of Scottish writing.

The authorial voice perhaps pokes through when we are told that “It is a melancholy fact which exponents of democracy must face that, while all men may be on a level in the eyes of the State, they will continue in fact to be preposterously unequal.” Here meaning if you’re used to ordering others – or being ordered – that affects how your actions are perceived and acted on.

To those of delicate dispositions I ought to say that – indications of the attitudes of the times in which it was written – there is more than one mention of Jews as being either fond of money or influential, an instance of the word “nigger,” and an utterance of the phrase, “I’m a white man, I am,” as an assertion of integrity.

The book is not really more than an adventure story. It will be interesting to see what Greig makes of the premise.

Pedant’s corner:- The Miss Radens (The Misses Raden.)

Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2015, 481 p.

 Mother of Eden cover

This is Beckett’s sequel to Dark Eden which won the Clarke Award in 2013. The premise was that three people had been marooned on a planet without a sun located somewhere outside the galaxy – the sky is filled with a view of the Milky Way its inhabitants call Starry Swirl – and that novel was set among their descendants. (For my review of Dark Eden see here.)

This book develops the scenario several generations after the events of the previous one and centres on the artefact known as Gela’s ring, the possession of one of the founders which had been lost and was rediscovered in Dark Eden.

We start in the small community of Knee Tree Grounds where decision making is consensual – and where there are no restrictions on sexual partnering. Very soon Starlight Brooking makes a trading voyage with some companions to the much larger community of Veeklehouse where institutions like guards emphasise the descent from the idyllic the wider world has made and which was instigated in Dark Eden. In Veeklehouse she meets Greenstone Johnson, a visitor from across the large sea known as the Worldpool. Their instant attraction is complicated by his status as Headmanson and her incomprehension of the ways of the settlement of New Earth from where he came. She agrees to go to New Earth with him to become his housewoman (a position of sexual exclusivity – for the housewoman.) Only when she arrives does she discover she will be a figure of adoration, the reincarnation of Gela herself, and the wearer of her ring.

Starlight could have settled for a life of luxury and pampering, but New Earth is a harsh and prejudiced industrial society which appals her. Its big people have discovered how to make their own metal from local rocks, exploit both the small people and the indigenous bats and practise a horrific form of capital punishment (and incidentally due to an old feud plan to recross Worldpool in force one day and take over the whole of Eden.) New Earth’s motto, carved into the rock above its large entrance door, is Become Like Earth. Sadly, it has.

Greenstone is not a natural leader and faces problems even before his father dies and he succeeds as headman. Together with Gela’s Secret Story – passed down from mother to daughter only – these two circumstances combine to determine Starlight’s actions.

This is a book about foundation myths and their perversion, the persistence of such tales, the unreliability of written sources, their susceptibility to mistaken exegesis, and the genesis of cults. One passage late on suggests that Starlight will herself become an object of veneration in Eden’s future.

Like Dark Eden the narrative is carried via multiple viewpoints, through which we get into many people’s heads. The character of Starlight is engaging, developing from naïvety to suspicion – others are as convincing – and the power dynamics of a “primitive” society are well portrayed. Becket’s world is well-imagined – any quibbles about the viability of human life on Eden are easily laid aside in the following of story (even if the possibility of the local bats being intelligent may be adding a layer too many) – but that story shows that humans are humans no matter where they happen to be and in whatever circumstances they find themselves.

Pedant’s corner:- despite this being a British edition it contains US spellings (center, colored.) I assume the publishers simply lifted the US text. Yet “fitted” appeared as a past tense as it would in Britain. “that it must punished (must be punished,) I look round anxiously (all the rest of the verbs in this passage are in past tense, so “looked”,) sunk (sank.)

Irregularity. Edited by Jared Shurin.

Jurassic London, 2014, 303 p. Reviewed for Interzone 256, Jan-Feb 2015.

 Irregularity cover

Irregularity is an anthology of short stories inspired by the history of Science from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries (the back cover invokes the Age of Reason) and intended to coincide with an exhibition, Ships, Clocks and Stars, The Quest for Longitude, at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
To emphasise the “olde” feel the book is printed in a reconstruction of a seventeenth century typeface – though we are spared that italic-f-shape once used for the letter “s”. It has an unusual dedication, “To failure,” plus five internal illustrations adapted from paintings in the Museum’s collection.

