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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Bloomsbury, 2017, 354 p

 Lincoln in the Bardo cover

This book won the Booker Prize in 2017. While I recognise it is stylistically inventive – the tale is told through a series of short passages (none more than three pages long at most, some containing only three or so words,) apparent extracts from accounts or memoirs of the time and dialogue “spoken” by the novel’s characters, some of whom continue others’ sentences, and all appended by the source or speaker credited with their identity in a line or three whose text is aligned to the centre of the page – I confess I was a bit underwhelmed. To me it seemed as if the text layout could as easily have been presented as in a play (ie with the speaker identified in capitals on the left) without making any material difference to the content. That also would have had the advantage of signalling the speaker before the dialogue commenced, instead of having to wait for that if the passage ran on to a page which required to be turned to reveal it. I can see, though, it may well work better as a dramatic presentation on film or TV, particularly the voice-intercutting parts.

The concept, Abraham Lincoln’s dead son Willie continues an existence beyond death in a kind of limbo – the bardo of the title; a Tibetan term, though I did not notice that word in the text. Lincoln’s visits to his dead son’s body create a disturbance in the bardo (for its denizens can see and hear him and others in the corporeal world) as much as they were commented on by his contemporaries.

The bardo’s occupants, for whatever reason prevented from moving on to heaven or hell, reveal details of themselves and their lives, and make attempts to communicate with Lincoln, feeling his thoughts as he strolls through the cemetery or sits in the mausoleum where Willie’s body lies. They do not refer to coffins or caskets or tombs. Each lies in, or rises from, a “sick-box”, they still retain hope of returning to their former life and in many cases do not recognise the passing of time.

For children, lingering in the bardo is thought to be undesirable. Our two main voices, hans vollman and roger bevins iii (occupants’ names are always given in lower case italics in the text) encourage Willie Lincoln to pass through. For longer term bardo lingerers such a moving on is accompanied by “the bone-chilling firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Willie’s refusal to do so and realisation through experiencing his father’s thoughts that he is in fact dead, provoke the novel’s crisis.

Though at times I found myself nodding off I doubt this was the book’s fault. (I did not read it in the most propitious circumstances.) Saunders writes well and provides plenty of incident and memoir while his prose is easy to read. But I constantly found myself wondering, what is the point of it? Which part of the human condition is this meant to illuminate? By definition dead people are dead and cannot communicate back to us – and they do not in this novel (even if they do think they influence Lincoln’s actions, and those of other corporeal characters, in a small way.) Perhaps I am more attuned to the idea of fiction set in an afterlife than those swept up in the buzz surrounding the book, less struck by the idea of it being somehow original.

Pedant’s corner:- many of the characters “speak” – or their voices are rendered in – their own particular demotic, with spelling and so on signalling such. I did not note these instances. Otherwise: “but none are saved, all are lost,” (none is saved.)

A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2015, 613 p including v p Contents, ii p Aktaş and Karataş family tree, v p Index of characters and vii p Chronology. Translated from the Turkish Kafamda bir tuhaflik by Ekin Orlap.

 A Strangeness in my Mind cover

This is the story of Mevlut Karataş who wanders the streets of Istanbul at night selling boza – a kind of fermented drink concocted so as Turks could believe they were not actually drinking alcohol even though they were – from the panniers hung from the pole across his shoulders. While the narrative is mainly carried by a third person account of Mevlut’s life and thoughts, the viewpoints of many of the individuals connected to Mevlut are interpolated into the text. All of these are written in the first person and introduced by that narrator’s name. Though all the details of Mevlut’s life from his arrival in Istanbul to help his father on his boza rounds, through his prolonged and ultimately unfruitful sojourn at the Atatürk Secondary School for Boys, his years conscripted in the army, the attempts to sell yoghurt, ice cream and cooked rice, the other ventures into employment, cashier in a café, car park guard, electricity inspector – residents of Istanbul seem to have been very creative in the ways they could steal electricity from the supply company – it is his love life which provides the book’s main thrust.

