Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

A veritable account of ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’ scrieved by Harry Langton.
Quercus, 2014, 368 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Fair Helen cover

After all these years, all those novels, you’d think there would not be much more to say on the subjects of love, sex and death. But they are the human driving forces; or fears. There isn’t really much else to write about. And Greig has a heart and a talent to match anyone’s.

In Fair Helen Greig adds himself to that long line of Scottish authors who have illuminated the byways of the country’s history, in this case the last gasps of the Border reiving tradition. James VI – referred to as Jamie Saxt in the text – sits in Holyrude awaiting the death of “the Auld Hag” (as our narrator Harry Langton calls Elizabeth of England) to fulfil his destiny and incidentally ensure the end of the border feuds. Langton, though flawed, is an engaging guide to the times; discursive, reflective, and prone to the occasional footnote. If the setting and vocabulary were not enough (an appended “Scots Guide” defines some of the non-English words used: my favourite of these, houghmagandie, is given as sexual shenanigans but that fails to recognise the connotations of exuberance) the attentive descriptions of landscape and evocations of other works of Scottish literature, “Timor mortis conturbat me, indeed,” “a mere mouse running before the coulter blade,” “‘How can they stay sae fresh and fair?’” would anchor Fair Helen firmly. (That some of these references post-date the novel’s times only makes them the more redolent.)

Early on we have a warning about the trustworthiness of text, “What is the point of gossip and story if not to exaggerate our lives to the scale we believe they should be rather than the small affairs we fear they truly are?” – and there is that “veritable” in the strapline – yet the tale purports to be the true story of the tragedy described in the border ballad ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’. Greig’s choice of narrator is subtle, being none of the three main actors in the events that led to balladry. Harry was cousin to Fair Helen (Irvine) and friend of Adam Fleming, her lover, though not so close to the man whom she is contracted to marry, Robert Bell. Langton’s presence at, and contribution to, the outcome of the affair is approached via his entanglement not only with the lovers but also with the coming man, Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch. Langton notes that, “Rarely is it fortunate to come to the attention of the high heid ones.” But Helen has words of advice when, “‘I am much changed,’ I said, ‘And the world has grown ugly.’ Her hand squeezed my wrist. Her grip was strong and urgent. ‘Think that and they have won.’”

Through Langton, Greig is also overly modest. “I contemplated my Thucydides. The wars of Greek city-states did not seem so distant. If they appeared more noble, perhaps, it was just they had better writers.” The meat of his quote from Montaigne, “‘The public weal requires that men should betray, and lie, and massacre,’” is alas followed too closely to this day.

Greig has been described as a post-Calvinist author. This is explicit here in passages such as, “The rediscovered voices of Antiquity have offered a vision of a greater, kinder, more humane and playful life (scarcely in Scotland, ma foi, not till the hoodie craws of the Reformed Faith back away from the carcass of this my only true home!)” The older Langton reflects, “There is no dancing in the inn courtyards now, religious fanatics denounce and rule, witches still confess under torture and our songs are all grim or piously false as ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’,” and, “Women have become douce-like, modest, eyes downcast as though feart to trip on their own feet, and men are penitential. The flesh is sinful and chastity rated far higher than charity,” adding cuttingly, “It is a wonder that bairns still get born at all.” The women and men Langton knew in the borders in the far-off days of his youth, “were … otherwise.” He tells his latter day patron, Drummond of Hawthornden, (in whose library he leaves a copy of Love’s Labours Won, a gift from a strolling player in London, another knowing authorial touch,) “‘Reform may have banished corruption,” (of the church.) “It would also banish wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness.’” And thinks to himself, “And fornication.”

As to the country itself, “Here all about lay Scotland, dark and dreich and dear. Cloud-shadow scurrying over hill and burn, cold wind and dry branch, our hard humour and hidden hurts. Here affection came wrapped in insult as sweet fruit in burnt pie-crust. Tenderness was hidden under armoured jacks, with only keening pipes and fiddle and human voice to tell the heart’s ways.”

