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There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union by Reginald Hill

Harper, 2009, 363 p.

This is not my normal reading fare but the good lady knew I’d recently read Jane Austen’s Emma and wondered how I’d react to this author’s take on the characters from that book. Hill is the creator of the detective duo Dalziel and Pascoe about whom he has written twenty-four books. This is a collection of his shorter works and was originally published in 1987. That “Featuring Dalziel and Pascoe” is emblazoned on the front cover is a bit of a cheek. Only one of the six stories here does so and that tangentially at best. Also irritating is that all the story titles are rendered entirely in lower case.

there are no ghosts in the soviet union is a detective tale featuring Inspector Lev Chislenko. (I admit that my first thought with that name was of the famous Igor who played for Dynamo. Being questioned whether he is related to that footballer becomes a running joke through the piece.) Chislenko has been called in to resolve the case of a man being pushed into a lift and immediately falling through the floor, which remains as solid as it always was and there is no trace of him at the foot of the shaft. The obvious explanation is that the man was a ghost. Consequently ideological considerations beset Chislenko. “There are no ghosts in the Soviet Union,” is apparently the set-up line to a Soviet joke but also an assertion that he must find a way to uphold. The story is obviously intended as a satire on the Soviet Union – or at least on how Hill imagined the Soviet Union to be – but is equally applicable to any authoritarian regime anywhere. The resolution depends on Chislenko’s delving into the lift’s origins. It was manufactured in Chemnitz (renamed Karl-Marx Stadt after World War 2) in the 1920s and installed in a now demolished building elsewhere before being re-used in a money skimming scam. His investigations also bring him into dangerous contact with powerful figures in Soviet circles.

In bring back the cat! Joe Sixsmith is a balding West Indian (with a balding jacket) who has just begun his career as a private detective. He is called in by a Mrs Ellison to find her cat which has been missing for three weeks. In the course of his investigations all over one afternoon, he uncovers various family secrets and solves another case entirely, thus making his name. There’s an overt consciousness of racism to some of the exchanges. (Sixsmith was later to become the protagonist of another series of Hill’s books.)

the bull ring is set in the British military training camp at Étaples during the Great War. One of the instructors is excessively harsh on recruit Harry. For Harry’s own good he would say; but Harry doesn’t see it that way.

Dalziel and Pascoe do not appear as such in auteur theory. It is the actors who are playing them on a film set who do. The one playing Pascoe has long been on the way down as an actor and is now saddled with a tyro leading lady who is the director’s new wife. It also includes the bearded writer of the novel which is being filmed (we are, I suppose, meant to assume Hill is writing about himself,) who is becoming more and more annoyed at changes to the script. The story starts with a warning injunction, Nothing in this story is what it seems. You should remember that. The metafictional games in it do not lift it above the category ‘diverting’.

poor emma takes up twenty or so years after Jane Austen left off her tale of Emma Woodhouse and her misguided attempts at match-making. The intervening years have not been kind, though Mr Woodhouse continues, like a creaky gate, to, as we Scots say, “hing lang”. Mr Weston has died and his widow, in a sentence carved from early nineteenth century attitudes and would-be Austen impersonation “eventually declined into religion, to such an extent that it came as no surprise, though an incalculable shock to most decent people, when she embraced the doctrines of Rome.” Mr Knightley has neglected his affairs, indulging himself as a bon vivant and taken up a seat in Parliament (which allows him various other indulgences.) His brother John has lost the confidence of his legal clients and now runs Donwell Abbey on George’s behalf. The conflict comes from the wishes of both to protect that inheritance. All the main characters from Emma reappear, save Jane Fairfax, except for mention of her death. Her husband Mr Frank Churchill is involved in the dénouement. The Mr Knightley shown here is far removed from the one Austen portrayed and so too is Emma herself as she indulges in an action which that younger self would surely never have contemplated but which does have the effect of giving the tale a condign ending.

crowded hour concerns the invasion into her home by two armed men of a woman whose husband is somewhat obscurely rich and has absences from home. It begins, “At twelve noon there were three people in that house. By the time the clock struck one, two of them would be dead and the life of the third would have changed for ever.” The story lies in the journey that beginning implies.

Pedant’s corner:- “led him out in to” (into,) humourously (humorously,) “‘How’s you mother?’” (your,) smidgeon (smidgin; or, smidgen,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “his legal practise” (the noun is practice, as used later, I note,) “a codicillary convenant” (covenant, surely?) “had showed” (this may have been an attempt at Austenism; ‘had shown’.)

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J L Carr

The Quince Tree Press, 129 p. First published in 1975 but this edition is from 1992 as it has a cyclostyled letter from the author on page 1, signed J L Carr, 1992. The book’s Wiki page tells us that The Quince Tree Press is the author’s own imprint.

This is, of course, a fantasy. A mere glance at the title tells you that. That a village team would win the FA Cup could not have happened at the time it was written and certainly could not happen now. But that is, I suppose, still the abiding dream of any small club and its supporters, that a “mob of milkmen, farmers, the parson and a job lot of pitmen” could match “Big Business whose performers cost the Mint.” Yet, despite protestations in Part One that this novel is about football, it really isn’t. There are few descriptions of games and those are fairly cursory. What it is about is the dynamics of village life and the triumph of hope over expectation. And how fleeting it all is. I suppose it might be termed a comic novel though there isn’t anything laugh out loud in it.