The Prologue, Irregularity by Nick Harkaway, which sets the tone, has a woman bequeathed a library in which she finds a book which bears a cover described as similar (to all intents and purposes identical) to the one we are reading, not only relating her life story up to that point but also seeming to tell her future.
In the Afterword, Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring broadly define Science as the search for nature’s laws in order to codify them and ask what happens when things don’t fit. (Answering that last question is actually the most important scientific endeavour.) Irregularity’s contents are about just such attempts to understand the world.

As a coda, positioned after the afterword and which could easily be missed by a less than careful reader, an “email” to the editor comments on the impossibility of a book that loops back on itself.
The authors have interpreted their remit widely, the stories ranging from Science Fiction through Fantasy to Horror. Some could fall under the rubric of steampunk or alternative history. The literary antecedents being what they are it is perhaps not surprising that the majority lean towards the form of journal or diary extracts and epistolary accounts.

And so we have the inevitable pastiche of Samuel Pepys, M Suddain’s The Darkness, set in a steampunk 17th century with radio, telemessages and air defence antenna arrays, where the French are experimenting with Darke Materials, Restoration London has Tunnelcars and Skycars and a Black Fire of nothingness has begun to eat the city.

Of course, encountering well-known names is one of the pleasures of an anthology like this and there are plenty more to conjure with. Two for the price of one in Adam Roberts’s The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle, a piece of Robertsian playfulness in which Boyle has had access to modern physics (even discoursing with Brian May, whom Boyle says Newton resembles) and wishes to preserve the more human cosmogony which Newton’s work will displace. Chock full of allusion – including an extended riff on the “operatic” section of Bohemian Rhapsody – this story might just possibly be too knowing for its own good. Charles Darwin appears in Claire North’s The Voyage of the Basset where we follow him on his second sea voyage, utilising his knowledge of the lycaenidae to ensure nothing can mar the glory of Queen Victoria’s coronation. Ada Lovelace helps produce steam-driven animatronic dinosaurs in Simon Guerrier’s An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought, while Fairchild’s Folly by Tiffani Angus muses on the possible classification of love within a taxonomy via the epistolary relationship between Carl Linnaeus and Thomas Fairchild, who crossed a sweet william with a carnation to produce a sterile plant dubbed Fairchild’s mule. In Kim Curran’s A Woman out of Time unnamed creatures relate how they prevented Émilie du Chatelet from disseminating modern Physics too early. A Game Proposition by Rose Biggin has four women get together once every month to play a game which decides the fate of ships, incidentally giving William Dampier the knowledge to compile his atlas of the trade winds.

The most chilling tale is perhaps Roger Luckhurst’s Circulation, wherein a book-keeper is sent out from London to the island of San Domingue to investigate irregularities in the returns from the plantations there and comes upon the secrets of circulation as discovered by “the wizard Sangatte”.

Elsewhere; in Linnaean era Stockholm a young girl has dreams of the future, inspired by spiders; a maker of maritime clocks, in competition with Harrison for the Longitude prize, uses a variety of gruesome fluids to fine tune his escapement; a taxonomist travels to Southern Africa to seek out unusual beasts and finds the egg of a creature variously called gumma, gauma, gomerah, ghimmra, sjeemera; a found manuscript story with not one, but two introductions, suggests a reason for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral after London’s Great Fire on a realigned axis; an artist and his apprentice, commissioned to depict an anatomy lesson, witness the subject’s heart beating after death.

The stories work well in their own terms, but in totality are rather relentlessly “olde worlde”.

The following comments did not appear in the review:-
In my edition one of the stories was not in the order given on the Contents page.
Span count 1, sunk 1, as you no doubt you anticipated, off of (x 2,) rolled a dice, court-marshalled, the committee force me to seethe (forced,) at prices that seems almost scandalous, her voice is a echo, baster gang (?) missing “it”(x 2,) two references to “three years” since the Great Fire of London (in diary entries dated 1667,) now used now, can secret a substance, they toppled the lids of those wooden prisons and relased their cargo, I might find pick my way back through the canes back to the house, in sight of one of another, walleyed with lust, inside of, to humour and old man.

