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On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Hutchinson, 2001, 345 p.

Love, sex, and death, again. Literary fiction doesn’t seem to stray far from those. Though I suppose there isn’t that much sex here, and death is mostly off-stage. Set in the late 1950s as they turn to the 60s, the love is that between Mary van der Linden, sojourning in Washington DC with her diplomat husband Charlie (whose career has stalled somewhat, perhaps because he is too fond of the bottle) and journalist Frank Renzo who is making a slow return after disfavour in the McCarthy years.

The book does describe the progress of what I assume is supposed to be a great love affair but unlike in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger I didn’t really feel it, was never convinced. When Mary states her feelings for Frank they more or less come out of the blue as far as the reader is concerned. (His affections – or perhaps I should say intentions – were discernible from the outset.)

To add a bit of colour incidents from the characters’ earlier lives are incorporated into the narrative – Mary’s first lover, who died in the Second World War, Frank and Charlie’s almost forgotten meeting at Dien Bien Phu – as are contemporary events, particularly the first Kennedy-Nixon TV debate and Charlie’s breakdown on a visit to Moscow which sharpens the tale with a dose of Cold Wear paranoia. And everybody smokes like a lum.

I remember the author’s earlier novel Birdsong with some affection. On Green Dolphin Street, while readable enough, is no Birdsong

I did though learn that there is a Dumbarton Street in Washington DC!

Pedant’s corner:- USian usages – fender, hat-check girl, laundromat, elevator, the fall, bake sale, sidewalk etc – but aluminium not aluminum and railways [sic] sleepers not railroad ties. Otherwise; Commonweath war cemetery (at the time it would have been an Imperial war cemetery,) “sluiced it down” (twice in the space of a page or so is once too many,) croci (crocus isn’t from Latin, so crocuses,) “under the instructions of a man with a crew-cut called Don Hewitt” (why does his hair-do have a name? A minor edit would have got rid of this,) “which even in this light she could see where shot with blood” (were shot,) on to (onto,) railways sleepers (railway sleepers,) sprung (sprang.)

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Andre Deutsch, 1987, 211 p.

Moon Tiger cover

Claudia Hampton, a professional historian and, though unmarried, mother of Lisa, is on her deathbed. The doctor mentally notes that birth and an earlier miscarried child. While various important people in her life come and go at her bedside Claudia’s thoughts roam over her life. Her reminiscences are presented in the first person but sometimes scenes (even the same ones) are given to us in the third person from a different viewpoint. Claudia tells us, “I’ve always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy…. Chronology irritates me…. everything happens at once.”

She recognises her inadequacy as a parent and is pleased her daughter is not overly gifted, “Intelligence is always a disadvantage. Parental hearts should sink at the first signs of it.” The two most important of her relationships were those with her brother Gordon and with Tom Southern, the lover she met on a trip up to near the front during her stint in Cairo as a War Correspondent in World War 2. Love came on her as a surprise, “She has reached the ripe old age of thirty-one without knowing this particular derangement. For derangement is surely what it is; only by stern physical effort can she keep herself from looking at him, touching him.” This being wartime the affair ends abruptly. The child she miscarried was of course Tom’s.

So. Love, sex and death, here we are again. But Lively has conjured a wonderful book from those ingredients, well worth its Booker Prize win in 1987. Her treatment of the desert war is full of incidental detail rather than grand sweep and is more immediate for that fact. Tom tells her, “‘An astonishing amount of piety goes on out here. You’d be surprised. The Lord is frequently invoked. He’s on our side, by the way, you’ll be glad to hear – or at least it’s taken for granted that he is,’” and that, “we will win the war” – “‘in the last resort we have greater resources. Wars have little to do with justice. Or valour or sacrifice or the other things traditionally associated with them. War has been much misrepresented, believe me. It’s had a disgracefully good press.’”

Lively’s knowledge of Egypt is put to good use (the Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes) and the casual racist attitudes of the time are noted. “It was always mildly satisfying to see British racial complacency matched if not excelled by French xenophobia; the contempt with which Madame Charlot and her friends could invest the word arabe was more pungent even than the careless English ‘Gyppo’ or the curious pejorative use of ‘native’. It made us seem positively liberal-minded,” yet Claudia’s reflections on life conclude, “unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.”

