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The Devil’s Elixirs by E T A Hoffman

Oneworld Classics, 2011, 287 p including 2p Editor’s Preface, 1 p Notes, iv p Introduction and ii p Chronology. Translated from the German Die Elixiere des Teufels by Ronald Taylor.

The Devil's Elixirs cover

This is not one of the Hoffman stories which Offenbach turned into an opera. It is, though, a very Gothic tale of temptation, mistaken identity, and encounters with the Devil. Francesco, brought up in a monastery with no idea of his ancestry experiences a sexual torment when he glimpses his music teacher’s sister partly dressed. Later he perceives a slight when seen kissing her discarded glove. To resist temptation he resolves to become a monk, taking the name Medardus, and develops a talent for preaching. The reception of his sermons, which bring in a growing audience, boosts his ego. He is, though, plagued by a vision of the painter of the portrait of St Anthony which hangs in the monastery. He is given access to a box which contains bottles left to St Anthony by the Devil. Of course he gives in to the temptation to drink from one, which makes him euphoric. Partly to remove him from the sin of pride but also from temptation, the Prior, Leonardus, sends him on an errand to Rome. There follows a series of fantastical adventures involving the woman Aurelia (who bears a remarkable resemblance to a portrait of Saint Rosalia,) Medardus’s ancestral family, his döppelganger and various deeds of evil on his part in which Hoffman seems to be saying that origins cannot be outrun and we are doomed to repeat the sins of our forebears. (Recognising and resisting the Devil might be an aid in avoiding that, though.) The plot is intricate, the lines of Medardus’s ancestry convoluted, incidents recur in slightly altered form. The story is presented to us at one remove as a found, or, rather, handed over manuscript (the prior who did so thought it should be burnt) written as a penance for Medardus’s sins.

Early on Leonardus tells Medardus that the pleasures of the world, “produce an indescribable disgust, a complete enervation, an insensibility to higher values, which spells the frustration of man’s spiritual life.” Well, maybe to the religious ascetic: but this acts as an indicator of a kind of detachment which Medardus exhibits in his relations with others and the world.

Pedant’s corner:- Cyrillus’ (Cyrillus’s,) Hermogenes’ (Hermogenes’s,) “I threw away the monk’s habit, which still contained the fateful knife, Victor’s dispatch case and the wicker bottle with the remainder of the Devil’s elixir,” (I read this to mean that the habit, knife, case and bottle had all been thrown away; but the last three are still in his possession a few pages later.) ‘“All the floral arrangements,” said my companion, the work of our beloved Princess,’ is missing a start quotation mark before “the work”, louis d’ors (I doubt this is the correct plural of louis d’or. Should it not be louises d’or? Compare “pieces of eight”. [Unless the plural of louis is simply louis in which case the coin’s plural should be louis d’or.]) Descendents (descendants,) imposter (impostor.)

Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2016

Dell Magazines, 112 p.

Asimov's Mar 2016 cover

The second issue of the year’s subscription to the magazine my younger son gave me as a Christmas present. Robert Silverberg describes how Walter de la Mare’s story The Three Mulla-Mulgars, read in his youth and many times since, inspired him and fed into his fiction. James Patrick Kelly’s internet overview discusses the pros and cons of reading and writing a series of books.1 In the fiction:-
The Bewilderness of Lions by Ted Kosmatka.2 A data cruncher who can predict scandals goes to work for a politician. Then she is contacted by the people who really run things. Another story which panders to the secret-conspiracy-that-rules-the-world tendency.
The Ship Whisperer by Julie Novakova. An expedition to a black dwarf (which shouldn’t exist) discovers a device that can alter the rate of change of time. The titular character can “talk” to quantum computers, enabling the story’s resolution.
A Partial List of Lists I Have Lost Over Time by Sunil Patel is a series of listicles. I believe it is supposed to be humorous. The author seems to have a particular thing about kale.
Project Empathy by Dominica Phetteplace is about trends, moving elsewhere then finding the norms are different, plus there are Watcher chips inside people’s heads.
Do Not Forget Me by Ray Nayler3 is a story in the Eastern tradition, of tales within the tale – four embedded narratives here – the central one being about a man who doesn’t age. There is nothing really noteworthy here though.
A Little Bigotry by R Neube.4 An ex-soldier down on her uppers is reduced to accepting a contract to be an escort to a former enemy. A fine enough story but reminiscent of Barry B Longyear’s Enemy Mine. Then again, I suppose the point about enemies being worthy of understanding always bears repeating.
New Earth by James Gunn.5 A colony ship from a more-or-less destroyed Erath has reached a new planetary home. Choices and dangers must be faced.
I Married a Monster from Outer Space by Dale Bailey6 is narrated by a woman who takes home an alien who came into the Walmart she works in. This at first unpromising – clichéd even – scenario is, though, only scaffolding over what eventually becomes an affecting tale of love, loss and redemption. I note the references by Bailey – via the narrator’s surname (Sheldon,) her dead daughter Alice and her comment on her status as an invisible woman – to the career of James Tiptree Jr.