The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

faber and faber, 1989, 590 p. First published in 1941. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Silver Darlings cover

Set just after the Napoleonic wars, this novel (one of the 100 best Scottish Books) describes the beginnings of the good times when the fishing of herring – the silver darlings of the title – brought a measure of prosperity to the villages between Brora and Wick on the seaboard of the Moray Firth. Many of these families had been cleared from Kildonan to make way for more profitable sheep and would otherwise barely scrape a living by crofting. In particular the novel focuses on Finn, the son of Catrine. The book opens with a scene where Finn’s father Tormad is press-ganged from the sea by a navy cutter. Tormad dies five days later from the blow on the head he received while resisting but this is not confirmed till Finn is a full-grown man. As a result Catrine’s relationship with accomplished fisherman Roddie is not acknowledged – even by themselves – to be what it is until the last few chapters. Incidents in Finn’s life to that point are interwoven with depictions of village life, fishing, sea voyages and the economics of the herring trade. It provided livelihoods not just for fishermen but for the local women as gutters, not to mention sundry curers, coopers, exporters and boatbuilders.

The time was one of religious revival and fervour as hardliners complained, “The Established Church of Scotland … was selling God’s kingdom for the comforts of a manse.” In the person of Sandy Ware we are given an exemplar of these strict killjoys. The austere developments are not altogether welcomed, though. Finn makes a couple of trips to the Western Isles where an old islander complains, “ – there are places in these islands where dancing of any kind is stopped by the new ministers. A terrible blight is coming upon the happiness of the human heart and upon the happiness of the world.”

In common with many Scottish novels the book contains detailed descriptions of landscape and, in this instance, seascapes. The two trips to Stornoway necessitate navigating through the notorious Pentland Firth and various accounts of storms pepper the tale.

On returning from his service in the navy one of Finn’s father’s companions on the boat that was pressed tells him, “Where all is compulsion and enforcement, it’s the bully that rules,” but it isn’t all serious stuff. We hear tell of, “Big John Angus McGrath – an elder in the church, too. Every time he took a dram, he would shake his head and say, ‘Nasty stuff! Nasty stuff!’ To my father’s knowledge he said it for over fifty years,” but the focus is mainly on Finn and the important business of growing up and making a place in the world.

Pedant’s corner:- back and fore (a northern thing, then, x2,) “the eyes in, clined to stare” (the eyes inclined,) “Youlikethatname?” (no spacing,) had entranced (no spacing,) one sharp prog (prod? ) wen (when,) “s even nets” (seven,) Cathechism, Catechism, a missing full stop, (x 4,) an unnecessary line break, couldnot speak (could not,) thier (their,) “We’ll go the Shetlands,” (go to the Shetlands,) Lock Skiport (Loch Skiport appears correctly twice later on the same page!) The spelling gunnels, rather than gunwales, is used throughout.

Open the Door by Catherine Carswell

Canongate, 1996, 431 p + xii p introduction by John Carswell. Borrowed from a threatened library.

On the spine plus the front and back covers the title is written as above but the title page and other mentions have it as Open the Door! (as did a Virago reprint I saw yesterday in a charity shop.) One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Open the Door! cover

Joanna Bannerman has had a strict religious upbringing in Glasgow. Her father dies on an evangelising trip to the US, but didn’t really love anyone. “Better than his curbed enjoyment of his wife’s virginal freshness” was his love of public speaking: hence his ministry. Joanna’s mother, Juley, might have had a religious vocation – so much so that had she been a Roman Catholic she would have entered an order; “But to her the Church of Rome was the Scarlet Woman.” And there it is again; that stab of religious intolerance that blighted Scotland for so long and, partly, still does. However, Joanna’s life is a long attempt to throw off this background. Not that the novel focuses too much on religion, it’s more concerned about her wish to shake off restrictions (to open the door to living) and her relationships with the men in her life, Ben Ranken, Mario Rasponi, Lawrence Urquhart, Louis Pepper, whom she strings along, or is strung by, in one manner or another. The first she enters into an engagement with then breaks it off, the second she marries but he dies not long after they move (in his case, back) to Italy, the third is an intermittent presence, the fourth is a much older married man with whom she has a years long affair.

In Italy Mario also restricts her, not wishing her to appear in public where “she carried on her the lovely bloom which comes to some women when they are first possessed.” But she does notice a sunken door in a wall which she is told admitted a lover to the house of the Renaissance courtesan “La Porziuncula”. Mario’s death in a crash on a motorcycle of his own construction is something of a release. Her return to Glasgow to live with her mother is only relieved by her meeting with Pepper. Her mother’s friend Eve Gedge is described thus, “Barren of life herself, her deepest passion was to balk and defeat the entering of others into life.” I’m sure we’ve all met one of them.