There is more than a hint of the unusually close about the sibling relationship. “Until I was in my late twenties I never knew a man who interested me as much as Gordon did…. I measured each man I met against him, and they fell short. I tested myself for the frisson that Gordon induced, and it was not there.” This is underlined by the thought, “Incest is closely related to narcissism.” Plus we have, “I love you, she thinks. Always have. More than I’ve ever loved anyone, bar one. That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things – love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness.”

Lively portrays very well the heightened awareness, the stark but total recall, of a passionate relationship. The descriptions of the remainder of Claudia’s life after Tom’s death – eventful and readable though they are – are subtly flatter. Her complicated relationship with Lisa’s father, Jasper, is also handled perfectly.

This is literary fiction at its best.

Pedant’s corner:- waggons (wagons,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, maw (as a mouth. It’s a stomach,) “The bridges wear necklaces of coloured lights; all along the banks the houseboats are ablaze, glowing against the dark, swirling patterned water” (this was in wartime Cairo. Surely it must have had a blackout. There was one in Alexandria. Then again, Lively was there herself during the war,) staunches (stanches.)

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher by Ahn Do-hyun

I was attracted to this book by its title, which appears to indicate a fairy tale or children’s story containing a moral. (Compare, for example, The Little Engine That Could.) That it was written by a Korean only confirmed my desire to read it as I had never sampled Korean fiction before. Given the story’s allegorical/fabular nature (though the illustrations are resolutely realistically sketched with the odd hint of Japanese style) I doubt it is representative of the country’s fiction writers: more so as the author is primarily a poet.

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher is an exploration of the latter stages of the life cycle of a salmon. Its main protagonist is Silver Salmon, so-called because he does not have the usual dark upper body colouring but is easily visible to predators from above and thus requires to be surrounded by the shoal in order to protect him. (The author makes the claim that Pacific salmon shoals in the necessary formation resemble downed Boeing 747 aircraft.) Other named fish include Clear-Eyed Salmon, with whom Silver Salmon is mutually in love, the shoal leader, Big-Mouth Salmon, and a misfit, Bent-Back Salmon. The Green River, the shoal’s homing grounds, is also sentient and capable of speech.

Talking animal stories are always in some sense about human behaviour otherwise there would be little point in writing or reading them but I must admit I found the concept of salmon being in love a bit of a stretch. Prior to this development of their relationship Silver Salmon tells Clear-Eyed Salmon that he sees little point in a goal in life that consists solely in the laying of eggs but of course a salmon’s destiny is to circle back to its beginning.

The tale outlines the problems the salmon encounter on their life’s journey, and the fact that their greatest foe is humanity. The crux of the tale comes when they are faced by the rapids in the Green River and discover the opportunity to avail themselves of a human provided fish ladder. In the shoal’s discussions on how to proceed Silver Salmon says, “If we start by taking the easy way then our children will naturally want to follow in our footsteps, and soon it will be the only way they know. But if we leap up over the rapids, then our legacy will instead be all the suffering and joy of that single moment, the fear and exhilaration of putting everything at risk.” Here is our moral laid out.

The book is enhanced by occasional illustrations but the tense in the text changes from past to present and back again seemingly at random, sometimes within the same sentence. I assume this is a reflection of the original Korean and is intended. It certainly helps to give a sense of disjunction. It is a neat touch though that the book’s structure exactly mirrors a salmon’s life cycle.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Virago Modern Classics, 2003, 346 p plus vii p Introduction by Valerie Grove. First published 1949.

I Capture the Castle cover

This is the journal of Cassandra Mortmain, whose reclusive father – a writer of a succès d’estime called Jacob Wrestling but whose experimentation has been overtaken by others and now suffers from writer’s block – and whose family, sister Rose, step-mother Topaz (a former model given to roaming the local hill at midnight while naked) and brother Thomas along with lodger Stephen live in Godsend Castle in a fair degree of penury. Strictly speaking, since it is written in three sections, The Sixpenny Book, The Shilling Book and the Two-Guinea Book, these are the journals.

Much is made of Cassandra’s speed-writing – which helps to keep her secrets – and the journals do mostly read like the jottings of a girl on the cusp of adulthood (she writes, “‘I know all about the facts of life. And I don’t think much of them,’” and the introduction says one critic described Cassandra as a young girl ‘poised between childhood and adultery’ which to my mind is going a bit far; she seems too in control of herself for that,) but there are occasional subtle signs of true authorial interjection nudging the whole into the form of a structured story. Smith apparently laboured mightily over the details of the book.

