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The Story of Ragged Robyn by Oliver Onions

Penguin, 1954, 200 p. First published 1945.

The Story of Ragged Robyn cover

This is a historical novel set sometime after or during the Commonwealth in which Robyn Skyrme has grown up on a farm in Unthank, not knowing who his mother was. One night he is seized upon by a gang of masked robbers, told to bring the farm’s four best horses to a certain place and not to breathe a word to anyone or else suffer the consequences. In the presence of his father he whisper his dilemma to his horse, leading to the robbers’ plans being thwarted. The shadow of this incident, for a long time backgrounded, is however really never far from Robin for the duration of the book. The other main thread is his fascination for the visiting girl he glimpsed on a trip to the church in nearby Mixton.

Not long later, on reaching the cusp of manhood the man he thought was his father tells him his real father is dead and he is in fact Robyn’s uncle but that Robyn will still inherit the farm. This puts Robyn in a spin and he resolves to leave and make his own way in the world, partly to avoid the reprisals the bandits promised.

On the road Robyn falls in with Hendryk Maas, a stonemason with wide experience in Germany, the Netherlands and Brabant but who has contempt for the guilds and all they stand for (and who finds work more difficult to secure as a result.) Robyn becomes his apprentice. They eventually end up with a job at a house called Maske. It is here that a coincidence appears, leading to a tale of star-crossed lovers and the impossibility of crossing class boundaries. This throws Robyn back onto the road and on to his destiny.

Onions certainly wrote well, he evokes his milieu with convincing verisimilitude. The Story of Ragged Robyn is a chronicle of one of those quiet lives lived to the best of someone’s ability – but no less worthy of record for that. It is a little Hardy-esque in its dénouement, though.

Pedant’s corner:- “his handful of books were in” (his handful … was in,) Sim Dacres’ (Dacres’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) bye and bye (by and by,) I have never seen chidden as the past participle of chide before but – fair do’s – I doubt I’ve seen anything as a past participle of chide before, a missing start quote mark before a piece of direct speech, “when the master-mason shook their heads” (master-masons.)

V S Naipaul

I note the passing of V S Naipaul, whose Guardian obituary is here.

His work seems to be highly regarded but he is one of those authors to whom I have never got round so I am in no position to say. Nevertheless a Nobel Prize is not to be sniffed at.

It does seem though, as is mentioned in the obituary in the link, that in his personal life he was less than saintly, to put it mildly.

Winter’s Tales 27 Edited by Edward Leeson

Macmillan, 1981, 187 p.