The first chapter depicts the defining incident in Mevlut’s life, and it is as magic realist as you could wish – only not magical at all. For three years Mevlut had been writing letters to Rayiha, a girl whose eyes he had stared into at the wedding of his cousin Korkut. Korkut’s brother Süleyman agrees to help Mevlut elope with Rayiha and arranges the deed. When Mevlut glimpses the girl in the back of Süleyman’s van that night he is bewildered to discover she is not the one he thought he had been writing to. Nevertheless, he marries her, comes to love her and have two daughters with her. Süleyman’s deception, of course, (he had designs on the girl with the eyes, Rayiha’s sister, Sadiha, himself,) has ramifications throughout the book.

Many observations about love are made within the text. Hadji Hamit Vural avows, “‘if you’re going to love a girl as deeply as your brother here … you’ve got to make sure to start loving her after you’re married …… but if you fall in love before that .. and you sit down to discuss the bride price with the girl’s father, then those cunning, crafty fathers will ask you for the moon … Most couples would not fall in love if they got to know each other even just a little bit before getting married …. There is also the kind that happens when two people get married and fall in love after that … and that can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.’” Süleyman’s later lover Melahat (a stage performer under the name Mahinur Mehrem) lets us know that, “‘I could write a book about all the men I’ve known, and then I would also end up on trial for insulting Turkishness.’”

The changing face of the city into whose nooks and crannies Mevlut wanders plying his wares and the evolution of Turkish life become major themes, with the political ups and downs a background never fully occupying Mevlut’s mind; but a sense of the role played by emphasising the nation is never far away, “in this night, pure and everlasting, like an old fairy tale, being Turkish felt infinitely better than being poor.”

The more you read Pamuk the more it becomes clear that his real subject, his true love, is Istanbul; though Turkishness in the wider sense is also important and affairs of the heart never far away. Here Mevlut’s friend Ferhat tells us that, “What makes city life so meaningful is the things we hide.” Pamuk’s œuvre has probed into those hidden places – more so in A Strangeness in my Mind as his previous books have tended to concentrate more on middle class Istanbul, whereas here our hero (as Pamuk refers to Mevlut several times, this is a knowing type of narration) is one of those for whom getting on in the world has always been difficult, he does not know enough of the right people, never accumulates sufficient capital to become affluent.

Again in a Pamuk novel set in modern times there is an acute consciousness of football, but here no hint of anyone called Orhan Pamuk. If Istanbul itself were not enough, allusions to a journalist character from The Black Book would tie this novel in with previous works.

Through all his modern novels – and arguably in those set in historical times – Pamuk has been picking away at the threads of Turkish life, the tensions between religion and the secular sphere, the restrictions set on the people by political, societal and religious dictats. It is almost possible having read enough Pamuk to feel you know something about Turkey, and especially about Istanbul. This may be a delusion but it’s closer to the truth than those without that experience can ever have.

Pedant’s corner:- no start quotation mark when a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue, shopwindows (shop windows. Is it one word in Turkish?) “enormous billboards that look up one whole side of a six- or seven story [sic] building” (took up makes more sense,) “thirty two liras” (isn’t the plural of lira just ‘lira’? Many instances of liras,) “he would open at random to a page” (‘he would open a page at random’ sounds a more natural construction,) the text refers to Argentina and England being at war, and to ‘English’ ships (that of course should be Britain and British respectively,) occasional omitted commas before and after direct speech, “provide the overhead” (in British English it’s ‘overheads’,) “the lay of all the neighbourhoods” (the lie.)

The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey

Dedalus, 2019, 335 p. Reviewed for Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018.

 The Great Chain of Unbeing cover

In his previous eight novels Crumey has constructed a strange niche for himself from his considerations of music, parallel worlds, imagined universes, the rendering of scientific concepts thought to be abstruse into accessible fictional form, all peopled with credible characters experiencing real human dilemmas. He is not beyond literary playfulness. Here we start with “The Unbeginning”, finish with “The Unending” and “The Introduction” comes as part three.