The novel is threaded with a sense of loss. This could perhaps arise only in that the story is narrated by an old man, “My soul is an old horse-trough that lies forgot in a field, its rotting boards mottled with fungus and moss,” remembering the past – were it not that this sort of deep nostalgia is a familiar strand in Scottish literature. And the Scottish fixation with death is marked by, “The skull and hourglass we Scots inscribe on our tombs to counter any pious suggestion of the life to come.”

The hyper-critical might carp that the story is merely (merely!) a recapitulation of Romeo and Juliet – the Fleming and Irvine families are after all in feud when they first get together – but star-crossed lovers are a literary staple and here there are complications; an end to the feud is negotiated but Helen’s engagement to Bell is announced at the celebration which marks the reconciliation. Fair Helen is a delight and, despite any lack of Calvinism, still Scottish to the bone. As in That Summer and Electric Brae Greig makes you care about his main characters and portrays the others as rounded.

Pedant’s corner:- That mention of high heid ones looks odd as it is usually rendered as high heid yins. We have maw as mouth rather than stomach, hung at times (when hanged is used elsewhere,) Lucretius’ (Lucretius’s.) “As we forded the stream I look off to my left,” (looked,) Longshanks’ (Longshanks’s,) snuck in (sneaked? tucked?), their force were (was,) had began (had begun; or merely, began,) snuck (definitely sneaked.) I also thought I caught a continuity error when Langton hands Mrs Smeaton’s packages to Jed Horsburgh, who is in custody for protecting Adam Fleming.

Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan

Canongate, 2014, 361 p.

 Gone Are the Leaves cover

This is another very fine Scottish novel (my second such in a row) but it’s an odd coincidence that both this and Ronald Frame’s The Lantern Bearers should have a boy’s treble singing voice as a significant plot driver.

The main narration duties here are carried out in the first person by Deirdre, a young embroideress in an unspecified Scottish castle overseen by a couple only ever referred to as the Laird and my Lady. Interspersed with Deirdre’s remembrances are third person segments from the viewpoint of the peripatetic priest Father Anthony, and further first person snippets from singing master Signor Carlo and nun Sister Agnes.

The Laird’s daughter, Lady Alicia, is on the marriage market and my Lady has brought back from France, where she has relatives, a suitor with an entourage containing a page, Feilamort, of obscure origin but in possession of a voice like an angel. Feilamort is not the most robust of boys but he and Deirdre make friends and begin to spend some of what spare time they have together playing in the woods.

This being the Middle Ages and the glorification of God a bounden duty, the preservation of His instrument to that end, a pure singing voice, is an active consideration. In particular, Signor Carlo sees great prospects for himself in Rome with Feilamort under his tutelage. Feilamort himself accepts it is probably his best option for a secure future but before the procedure takes place asks Deirdre if he can know her as a man knows a woman. After initial hesitation she consents, and the novel’s path is set.

Deirdre’s secret revealed to Father Anthony, he arranges for her to travel overseas in the company of Sister Agnes. She ends up in an unusual castle belonging to a Lord known as the Master, where resides an artist called Monsieur Alberto (who has echoes of Leonardo da Vinci.) The Master commissions Deirdre to sew an embroidery of a unicorn from one of Monsieur Alberto’s paintings but otherwise why she was brought there remains a mystery to her. The nature of Feilamort’s – and therefore Deirdre’s – connection to the place slowly unravels while in the background lurks the shadowy figure of a Monsieur Garnet.

The Deirdre passages are rendered in a very braid Scots indeed. It was here I had some initial reservations as Donovan is not entirely consistent in applying this. “To”, for example is sometimes given in English and elsewhere appears as “tae”, whereas Deirdre would almost certainly always have used the latter exclusively. Similarly I noticed “afternoon” where “efternoon” or even “efternin” would seem more natural. But I can understand why Donovan made the choices she did. The liberal use of Scottish words – albeit mostly weather related and hence perhaps more readily understandable – might otherwise present too much of a barrier to readers not familiar with written Scots. A (short) glossary appears at the end but by no means covers all the Scots words in the text. They do, however, provide the flavour of the novel which would, I submit, be a much lesser thing if written in standard English. The expressiveness of these Scots words is a major part of the book’s overall impact. They might even be said to heighten the book’s literary qualities.