Winter's Tales 27 cover

I read this because it was recommended (and loaned) to me by Guardian reviewer Eric Brown as containing a very good non-SF story written by 1960s and 70s British SF stalwart John Brunner. It does and it is. There is also a story by once (and now again) SF author – and reviewer for the Guardian – M John Harrison.
Letting the Birds Go Free by Philip Oakes is narrated by the son of a farmer whose eggs are being stolen. They both confront the culprit but then offer him employment. He is, though, a deserter from the Army unwilling to be sent back to Northern Ireland.
Another first person narration, Things by V S Pritchett, is the tale of the sudden descent after years away of a wayward sister(-in-law) on a newly retired couple’s home.
Old Tom1 by Celia Dale relates the experiences and reminiscences of a down-and-out war veteran intercut with the administrations of a retired woman to an ageing cat.
In Flora’s Lame Duck by Harold Acton, Flora has taken under her wing a young Italian disfigured by polio. He becomes besotted with her but she is only waiting for the terminally ill wife of the man she loves to die before returning to the US to marry him.
Terence Wheeler’s Safe Wintering2 is narrated by an ex-sailor and describes the sequential (and contrasting) relationships another man in the town has with two women.
The Indian Girl3 by Giles Gordon is the tale of the narrator’s possibly hallucinatory experience while travelling from New Delhi to Amritsar by train.
A Mouthful of Gold4 John Brunner is another of those ‘as told to’ tales – this time in a London club for writers – concerning a particularly fine wine and the failure of a US flier shot down over Italy and hidden by the region’s inhabitants from the Germans to understand the nature of its secret ingredient.
Home Ownership5 by Murray Bail tells the story of a Brisbane house, growing old along with the man who lives there.
In Chemistry by Graham Swift a ten year-old child muses on the relationship between his widowed mother, his grandfather, his mother’s new lover and himself.
Egnaro by M John Harrison is the story of a bookseller/pornographer who is tantalised by the possibility of a mysterious land, Egnaro, found nowhere on the maps except by hint or exegesis, and the translation of this obsession to the narrator.
Birthday!6 by Fay Weldon concerns the marriage of two people, Molly and Mark, who had both been born on the same day and met on their twenty-eighth birthday. Words beginning with “m” dominate the text as does Molly’s belief in astrology. Another birthday, their fortieth, when Mark’s workmates descend on the family with a birthday video, bookends the story.
In Christmas with a Stranger by Leslie Thomas, a young man from the Welsh valleys uses the bit of money he has come into to visit London. On the train there he invents for himself a persona as a film director. In the city he meets a woman fashion designer, down from the north. They spend Christmas Day navigating a deserted London.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Editor’s Note; “full of strange, twists and turns” (unless strange here is a noun, that comma is unnecessary.) 1“if he don’t move” (this is the only verb in the piece not in standard English; doesn’t,) plimsoles (x 2, plimsolls.) 2the whole story is told in seaman’s language so contains instances of ungrammatical or other usages. Otherwise; laying (lying,) “farther gone that he had thought” (than,) a lay-in (lie-in.) 3mannaged (managed.) 4“there were only a couple of” (there was only a couple.) 5 “You-who!” (is normally Yoohoo!) 6silicone-chip (silicon,) sprung (sprang.)

Autumn Quail by Naguib Mahfouz

Doubleday, 1990, 171 p. Translated from the Arabic, Al-Summan wal-Kharif (1962,) by Roger Allen, revised by John Roddenbeck.

 Autumn Quail cover

There is a quality to some translated fiction that is opaque. Whether it is due to a too literal translation or a different cultural outlook it lends a certain distance to the reading experience. Something isn’t quite in focus. There is a little of that to Autumn Quail but the lack of sharpness here may simply be due to the nature of the novel’s protagonist.

After the Egyptian military coup of 1952 Isa ad-Dabbagh, a high ranking civil servant whose fortunes had previously looked assured, is dismissed from his post for corruption. With his future disrupted, his fiancée’s father’s permission for the marriage now refused and unwilling to compromise by getting a job he dithers through the days, not settling between remaining in Cairo, Alexandria or Ra’s al-Barr, allowing Riri, a prostitute he encounters on the Alexandria Corniche, to keep house for him (a mutually beneficial arrangement till he throws her out when she becomes pregnant,) making a marriage with a much older woman whom he does not love and taking to gambling unsuccessfully. A friend tells him, “You’re a boat drifting without a sail.” Only after the Suez crisis and further encounters (with a now successful Riri, and with a man for whose imprisonment he had once been responsible) does he begin to reassess his life.

The introduction (as usual I left it till after reading the novel proper – and it did contain spoilers) suggests Mahfouz wrote this partly to express his disquiet with the way that the 1952 revolution had evolved. Throughout there was the sensation that perhaps you have to be Egyptian to understand all the implications and nuances Mahfouz was writing about. It’s perfectly serviceable fiction but I didn’t really connect with it.

Pedant’s corner:- shaikh (usually sheikh,) “who let’s himself” (lets,) oblivious of (oblivious to,) “a group of economists were going to hold a discussion” (a group was.)

Eclipse by John Banville

Picador, 2010, 218 p. First published in 2000.

Eclipse cover

Actor Alexander Cleave (the same Cleave who would reappear in Banville’s later Shroud and Ancient Light, it seems I have read this sequence of Banville books out of publication order) has retired from the stage and gone back to his childhood home. It is somewhat rundown, but holds memories in nearly every room. In it Cleave hears faint sounds and imagines it might be haunted – in fact sees his father one day in a doorway. But it turns out Quirke, the solicitor charged with its care, and his fifteen year-old daughter, Lily, who has been taken on ostensibly as a housekeeper, are living in some of the vacant rooms.