The text is a curious mixture of the personal recollections of Steeple Sinderby Wanderers committee member Joe Gidner, minutes of committee meetings, absurdly purple-prosed local newspaper accounts of matches penned by Ginchy Trigger “who did funerals, inquests, weddings, council meetings and all sport” for the East Barset Weekly Messenger and even an excerpt from Hansard. There are also six black and white illustrations, a prefatory one of the author’s football team when he played for South Milford White Rose for one season as an eighteen year-old, 4 postcards displaying Steeple Sinderby landmarks, one (uncaptioned) photograph of a woman – perhaps Ginchy Trigger – and one sketch of the Fangfoss household.

Mr Arthur Fangfoss is Chairman of the Wanderers because he was chairman of everything in Steeple Sinderby. He has an unusual household arrangement, living with his wife and her sister, whose roles are commonly held to be reversed. The team has two ex-professionals, Alex Slingsby, retired from football to look after his wife after she suffered a catastrophic accident and Sid Swift, a one-season goalscoring wonder who overnight lost all confidence in his purpose in life but has been restored to vitality by the vicar’s formidable proselytising sister Biddy. The team’s playing philosophy is a bit like total football but underscored by local Hungarian refugee from the Nazis, Dr Kossuth, and his Seven Postulations (though I only recall six being written down here) – produced after watching a couple of Wanderers games and one at Leicester City. Principally these are: have a good goalkeeper, everyone except the goalie must contribute to all aspects of the game, make the most of home advantage (Wanderers adopt a highly sloping patch of ground for the new season) but when away make yourself feel at home and the opposition feel away, and avoid high balls for the most part as professionals control headers much better than amateurs.

When the decision to enter the FA Cup is made one committee member says, incidentally highlighting the fantasy inherent in the author’s conceit, how hard it will be to progress, “‘particularly this year, when the top Scottish clubs are coming in for the first time.’” There is a historical inaccuracy here (perhaps Carr’s oversight): some Scottish clubs played in the FA Cup in its early days in the nineteenth century.

Despite using the dread word “soccer” (but then, he was English) Carr does appear to know his football, “by and large, football supporters are not creatures of intellect but of emotion.” The home crowd at Tambling, “bellowed disbelief at incompetence, cried scornfully to the grey heavens in god-like despair, clamoured angrily for revenge.” That is a football crowd for you. “For 20p. they did all this and were not called to account.” Well, they think that if they’ve paid to watch, it’s their right to dish out abuse. (But 20p! Time has flown – and prices flown even higher.)

Carr also has part narrator Gidner assert that, “Since all Anglicans know theirs is the true faith, they don’t go around stuffing it down other people’s throats.” (Try telling that to folk in the former colonies.) About village life he says, “in rural England, people live wrapped in a tight cocoon” communicating “as their fathers did by a flick of the eyeballs, passing down grudges either improved upon or, at very least, in mint condition from generation to generation.”

The Cup Final was in the old English tradition – “Abide with me” and all – despite Steeple Sinderby’s opponents being Glasgow Rangers. (The singing of religious songs at games involving Scottish clubs has never been the custom – for obvious reasons. Surely Carr cannot have been unaware of this state of affairs?)

I don’t suppose this can be counted as great literature but it is entertaining and likely to be so both for those who like football and those who don’t.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “Antarex skirt and trench coat” (Antartex?) crutch (crotch,) elegaic (elegiac,) Tokio (Tokyo,) “McBain shipping line” (the real one is MacBrayne’s,) “I was stood there” (standing.)

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2019, 363 p.

The title on the cover of this is preceded by the words “A Jackson Brodie novel.” After her initial success with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, followed by two less well received novels (one of which I reviewed here) Atkinson went on to write four novels featuring her private detective of that name. She then embarked on technically accomplished (and more ambitious) novels dealing with the fallout from World War 2 in A God in Ruins, Life After Life and Transcription.

The action here revolves around towns on the Yorkshire coast in the area of Whitby and Scarborough, the hangover from the activities of two since-jailed local child abuse abetters called Bassani and Carmody, and the present-day sex-trafficking partnership of a group of golfing friends.

Oh, and there’s a murder. That, though, is resolved off-stage and does not impinge much on proceedings.

Big Sky has at least ten viewpoint characters and its chapters tend to be short – sometimes with very short sections within them from some of those different viewpoints. All this conspires to make the experience of reading Big Sky bitty.

There was something about the writing here that I found a little off. A misjudgement of tone, (female detectives named Ronnie Dubicki and Reggie Chase. Detectives called Ronnie and Reggie. Seriously?) unnecessary repetitions of phrases – though perhaps some of this was to imply Vince Ives was protesting too much – and intersecting timelines which were not well handled so that we saw the same scene’s events repeated very soon after their first appearance but with very little difference in the reader’s sense of what had occurred. Combined with the occasional descent into cliché this gave the impression, to this one anyway, that Atkinson was writing down to her readers.

This is no A God in Ruins nor a Life After Life, nor a Transcription even, but perhaps after her achievements in those books Atkinson needed a rest – or to have some fun. She overdid it though.