His latest novel is unconventional even in Crumey’s terms. It’s presented as a series of tales, which at first sight appear to have only the most tenuous of links between them (if any at all) yet on closer examination yield foreshadowings and echoes, subtle resonances – both with themselves and the rest of his oeuvre. We have a scene from the life of a man genetically blind due to his father’s exposure to H-bomb tests, a tale of mistaken identity on the international conference scene, an imagined interview, the thoughts of a lecturer undergoing a CT scan, how silk worms came to Europe, a man suspecting his wife of an affair, a fragment from a life of Beethoven, a young woman visiting her father on a Greek island after an abortion, the consciousness of a concert pianist who comes on like a hit man, the spying activities around the military secret that was early FM radio, a postman’s reminiscences, a lecture given by an insect, the story of The Burrows (a vast tunnelling project the length and breadth of Scotland) and the underground habitat which results, the invention of the word-camera which captures a scene and renders it in text, a woman bumping into someone she thought was dead (so reversing the previous collapse of her wave function,) a philosophical discussion of a Moslowski-Carlson machine to replicate Earth light years away, extracts from a truly awful SF novel inhabiting just that universe, a metaphor about the dangers of seeking fire.

They’re all beautifully written, pitch perfect to the milieux portrayed but also interspersed with a sly humour. “‘Bradley’s a real philosopher, incidentally, by which I mean a dead one,’” and in The Burrows section, “Some international medical authorities insisted that being starved of sunlight would cause long-term health problems but the Scots had been managing like that for centuries and it hadn’t done them any harm,” with ice-cream having a surprisingly prominent presence.

The text comments on itself, “A conventional novel or story collection is a sequence of parts in some predetermined order. We could of course read them any way we like,” and provides “layers of fiction”. Characters note variously a tendency to inconsistency, that imitation is the most fundamental human impulse, “‘We describe everything in terms of its similarity or difference compared to something else.’” That things aren’t what they seem or are described as being different to what they are. There are thoughts on a “past that wasn’t there,” “spurious influences”, “the night she didn’t have, with him instead of Matt. There is only now, she thought. Nothing else has any existence.” The five-second thrill of a life that never happened. The territory between being and non-being. One character says, “‘what neither of us can imagine is a universe without space and time,’” yet elsewhere we have, “‘Time is an appearance not a reality.’”

Despite “the interconnections by which the world is made a coherent whole,” even the most straightforward mainstream passages are saturated with subtle indeterminacies which it would be easy to overlook. Statements like, “‘You concentrate on that object…. visualise it as clearly as you can. Until it becomes no longer itself,’” or, “‘Alfredo Galli wanted to create a matrix of compositional elements through which numerous paths could be conceived, each a possible book with its own multiplicity of readings,’” and “History is an infinite superposition,” but “‘The universe is a circle…. A great chain of living and dying, giving and taking. Every moment is a link.’” “‘There is only one not many. No Difference, only Alike.’” Yet, “all literary style is really a kind of selection, a form of negation,” and “any path through the matrix of narrative possibilities should be a story not only scandalously disjointed but also inherently inconsistent: an appearance betraying its own unreality.”

What we have here is perhaps a literary expression of sonata form – “in the development the tunes get mixed up,” but with something to be discovered between the tones yet nevertheless totally accomplished.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- jack-in-the-boxes (just sounds odd to me. But what is a more sensible plural? Jacks-in-the-box? Jacks-in-boxes? Jacks-in-the-boxes?) “The audience were applauding” (the audience was,) “All the burden of his father’s ambitions were lifted” (the burden was lifted,) liquified (liquefied; liquefy was used earlier,) “Ten Downing Street” (usually 10 Downing Street,) “the way his generation speak” (speaks,) Guttenberg (Gutenberg,) “umbilical chord” (that’s a cord,) “Marks and Spencers” (Marks and Spencer’s,) midgie (there is no such thing; it’s a midge,) CO2 (CO2,) a missing quotation mark at the end of a piece of direct speech.