The mediæval Scottish setting reminded me vaguely of Andrew Greig’s Fair Helen but Gone Are the Leaves is its own thing entirely. Donovan captures superbly the fears and misgivings of the adolescent – going on adult – Deirdre, the suspicions of Signor Carlo and the wisdom of Sister Agnes. In this light her decision to render Father Anthony’s sections in the third person is entirely appropriate.

Even if resolution comes via frankly unlikely means (but justified within the novel’s narrative) and the ending has a very traditional Scottish feel this is an exemplary work – better than Donovan’s earlier novel Buddha Da.

Pedant’s corner:- whisps (wisps,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) Jacques’ (Jacques’s,) Feilmort (x1, elsewhere always Feilamort.)

When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig

faber and faber, 1999, 326 p.

When They Lay Bare cover

So much enduring literature is about love, sex and death. Greig is good on all three, especially love and its tragedies. In When They Lay Bare David Elliott comes to the family home to show off to his father, Simon, his intended. Meanwhile a strange woman has moved into a cottage on the estate. In David’s childhood Simon had had an affair with Jinny Lauder – for whose death he had been tried for murder, and found not proven. The shadow of those events lies over the book, as, since it is set in those same debatable lands Greig would return to in Fair Helen (but here we are in the twentieth century,) does the history of the borders. Border Ballads are frequently quoted and the book’s epigram is an extract from The Twa Corbies. Throughout Greig does not separate off direct speech by quotation marks but this is never a problem to decipher.

The novel has a central conceit wherein the story is foreshadowed by the descriptions of illustrations on a set of eight plates belonging to the woman in the cottage who at first gives her name as Mary Allan but then says she is Jinny’s daughter, Marnie. The eight sections into which the novel is divided are designated as Plate 1, Plate 2 etc – though 4 and 5 are titled Lover’s Plates (Rose and Red respectively.) These descriptions are rendered in italics. The rest of the narration is carried from the viewpoints of David, Marnie, Simon (from whom we learn the details of his doomed affair with Jinny, a grand passion indeed) and his factotum Tat, a voyeur in his youth whose evidence was crucial to the verdict and who leveraged his knowledge into gaining his position on the Elliott estate. Tat’s narration is littered with Scots words and phrases, as is Simon’s but to a much lesser extent.

Marnie is one of those women whom Greig draws so well. She often alludes to Spook, her word for manifestations of sixth sense, a phenomenon not at odds with Borders history (though in that regard the appearance of Jinny to Tat at the novel’s crux was perhaps a step too far.) Important, too, is a precarious bridge over the Liddie Burn, the scene of one of those Border tales from times past.

Marnie is the heart of the book, the driving force of its motor, the hinge around which the other characters revolve – though Jinny’s actions and her motivations for them are almost as influential – but the most Greigian of sentiments is voiced by David, “Sin and sex make us glow like coals in the dark. That’s why we do it. To burn.” One of the reasons we read novels is to experience that burn, if only at second hand.

Pedant’s corner:- Quite why the title is all in lower case on the cover is beyond me. It isn’t on the title page. Otherwise: “the prosecution were” (was,) “only a name and a brief tale remains” (remain; in an extract from a piece about border legends,) usually before a piece of dialogue or unspoken thought there is some sort of punctuation. In one instance it was missing, smoothes (smooths.) “That is the cause of the love he feel for his companions” (feels,) “‘he’d had to have grovelled’” (OK it was in dialogue but, “he’d have to have grovelled”,) imposter (impostor.)

In Another Light by Andrew Greig

Pheonix, 2004, 510 p.

In Another Light cover

Love, sex and death again; but literature’s subject matter doesn’t get any bigger. And Greig deals with them superbly.

In In Another Light it is death which is the early preoccupation of Eddie Mackay, though love and sex do get a look in. Prior to the immediate events of the novel Eddie suffered from hydrocephalus as a result of a colloid cyst which meant fluid built up in his brain. He therefore feels the imminence of extinction everywhere, “‘Because I was nearly dead once and I’m trying to live with that.’” During his recovery from having a shunt fitted to drain the fluid from his brain to his stomach Eddie experiences the presence of his dead father, who according to Eddie’s mother had, long before she met him, been sent home in disgrace from Malaya after an affair with his superior’s wife. Eddie doubts the truth of this but sets out to find as much as he can about his father’s time in the colony. Eddie is working for a tidal generation project whose headquarters overlook Scapa Flow in Orkney. The jungle drums and the tangled relationships of Stromness become a running theme in the book. Of comments about his liaison with Mica Moar, another of Greig’s complicated female characters (a bit – but only a bit – like Kim Russell in Electric Brae) he says, “‘In my experience there’s only one way to keep a secret in a wee town’ … ‘Plant the sapling of truth in a forest of rumours.’”