Pedant’s corner:- In the editorial; definine (define,) chose (choose,) Lawrence Watt Evans tale (Evans’s,) 1 ambiance (ambience,) 2 she could feel it siding in her fingers (sliding makes more sense,) lobyists (lobbyists,) 3 lay about (lie about.) 4 license (licence,) maw used for mouth (maw means stomach,) accurst (accursed,) 5mentions trees that are not-quite-trees but one of the characters says multi-cellular life hasn’t evolved there. Trees are multi-cellular; the fern-like structures subsequently described would be also. 6Bug-Eyes’ (it’s singular; so Bug-Eyes’s,) Hastings’ (Hastings’s,) laying (lying; plus lay for lie,) breath in (breathe in.) In Paul di Filippo’s book reviews; stefnal to mean science-fictional, a usage I had not come across before, whereas sfnal I was familiar with.

1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle

BCA, 2003, 603 p.

 1610: A Sundial in a Grave cover

Valentin Raoul Rochefort is a duellist, even though it is illegal, and a spy for the Duc de Sully, who in turn is right hand man to Henri IV of France. In order to protect his patron he is suborned by Henri’s wife Marie de Medici into procuring the King’s assassination. He means to fail by hiring an incompetent to carry out the killing but by chance the assassination succeeds and Rochefort is forced to flee. In attempting to make his escape he encounters a M. Dariole who had previously humiliated him in a duel. As a result of a further defeat (and a sexual humiliation) Rochefort and Dariole end up travelling together. The sparring between Rochefort and Dariole is of the verbal as well as the fencing kind. On a beach in Normandy they rescue a shipwrecked man, Tanaka Saburo, the only survivor of an embassy from the Shogun of the Japans to King James I (of England) and VI of Scotland. Saburo immediately sees M Dariole is in fact a woman. She is Arcadie Fleurimonde Henriette de Montargis de la Roncière, runaway from a premature marriage and much more at home as a sword wielder.

In London the three come under the influence of Robert Fludd – a historical figure here a practitioner of the Nolan Formulae learned from Giordano Bruno who can therefore calculate the future and who wishes (in order to create conditions so that humankind might prevent the impact of a destructive comet in 500 years’ time) to replace King James with his son Henry, Prince of Wales, and asks Rochefort to devise a plan to kill the King. The plan having been deliberately sabotaged with the help of another of Bruno’s disciples and spymaster Robert Cecil many further adventures ensue (including a trip to the Japans) before events are set on a more familiar keel with Prince Henry’s fatal swim in the Thames. We also meet in these pages Armand Jean du Plessis, to whose career our heroes give a boost.

We are presented all this as a found manuscript of Rochefort’s memoirs, partly burned and reconstructed via computer image-enhancement. It is perhaps too convenient that other accounts found in the same box, an extract from the cipher journal of Robert Fludd, two excerpts from Saburo’s report to the Shogun, an account of Roncière’s rape when captive by Fludd, fragments of a play by poet Aemilia Lanier, Roncière’s reflections from old age, so precisely fill in the gaps in Rochefort’s, though the “translator’s note” at the beginning states they are included for that purpose.

For all its glorying in the details of everyday life in the early 17th century (the black mud of Paris, the unwashed state of westerners, the fiddly business of clothing,) the minutiae of sword fighting – and the concomitant outpourings of blood and death – the toying with matters of history, the brushes with hermeticism, in the end this is a love story, peopled with eminently believable characters, replete with human passions, flaws, desires and misunderstandings.