The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison

Collins, 1968, 190 p. Illustrated by Brian Alleridge.

The Land the Ravens Found cover

This is what may nowadays be called a YA novel. In a long-ago Caithness, still forested, Anlaf, the son of Thorstan the Red, himself son of Anlaf the White, longs to become an adult and go on raids with his father against the indigenous Scots. His future is unutterably altered when, perhaps due to information given to a Scot by one of his family’s thralls his father is killed on an expedition. Wise to the possibility of their new-forged vulnerability being exploited they build a boat and set sail for Iceland, the land the ravens found, where Anlaf’s grandmother, Aud, has kin.

Mitchison builds her story well, the obvious research required being well disguised. Reading this would be a relatively painless way for anyone to learn some history of the Dark Age period and the earliest settlement of Iceland. Particularly well-handled are the tensions between those adherents of the Old Faith and the New (Christianity,) the conventions of Viking society and the relative power women held, but the language is tailored to a young audience. Embedded within it is a prophecy that two of the characters are forebears of the first Europeans to have a child born in the Americas.

On the face of it this would seem to be Anlaf’s story but it is really more that of Aud, Cetil’s daughter. It is her family connections that bring the group to Iceland and her influence that pervades the book.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Doesn’t he knew?’” (know,) prophecying (prophesying,) a missing full stop. In the Postscript; “There are any amount of stories” (There is any amount.)

Shiloh by Shelby Foote

Vintage, 1991, 235 p.

 Shiloh cover

I first became aware of Shelby Foote through Ken Burns’s TV documentary on the US Civil War where his knowledge of the conflict in all its aspects seemed encyclopædic, his recall of incidents from it almost as if he had been there to witness the events himself. Then I found his three-volume narrative history of the war gracing the shelves of bookshops. I hadn’t really realised till I picked this book up that Foote had been a novelist before embarking on that historical venture. Five others of his fictional works are listed herein. It may indeed be fiction but this book could be read as a historical account of the battle of Shiloh with added humanising narrative touches giving personal perspectives on the battle. The tale is told via six points of view (three Confederate, three Yankee) spread over seven chapters, topped and tailed by the account of Lieutenant Palmer Metcalfe, aide de camp to General Sidney Johnston at the start of the battle.
One of the characters quotes an acquaintance as saying, “He said books about war were written to be read by God Almighty, because no one but God ever saw it that way. A book about war, to be read by men, ought to tell what each of the twelve of us saw in our own little corner. Then it would be the way it was – not to God but to us.
I saw what he meant but it was useless talking. Nobody would do it that way. It would be too jumbled. People when they read, and people when they write, want to be looking out of that big Eye in the sky, playing God.”

Foote does do it that way though, and it isn’t too jumbled.

He also brings out the contrast between how the Confederate soldiers thought about the war – as a crusade to build a new country – and the Yankee, simply doing what had to be done, fighting against something rather than for something.

Metcalfe tells us his father, a one-armed veteran of the Mexican War, was of the opinion the South always bore within itself the seeds of defeat, the Confederacy being conceived already moribund, sick from an old malady, incurable romanticism and misplaced chivalry, in love with the past, in love with death and also once told him, ‘War is more shovelry than chivalry.’

Foote voiced a similar sentiment in the Civil War series saying the South could never have won as the North always fought with one hand behind its back. He does, however, show Metcalfe thinking that pluck, élan, sheer force of will, as exemplified here, and in reality, in the person of Nathan Bedford Forrest can weigh more in the balance of fighting. Well, perhaps in one battle but not in a long war.

As far as Shiloh itself goes Metcalfe realizes the battle was lost through its orderly plan which he was so proud of helping create, that the way the Confederate lines were fed into each other resulted in their hopeless intermingling.

This is a superb book, bringing to life a time past and an experience of war which those of us who never had can appreciate and give thanks for missing.