The narrative is almost all Cleave’s musings and remembrances – there is very little dialogue in the novel – yet despite there not being much in the way of plot (the only significant occurrence in the book occurs off the page) Banville readily manages to hold the attention. There is something almost liquid in his sentences, each is perfectly constructed and the word choices are usually immaculate.

The eclipse of the title is both actual (that of 1999 takes place during the course of the novel) but also metaphorical. That significant occurrence is, though, foreshadowed when Cleave says, ‘I have the feeling, the conviction, I can’t rid myself of it, that something has happened, something dreadful, and I haven’t taken sufficient notice, haven’t paid due regard, because I don’t know what it is.’

This is a portrait of a man who has glided through life apparently without it really touching him or he it, only approaching animation when pretending, on the stage, to be someone else, but in the end faced with that “something dreadful” about which nothing can be done. Most lives have at least one of those.

Pedant’s corner:- “outside of me” (outside me ,) “door hinges squeak tinily” (tinily? In a small way? I don’t think so. Tinnily makes more sense,) duffel coat (duffle coat is the British spelling) “carrying in one hand that seemed a trident” (what seemed a trident,) accordeon (accordion, several instances,) slips-ons (slip-ons,) “and Quirke he came forward” (doesn’t need the “he”.)

Not So Quiet …. by Helen Zenna Smith

Stepdaughters of War. Virago, 1988, 247 p. First published in 1930.

Not So Quiet ....cover

This is a novel about the experience of being a VAD ambulance driver during the Great War, something less than a cushy existence as it turns out. Not only are the volunteers exposed to the sufferings and mutilations, the deaths and quick funerals, of the soldiers, itself enough to scar for life, but their living conditions are appalling, their deprivations extreme. Starved of sleep, given execrable food – even the orderlies say they would not put up with the slop they are fed – lousy, harshly punished for minor transgressions by a martinet of a commandant. To them also falls the duty of keeping their ambulances clean, inside and out, on pain of failing the daily inspection; a task messy, grim and odorous as well as onerous. Only their camaraderie keeps them going – which is again a parallel with the soldiery they had enlisted to aid.

There is, too, the same mutual incomprehension between the VADs and their relatives at home as was experienced by the soldiers, the all but necessity of shielding the ignorant from the truths of war – partly due to the risk of being dismissed as cowardly, or a shirker. “A war to end war my mother writes. Never. In twenty years it will repeat itself. And twenty years after that. As long as we breed women like my mother and Mrs Evans-Mawnington.”

Not So Quiet…. would have been a worthwhile endeavour on its own but its genesis bears comment. The author (whose real name was Evadne Price) was approached to write something called All’s Quaint on the Western Front as by Erica Remarks, a parody of Erich Maria Remarque’s world famous novel Im Westen nichts Neues. As she thought this was an appalling concept (how could anyone not think so?) she resolved to write a book on women’s war experience, hence the novel’s subtitle Stepdaughters of War, basing it on the memories of a wartime ambulance driver, Winifred Constance Young. Not So Quiet mirrors many aspects of Remarque’s book but with more emphasis on daily routine. In this regard the ending is an apt echo, slipping out of the otherwise first person narration to provide a third person perspective on the effect on the soul of relentless exposure to suffering and death.

While it covers some of the same ground as did Vera Britain’s Testament of Youth there is more here of the details of VAD existence. This is certainly not a cheery book but it is a worthwhile one and is not in any way diminished by comparison with Remarque.

Pedant’s corner:- In the introductory segment about the author; Belson (Belsen.) Otherwise: “a true chip of the old block” (I’ve only ever seen that before as ‘a chip off the old block.’ Both make sense though,) iodiform (iodoform,) “one of the strings that holds a Union Jack” (the strings that hold a Union Jack,) flibberty-gibbert (flibberty-gibbet.)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

Virago, 1998, 202 p.