Aside: I find it interesting that since 2000 Gentle has taken to setting her stories in the past (or alternative pasts Ash: A Secret History, Black Opera.) Is there something about the future or the present that she finds inimical to sweeping storytelling?

Pedant’s corner:- de Vernyes’ companion (de Vernyes’s,) laying (lying; also lay for lie, multiple instances,) sunk (sank; ditto,) swum (swam,) “I am not used to be manhandled” (being,) one instance of “amn’t I?” “No woman neither.” (The no is already a negation so “no woman either,”) “ought else” (aught, several instances,) Neopolitan (Neapolitan – which appeared later,) swum (swam,) one instance of Fontainebleu (Fontainebleau occurs elsewhere,) “cowardice on his own behalf” (on his part makes more sense,) Louis Capet (this is usually used to denote Louis XVI after his dethronement in the French Revolution – nearly 200 years after the events of this novel – but since all later French Kings were descended from the first Capetian, known as Hugh Capet, I suppose it may have been a common epithet,) I thought Bedlam might have been another possible anachronism but it seems the word did enter everyday speech in Jacobean times as a synonym for chaos, wernt (went,) Prince of Wales’ (Prince of Wales’s,) “All men do not travel in groups, with firearms” (Not all men travel in groups.)

The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest

Gollancz, 2014, 238 p.

 The Quiet Woman cover

Writer Alice Stockton lives in a Hampshire which has suffered the fallout from a nuclear accident at Cap la Hague in France. Despite there being no obvious reason for it she has had her latest manuscript impounded by agents acting for the government. Her only local friend, a much older woman named Eleanor, has been found murdered. Alice’s story is narrated in the third person and interspersed at times with a first person narrative by Eleanor’s son Gordon Sinclair, who also goes under the name of Peter Hamilton. As Hamilton he works, at arm’s length from the government, in information management – de facto censorship. Hence the ability to prevent Alice’s manuscript being published and to demand any copies, electronic or otherwise, be destroyed.

There are early hints that the first person narration may be unreliable when the narrator’s car and torch cut out and he observes spinning cylinders make circles in the nearby crops before disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. However this incident is only once referred to again and can be taken to be imagined or hallucinated. However potential unreliability is underscored by part of one of the two letters Eleanor wrote for Alice wherein she says, “I am by nature a concealer and disguiser, a natural fiction writer,” and (a book should have) “little facts that don’t add up, that misdirect the truth.” Then there is the very late scene which is described in both the first and third person narratives with substantial discrepancies between the two. Two of the first person chapters describe acts of extreme sexual violence on their narrator’s part. They also describe Sinclair’s mother (in the third person sections a relatively benign presence) as relating to him from an early age stories of her life before he was born with sexual details foregrounded. Again a reading of delusion on the narrator’s part seems in order.

Priest’s prose is immensely readable but there is something elusive about what purpose his book might serve. The total mismatch between Sinclair’s accounts of events and the seemingly more authoritative third person sections reinforce the reading that he is unhinged (at best.) Yet he is a powerful man – able to alter the official records pertaining to Alice’s life. Even in authoritarian systems surely someone would notice? Then there is Alice’s sudden conviction, without any evidence, that Sinclair is responsible for his mother’s death. And the bit about authors being paid merely for submitting manuscripts to the “European Repository of Human Knowledge” is just bizarre.

The quiet woman of the title is presumably Eleanor, she speaks to us only through those two letters to Alice which Priest vouchsafes us, yet as a result is paradoxically too quiet. This is only one of the aspects of the novel which are unbalanced. The Quiet Woman is not one of Priest’s major works but interesting enough, if a little frustrating.

Pedant’s corner:- “we hurried back along to promenade (along the promenade? Along to the promenade?) “one three sent to England one of three,) “she knew he that he wasn’t sure who she was” (miss that first “he”? or “he that”?) “How could she had forgotten?” (have,) one end quote where there had been no dialogue, an personal nature (a,) “Tom pushed the bolt of the door home” followed nine lines later, with no other mention of the bolt, “Alice pushed home the bolt on the door,” plus seven or eight instances of “time interval later”.

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Corsair, 2015, 267 p. Reviewed for Interzone 259, Jul-Aug 2015.