Pedant’s corner:- verbal contractions are routinely given without apostrophes, wouldnt, couldnt, theyd, Ive, thats, its, youd, weren’t, etc, no matter who the narrator is. Exceptions are ‘I’m’, ‘We’ll’ and ‘I’d’. Prentiss’ (Prentiss’s,) Amighty (Almighty.)

The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2008, 174 p. Translated from the French L’Affaire Courilof, (Éditions Grasset, 1933,) by Sandra Smith.

The Courilof Affair cover

The narrative here has a prologue set in Nice in the 1920s which acts as a framing device but the subsequent chapters are delivered to us in the form of Léon M’s memoirs. The son of would-be Russian revolutionaries, Léon was brought up in exile, and assigned by the Revolutionary Committee to kill the Russian Education Secretary, Courilof, a notoriously harsh man, known as the Killer Whale. To enable this and to worm himself into Courilof’s household he takes up a position, under the name Marcel Legrand, as Courilof’s physician. At once warming to his charge and disgusted by him, “Legrand” has a ringside seat at the ins and outs of the higher echelons of the pre-revolutionary system, watching Courilof fall from favour as a result of his marriage to his second wife (who has a past) before his restoration following a scandal involving his successor.

Despite Courilof’s elevated position he nevertheless has the capacity to observe, “‘An ordinary man has the right to be greedy, because he knows that otherwise he would starve to death. But these people who have everything – money, friends in high places, property – they never have enough! I just don’t understand it.’” Plus ça change.

This is the only one of Némirovsky’s novels to be set more or less entirely in her native Russia – and (almost certainly non-coincidentally) it is the most concerned with politics and the usage of power. Affairs of the heart are incidental here as it is the wielding of, and manœvring to maintain, influence, and the single-mindedness of those opposing the regime which are the book’s main themes. Léon’s subsequent acts as an instrument of the revolutionary government – a far more implacable proposition than Courilof ever was – are related briefly and quite off-handedly, simply as things that had to be done. Léon’s fall from grace is glossed over, we never quite find out why he ends up living in exile – though we can guess.

This isn’t Némirovsky at the peak of her powers but it is an interesting examination of the mind-set of would-be revolutionaries eager to be seen to be activists (the assassination requires as big an audience as possible) but more in thrall to the idea than the action – as well as, in Courilof, the exigencies of assiduous service to a monarch who doesn’t warrant devotion.

Pedant’s Corner:- “the Pierre and Paul Fortress” (usually Peter and Paul Fortress in English,) hung (hanged, x3, though there was a ‘hanged’ and one of the ‘hung’s on page 168,) Nevsky river, (it’s the Neva river that flows through St Petersburg,) “fishermen ….must have the same feeling as they contemplate their dazzling catch” (catches, surely, since its fishermen, plural,) sterling (as a fish. Is there such a creature?) “A great crowd of people were silently listening to music” (a crowd was silently listening,) Léon as Legrand is referred to in speech as ‘Monsieur Legrand’ (the English would be Mister Legrand, but then back in the day educated Russians spoke French and the speaker thought ‘Legrand’ knew no Russian so would be addressing him in that language,) hiccoughs (hiccups, it’s not – and never has been – a cough of any sort,) “I wanted to lay down right there” (lie down.) In the translator’s Afterword: Camus’ (Camus’s, x2.)

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.)

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher

Guild Publishing, 1988, 507 p

The Shell Seekers cover

It was the author’s recent death (so it goes) that prompted me to purloin this from the good lady’s bookshelves. Pilcher has been one of those writers I was aware of but had never felt the urge to sample – probably due to judging her books by their covers.

This is the tale of Penelope Keeling, lately having suffered a heart attack, and her immediate family’s reaction to that and their discovery that the works of her father, Laurence Stern, a painter out of fashion for decades, have surged in value. Three of his paintings remain on display in Penelope’s home, a huge canvas, The Shell Seekers of the title, his last remaining unsold painting, given to Penelope before his death, along with a pair of panels, unfinished. The novel unfolds through a prologue and sixteen chapters of varying length, each named for an individual. In reading them we learn of the significant details of the lives of Penelope, her two daughters and one son as well as the playing out of events following her discharging of herself from hospital. The events range from Penelope’s knowledge of her father’s life before the Great War, through the effects of the Second World War on Penelope herself to the mid-1980s of the book’s present.