On seeing her sister Georgie with her son Joanna thinks, “Their mother had done this for them, and her mother for her, and all with the same eager and touching confidence in the next generation. And what was to come of it? Nothing! Nothing because it was based on a lie..…… No! If the children, born and unborn were to be served fairly, one must utter clearly and fearlessly one’s own word of truth in one’s own lifetime.” She feels that, “‘evil’ (in the Christian sense of the word) quite as much as ‘good’ had made her alive ….. had made her an individual,” and her thought, “She remembered the words – ‘In sin did my mother conceive me,’ Why not – “In sin did my father beget me’?” shows that feminism is by no means a recent conception.

Mainly due to her affair with Pepper Joanna seems to drift through life. This gives the novel for most of its length the trajectory of a tragedy but Carswell seems to resile from this for the dénouement. Perhaps this was because, as her son John’s introduction reveals, a large part of the book is autobiographical in origin. Already less than overwhelmed by the novel – among other things it is overlong and too full of introspections – I must confess I was all the more disappointed by this (as usual I left the introduction till after I had read the book) as, while of course an author’s life experiences will feed into the work produced, it is better to rely on imagination to create something completely fictional in order to address deep truth. Towards the end there is a strange passage about the attractions of Fife towns. “Cupar, Falkland, Auchtermuchty, Strathmiglo! Such promising names as they had!”

I’m glad I read this and I suspect it was more of a ground-breaker when it was first published in 1920 but for me there were too many longueurs.

Pedant’s corner:- in the blurb page; annulment (annulment,) Observerand (space is missing,) Boccocio (Boccaccio,) Hugh Macdiarmid (Hugh MacDiarmid.)
In the main text:- first pain them was past (has a four character gap between pain and them,) Asias’s Millions (Asia’s Millions,) an end quote mark where none had been opened, sewed up (sewn up,) or his Easter Holiday (for,) thig (thigh,) students were too shy speak (the s and t of students are underprinted with t and o respectively and the word “to” is missing,) an opened pair of quote marks where no speech followed, pigmy (pygmy,) showed (shown, x 2,) “o return home” (to return home,) ay one (anyone,) beams o the guttering candle (the space between “o” and “the” suggests “of” was meant,) forment (foment,) missing quote marks at the beginning of a piece of dialogue at a chapter’s start, a missing full stop, to day (today,) eveybody’s (everybody’s.)

Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson

Salt, 2012, 256 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Stepping Out cover