The Magic Toyshop cover

Fifteen year-old Melanie feels on the cusp of womanhood and wonders to herself how having sex or being married will feel. Her cosy middle-class existence is disrupted the night after she tries on her mother’s wedding dress – damaging it in the process – as in what she interprets as a piece of (un)sympathetic magic she receives news her parents have both died on the trip they had been on. Along with brother Jonathon and much younger sister Victoria she is packed off to live with Uncle Philip, their mother’s brother, who is married to Margaret Jowle, in turn rendered dumb ever since her wedding, communicating by means of chalk and blackboard. This new home is a constrained environment, ruled by Philip with a frugal rod of iron, Margaret and her brothers Finn and Francis (whom she brought with her to the marital home) living in fear. Philip is a toy/puppetmaker and they live over the toyshop which gives the novel its title.

The book has an odd sensibility, tonally and atmospherically redolent of Dickens, with some relationship dynamics reminiscent of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase but also containing faint echoes of The L-Shaped Room. The occasional references to such things as radios and other manifestations of (relative) modernity feel quite strange in comparison with the Victorian atmosphere which pervades the book even in the earlier chapters where Melanie is untroubled by straitened circumstances. This disjunction verges on magic realism as there is an aura of weirdness hanging over things throughout yet which never declares itself openly.

As the novel progresses Melanie’s revulsion to Finn’s lack of cleanliness and his interest in her is countered by her burgeoning awareness of sexuality. The twist near the end is one which I suspect neither Dickens nor Aiken would have dared essay though it might not have troubled Lynne Reid Banks.

Pedant’s corner:- “Scarborough-is-so-bracing” (in the posters it was Skegness that was so bracing,) focussed (focused.) “There were a number of shops” “There were a number of cake tins” (there was a number,) “some armless, some legless, same naked, some clothed,” (some naked,) “in two hundreds beds” (hundred,) “greasy Orientals” Vyella dress (Viyella,) tremulo (tremolo.) “The first of Jonathan’s wooden ships were up for sale” (the first was up for sale,) “in the butchers” (the butcher’s,) “open eyes of pure of colour” (has an “of” too many.) “She spread out her skirts and put shells into it” (skirts is plural; so, ‘put shells into them’,) pigmy (pygmy,) “who had laid in bed” (lain,) Aunt Margaret must have fried up everything friable in the larder” (fryable; “friable” means crumbly,) hiccoughing (hiccupping, the supposed resemblance to a cough is a misattribution,) “and she not sure” (and she was not sure,) a missing end quotation mark.

Philip Roth

I heard on the radio news this morning that Philip Roth has died.

I must confess I have not read much of his work, apart from the (ahem) seminal Portnoy’s Complaint – which I was moved to sample partly because of the attention it received – and My Life as a Man which covered much the same ground. Anything you ever wanted know about living as a young(ish) male Jew in the USA was here.

I do remember being intrigued by a long ago television programme about him which featured, as I recall, his creation Nathan Zuckerman fantasising about Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust and making a new anonymous life for herself in (I think) the US, which may have been another spur to reading him.

I can’t say I much took to what seemed from the evidence of those two books to be his perennial subject matter but he was obviously an important US novelist of the second half of the twentieth century whether I favoured his work or not and his ability as a writer shone through in any case.

Much Later I read his Altered History novel The Plot Against America which I reviewed on this blog here. The impulse behind his decision to write it was admirable – and arguably necessary – but I felt that overall it was an opportunity missed, that the punches the book threw were somewhat pulled.

Sadly that impulse might be even more necessary in today’s political climate than it was when he published it thirteen years ago.

Philip Milton Roth: 19/3/1933 – 22/5/2018. So it goes.

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen

Abacus, 2004, 347 p.

 The Tapestries cover

This is a tale of Vietnam in the early to mid- years of the twentieth century when the old ways were beginning to crumble under the influence of the French. Peasant woman Ven is sold to the Nguyen family of Cam Le village as a bride for their seven year-old son, Dan. She protects him when the family’s fortunes are ruined by the local magistrate Toan and the elders of the family are killed or flee. As their faces are both unknown to the outside world they can for a while take refuge in the Toan household where he and Toan’s granddaughter, Tai May, fall in love. During a visitation from an official of the Emperor’s court to betrothe Tai May to Bui, the official’s son, they reveal their identities. In the outcome Ven is accused of the murders of the official and Bui actually carried out by Toan.