There is a fair degree of telling rather than showing, and occasional potted biographies of minor characters when they first appear which detract from the overall flow. Pilcher’s use of dialogue tends to be fine but her prose also contains a lot of over-description (and frequent mentions of cups of tea.) Some of the title characters of the sixteen chapters make little appearance in “their” part of the narrative. Her writing is serviceable, perhaps even suited to its purpose, but not outstanding, and she has a tendency to overegg or reiterate unnecessarily aspects of the characterisation. I don’t suppose I constitute her target audience, but it did interest me enough to keep me reading. (I rarely, if ever, give up on a book, however.)

I would not be totally averse to it but don’t feel inclined to remake acquaintance with Pilcher’s work any time soon.

Time interval later count: 7.
Pedant’s corner:- “everything she had ever strived for” (striven,) “and his mother-in-law, Penelope Keeling,” (the reader already knows who his mother-in-law is,) wistaria (several times. It’s wisteria,) “drew up at the back of Podmore’s Thatch. The half-glassed front door led into a tiled porch.” (The front door is at the back?) “did use to sleep there” (did used to sleep,) Doris’ (Doris’s, which was used later, but then later again reverted to Doris’,) “two gin and oranges” (two gins and orange,) “where a variety of crushed and shredded garments were piled on the bed” (a variety of …. was piled on the bed,) “and the Army … were taking up positions” (the Army was taking up positions,) bannisters (I prefer the spelling banisters,) cache pot (cachepot,) Danus’ (Danus’s,) enormity (no. It was hugeness that was meant rather than monstrousness,) sneakers (an inappropriate word for the thoughts of an Englishwoman, who would say plimsolls or – perhaps – sandshoes,) helicopters (in mid World War 2? I don’t think so. Not Allied ones anyway,) Pointe de Hué (Pointe du Hoc, I think. There was a Port Hué but not a Pointe de Hué.) “‘And why is it always Olivia you tell things too?’” (tell things to,) histronics (histrionics,) “the congregation… rose to their feet” (the congregation …. rose to its feet,) dish washer (dishwasher – used, once, later,) “lovers lying supine, entwined,” (to be entwined wouldn’t at least one of them need to be prone? At any rate, they could not both be supine and at the same time entwined.)

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Penguin, 2005, 296 p

The Jane Austen Book Club cover

This book does what it says on the tin. Six people are brought together by co-ordinator Jocelyn to read the novels of Jane Austen and meet – or not depending on circumstances (a hospitalisation for example) – to discuss them, one each per month.

The novel therefore consists of six chapters, one per month but they are more about the characters’ lives than any book discussions. We are also granted a prologue and an epilogue. Six pages devoted to synopses of Austen’s novels follow the epilogue and these give in turn to 25 pages of responses to Austen’s work – 2 pages of comments by her family and friends, the rest by critics, writers and literary figures – all accompanied by 61 bibliographical Notes. (Then we have 3 pages of those naff “Questions for discussion” sometimes appended to modern books. But I suppose that is what book groups do.)

There are some parallels between the lives of the group’s members and incidents in Austen’s novels, Jocelyn’s attempts at match-making notable among them, but they are really just grace notes.

In effect, what Fowler has done here is conceived a way to collect six short novellas – or six longish short stories – under the umbrella of a novel. Yes, there is some character development – Jocelyn’s initial dismissal of only male group member Grigg’s enthusiasm for Science Fiction (“She didn’t actually have to read science fiction to know what she thought of it. She’d seen Star Wars”) overcome by his introduction to her of the works of Ursula Le Guin being a case in point.