The Freedom Maze cover

It is 1960 in New Orleans. Eleven year old Sophie Martineau is descended from the once grand Fairchilds and through her mother she has inherited the distinctive Fairchild nose. The family owned the Oak River plantation in Louisiana but has now fallen on harder times. Her mother is still fiercely proud of her heritage though, refers to the War of Northern Aggression, has inculcated in Sophie a suspicion of black men and feels herself to be a Southern Belle. Sophie’s failure to live up to her mother’s standards of dress, tidiness and deportment is, then, a source of friction. To add to Sophie’s woes, her parents are divorced and her father has married again. Her mother always harboured suspicions about her ex-husband’s background – muttering darkly about a “touch of the tar brush” – has now had to get a job and has also signed up to train in accounting. To allow time for this Sophie must go to the ancestral home to be looked after by her aunt and grandmother for the summer. The signs saying “coloreds only” at a stopover and references to Negroes “the polite term” remind (or perhaps inform – this is a YA novel) the reader of the legacies of slavery.

At Oak River the former Big House is disused and the maze is in some disrepair. Sophie’s only solace is a book of adventures featuring teenagers who travel back in time. Wishing to be anywhere else she explores the maze one day and hears a voice in her ear. This is a trickster she calls The Creature, which later surprises her swimming in a pool and tells her he “sits at the doorway betwixt might be and is, was and will be, here and there.” At her request it manifests itself; as an odd looking podgy mammal with deer’s ears. After one more altercation with her visiting mother she tells the Creature she wants to travel in time herself. The Creature obliges. The bulk of the novel deals with the consequences as Sophie finds herself on the Fairchild estate in 1860, mistaken for a slave sent up from New Orleans by estate owner Charles’s brother Robert. The spoilt daughter of the estate, Elizabeth Fairchild, is immediately antagonistic towards her but her parents Mr and Mrs Charles Fairchild are less mistrustful and Sophie is given household duties to perform. In following these we are treated to a rather heavy-handedly written conversation about the likelihood of war with the North. Sophie swiftly falls ill and is allowed even lighter duties in order to recover. While in her delirium she hears a conversation between the Creature and a spirit called Papa Legba (who saves her from dying) about the dangers of travelling in time without preparation.

It must be said that, after initial incomprehension at not being recognised as white, Sophie slips very easily into the life of a slave, learning deference quickly and adopting slave speech patterns. It is in this context that the novel strikes a note that seems slightly off. Yes, the Fairchilds are “good” slave owners, though the overseer Mr Akins is not so reticent in this respect, but even if the prospect of a whipping is never far off the slaves’ conditions do not come over as being as grim as might be expected. Similarly the one whipping Sophie does eventually receive does not read as being as devastating. Sherman does highlight other gritty aspects of 1860 life, sanitary protection for instance is very rudimentary.

What plot there is kicks in when Elizabeth’s suitor Beaufort Waters casts his roving eye – not to mention hands – on the slave girl Antigua. It is here that the Creature’s purpose in bringing Sophie back in time is fulfilled. Sophie’s resourcefulness and the usefulness of a Fairchild nose are instrumental in the resolution of Antigua’s situation.

In all of this any fantastical elements are scant. The intervention by Papa Legba could be interpreted as an hallucination induced by Sophie’s illness and the time travel is merely a black box. There is nothing speculative about it, no mechanism for it. It just happens. Sherman merely uses it as a device to precipitate Sophie’s consciousness into the nineteenth century. Her purpose is to tell a story set in the slavery era and to seek to make it relevant to modern times. In this she succeeds well enough. In the end, though, there is as little sense of true jeopardy in Sophie’s sojourn in the past as there was in the stories she so enjoyed in 1960. And it does seem rather to belittle the subject matter to make an overt comparison between freedom from slavery and throwing off parental shackles.

The following did not appear in the review:-
Pedant’s corner: up and moved (upped and moved, surely?) there was horrified gasp (a horrified gasp,) you should look out after her better, Lolabelle morphs to LolaBelle and back again, mistress’ (mistress’s,) “who lived in all the way up in” (who lived all the way up in,) lookingglass (looking glass,) her effort must have showed (shown,) bit (bitten,) made up of several man (men,) Mama appeared the garden entrance.

The Planet Dweller by Jane Palmer

Women’s Press, 1985, 152 p.