Thinking Ven dead, Dan leaves for the Imperial city and due to his skill at embroidery eventually becomes chief embroiderer to the court. (It is this ability and Dan’s handiwork, of course, which lend the book its title.) Meanwhile, the disgraced Tai May has been sent away to join a dance troupe. Their paths cross at the court but they cannot meet due to their respective obligations to the Emperor. On the deathbed of the Lady Chin, still grieving wife of the murdered official, Dan gives her food to revive her and accompanies her to Cam Le to confront the source of both their woes and achieve resolution.

Perhaps because English is not Nguyen’s first language the writing isn’t quite as fluent or crisp as in the very best fiction. There is often a resort to cliché (“with all her might”) and dialogue too frequently tips over into the melodramatic. I also found the love story supposed to be at the novel’s heart so barely outlined as to be almost invisible. We are told of it but rarely experience any of the relevant emotion. Rather, it is the relationship between Dan and Ven which dominates the book. Therein lies its tragedy and pathos. Yet even there the withholding by Ven of a nugget of information from Dan till very late on, twists the arc of the narrative.

Pedant’s corner:- “she said to the him” (she said to him,) “the plastic loop in her hand” (was a metal loop on the previous page and, in any case, plastic? In 1916?) “in the middle of night” (the night,) twenty-four karat (is karat USian? It’s carat over here,) organdy (organdie,) sprung (sprang,) “even her face seemed to have shed its usual plainness and glow with the sparkling mystical world” (glowed,) “the Indochinese Communist Party led by the socialist Ho Chi Minh” (in 1932? Ho did found the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930 but he was in jail in Hong Kong from 1931-33 and then moved to the Soviet Union, not returning to Vietnam till 1941. Would most Vietnamese have even heard of him in 1932?)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Bloomsbury, 2006, 174 p. First published with the subtitle The Modern Prometheus, 1818. This edition also contains ii p Why You Should Read This by Benjamin Zephaniah and 35 p Extra! Extra! of snippets dealing with the history of the author’s times in the style of a modern tabloid newspaper and 3 p listing significant events in her life.

 Frankenstein cover

This is seen in some quarters as the prototypical Science Fiction text though other fantastical tales of course preceded it. It is also an example of Gothic Fiction. The outlines of the story are part of the general background, Frankenstein a cultural reference point (though the name is often attributed to the “monster” rather than to its creator,) as a symbol of meddling gone wrong. The book itself is one I had never got around to till now.

Shelley’s tale is narrated, sometimes at third hand, in the letters of one Robert Walton to his sister, telling of his meeting with Victor Frankenstein on the ice plains of the Arctic Ocean and embedding the relation of that man’s moment of hubris in his act of creation, and the monster’s response to its various rejections.

Unlike in film versions the mechanics of the animation of the creature are not gone into, nor the moment of creation (beyond the opening of an eye.) Such considerations are left mysterious, which arguably means the novel is not Science Fiction, by some later definitions of the term. The ethical consequences for Frankenstein, his responsibility for his creation’s welfare and its actions are the main themes of the book. To create a being in a distorted image so that it is reviled, to refuse it suitable companionship, is a heavy enormity. I found my sympathies lying with the creature, even despite its own iniquities, which, again, occur off-stage. As with the Greeks, hubris leads to nemesis.

The epistolary form, the different forms of phrase and rhythms of story-telling of the Gothic to the modern are a hurdle, but not a high one. In any case I’m glad I finally read it. For completeness if nothing else.

Pedant’s corner:- several archaic spellings – phænomena (oh what a delight,) minutiæ (ditto,) oxyds (oxides,) stept, paradisaical, outstript, æra (era,) doated ,wrapt, controul, pennyless, phrenzy – and usages – sprung, sunk, lighted. Otherwise; “the greatest fluency of potassium and born” (boron???) “and laughed aloud Clerval at first attributed” (is missing a full stop after aloud,) ecstacy (ecstasy,) “when the heavens poured forth its waters” (their waters, surely?) “endeavouring to identity every spot” (identify,) eventufl (eventful,) “nothing is so painful to the human mind as as a sudden change” (only one “as” necessary,) “these are are virtuous” (only one “are”.)

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