Pedant’s corner:- On a visit to a museum Brodie tells his son Captain Cook was the ‘first man to sail around the world.’ (No. That would be members of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition [Magellan himself did not survive the journey.]) Croyden (Croydon?) “she had strived hard” (striven,) “he’d compèred Saturday Night at the London Palladium (Sunday Night surely?) “It was a raucous lot that were in tonight” (that was in,) crack cocaine is implied to have been a drug widespread in the 1970s, (it wasn’t till the 80s) focussing (focusing.) “None of them were” (none of them was,) Mellors’ (several times, Mellors’s,) “his act finished on such a crescendo” (such a climax.) The remains of a handsome sunset was still staining the sky” (the remains … were still staining,) a missing full stop. “With his luck he would bob around till the lifeboat found him or a stray fishing vessel” (has its syntax awry; why would a lifeboat find a stray fishing vessel? Try instead, ‘till the lifeboat or a stray fishing vessel found him’,) staunch (stanch,) focussed (focused,) “the news’ afterburn” (the news’s,) staunched (stanched,) “where a cluster of bridesmaids … were waiting for them” (where a cluster …. was waiting.)

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape, 2017, 376 p.

This book, as its title tells us, is about a house. Not merely the building where the family Golden lived once they came to the USA, but, too, the dynasty its inhabitants comprised. The title is also the name of the (scripted) documentary of the lives of those denizens of the Golden House which takes our narrator, René Unterlinden – obsessed with films, seemingly forever making reference to (among other things) scenes from movies he has watched – over ten years to complete. As a narrator he has some intermittent habits to do with this obsession, framing more than a few scenes in the book as if they were script extracts and sometimes ending a section with the same word.

Cut.

The eponymous house lies on Macdougal Street a little below Bleecker, with access to The Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District, a green space with fond memories for René as his now deceased parents also had a house there and access to the Gardens in the combined rear yards. The Golden house itself is owned by Nero Golden who adopted his first name after the last of the Julian emperors of Rome and his sons think of themselves as Julii. “‘In my American house,” he told them after they came to live in New York, “morality will go by the golden standard,’” without specifying exactly what he meant by that. As well as the father those sons have also been given Roman names, Petronius, Apuleius and Dionysus, but are known as Petya, Apu and Di. They all try to keep their origins hidden. If they were asked where they came from Nero instructed them to say, “Tell them we are make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters, which is to say, Americans.” While they are intensely secretive as regards family affairs Petronius does drop his guard at one point to quote Edwin* Leach’s variation on Tolstoy, “The family with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets is the source of all our discontents.”

Aside – *Edwin is how I transcribed the name from the text but it seems Leach’s first name was Edmund.

Nero has two female attendants/fixers called Fuss and Blather. Another of the characters is named Frankie Sottovoce. Quite what point Rushdie is trying to make with this linguistic playfulness is a touch obscure. It is one of his hallmarks though. So too is digression, which in this book is burdened with more than a slice of over-elaboration.

It is when Nero encounters one Vasilisa Anayevna at a New Year party that the plot motors begin to drive up, dancing with him in a manner which indicates that she will never henceforth let him out of her clutches. René imagines Nero telling her, “My money for your beauty. Shake hands on that.” She moves into the Golden House with a pre-nup specifying no children but slowly works her wiles on Nero. The end result many years later is a child, Vespasian, whose name is a true expression of how the dynasty will pan out. René muses on his own behalf as well as of others’, “The motivations of desire are obscure even to the desirous, the desiring, and the desired…… And so without full knowledge of the why and wherefore, we inflict mortal wounds on those we love.”

The golden (ahem) era in which the book starts is soon overshadowed by political events in the wider USA where the beliefs that ‘now the only person lying to you is the expert who actually knows something. He’s the one not to believe because he’s the elite and the elites are against the people, they will do the people down. To know the truth is to be elite,” as his girlfriend Suchitra tells René are increasingly widespread. About the adherents of the Presidential candidate René calls the Joker, and who amplifies those attitudes René says, “In that bubble, gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American,” with a subsequent rant about all the orange-faced candidate’s failures somehow proving he was really a success, all his expressions of contempt for others proof of his compassion, how his world was a reversal, “In that bubble knowledge was ignorance, up was down, … lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny, and bullying was funny, and the date was, or almost was, or might soon be, if the jokes worked out as they should, nineteen eighty-four.”

It must be said here that surely Rushdie is preaching to the converted? I doubt anyone likely to read this book will disagree with the criticisms inherent in these passages and those who do disagree with them will not ever be reading the book. But René’s conclusion that “The human race was savage not moral” is at best only partially true. “America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero. Turns out it was a supervillain,” is, again, a neat syllogism but not yet entirely beyond question. Rushdie’s asseveration through René that “all writers are thieves” may perhaps have been inserted to defray criticism of his many deployments of incidents from films.

The Golden House of course deals with those eternal matters of love, sex and death, in the end reasonably effectively, but it comes on them by twisted and circuitous paths. The book is longer than it needs to be and too much – especially the backstory of Nero’s former existence in his ancestral homeland – is told not shown. His has always been an exuberant mode of expression but is hard to resist the thought that Rushdie here is too much in love with his wordplay and referential ways, that, like a fair few other authors, he has perhaps become too big – or too precious – to edit.