The Planet Dweller cover

Another Women’s Press SF novel I missed out on when first published. Its feminist credentials are established early. I can’t recall reading another Science Fiction novel which mentions hot flushes, certainly not in its first three words as this one does. The sufferer is Diana who also hears a voice in her head, saying, “Moosevan.” She lives near to a radio telescope where a Russian émigré named Yuri works. He has discovered certain patterns in the arrangement of the asteroids which suggests outside interference. The interactions among the characters here are well delineated, Yuri’s tendency to drunkenness and the local toff Daphne’s sense of entitlement being particularly well captured if a little clichéd. However, in chapter three the story takes a sudden lurch into a narrative which contains what I can only call cartoon aliens who have plans to set off a piece of equipment which will destroy a planet. The planet concerned surrounds the intelligence that is Moosevan (a planet dweller) and soon both Yuri and Diana are transported there where they encounter the Torrans who wish to disrupt the plans of the most dangerous species in the galaxy, the Mott, in their quest to possess new worlds.

The idea of an intelligence surrounded by a planet is certainly interesting but is not taken very far. The Planet Dweller is readable enough but in SF terms certainly belongs back in the 1980s or beyond. It is unfortunate that the SF element is its weakest part. The back cover of Palmer’s later novel The Watcher (which I bought at the same time) says “Another joyous send up of the SF genre,” so I assume The Planet Dweller is meant to be read in that vein. Humour in SF is a difficult trick to pull off. From the perspective of 2016 Palmer doesn’t achieve it here.

Pedant’s corner:- alchohol (alcohol,) scintar (as in “scintars and pulsars” which would suggest it’s a kind of star but I’ve never heard of it and can find no definition of one,) “a light shower of carbon dioxide particles floated gently down through the thin air” (CO2 is invisible [but maybe not to cartoon aliens,]) lackies (lackeys,) shute (chute,) court martials (courts martial,) any other species’ (species’s? it could have been species plural though, the text wasn’t exactly clear,) to see one if those creatures (one of those,) “though she was on the track of quark that would solve the riddle of the universe” (?? – Of a quark? Of quark as a type? )

Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2016

Dell Magazines, 112 p.

Asimov's Feb 2016 cover

The first issue of the year’s subscription to the magazine my younger son gave me as a Christmas present. In his column Robert Silverberg remembers the pulp days. As to the fiction:-
The Grocer’s Wife [enhanced transcription] by Michael Libling.1 Andrew Phillips works for a government agency overseeing the mental deterioration of various subjects. His latest, a grocer named Thomas Bonner, gets to him, or rather the devotion of Bonner’s wife does. The deterioration process mimics Alzheimer’s but is induced by the government to drain the brains of its victims. Waffle about JFK and President Bush aside quite how and why the government should feel the need to do this remains obscure.
Bringing Them Back by Bruce McAllister. A man tries to bring back all the creatures lost to environmental stress and targeted viral outbreaks by drawing them onto paper. The story is complete with illustrations purporting to be these drawings. The last of them (he cannot bring himself to draw his wife) are of his children and himself.
In Equity by Sarah Gallien.2 An orphaned child goes to his latest placement interview with little hope of acceptance. His prospective adopters want him to be subject to unfettered medical trials in exchange for the best education.
Passion Summer by Nick Wolven.3 A Passion can be bought but is usually fleeting. Fourteen year-old Jeffrey decides to ask for a Passion for Passion itself.
Exceptional Forces by Sean McMullen narrates the tale of a Russian scientist who detected carrier wave background noise in the Andromeda galaxy (evidence of alien radio transmissions) and the contract killer sent to silence him. The story panders to the secret-conspiracy-that-rules-the-world tendency.
The Monster of 1928 by Sandra McDonald is an unexceptional fantasy tale. The monster of the title is Tulu, the legend of the Everglades, encountered one night by narrator Louise.
The Charge and the Storm by An Owomoyela.4 On a colony formed by a starship community but dominated by the alien Su a group of humans seeks independence.

Pedant’s corner:- 1 skullduggery (skulduggery,) 2 sprung (sprang,) unpixilated (pixilated means bemused or intoxicated, context suggests unpixelated,) 3 gladiolas (gladioli,) Diedre (Deirdre,) 4 missing comma before a speech quote, to not die (not to die.)

Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott

Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, 505 p including advertisement to the first edition, author’s introduction, postscript, Scott’s notes, editor’s notes and glossary + xl p acknowledgements, introduction, note on the text, select bibliography, a chronology of Sir Walter Scott and a map of Rob Roy’s Country.

One of the 100 best Scottish Books

 Rob Roy cover

Well, this is odd. The book’s title is Rob Roy and while that gentleman does appear within it it is not until over 100 pages in that he first crops up and even then his name is not revealed as such. The narration is in the first person by one Francis (Frank) Osbaldistone, son of a self-made man in London, who has been disowned by his father for not going into the family business and banished to the ancestral home in Northumberland. It is on the journey north that Frank encounters a certain Mr Campbell as well as a Mr Morris who is over protective of the contents of his luggage.

At Osbaldistone Hall (whose inhabitants, unlike the proud Protestant Frank, are all, barring their Scottish gardener, Andrew Fairservice, Catholics) Frank meets and falls under the spell of the unconventional Diana Vernon, the niece of his uncle Sir Hildebrand, and encounters the villain of the piece, his cousin Rashleigh. Both contrive to save Frank from the charge of robbing Mr Morris by enlisting the aid of Mr Campbell. At the Hall Frank notices unusual goings-on at night but his deference to Diana ensures he does not inquire into their nature too closely.

After some longueurs at the Hall the plot kicks into gear when news reaches Frank of the potential ruin of his father which requires he travel to Glasgow to enlist the help of his father’s trading partners to recover sums of money Rashleigh has spirited away. Here he again encounters Mr Campbell, whose true nature as Rob Roy is finally revealed. Bailie Nicol Jarvie also becomes his travelling companion as they venture into the Southern Highlands where various perils to do with the planning and thwarting of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion are surmounted. During these, Rob Roy’s wife, Helen MacGregor, is presented as a fearsome creature (one of Scott’s notes suggests she had good reason to be so) and the Highlanders as some sort of equivalent of North American natives.

Even in all this Rob Roy still appears almost peripherally and as a character fails to spring to life. Another oddness is that Frank’s agency throughout the tale is limited to that of onlooker. (Spoilers follow.) Frank’s success in his quest to recover his father’s fortune owes more to Diana Vernon and Rob Roy than his own efforts and his father turns out in any case to have all but made good his reverses himself. In the latter stages of the book a quite frankly (ahem) ridiculous combination of circumstances sees all obstacles to Frank’s future fortunes and happiness removed. This is all carried through with a degree of prolixity in the prose which may be typical of early nineteenth century novels in general and Scott in particular but presents something of a barrier to modern readers. Perseverance reduces that problem, though.

Scott’s status as the begetter of the historical novel as a genre is founded on tales such as this and Kurt Wittig regarded him, along with Robert Burns, as at the high water mark of Scottish literature.

Pedant’s corner:- In Ian Duncan’s introduction: premiss (I prefer premise.) Otherwise: stupified (stupefied,) “domini regis” followed immediately by “Damn dominie regis” (one or the other spelling of domini surely?) acquaintance’ (acquaintance’s) and the archaic spellings dulness, tædium, sate (though sat appeared once,) Bagdad, fagots (faggotts,) winded (wound,) jailor (or is this a conflation of jailer and gaolor?) Bucklivie (Buchlyvie,) and Aberfoil (Aberfoyle.) Sprung, sunk and rung were used consistently where sprang, sank and rang are the modern usages.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2014, 383 p

How to be Both cover

The conceit of this book is that it contains two stories separated in time by five centuries but which can be read in either order. Two different versions – indistinguishable from either the cover or the publishing details – were printed at the same time but with the story orders reversed one to the other. The stories’ connection is via a mural in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, Italy painted by one Francesco del Cossa about whom little is known. In fact nothing was known about him until a letter from him to his employer was discovered four hundred years after his death which demanded higher payment for his work than others on the project were to receive. In my edition the first story is that of Francesco (though the Italian spelling Francescho is used throughout it; Smith frequently uses Italian-type spellings in this section – azzurite for azurite etc ) told as “his” stream of consciousness at a point in time when “he” may be dead, in purgatorium. The inverted commas are cause (the author unfailingly employs this version of the conjunction) Smith imagines Francesco as a woman. There are internal details of del Cossa’s paintings which argue for this possibility. The first and last few pages of Francesco’s tale are laid out in a typographical manner more akin to experimental poetry than prose. This made the narrative more tricksy and difficult to get into than it need have been but once Francesco’s story had been embarked on and the relationships within it established this barrier disappeared. Another narrative quirk here is the parenthetical interjection of the phrase ‘just saying’ at various points in Francesco’s tale. As is usual in Smith’s books, in How to be Both as a whole, the right hand margin is never justified.