This strand of the book, delivered in a first person past tense looking back over the path which brought Eddie to the final scene, with occasional present tense interludes setting that scene, is intertwined with a third person present tense narration of the voyage of his father Sandy, as he was then known, to Penang in Malaya and his brief sojourn there. Medical graduate Sandy hopes to improve the birth survival rates in Penang’s maternity hospital. The boat out is a hotbed of illicit goings on of which deeply moral Sandy is mildly contemptuous. The acquaintances he makes on the trip, US citizen Alan Hayman and the two Simpson sisters, Ann and Adele, “both beautiful, one a gazelle” the elder of whom, Adele, is married and chaperoning the younger, are fateful. A further sister, Emily, also on the boat, is still a child. Each chapter contains several sequences from both stories, generally alternating. The greeting, “‘Oh, there you are,’” bounces around the two narratives. Both strands are thick with metaphor. The descriptions of Orkney and Penang make them almost characters in themselves – particularly Orkney. Certain images also resonate between the two locations.

The text is seasoned with sly critiques of Scottish attitudes, “I was in joyous life-affirming Scottish mode that morning and no mistake.” “Scotland’s a place where everyone explains what is not possible, that it’ll all end in tears, we’re here to make the best of a bad job then die and get a good rest till we’re woken up to be informed we’re damned.” To Sandy’s traditional toast “‘Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Gey few – and they’re aa deid’” Hayman says, “‘You guys, you can’t even celebrate without bringing death into it.’”

Eddie’s thoughts occasionally stray back to the subject of death. He raises with us the question of “How are we to live in the face of the sure and certain knowledge we will lose parents, friends, lover, the whole shebang and caboodle?” only to answer it immediately with, “Wholeheartedly. Of this one thing I am sure.” Later he tells us, “It’s such a simple and shallow thing, death, only there’s no bottom to it and no way across.”

He reflects that maturity is, “knowing you’ve more or less arrived at yourself and the world will keep changing but you won’t much, and then living with that,” while, “Pure lust, I’d noticed, eventually collapses under the weight of its own contradictions – rather like capitalism, but much quicker.” However, “We need meaning, I thought. The world might not have any, but we need it,” and, “Meaning is something we have to make.”

Greig’s numerous characters are all well drawn, their behaviour sometimes unexpected and contrary. I wouldn’t go quite so far as the cover quote (from The Times) “It will be a long time since a book has made you care as much.” Not for me. At least not since the same author’s Fair Helen. He seems to have a gift for it. Add in computer programmes for generating music from tidal movements, the compromises of secret service work in the colonies, a thoroughly worked through plot (which admittedly may be a little too neatly tied in,) the perennial failure of true love (or lust) to run smooth and the whole thing’s a delight.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘I’d left my [gas] mask back in the Mess’” (the Mess? In the trenches in WW1?) Brechin Pier (does Brechin have a pier?) “for a while neither of them speak” (neither speaks.) “Stacked alongside the reference books are a series of different coloured hardback files” (is a series,) baragraphs (barographs,) the phrase, “he was sad under his funny,” (seems to be missing a final word,) furlough (is more a USian usage,) “The Moonlight Band play foxtrots” (plays,) “a think about what the heck’s he’s getting into,” (what the heck,) sub-periphrenaic abscess (a google search for sub-periphrenaic yields only a quote from In Another Light: Andrew Greig,) whigmalerie (spelling of Scots words can be variable but this is usually whigmaleerie,) murmers (murmurs,) Theramin Dr Who electronic music (Theremin: also Dr Who’s electronic instrument wasn’t a theremin which as an instrument should be lower case,) “he scooped more peanuts down his maw” (I suppose it could mean stomach here,) “a group of macaque monkeys come running” (a group comes,) “He’s stares” (He stares,) whispy (context suggests wispy,) tweaked it it (one it is enough,) an assortment of … appear (an assortment appears,) Siouxie and the Banshees (doesn’t she spell it Siouxsie?) vocal chords (it’s cords,) Arshak Sarkies’ (Sarkies’s,) for completeness’ sake (completeness’s,) light defraction (diffraction? refraction? or is this a portmanteau word Greig has invented?) became (in a present tense narration this should be becomes.)