I note finally that Rushdie took pains to render the plural of puss (as in cat) as ‘pusses’ but there is really only one way to end this review.

Cut.

Pedant’s corner:- whiskey (whisky – it’s a British edition ffs,) “in spite of the repressible fact that Jefferson had owned slaves” (in context ‘reprehensible’ makes more sense but it was within a polemic about an aspect of the cuture wars so Rushdie may indeed have meant repressible,) Sophocles’ (x 2, Sophocles’s – in the text some names ending in ‘s’ are given ‘s’s’ as their possessive, others aren’t) “Ubah means ‘flower’ or ‘blossom’ in Somali” (no it doesn’t. In Somali it means ubah. In English it means ‘flower’ or ‘blossom’,) “New Year’s is for dancing” (now just eff off. It’s ‘New Year’; no apostrophe ‘s’,) Achilles’ (Achilles’s,) overdraught (overdraft,) Aeschylus’ (Aeschylus’s,) a sentence that was a question ended with no question mark, Odysseus’ (Odysseus’s,) “nor of fiction, neither” (the negative has already been expressed in the ‘nor’, so; ‘nor of fiction, either’.)

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Chatto & Windus, 2019, 453 p.

All religions are conspiracies against women. Theocracies even more so. Atwood’s conception of her repressive society of Gilead (in The Handmaid’s Tale and here) was not, I suspect, designed to illustrate that point in particular – rather than to suggest that advances in social arrangements can be reversed, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – but nevertheless does so. The source book/“sacred” text of the relevant conspiracy may not even contain the words used to justify women’s subjection by those of that bent. They instead tend to pick out the bits that suit them or else distort its contents. That point is made here when one of the narrators is warned about the Bible that, “It doesn’t say what they say it does.”

I can’t actually remember much about the text of The Handmaid’s Tale (to which this is a companion rather than a sequel) beyond the theocratic authoritarianism and the sexual exploitation, except that the book didn’t have a firm resolution – it just ended.

The Testaments is different in that it is not just one recollection of life in Gilead but three, and we see the seeds of Gilead’s downfall being sown. One of the narrators is Agnes Jemima (in a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369A supposedly collected by the Mayday Resistance movement,) a daughter of Gilead, for which read the daughter of a handmaiden but legally of her Commander “father,” Kyle, and his wife Tabitha. Tabitha looked after Agnes’s interests but died and Commander Kyle took a new wife, Paula, who most emphatically did not. The first account we read, though, is from “The Ardua Hall Holograph” a manuscript found hidden in a book of Cardinal Newman’s writings. It was from the library of Ardua Hall, the headquarters of the Aunts who oversaw the lives of the women of Gilead. One of their functions was to keep track of the genetic heritage of Gilead’s children as so many’s may not have been what was generally thought. Uniquely among the women of Gilead, Aunts were allowed books. The Holograph was written by Aunt Lydia – whom we are to assume is the same Lydia described by Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. Lydia knew where the regime’s secrets were buried and had a tacit agreement with Commander Judd, one of the prime movers of Gilead, that she should have a free hand in organising women’s lives in return for useful information. But pre-Gilead she had been a judge; in the Holograph she remembers her earlier life and the humiliations borne when that was blown apart and is only biding her time to expose all Gilead’s hypocrisies. The third strand (a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369B) is the story of a girl brought up in Toronto by a couple who ran a second-hand clothes business but were active in the Underground Femaleroad which spirited refugees away from Gilead and whom she felt were overly protective of her. (Minor spoiler next.) Frequent early mentions of Baby Nicole, a cause célèbre both in Gilead and Canada, a poster-child who was taken from her “parents” in Gilead and for whose return its government actively campaigned and whose Pearl Girls, sent out to convert Canadians to the Gilead way of life, were constantly on the lookout for, provide heavy hints as to her identity. Atwood intersperses the three testimonies expertly, though the connection between Agnes and Jade/Nicole feels a bit too pat. That though is justified by the book’s coda which, like the similar addendum to The Handmaid’s Tale, is formed of notes from a symposium on Gilead Studies, here the Thirteenth, held at Passamaquoddy (formerly Bangor,) Maine, in 2197.

In the Holograph Aunt Lydia tells us of her secret cache of proscribed books, which includes Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Paradise Lost and Lives of Girls and Women, but also that “Knowledge is power, especially discreditable knowledge. I am not the first person to have recognised this, or to have capitalised on it when possible: every intelligence agency in the world has always known it.” The Holograph incidentally illustrates the jealousies and rivalries of a closed order and the intricacies of power relationships while Lydia’s acidity is shown by her inclusion in a list of “hoary chetsnuts” the aphorism that “Time wounds all heels.” In a neat touch by Atwood the meeting/eating place at Ardua Hall (whose slippery motto is Per Ardua Cum Estrus) is called the Schlafly Café.