Rogerson is a North American who has been settled in Scotland for decades. The book, a collection of her short stories, is structured in seven sections (each with a theme whose title is given in capitals.)
ACCIDENT’s theme is obvious. A Dangerous Place examines the reactions and emotions of two recent immigrants to California as their youngest son undergoes surgery after a car accident. The Etiquette of Accidents inhabits the thoughts of three women friends and a male biker who have decided to go up Ben Bhraggie. The women are on the cycle path when the biker hits one of them on his way down and is thrown off. In Homesick fourteen year-old Izzy hates her mother – especially when she gets killed at milk crate corner. On the day of the funeral Izzy feels free, but homesick. Rubbish Day has a forty-five year-old unemployed man whose wife hates sex, whose son disrespects him and whose only function is putting out the rubbish reflect on his life when the son goes missing.
ELISABETH relates six incidents from the subject’s young life. In The Bear, on holiday in a log-cabin settlement, six year-old Elisabeth is allowed to sleep over with her new friend. She misses her family. By the next story, Room, the family has moved house (not for the first time) but this time Elisabeth has a room of her own. It takes her a while to get used to it. In Enough Room Elisabeth reacts to the death of the father of her friend next door, Robbie, just before Christmas. Home on the Road sees Elisabeth’s family, minus Sam, on a trip to see her grandparents. All the familiar things happen, but towards the end of the journey Elisabeth has an epiphany. Eleven now, Elisabeth watches as her brother, Sam the Man, suddenly grows up – and away – on his wedding day. Summer sees Elisabeth and her friend Debs, in their fourteenth summer, hang out, tease each other and anticipate adulthood.
JACK AND MILDRED* chronicles a marriage. Wait for Me, Jack introduces us to cocky, too charming Jack and to Mildred who decides she is ready to settle down. Stepping Out is the story of Jack’s (first?) extra-marital affair after twenty years of marriage. When sixty, Jack goes Wine Tasting while Milly is beginning to forget things. First sees the couple in old age. Mildred becomes complaining while both she and Jack wait to see which of them will go first.
FRANK AND MARTHA deals mostly with Frank. When The World and Things in it starts, Martha has just discovered a lump in her breast. Meanwhile her white hen broods on his eggs after their red cockerel has been killed. In To Dance, eight years later, Martha’s lump long since removed, her annual scan is followed by a recall. Narrator Frank reflects on what he doesn’t know. By The Truth About Roller Coasters, Martha is dead, the kids still at home much more helpful than before; not-roller-coaster person Frank takes his more-or-less grown up family to Alton Towers. After a ride he realises that, “Dying is not fun. Almost dying is.” The Purpose of Photographs has Frank, now seventy-nine, losing his eyesight. He goes through the family albums and picks out five photographs.
TRUE STORIES may or may not be. Like Singing has Flora seeing things. Her brother, the preacher of a charismatic religious group, appears as an alsatian. He tries to get her to join his sect. Belated Love Letter From a Famous Writer is a story about the ways in which writers perceive and misperceive. Sonoma Finch lies waiting, hoping to know what her last experience on Earth will be but receives a letter from Ernest Hemingway (even though he’s dead) suggesting she was his muse. In Persephone’s Passion Persephone thinks her latest squeeze, Arthur, is dead. He’s actually the devil (or at least lives in Hell.) Herman’s Night Out features a woman who has wet dreams about her friend’s husband, but later finds some of the things her dream lover says are true. Christopher’s Room appears in Sarah’s flat; as does Christopher. He thinks she has appeared in his. A ghost story.
ALONE’s link is also obvious. My Favourite Things presents the thoughts of an art gallery attendant as he or she sits on a chair and observes the visitors. A woman comes across a house which lies In Abeyance. Her experience is interspersed with that of the Pole who came to Buchan in 1940, worked the land and was asked to stay. A lass, just finished her Highers, lies in The Top Field. It’s so warm she takes her shirt and bra off and imagines her true love chancing upon her. Instead, it’s Fergus. The Long Missing of a woman’s dead husband of fifteen years only begins after she takes up with someone new.
LOVE’s stories are mostly about its absence. In Begin Sheena finds she is pregnant. The father is Daniel whom she has not known long enough; but it’s a beginning. Ten O’Clock Trim relates a – somewhat charged – conversation between a woman and her hairdresser. Bus Stop is a fairy tale about Angus and Zoe. It even begins Once upon a time and also contains the phrase And they live happily ever after. But endings are never really the end. “Everyone has just remembered they are Scottish and that Scotland is a lot of sad things these days, and actually a thousand years of sad things, but it is also their beautiful place.” “On Saturday nights in Inverness pubs, it is impossible to be too sentimental.” A Good Wife seems to be one who confides in photographs of her dead relatives, and kisses the best lover she never had. In Instead of Beauty Addie decides after giving up on love she will settle for non-prepossessing Joe, who smells of fish, to father the child she wants. “Single men in Lochinellie gravitate to the bar at dusk, like single men everywhere in the Highlands.” Joe is nevertheless reluctant. In Fly A woman, her man and her thirteen-year old son go fishing. She strolls off, panics, and returns. The boy is oblivious.

*To British eyes of a certain age that just looks wrong. It should be George and Mildred – except Mildred in this case isn’t as domineering. (In this section’s second part either we are seeing a different Jack and Mildred from in the first or else Jack has forgotten his pre-marital affairs.)

Pedant’s corner:-
There are eight new paragraphs not indented and one superfluous line break at the bottom of a page, focussed (focused,) lay (lie, x 7,) Dunrobbin Castle (Dunrobin,) less (fewer, x 2,) “Elisabeth imagines the chipmunks and red squirrels she feeds by day” (Okay, she’s imagining them, but red squirrels? In the Sierras?) outside of (outside,) de ja vu feelings (déjà vu,) Debs’ (Debs’s,) a middle-aged women (woman,) tisks (the alphabetic representation of the sound of a “tut” is usually spelled tsk, x 2,) the climatic night (climactic,) Glen Miller (Glenn Miller,) pine martins (pine martens,) closet (cupboard,) knit (knitted,) Damascus’ (Damascus’s,) “I’ve never see you drink anything either (I never see or I’ve never seen,) sandwiches crumbs (sandwich crumbs,) “a pain the arse,” (pain in the arse – this is British usage but we had “rowboat” in the same story; in British English it’s called a rowing boat,) spasm-ed in the middle of a line, he unpeeled it off (he unpeeled it, or he peeled it off,) an new type (a new type,) “everyone begins to breathe again and move away” (moves,) lifesomething else (like something else?) cloths (clothes,) cafetierre, (cafetiere,) chilli (chili) and in the credits, oka (aka?)
Given this list I found the thanks in the acknowledgements to Peter, for patiently proofreading every version of every story, a bit ironic. (I’m tempted to suggest, next time try harder. Or try me. I wouldn’t charge much.)