The Lament: A Scottish Tradition.

I mentioned recently in my review of Christopher Rush’s A Twelvemonth and a Day that it fell into that long list of laments with which the Scottish novel is liberally bestowed – going back at least as far as the poem on the state of the nation written on King Alexander III’s death after falling from a cliff in Fife in 1286, but which may well be an oral tradition older still.

This sense of things lost seems to be an itch which Scottish letters is unable not to scratch.

Many of the books on the 100 best Scottish Books list fall into this tradition; of the ones I have read not only the Rush but also Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place, William McIlvanney’s Docherty, George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, Neil M Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song certainly qualify. Arguably Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes also fits the bill; its title certainly does.

Whether this dwelling on things gone by is due to a sense of lost nationhood or not is a matter for debate but the itch is played out not just in Scottish literature, the lament is a major strand in bagpiping and has a long history in song (eg The Flowers o’ the Forest.) The Proclaimers’ Letter From America – “Bathgate no more” etc – is merely a modern take on the form.

Another important strand in the Scottish novel is that of the döppelganger/the supernatural. Here James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can certainly be seen as a reflection on the duality of the Scots psyche after the Treaty of Union as well as an illustration of Scottish literature’s fascination with the Devil, is the prototypical – and arguably the finest – example though Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is perhaps better known furth of Scotland.

On thinking about all this I realised that, despite being Science Fiction, my own novel A Son of the Rock was also such a lament (though it eschews any truck with the supernatural.) The book was certainly conceived in part as an allegory of the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde which had occurred in my early lifetime but I had not consciously been aware of any wider resonances while I was writing it. I did though somewhat impertinently consider it as a “condition of Scotland” novel.

Perhaps Scotland’s condition has always been in decline, its writers always noticing what has been, is being, lost. I note here that Andrew Grieg’s Fair Helen is a retrospective lament for the loss of “wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness” in the Reformation.

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Everyman’s Library, 1991, 606 p, plus xxiii p Introduction by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, ii p Select Bibliography, iv p Chronology and iii p Prefaces to the Second and Third Editions (as by Currer Bell.) First published in 1847.

Jane Eyre cover

I suppose this book hardly needs an introduction what with it being an acknowledged classic of nineteenth century literature. It could be described as Gothic – there is a madwoman in an attic, but it is also an instance of the ‘gaining of wisdom’ narrative, plus a case of virtue fulfilled, and there is even a dollop of Cinderella in its protagonist’s childhood. The later appearance of long-lost cousins, not to mention a handy inheritance, though, lend an air of authorial contrivance to the proceedings. And it has that besetting characteristic of the Victorian novel, an unrelenting wordiness. It’s easy to carp of course (and it should not be forgotten stepmothers were a prominent feature of life in the days the novel describes) but Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Introduction reminds us Jane Eyre was innovatory, Brontë’s voice something new. The book certainly has had an enduring influence, with a wide afterlife, inspiring other hands to write prequels (Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea) and homages (Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.)

Jane Eyre is an orphan, entrusted to the care of her uncle, Mr Reed, who has unfortunately also deceased. Mrs Reed takes the wicked stepmother role, preferring her own children and treating Jane with lack of kindness and understanding, not seeing the calumnies with which her son John in particular attributes to Jane. Being packed off to boarding school (Lowood,) would have been a relief were that institution not (at least initially) so spartan. Here Jane meets the almost too saintly Helen Burns whose fate it is to die of consumption but not before Jane can reveal her philosophy to her. “‘If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way.’”

Feminism avant la lettre reveals itself in the passage, “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.” This of course shows that women have been telling men things for donkey’s ages without the message ever managing to get through.