Moments of horror in The Testaments are rare. There are mentions of Particicution, where convicts are torn to pieces by handmaids (a seemingly eagerly grabbed outlet for their justifiable anger,) but the descriptions tend to avoid detail. The experiences of Agnes and her friend Becca herself at the hands of Becca’s dentist father (with Becca it was more than hands) exemplify that an obsession with controlling sex, far from making it go away, (though those in control of course make sure they get more than their share,) only serves to emphasise its centrality to human experience, perhaps even accentuate sexuality’s unsavoury extremities.

As to the prohibition on women (except the Aunts) reading, Agnes in her spell at Ardua Hall gets to the heart of the matter, “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to questions, and then to others.” In a theocracy, in any dictatorship, questions are to be avoided

Perhaps it was familiarity with the recent TV adaptation of the earlier book or the wider world demonstration that such a society is a likely goal for those who somehow feel the presence of women in the public sphere in some way disadvantages them The Testaments seemed a better structured, more rounded book than my memory of The Handmaid’s Tale. The three narrators are convincing, though Jade/Nicole doesn’t quite seem to realise the seriousness of the perils inside Gilead and Atwwod’s insights into human behaviour under stress are acute.

Pedant’s corner:- tête-a-têtes (strictly têtes-a-têtes, or even têtes-a-tête,) a missing comma at the end of a piece iof dialogue where the sentence continued after it.

Landscape Painted with Tea by Milorad Pavić

Penguin, 1992, 343 p. Translated from the Serbo-Croatian Predeo slikan cajem (Prosveta, Belgrade, 1988) by Christina Pribićević-Zorić.

It is all but impossible to imagine a book like this being written by an anglophone author – not even those of African or Asian heritage. Experimental works are not unknown to the anglophone tradition but I would submit there is nothing to match this. At times it bears a similarity to magical realism – odd things happen and the bodies of some of its characters are subject to even odder anatomical configurations – but it manages to transcend even that. It is all but unsummarisable.

The novel as a whole is separated unevenly into two Books of which the shorter, Book One, A Little Night Novel (whose final passage is rendered entirely in German,) has each of its chapters prefaced by a passage printed in italics relating the history of a group of monks who wind up in the Monastery of Chilandar and are themselves divided into two groups, solidaries (otherwise called cenobites,) and solitaries (aka idiorrhythmics.) More or less failed architect Atanas Svilar (aka Atanas Razin – his origins, like those of many others here, are complicated,) travels to the monastery to try to find out what happened to his father who had fled there to avoid the Germans’ attentions during World War II. Svilar’s beliefs about himself changed by his trip, he takes a new (though old) name, plus his childhood sweetheart, Vitacha Milut, from her husband and daughters and goes to the US where he achieves fame and fortune as a pharmaceutical magnate.

This bears only a prefatory relation to Book Two, A Novel for Crossword Fans, where the monks and the monastery are forgotten but which still follows Svilar, though it focuses more heavily on his wife, and which is decidedly bizarre. This has four Sections of varying lengths denoted 1 ACROSS, 2 ACROSS, 3 ACROSS, 4 ACROSS containing chapters headed 2 DOWN, 1 DOWN, 5 DOWN, █ DOWN, 4 DOWN, 6 DOWN etc. In other words, crossword clues. (The █ DOWN chapters are apparently necessary to the whole book to bind it together, since without them, as in an actual crossword, the crossed words will fly apart.) But instructions on how to actually read this assortment, this new way of reading a book, are only given on pages 187-190, which is to say 88 pages after Book Two begins and so are, for all practical purposes, useless as the reader (unless forewarned) will have already read up to that point linearly. This same chapter at the last informs us that, “All readers of this book are entirely imaginary. Any resemblance to actual readers is coincidental.” Take that fiction fans.

Then, at the whole book’s end, there is an index containing all the words required for the solution but, as in all indexes, it is in alphabetical order and so requires further elucidation. This index is followed by two lined pages for the reader to write in for him- or herself the denouement of the novel or the solution to the crossword, and finally, printed upside down, we have the solution itself.

Not a straightforward read then, but for puzzle solvers an intriguing prospect. But what’s it all got to do with landscape painted with tea?

Svilar had a set of notebooks comtaining details about dwellings, residences, houses and summer houses lived in, worked in or visited by Josip Broz Tito, general secretary of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, and whose covers were landscapes painted with tints from different types of Camelia sinensis – tea – showing those various buildings and their surroundings.

Throughout we are treated to incident upon incident of a magical realist bent, oddness upon oddness, plus addresses to the reader, but are also supplied with plentiful aphorisms such as, “‘All sexual acts are in some way connected, in some way they interact,” attributed to Svilar, as is, “‘All births are similar, and every death is different,’” which is yet another of those attempts common in literature ever since to echo Tolstoy. “People who are afraid of life leave their families belatedly and reluctantly and are disinclined to start their own,” and “People who are afraid of death stay with their families briefly and go into the world quickly and easily, leaving one another,” are in a similar vein.

A few of Pavić’s sentences are beyond enigmatic, though, “Their road, as all roads, did the thinking for them even while it was empty,” “… only a bird on a branch can understand silence. Man cannot,” though one does reflect life in a country where thoughts have to be circumscribed, “after so many decades, when only the clocks still tell us the truth,” though “Time can harm the truth more than lies,” is more widely applicable. Some are singular, “No undelivered slap should ever be taken to the grave,” but, “October has never come as often as this year….” a saying in the Minut family, is repeated several times.