The modern narrative is that of Georgia (Georgie Girl, aka George) whose mother (now dead) had developed an interest in del Cossa’s mural and took George and her brother Henry to see it in Italy. The mural and del Cossa’s work in general become a fascination for George.

Smith’s intentions are perhaps summed up by the passage about “how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it.” Apart from the pseudo-poetry her prose flows extremely easily.

I’ll never know now of course but I doubt whether the connections between the two versions of the book would work as well if read with the modern section first.

Pedant’s corner:- doing the minimum of sinop (??) Back and fore (one of Smith’s perennials, but it seems it’s a North of Scotland usage,) some words in the internal dialogue of George’s narrative lack apostrophes; (its, howre, whenll etc.) “It was called, in French, A Film Like The Others.” (A Film Like The Others is its title in English. In French it’s “Un film comme les autres.”)

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin

Orion, 1997, 399 p including 2 p Afterword and 1 p Acknowledgements.

This novel appears in both the 100 best Scottish Books list and in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books.

 Black and Blue cover

It is the eighth of Rankin’s Rebus novels and sees Inspector John Rebus, banished to Craigmillar for various indiscretions, and investigating the suspicious death of Allan Mitchison, an oil worker who had made unfortunate connections. It is not long before Rebus is once more ruffling feathers, both of his superiors and of the criminal fraternity. His nose for the truth and the links he makes to a current serial killer nicknamed Johnny Bible (because of the similarities of his murders to the famous Bible John case of the 1960s) leads Rebus to Glasgow, Aberdeen, Shetland and an oil-rig in the North Sea. Meanwhile he is incidentally trying to deal with his over-fondness for alcohol and also being stalked by a TV crew looking into a possible miscarriage of justice from early in Rebus’s career. It’s all admirably well plotted and suitably twisted and turned. If a bit too much when Rebus himself is questioned for one of Johnny Bible’s murders.

Where it broke down for me was the interpolation into the story of “Bible John” himself, returned to Scotland from time spent in the US where he had married, now an executive in the oil business, not at all pleased that some upstart is stealing his thunder, and whose viewpoint we inhabit at the end of several of the chapters. I think my unease would have been the case even without the renewed interest in Bible John which struck between the writing of Black and Blue and its publication and the later possibility that Bible John was/is convicted killer Peter Tobin. To me it seemed Rankin portrays his “Bible John” as a more intelligent, even thoughtful, individual than he in fact was/is.

On Aberdeen’s dependence on oil money Rebus reflects that the oil won’t be there for ever. “Growing up in Fife Rebus had seen the same with coal: no one planned for the day it would run out. When it did hope ran out with it.” True as far as it goes. Except the coal didn’t run out: there’s still plenty coal under Fife or the Firth of Forth. It was government policy to shut mines – mostly to destroy workers’ rights and trade union influence.

Yes, it deals with one of the most high profile Scottish criminal cases of the twentieth century and has Tom Nairn’s dictum on the conditions for Scotland’s rebirth as a section’s epigraph but I can see no compelling reason why this book should be in a top one hundred.

Pedant’s corner:- halogen orange (of street lights? Sodium orange, yes,) there were a couple (was,) there were a few (was,) a team were (was,) – the text is littered with singular nouns followed by plural verbs – Geddes’ (appeared several times, yet once we had what I would prefer, Geddes’s,) there were dozens fit the description (fitted,) popadums (it’s usually poppadums,) Stevens’ (Stevens’s,) disks (even for computers the British English is still discs,) dishels, (???) thirty-five mils (mil; an abbreviation subsumes its plural, even when it’s written as it’s spoken,) ‘Laying low.’ (Lying low; but it was in dialogue and lying low appeared in text later,) Forres’ (Forres’s,) sat (sitting,) McIness’ (McIness’s.)

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