With her schooling finished Jane spends a few years teaching at Lowood herself before the departure of her mentor Miss Temple – to get married – prompts her to advertise for a position as governess. Thus finally, after over one hundred pages of preamble, we get to the main seat of the story, Thornfield Hall, and the brooding presence of its lord and master, Edward Fairfax Rochester.

How anyone could be attracted to Mr Rochester is a mystery to me. Jane knows almost from the outset of her dealings with him that he has a past. He himself tells her of a dalliance with the French actress Céline Varens, through whose machinations he has the charge of a ward in the shape of Adéle, for whose benefit Jane has been engaged as governess. He plays games with Jane – and, to be fair, with his aristocratic confrères – dressing up as a gypsy fortune teller to beguile them all and further his own designs, but also verbally. Moreover, he crucially conspires to keep the identity of the secret occupant of the attic unknown to Jane, allowing her to believe it is an attendant, Grace Poole. And is it a form of cruelty that sees Jane lodged in a room directly below that occupant? OK, he’s been dealt a stacked hand and trying to make the best of it but he is still trying to take advantage of a relative innocent. Even when his perfidy is revealed to her at the altar just before he’s about to contract a bigamous marriage with her she continues to think well of him. It is a fact of history, though, that such men are usually able to get away with it.

Still, Jane’s virtue will not see her become Rochester’s mistress. She flees Thornfield, and, penniless, stumbles into a village where no-one extends a helping hand. She is about to expire on his doorstep when St John Rivers hears her invoking God and brings her indoors to be looked after by his sisters and maidservant. Rivers is a strict religious man intent on becoming a missionary and creates a teaching post for her in the village. Religion may have been prominent in Victorian life but even so its presence here is an indicator that Brontë was brought up in a parsonage. Despite protestations on its first publication of its lack of piety, even of anti-religious content, religious discourse and allusion perfuse the novel, its resolution depends on Rivers’s vocation, and Jane’s different understanding of it.

It is in these closing stages of the book, though, that events begin to stretch credulity – even beyond a bigamous marriage being thwarted at the altar by the revelation of a previous wife who is still alive. Not many of us in extremis would expect to end up by chance in the household of a long-lost set of cousins nor to be the beneficiary of a bountiful bequest. Then off-stage events at Thornfield Hall enable what we are presumably to infer is a happy ending, though that Jane now has the advantage of Rochester does not speak entirely well of her. And it wasn’t at all happy for the incarcerated wife that had to die to allow it.

There are, too, other irritating aspects of the writing. Brontë has that unfortunate habit of designating places and periodicals with part names, _______shire, The ________ Herald. Why this coyness? Either spell them out properly or invent fictitious names for them. It’s a novelist’s job to make things up.

Love and death are perennial in the novel (any sex here, however, is strictly not to be mentioned.) However, time, and changing habits, have partially obscured the merits of a book like Jane Eyre. Novels nowadays tend to be less discursive. To modern eyes Jane Eyre is overwritten, even at places overwrought. It will always have an audience though.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; Helen Burns’ (Burns’s,) Dickens’ (Dickens’s,) Jean Rhys’ (Rhys’s.) Otherwise; there are various Victorian spellings – pannels (but, later, panels,) doat, blent, canvass, trode (trod,) secresy, dulness, etc, the correct ‘by-the-by’ swaps with ‘by-the bye’ at times. Then we have, “the Miss Reeds” (the Misses Reed,) also Miss Wilsons (Misses Wilson; I note that later on we have the two Misses Eshton,) Madame Jouberts (Mesdames Joubert,) bounp (bound, the p is actually an upside-down d so definitely a typesetting error.) “‘His elaer brother?’” (elder A transcription error in the typesetting?) “TheApollo Belvidree” (The Apollo Belvedere,) inammorata (inamorata,) stupefied (stupefied,) “the rest of the party were occupied” (the rest of the party was occupied,) “for the company were gathered” (the company was gathered,) “his gripe was painful” (his grip,) “had belonged to the Rivers’” (to the Riverses,) “Mr Rivers’ pointer” (Rivers’s.)