Then there are the metafictional comments, “Critics are like medical students: they always think a writer is suffering from the very disease they happen to be studying at the time,” … “a writer is like a tailor. Just as the latter, when tailoring a suit, covers up the shortcomings and defects of his customer, so the writer, when tailoring a book, has to cover up the defects and shortcomings of his reader.”

These defects in the reader do not put off Vitacha Milut. We are told, “And so Vitacha Milut, the heroine of this novel, fell in love with the reader of her book.” “‘The heroine of a novel in love with the reader!’” she herself writes. “‘When has that ever happened?’ you will say, and you will not be wrong,” with a few lines later, “ ….isn’t it all the same whether you first fall in love in a book or in life? ….. Why do you think that only you have a right to the book, but the book has no right to you?”

In a comment which could be designed by Pavić to defray criticism he has Atanas reply to the writer of his testimonial (ie part of this book,) “It’s not just one story that’s escaped me from your book, but several,” and adds, “Anyone who reads finds in books what cannot be found elsewhere, not what the writer shoved into the novel,” and goes on to say in effect that you can find any story in the text of a book if you look hard enough.

Sometimes a reader may wish not to have to look hard but the experience is usually better when that requirement is there. As the above all indicates, Landscape Painted with Tea may not be immediately accessible but it is a remarkable work and would certainly bear rereading.

Pedant’s corner:- bureaus (bureaux, please,) the Ukraine (Ukraine, no ‘the’,) “off of” (just ‘off’, no ‘of’ required,) Bosporus (usually Bosphorus,) Skoplje (Skopje.)

In Limbo by Christopher Evans

Granada, 1985, 286 p.

Along with four companions – only ever described as Riley, Treadwell, Sinnott and Wright – Mike Carpenter has been confined to Limbo, a soulless, windowless (the cover image is wrong in this respect) prison of sorts, where they are under constant surveillance. None of the five has any idea why they are being held in this way as, to their knowledge, they have not committed a crime. Under the more or less constant scrutiny of the guards/attendants their days are spent in PT exercises, games such as snooker or chess, reading newspapers and watching TV. The food is bland but not unwholesome (though at one point they suspect it is being adulterated by laxatives.) Occasionally they will be hauled before the person in charge, a man named Naughton, who will berate them for any misdemeanours they have committed. Some relief for Carpenter is provided by interviews with Dr Dempster, a female medic who looks after the inmates’ welfare. In the nature of such an unresolved existence a couple of the five try to form an escape committee but Carpenter sees this as futile. His reflections on the constrained life and his comparitive boredom lead to him trying to invent slogans for his companions but also one for himself, It doesn’t help.

The author’s history as a Science Fiction writer (his previous novels had been The Insider and Capella’s Golden Eyes and he went on to write Aztec Century and Mortal remains) might incline the reader to the view that the incarceration is part of a psychological experiment of some sort and that the experiences in Limbo are real. Against that the realistic tone of the narrative and the mundane nature of the confinement argues for something a bit less exotic. This is heightened by the slow morphing of the storyline into a recounting of Carpenter’s memories of his life before Limbo, memories which gradually begin to take up more of the narrative space. These deal with his drifting from school to University and then from job to job but more particularly with his relationships with the sexual interests in his life, from his unrequited passion for schoolmate Gail through his experiences with his women lovers, Veronica, Karen, Eleanor and Penny (not to mention one night spent with the enthusiastic Cicely,) all of which were unsatisfactory in one way or another. In this reading his four companions in Limbo may be aspects of Carpenter’s own personality.

It would be thoughtless of a reviewer to reveal which – if either – of these two possibilities is borne out but In Limbo is very well written. Evans has a flair for depicting character and circumstance and the novel’s resolution does follow the logic of what has gone before. I’ve read a lot worse. A lot worse.

Pedant’s corner:- “a fresh batch of magazines and periodicals were delivered” (a fresh batch … was delivered,) “the gate is strait” (straight?) “like Saul on the road to Tarsus, he would experience a blinding moment of revelation” (Saul came from Tarsus. His blinding moment was on the road to Damascus,) “that of Veronicas” (if that’s a possessive it should be ‘Veronica’s’, but it’s redundant; the phrase ought to be simply ‘that of Veronica’,) “Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle” (Heisenberg’s.) “At the interview he old the” (he told,) “eight gin and sodas” (grammatically ‘eight gins and sodas’ – or even ‘eight gins and soda’,) falderal (folderol,) “gin and tonics” (see ‘eight gin and sodas’,) “a newsagents” (newsagent’s.)

Emma by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1980, 442 p, plus i p Contents, i p Note on the Text, ii p Chronology of Jane Austen. First published 1816.

There are supposed to be only seven types of plot employed in works of fiction. This novel falls into the last category, rebirth, or less pithily, the getting of wisdom, which, taking into account Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, is something of an Austen theme.

Emma Woodhouse starts off the book cock-sure of herself and of her capacities and continues to be so for a long time. She has to her satisfaction just made the match of her governess Miss Taylor to the long-widowed Mr Weston, whereon she presumes to guide her low-born friend Harriet Smith (the “natural daughter of someone,”) in her marriage choices, pointing her away from Mr Martin’s proposal to the prospet of Mr Elton, whose admiration of her painting of Harriet Emma misconstrues. Only old family friend Mr Knightley, who has known Emma since she was born, ever casts doubt on her judgement and actions.