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Harvill Secker, 2009, 588 p + iii p introduction. Translated from the German Die Blechtrommel by Breon Mitchell. First published by Herrmann Luchterhand Verlag GMBH 1959.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Tin Drum cover

The Tin Drum’s first words are, “Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution,” – about as clear a marker of an unreliable narrator as you’re liable to find. This voice wanders randomly between Oskar and I to describe his experiences, often within the same passage, even the same sentence. Of uncertain parentage, “I” never quite decides if he is Oskar Matzerath or maybe Oskar Bronski. The book’s starting scene predates his birth with the conception of his mother, under his grandmother’s skirts in a potato field near Danzig, by a fire-raiser, fugitive from justice, who adopts a pseudonym. This concatenation of circumstances and attributes is typical of the novel as a whole, which is by no means an easy read but will repay the attention a dutiful reader gives it.

Oskar is a precocious baby, able to understand things while newly born, in particular his mother’s promise to buy him a drum for his third birthday. On this happy event he decides to stop growing, staging a fall down the cellar stairs (blamed on father Matzerath for leaving the door open) to account for it. He also has the ability to shatter glass by screaming, a tactic he frequently employs to avoid being separated from his beloved drum. When Oskar’s first day in school ends less than well (shattering the teacher’s glasses and the school windows) he never goes there again. Part of the scene’s translation is rendered as, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” Though the couplet’s wording may indeed have arisen around the time, a variation on an older rhyme, I would be interested to know what the original German was. Oskar goes through unnumbered amounts of his red and white tin drums in the course of the book, being able to affect people’s actions through his drumming. This is only one of the many aspects of magic realism which pervade the novel, another example is that of a green ship’s figurehead which is somehow a bringer of doom. Oskar pretends to be unable to speak but gets some education from a neighbour who reads to him from books on Rasputin and Goethe, the twin poles from which he views the world. Later, from opposite walls of the flat where Oskar is brought up, pictures of Hitler and Beethoven glower at each other.

The perspective allows Grass to approach Oskar’s life and encounters with the world at an oblique angle. Given the times he was writing about this is perhaps as well, the distorting effect, its layering of grotesquerie, in part shielding the reader from the full impact of events which might otherwise be too disturbing. For Grass knows what he is doing. The text’s meanderings and reflections underline the madness of the times. As might be expected from such a full-on literary endeavour there is a full measure, here, of love, sex and death. Too much focus on sex apparently, when the novel was first published. Sexual encounters in the book are frequently bizarre and are often described with their accompanying far from romantic nitty-gritty. (I note here that even in between-the-wars Germany it seems a Scout Master – later subsumed into the Hitler youth – could be overly “fond” of his charges.)

Though Oskar’s life is related almost linearly in retrospect from the viewpoint of his thirty year old self lying in bed in the mental institution, within The Tin Drum’s pages there is cycle and recycle, events being come back to again and again, emphasising the predilections of Oskar’s life. Time seems to be fluid yet static, streaming past Oskar, yet carrying him headlong. Events rush past him but he instigates them too.

Along with Oskar’s story we are also provided with a history of Danzig, its many layings to waste, the stories of the peoples of its hinterland plus the degradation of Germany in the mid-twentieth century. “An entire gullible nation believed faithfully in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the Gasman.” Of the war situation there are sly references to “improving the army’s situation with planned withdrawals,” and a soldier is said to be, “spending time in Courland.” After the war Oskar I restored to growth (another blow on the head as the catalyst.) He is misshapen but manages to make a living from drumming. He, “discussed collective guilt with Catholics and Protestants, shared that guilt with all who thought: Let’s get it over with now, be done with it, and later, when things get better, there’ll be no need to feel guilty.”

Oskar observes variously, “Even bad books are books, and therefore holy,” “You have to keep the Muses at a distance, otherwise the Muse’s kiss will start to taste like everyday fare,” “Lost wars seldom if ever provide a museum with trophies.”