Interzone 280, Mar-Apr 2019

TTA Press, 96 p

In the Editorial Shauna O’Meara describes the genesis of her story in this issue in her practice as a vet, seeing the close bond between owners and their animals. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupteda muses on the influence of science and most latterly psychology on literature and SF and wonders what effect the development of neuroscience will have on the stories we tell ourselves. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Stories (Books That Smile Back) reflects the endless fascination some people have with books and their rewards. In Book Zone, again relegated to after the film reviews, I say of Helen Coggan’s The Orphanage of Gods that she writes well, with an eye for character and plot, Duncan Lunanb finds quality in the stories in game spin-off The True History of the Strange Brigade edited by David Thomas Moore, but arguing from the first page with The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman before eventually finding the author in complete control (though his final paragraph suggests to me the author is not entirely playing fair,) Lawrence Osbornc welcomes the fifth “Invisible Library” book, The Mortal World by Genevieve Cogman, “a detective story that actually works within the parameters set by its fantasy context,” Tim Major is impressed by Helen Marshall’s “eagerly awaited” first novel The Migration,like a parable offering moral guidance, Stephen Theaker thought M T Hill’s Zero Bomb very good indeed despite it switching protagonist halfway through, Val Noland tells us Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds succeeds by threading a tonal and thematic discourse between the two extremes of bleakness and optimism exemplified in the author’s previous work and offers a series of satisfying steps on the main characters’ journeys, Maureen Kincaid Speller praises the subtlety and nuance – unusual in a tale of interstellar goings-on – of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine and commends this first novel, Ian Sales finds it a sad state of affairs that Mimi Yu’s The Girl King having two female leads is worthy of note but that the tale is nevertheless an opportunity missed, Andy Hedgecocke lauds the invention, narrative energy and linguistic exuberance of the stories in The Clockworm and other strange stories by Karen Heuler but that there is an emotional flatness at their core.
In the fiction: Cyberstar1 by Val Nolan is narrated by a man whose body is transformed by a religious cult into a cyborg spacecraft in order for him to get close to God in the form of the Sun.
A survivor of a group of humans who were altered to sing in a way that would defeat the bots taking over the world is the viewpoint character of And You Shall Sing to me a Deeper Song by Maria Haskins.
Coriander for the Hidden2 by Nicholas Kaufmann examines the crisis of conscience suffered by Suriel, the angel designated to kill the firstborn of Egypt. This story may be theologically a bit iffy as I believe Judaism has no concept of an afterlife such as the one implied here.
In Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again3 by Sarah Brooks, people’s souls turn into black butterflies, which push themselves out of the body after death.
That Shauna O’Meara story, ‘Scapes Made Diamond4, turns on the desire of a kind of farmed alien animal, which nevertheless has intelligence, to achieve its goals; all mixed in with a human tale of love and sacrifice.

Pedant’s corner:- afocussed (focused; similarly focusses = focuses,) “the period immediately World War II” (the period immediately after World War II,) floatation tanks (flotation.) b“None of them are” (None of them is.) c “This is the fifth volume the very enjoyable” (of the very enjoyable,) Borges’ (Borges’s,) 1930s’ (1930s,) “a number … are being held hostage” (a number is singular,) d“no one is whom they seem to be” (while I welcome the use of whom in its context, the verb ‘to be’ does not take an object; therefore, ‘no one is who they seem to be,) “the work of an author enjoying their material” (Reynolds is male, ‘enjoying his material’.) efocussed (focused,) “critique of humanities tendency” (humanity’s.)
1“of the solar system’s brightest stars” (last I heard the solar system had only one star,) “the populace on Mars were forced to endure” (the populace on Mars was forced to endure,) “off of” (I hate this USianism. It’s just “off”.) < sup>2Written in USian, “None of them were” (None of them was,) “none of the other angels understand the language of flowers” (none … understands the language.) 3“but the pile of black flakes on the chopping board untouched” (is untouched.) 4“the form laying on” (lying on,) clear (I think ‘colourless’ was meant rather than ‘transparent’,) “… would stay close to our charge, stroking them, calming them…” (to our charges,) Bassinos’ (Bassinos’s,) staunching (stanching,) “our species’ vocabulary” (it was ‘species’ singular; so ‘species’s’.)

The Joke by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1998, 327 p including 5 p Author’s Note. Translated by Michael Henry Heim, the author himself, and Aaron Asher from the Czech Žert, originally published by Československỳ Spisovatel, 1967.