While only a microcosm of the Regency world (the book was dedicated to the Prince Regent) Emma’s cast is fairly wide; though – an incident with gypsies apart – resolutely avoids contemplating the lower orders and Emma’s consciousness of the gradations of social status is never far from the narrative.

The text bears the marks of its time when leisured reading was the norm. Unfortunately that means there are some tedious conversations about nothing very much and a few overlong monologues. I suppose these could be argued to be revealing of character but they certainly slow the pace.

Emma herself is a frustrating main viewpoint character and not really very likable. She right royally messes up Harriet’s affections, is insufferably rude to Miss Bates at a picnic and is blind to Frank Churchill’s subterfuge. (To be fair, though, just about everyone else in the book is also misled in his case.)

There were only two instances of what one might call Austenisms. The first, “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of,” certainly remains true of the latter circumstance. The second is not original to her, “Goldsmith tells us that when lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame.” Austen adds about Mrs Churchill’s death, “Mrs Churchill after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances.”

The familiarity of Austen’s novels via the innumerable instances of film and TV adaptations blurs and distances the text itself. The act of abridgement involved in adaptation narrows the scope for longueurs. Actors’ expressiveness can impart extra meaning. This may be why the book of Austen’s I liked best remains Northanger Abbey which she wrote as a spoof of the Gothic style of writing – a form now much less prevalent in the present day literary consciousness – and a book adapted to a much lesser extent.

Pedant’s corner:- the usual Austen spellings – stopt (though we also get ‘stopped’, wrapt (but there is a ‘wrapped’ later) dropt, chuse, extasies, doated, doating, doat, every body, any body, every where, foretel, your’s, her’s, our’s, hazle, recal, cellery, beet-root, Surry, fidgetiness, sopha, beaufet (buffet,) waving (waiving,) dulness, unexpensively, palateable, headach, scissars, Swisserland, secresy, plaister, ridicule (reticule.) Otherwise; quitted (quit,) “the Miss Martins” (the Misses Martin,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 4,) “could sometimes act an ungracious” (as ungracious,) drank (drunk,) “‘I could have born anything’” (borne,) “the Bates’s” (it was a plural; Bateses,) “the Miss Coxes” (the Misses Cox,) “had entirely born down the first” (borne down.) “It’s tendency” (Its,) “she waves her right of knowing” (waives,) Madame de Genlis’ (de Genlis’s.)

The Interpreter by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2016, 215 p. Translated from the Italian, L’interprete, by Judith Landry.

This is a very odd book indeed, though dealing, as it does, with language, it can be viewed as a kind of companion piece to Marani’s New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs. The narrator, Felix Bellamy, a Swiss national, is head of an interpretation department who becomes fascinated by one of his staff beginning to exhibit a peculiar kind of glossolalia, making sounds that are effectively unintelligible and which may be those of a primordial language which has long since been forgotten.

Curiously, Bellamy, parachuted into his supervisor’s job with vague promises of further promotion, is unsympathetic to translation, mistrusting his underlings as “circus performers, shifty, dishonest, quick-change artists, mental stuntmen.” Quite how Marani’s translator reacted to his outbursts against the profession is a question. These all may of course be a jest on Marani’s part but he has his narrator go on to tell us, “Languages are like toothbrushes: the only one you should put in your mouth is your own … it’s dangerous to let yourself be contaminated by the germs of another tongue … a foreign language injected into our mind brings with it the taint of unknown sounds, a vision of worlds that are incomprehensible to us – the lure of other truths and a devilish desire to know them.” It is that lure, though, that devilish desire, which makes reading translated fiction so interesting.

The interpreter disappears, leaving a list of names of cities, some of which have been ticked off. Bellamy’s wife leaves him (which may be connected with the interpreter’s disappearance) and he himself begins to suffer from the interpreter’s malaise and goes for treatment to a clinic run by a Dr Barnung. Barnung tells him French and German are similar in the way they view reality, but in essence are profoundly different. “Latin and Germanic languages have something in common … but they cannot mix. In Romanian, all that is rational about Rome, mingled with Mediterranean ebullience, becomes fused with Slav passion and melts into the yearning melancholy of the steppe. German is a bit like aspirin, it’s good for everything: it clarifies thought processes, stiffens resolve and makes feelings bare.” Felix soon perceives something is amiss at the clinic, leaves, and sets out to try to find the interpreter by visiting the cities as yet unticked on his list.

Then things get really weird. The text morphs into a species of thriller when Bellamy is targeted by operatives of Dr Barnung, but escapes. To survive he has to embark on a crime spree, robbing petrol stations, becoming known as ‘the Beast of Bukovina,’ taking up with Magda Kobori, a young woman whose car he stole, with her in it. They stravaig through the back roads of Romania like some sort of Balkan Bonnie and Clyde before Bellamy returns once more to tracking the interpreter.