There is an afterword where Breon Mitchell writes about the translation process, saying original texts remain fresh but translations fade with time. Grass cared about translations and for each book gathered his translators together to discuss them and answer questions on their texts. This new translation of Die Blechtrommel apparently preserves all the sentence lengths from the German, and tries to replicate its awkward syntax, which the first translation didn’t. To translate such a complex novel is undeniably a difficult task and Mitchell’s achievement is commendable. Nevertheless there are entries for Pedant’s corner:- All that was left to me were (all was,) fleur-de-lis (fleur-de-lys,) gas metre (meter,) at one point Oskar tells us the tin “rusted” (tin will corrode but does not form rust; only iron rusts,) a vicar ran the Catholic journeymen’s club (a vicar? Surely a priest?) Eight-comma-eights (in English these 88 mm [8.8 cm – rendered in German as 8,8 cm] anti-aircraft guns – but used particularly effectively as anti-tank guns – were known as eighty-eights,) sitz bath (my dictionary has sitz-bath,) doughboys (is a USian term for World War 1 enlisted men, not a German usage I’d have thought,) The Platters sing “The Great Pretender” in 1944 (The group didn’t form till 1952, that song wasn’t released by them till 1955.)

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Jo Fletcher Books, 2014, 400 p

Borrowed from another but returned to a threatened library.

 City of Stairs cover

The Continental city of Bulikov has been under the rule of former colony Saypur since the Great War in which the Continent’s gods were killed by the last Kaj of Saypur. The war ended with the cataclysmic Blink which somehow altered Bulikov’s topography. Buildings are at odd angles, stairways rise to nowhere. On the Continent all references to the defeated gods are banned by the Worldly Regulations. Yet Saypuri historian Efrem Pangyui has been allowed unfettered access to sources about the Divines. Locals have long been stirred into resentment by the Regulations but more recently by Pangyui’s researches. His murder brings Ashara Komayd, descendant of the Kaj and a Saypuri intelligence operative (but under cover as a Cultural Ambassador,) to Bulikov to investigate it, accompanied by her tall bodyguard, Sigrud, in exile from the Dreyling north. Shara (as she is called) feels her longstanding interest in the Continental gods and their miracles makes her most suitable for the task. Her boss, Vinya Komayd, who is also her aunt, appears to be less sure.

City of Stairs is a tale of intrigue, politics, religion, fanaticism, terrorism and betrayals. In it can be read parallels to our world but in the end it remains its own idiosyncratic one. However, the story still deals with the sorts of motivations which activate humans in any time or place. At times an uneasy mix of detective story, intellectual puzzle and thriller it also has the occasional lurch into action adventure. Shara is an engaging enough heroine, if a little bookish, but her recollected reaction to the revelation in her youth of the true nature of her then lover, Vohannes Votrov, seems a little cold-blooded. And Sigrud (of whom a blurb on the cover says, “My God, ….you guys are going to love Sigrud,” – No. Sorry -) is just a cartoon figure, impossibly accomplished in combat skills. Other characters – fanatics apart – are agreeably delineated, though.

The details of the world are nicely nuanced; for example the jurisdiction of each god was geographical. The story hinges on the existence of remaining Divine artefacts which may or may not still be potent and have since the war been kept in the Unmentionable Warehouse (unmentionable because of course due to the Regulations no-one can talk about it.)

While each chapter (except the last two) ends with an extract from the Book of one of the gods or an excerpt from Efrem Pangyui’s writings there is also some not well-integrated info dumping. And despite the title stairs feature very infrequently in the book.

Bennet allows Votrov to voice the pleas for compassion, “I am sorrowful that my fellow countrymen feel that being human is something to repress, something ugly, something nasty,” and, “This incredibly damaging idea that to be human and to love and to risk making mistakes is wrong.”

A bit baggy, but City of Stairs is worth a look if you like your adventure SF/fantasy tinged with agreeable characterisation.

Pedant’s corner:- the … coat kisses the tops of immense black books (boots, I would suggest,) Ahanas’ (Ahanas’s,) none of them know (none is singular, so none knows; later on we have none strike [strikes],) the both of them (both of them, or, at a pinch, the pair of them; not, the both of them,) smoothes (smooths.) “One of the … problems … were the many, many (one of the problems was, even if it was many, many ) Vohannes’ (Vohannes’s,) “quite terribly” is used twice within two lines, “every single inch …. are engraved” (every inch is engraved ,) “more viscera slips out” (more viscera slip out – viscera is a plural noun; the singular is viscus,) “a gathering crescendo” (don’t all crescendos gather?) “a creature of an aquatic nature… swam upstream … .and begin” (began,) soldiers tumble black shrieking (back makes more sense.)