The book is clearly targetted at readers familiar with Austen’s œuvre as there is frequent mention of incidents/dilemmas/characters from the books plus an update of her most famous aphorism in the form of “‘Everyone knows,’ Prudie said, ‘that a rich man is eventually going to want a new wife,’” but even those unfamiliar with the works will find it readable enough. I somehow doubt, though, that any aficionados will come away from this enthusing about it. It’s not a patch on We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves or even Sarah Canary.

Pedant’s corner:- Whenever a section starts with a piece of dialogue the opening quotation mark is missing (this is one of those publishing habits with which I disagree,) teepees – also teepeed (tepees – tepeed,) “the lay of the land” (it’s “lie” of the land,) “playing the bagpipe” (bagpipes,) the occasional missed comma before a quote, L.A. at the end of a sentence not followed by the full stop. In the Responses: “there would be more genuine rejoicing at the discovery of a complete new novel by Jane Austen than any other literary discovery, short of a new major play by Shakespeare, that one could imagine” (than one could imagine.)

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley

William Morrow, 2005, 472 p

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land

Lord Byron, of course, never wrote a novel – except perhaps the beginnings of one. Or, if he did, it is lost to the mists of time. Crowley’s conceit here is that Byron completed it, and that his daughter, Ada Lovelace, “the first computer programmer,” burned it due to her batty mother’s insistence, but, before she did so, encrypted it in a series of numbers. Those numbers have turned up in papers belonging to Viscount Ockham, Ada’s son. A website called strongwomanstory has gained access to these and sent a reporter to look them over. This aspect of Crowley’s novel is related in a series of emails and letters between the reporter “Smith” and her mother “Thea” but expands to include her father. Smith’s relationship with her father is much the same as Ada Lovelace’s with hers – sexual indiscretions resulting in estrangement – except the modern story holds the promise of reconciliation. Included in these exchanges is the observation that Ada’s story contains ‘a monster parent, but it’s not her father-it’s her mother’ and the observation about Byron’s notorious lack of punctuation, “Printers in those days could punctuate. Imagine. Now hardly anybody can.”

It would of course be impossible to proceed with this scenario were the “novel” by Lord Byron not to appear in these pages and it does take up by far the largest part of the book. Crowley has done an impressive job in ventriloquising the poet’s voice even if at one point he does have Byron pre-echo Tolstoy with the thought, “Happy endings are all alike; disasters may be unique.” Its protagonist, Ali, born in Albania as the result of a liaison with a wandering British aristocrat, Lord Sane, is in young adulthood sought out by his father to become heir to the Sane estate, somewhere in Scotland. This tale, The Evening Land, is as Gothic as you could wish, involving a gruesome death, misplaced accusations, possible amnesia, an impersonator, a clandestine seduction – everything you would expect from a book with such supposed origins and complete with the verisimilitudinal inclusion of archaic spellings such as dropt for dropped, segar for cigar and soar’d for soared. We are also given Ada’s commentary on the text of The Evening Land, in the form of “her” notes on each chapter, wherein she wonders if her father could ever have imagined a family not riven by disputes. (There is, too, a respect in which, notwithstanding the fact that The Evening Land’s contents bear resemblances to incidents in Byron’s life, this overall endeavour might be said to be more about Ada than Byron.)

Then we have the wonderful cover illustration featuring Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,) and the rough-cut page edges making the book resemble one from the early 19th century show a pleasing attention to detail.

Crowley came to my attention back in the 1970s with books such as Little, Big, Aegypt (I note here the appearance in the text of The Evening Land of the spelling Æschylus,) and Engine Summer but dropped off my reading register till I noticed this book. I’ll be looking for more of him now though.

Pedant’s corner:-
In the back cover flap blurb: “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” (Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.) Otherwise: “‘into whose recognizance’” (recognisance – I doubt Byron would have used USian spellings, others, such as honour, are rendered in the British way. Plus recognizance is a US legal formulation rather than a Scottish one,) “‘these lands and goods was truly yours’” (were,) “Kendals drops” (Kendal drops,) Bachus’ (Bachus’s.)

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