 The Joke cover

Kundera’s first novel endured a peculiar journey- outlined in the Author’s Note – to get to this publication, the fifth English language version of the novel. Kundera was unsatisfied with all previous renderings of The Joke as they contained altered syntax, different divisions, reconstructions, shortenings or omissions. He says he, “once left a publisher for the sole reason that he tried to change my semi-colons for periods,” but promises us, since he more or less undertook it himself, this will be the last translation.

The novel is a depiction of Czech life in the early to middle period of Soviet influence in the country. Main protagonist Ludvik Jahn provides the viewpoint for the odd numbered Parts – Part Two is narrated by a woman named Helena, Part Four by a man called Jaroslav, Part Five by another, Kostka, and Part Seven by Ludvik, Jaroslav and Helena in separate but intermixed sections.

Told from the perspective of a return to Ludvik’s home town in mid-life, we see the incidents influencing Ludvik’s circumstances from his time as a university student and part-time clarinet player in a cimbalom band, when he was a committed Communist. His life began to unravel when to impress a woman called Marketa he unwisely set down on a postcard the thought, “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” signed, and then sent it. When he was brought before a disciplinary hearing for this transgression, every member of his class voted for him to be punished. Despite his protestations that his action was a joke he was sent to a special Army unit, in effect a punishment battalion, not for training with weapons but set to work in mines. In what free time he was allowed Ludvik struck up a friendship with Lucie, but her reluctance to have sex with him (for which we later learn she had a very good reason,) made the relationship end badly.

Ludvik’s experiences are later given perspective by the thought, “no great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm and mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes all it touches.” So, too, is the sheer impossibility of proving yourself innocent in a world that sees evidence of guilt even in denial of the charge, still more in any efforts to prove loyalty.

Within the details of Ludvik’s life and embittered attempts at petty revenge Kundera finds time to touch on the importance of folk culture and traditions to a nation’s sense of itself. “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Czech nation almost ceased to exist. In the nineteenth century it was virtually reborn. Among the old European nations it was a child. True, it also had its own great past, but it was cut off from that past by a gap of two hundred years, when the Czech language retreated to the countryside, the exclusive property of the illiterate. But even in their midst it never ceased to create its own culture. A modest culture, completely hidden from the eyes of Europe. A culture of songs, fairy tales, ancient rites and customs, proverbs and sayings. The only narrow footbridge across a two-hundred-year gap….. The only fragile stem of an unbroken tradition. That is why the men who at the turn of the nineteenth century began to create a new Czech literature and music grafted them onto this stem…. why the first Czech poets and musicians spent so much time collecting tales and songs.”

Kundera goes on to argue that stripping away the veils of Czech music culture reveals the residue of the Great Moravian Empire, whose borders were swept away a thousand years ago, yet its legacy remains imprinted today in the most ancient stratum of folk songs. “The folk song or folk rite is a tunnel beneath history, a tunnel that reserves much of what wars, revolutions, civilization have long since destroyed aboveground,” even preserving classical antiquity for us.

When the state sanctions this culture though, it loses force. “The fact that something like folk music was on the radio constantly should not delude us.” What they play, “is more like opera or operetta, or light music…. A folk instrument band with a conductor, a score, and music stands! What bastardization! … Real folk art is dead.” And it can be abused in other ways. “Drunkards are the most loyal supporters of folk festivals. Once in a while, at least, they have a noble pretext for taking a drink.”

Translated fiction is arguably a necessary endeavour, revealing to others aspects of the world and thought systems of which they otherwise would not be fully aware, a reminder that the ability to read widely – and without restriction – is a blessing.

Consider the alternative. “We lived in a devastated world; and because we did not know how to commiserate with the devastated things, we turned away from them and so injured them, and ourselves as well.”

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian. Otherwise; repertory (repertoire,) “a slipshod permanent crumpling her hair” (ie, permanent wave; the British usage is perm,) aboveground (above ground,) “‘your not a woman who’” (you’re,) the opening quotation mark (deliberately) missing when a chapter begins with dialogue, Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “head bowed bowed” (only one “bowed” needed,) Mathias’ (Mathias’s.) “There are a number of hypotheses” (there is a number of.) “A group of people were walking after it” (a group of people was walking.)

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