I’m never sure if something like this is because of the opacities of translation or whether it’s a true indication of foreign sensibilities but, in common with other protagonists of fiction translated into English, Bellamy as a character here presents as incomplete, almost as a kind of absence, though his misanthropy shows in a passage where he reflects, “I was exposing myself to risk by mixing with insane deviants such as interpreters, people with slippery, unformed identities, in whose company sprinklings of the irrational are more likely to insinuate themselves and further crook humanity’s already crooked timber.” His actions are off-kilter, not quite reasonable, nor perhaps justifiable, though it is not impossible – highly likely even – that we are being given a portrait of a madman. Other languages apparently do that sort of thing to you.

The Interpreter was interesting enough but didn’t, for me, reach the same heights that New Finnish Grammar, The Last of the Vostyachs, or even Marani’s immediately preceding novel, God’s Dog, did.

Pedant’s corner:- “the presence of their austere forms in that house were so many pointers” (strictly, the presence … was,) “his voice rising to a crescendo” (sigh. The crescendo is the rise, not its climax,) focussing (focusing,) enthrall (enthral,) hung (hanged, but it was in a letter,) Voivodina (usually spelled Vojvodina,) no quote mark at start of one paragraph where a character’s speech was continued, swum (swam,) “roads which lead” (which led,) Janos’ (x2, Janos’s,) sunk (x3, sank,) “now I could scarcely breath” (breathe,) “I was born aloft” (borne aloft,) “here in Munch” (Munich,) shell-incrusted (shell-encrusted,) “with brass lamps hanging from brightly painted beams and gleaming door handles” (the lamps hung from door handles?) “a cluster of coloured balloons were swaying in the wind” (a cluster was swaying.)

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

Polygon, 2017, 181 p, plus iv p Foreword and vii p Introduction by William Boyd. First published 1988.

These are the memories from much later in life of Mrs Hawkins, who in the early 1950s lived in 14 Church End Villas, South Kensington, a rooming house owned by Milly Sanders. The other occupants are childless married couple Basil and Eva Carlin, dressmaker and alterer Wanda Podolak, district nurse Kate Parker, young (and single) Isobel Lederer – a secretary who wants a job in publishing – and medical student William Todd. Mrs Hawkins – she is referred to as such by the other characters until very late into the book – had married during the war but her husband was killed at Arnhem. She does editing work in publishing, firstly at the beleaguered Ullswater Press, later with the more successful Mackintosh & Tooley, both of which jobs she loses because of the relationship of successful author Emma Loy with aspiring writer Hector Bartlett, a man for whom Mrs Hawkins has no time at all. Her considered opinion of his talents is that he is a pisseur de copie, a phrase which really requires no translation. Unfortunately she says that to his face, and repeats the assessment to her employers when asked. Of one particular example of Bartlett’s deathless prose which she had been asked to make publishable, she tells her boss, “‘I consider that it cannot be improved upon.’” A non-commital but barbed assessment. Later Mrs Hawkins is invited to work at the Highgate Review.

Describing herself as fat at the start of the book, Mrs Hawkins has begun to slim down; by the simple expedient of eating half what she did before. Even when eating out she will only have half a sandwich or half a cup of coffee etc.

At first an insignificant seeming character, Bartlett’s influence weaves in and out of Hawkins’s story. It is his baleful effect on Wanda Podolak which is the motor of the book’s plot though. He has persuaded her, most probably by blackmail, to operate a machine (known as the Box) for the propagation of radionics – to Mrs Hawkins an entirely spurious activity but one on which one of her employers is very keen – to undermine Mrs Hawkins’s health. Her apparent wasting away, though of course not due at all to the Box, distresses Wanda to the point of suicide.

Spark’s publishing experiences are mined fruitfully. The scenes in the various publishing houses bear the stamp of authenticity. A publisher opines, “The best author is a dead author,” and Mrs Hawkins gives us her advice to authors, “You are writing a letter to a friend ….. as if it was never going to be published.” Throughout, Spark, via Mrs Hawkins, never misses an opportunity to deliver the phrase pisseur de copie. And why not?

William Boyd’s introduction, as is usual with these things, reveals some of the plot. Do not read until after finishing the novel proper. His consideration that the portrayal of Bartlett is at odds with the rest of Mrs Hawkins’s generally kind character depictions is somewhat off the mark, though. Bartlett is not meant to be sympathetic and the text provides ample evidence of his iniquities. And that Bartlett is a thinly disguised depiction of someone whom Spark knew very well indeed in real life, whether A Far Cry from Kensington is a piece of revenge fiction or not, is of little relevance to the 2021 reader. It is his function in the book, and only that, which matters. And pisseur de copie is a wonderful description.

I generally find Spark frustrating to read, but this caught and held my interest. It is the best Spark novel I have read so far, by a long way. A far cry, even.

Note to the sensitive. A woman on a bus is referred to as a negress. (It was referring back to the 1950s.)

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “the The Sunday Times has an extraneous ‘the’,) Mrs Hawkins’ (several instances; Hawkins’s.) Otherwise; Sanders’ (Sanders’s,) “and I him in about Wanda” (and I filled him in,) paranoically (I would have thought this to be spelled ‘paranoiacally’ but it seems it can be both,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) “she was doing this with the idea of getting rid of him easier” (more easily.)

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