Interzone 257 Mar-Apr 2015

Interzone 257 cover

We kick off with Alastair Reynolds and A Murmuration1 wherein a researcher into the flocking behaviour of starlings begins to be able to control their movements. This leads to conflict with the referee of the scientific paper on the research. Moreover, the birds start to behave contrarily.
In Songbird2 by Fadzlishah Johanabas, due to addiction to electronic devices people can no longer process emotions apart from a few women who can synthesise the emotions when they sing.
Brainwhales Are Stoners, Too3 by Rich Larson sees a teenage girl and the boy she fancies break into the ThinkTank where a brainwhale is confined, wired up, drugged to do computations.
The Worshipful Company of Milliners4 by Tendai Huchu. In a dilapidated factory in Harare a group of half-human, half-cat milliners – invisible to true humans – make equally invisible hats for authors to wear. Full membership of the sisterhood is only granted when the author becomes successful.
Aliya Whiteley’s Blossoms Falling Down is set on a generation starship where different cultures are housed on different decks with occasional tourism between them. The navigator is struck by his visit to a Japanese “Haiku Room”.

1 “The cameras should be aimed into the middle of the perimeter, and elevated sufficiently to catch the murmuration’s epicentre.” (Epicentre used, apparently correctly, as meaning “off-centre”. Remarkable.)
2 written in USian, lay (lie,) the liquid in the cylinders in front of me glow green (glows,) staunch (stanch.) Clear seems to be used as a synonym for colourless.
3 less (fewer,) snuck (sneaked,) a “I’m fine” look (an “I’m fine” look.)
4 sprung (sprang,) epaulets (epaulettes,) “‘almost as though you’re recycled no reincarnated,’” is surely missing punctuation of some sort.

Stoner by John Williams

Vintage, 2012, 290 p, plus viii p introduction by John McGahern.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Stoner cover

Stoner was something of a cause célèbre a couple of years ago – hence the roundel on its cover stating, “The Greatest Novel You’ve Never Read.” It is the life story of William Stoner, a son of the soil who is sent to University in Columbia, Missouri, to study agriculture in order to improve his parents’ farm. While there he has to take a course in English. Under the influence of tutor Archer Sloane he falls in love with the subject and decides to continue as an English student. There follows the inevitable estrangement with his parents and his dedication to the life of the mind. Within its pages no great events happen; World War 1, the 1930s depression and the Second World War occur more or less offstage. The focus is almost entirely on stoner and his relationships, though Archer Sloane does observe in 1917, “A war doesn’t merely kill off a few thousand or a few hundred thousand young men. It kills off something in a people that can never be brought back. And if a people goes through enough wars, pretty soon all that’s left is the brute.”

He marries above himself, to banker’s daughter Edith Bostwick, a woman who shrinks from physical contact. The only exception to this is when she decides she wants a child but she then discards him as soon as conception occurs. For a while his daughter, Grace, is the consolation in his life but Edith slowly drives them away from each other. On Sloane’s retirement he is sounded out about the post of head of department but declines. The eventual beneficiary, Hollis Lomax, becomes an implacable adversary when for very good reasons Stoner refuses to approve the graduate thesis of Lomax’s favourite student. Fulfillment is promised when he has an affair with fellow teacher Katherine Driscoll, “They had been brought up to believe that the life of the mind and the life of the senses were separate and, indeed, inimical… that one had to be chosen at some expense of the other. That the one could intensify the other had never occurred to them,” but Lomax uses the situation against them.

A story of small things, then, ordinary things; of a life that may be thought unheroic, lived unflamboyantly, with only minor triumphs. In the introduction the author is quoted as saying he thinks Stoner is a hero, however, which in some senses he is. Yet he is also flawed and in particular ought to have stood up more to Edith for Grace’s sake. But some men prefer the quiet life.

The Greatest Novel You’ve Never Read? (Well, I’ve read it now so logically it no longer can be.) Nevertheless Stoner is good – and, despite occasional incursions into literary and linguistic theory, very readable. I’d like to think though, that there are greater novels I have yet to read.

Pedant’s corner:- Archduke Francis Ferdinand (Franz Ferdinand,) good-bys (goodbyes. Is good-bys an old USianism?) empoyee (employee.) Gay is used in its original sense, before it became a pseudonym for homosexual. My first sighting of the word “inenarrable” – incapable of being narrated; indescribable.

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