The early parts reminded me strongly of the Sunday afternoon TV serial of long ago, giving it a kind of familiarity, we know there is going to be an element of star-crossed love somewhere; but that is to some extent misleading, I Capture the Castle is also undoubtedly its own thing. The title may derive from Cassandra’s early habit of stating she wishes to capture a particular character or other in prose but she (or Smith) soon gives up on the phraseology.

After the laying out of the family’s straitened circumstances, the daily grind of making do, things begin to change when half-brothers Neil and Simon Cotton from the US inherit nearby Scoatney Hall, to whose owners the rent of Godsend Castle is due. They come upon the Mortmains inadvertently and seem to be intrigued.

To be sure, what will then transpire appears to be laid on tram-lines and somewhat predictable, especially Cassandra’s lack of full awareness of the extent of Stephen’s regard for her. But that, I would assume, is precisely the point. Cassandra is supposed to be not yet worldly-wise. Smith, of course, isn’t unaware of it at all and does, to a degree, subvert the expectations.

To Cassandra’s and Rose’s minds Simon’s beard makes him resemble a devil but despite her initial desperate flirtation with him (she has already said she would do anything to escape poverty) he eventually becomes enamoured of Rose, giving the novel’s plot its drive. Both Simon and his mother are familiar with James’s novel and enquire as to his current work, thus sending him scuttling back to his study. Yet much to Topaz’s discomfiture Mrs Collins eventually manages to encourage James out of his writer’s block.

It is Simon, though, who brings Cassandra out of her rawness, playing her music she is unfamiliar with and telling her that, “art could state very little – that its whole business is to evoke responses.”

Evoking responses is something Smith does well here. This book must (have) be(en) irresistibly enchanting to adolescent girls but also has its recommendations to other readers.

Pedant’s corner:- on the cover blurb; dessicated (desiccated.) Otherwise; missing commas before quote marks at the start of a piece of direct speech (numerous instances,) “we were gloriously bloat” (nowadays that would more usually be rendered bloated.)

Number9Dream by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2001, 428 p.

Number9Dream cover

The difficult second novel. In his, Mitchell seems to have taken the decision to throw any number of things at the wall to see what might stick. It has its moments certainly but while being easy enough to follow on the level of the prose is not quite a straightforward read. It is told in nine sections; Panopticon, Lost Property, Video Games, Reclaimed Land, Study of Tales, Kaiten, Cards, The Language of Mountains is Rain.

The thread it hangs on is the search by Eiji Miyake for his father, who abandoned his mistress, mother to Eiji and his sister Anju, when they were young. Eiji has come to Tokyo from the sticks (an island called Kagoshima) to make himself known. We first find him in a café opposite the PanOpticon building waiting to meet his father’s lawyer, Akiko Katō, an encounter he fantasises about several times. The shifting ground of the novel starts here. From that point on the reader can never be entirely certain which of the incidents we are presented with are supposed to be occurring only within Eiji’s mind and which are meant to be “real”. But his burgeoning relationship with part-time waitress and proficient musician, Ai Imajō, the nape of whose neck is perfect, does give something to grab on to.

We follow the ups and downs of Eiji’s search, through an unfruitful meeting with Ms Katō, another with an ageing admiral from whom he learns his father’s family name is Tsukiyama, and also with his father’s wife and daughter, not to mention his falling into the orbit of the Yakuza and out again. His motives aren’t mercenary. But others find that difficult to believe.

I must say I’ve read a fair bit of Japanese fiction and the characters here – Yakuza perhaps aside, but gangsters are gangsters the world over – don’t follow the behaviour, or speech, patterns of those in books written by Japanese authors. When Mitchell returned to Japan, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it was to the country well before its opening to the West, in Napoleonic times, and his Japanese characters seemed to me to behave as such.

You could call Mitchell’s approach playfulness. Or you could call it irritating. At one point Eiji is hiding out from the Yakuza in a house where a novel’s manuscript is lying about. He of course reads it and so we are given extracts. Its main characters are called Goatwriter (himself a writer,) Mrs Comb (one of those “comedy” earthy charlady types with non-received pronunciation,) and Pithecanthropus. Here we are vouchsafed the information that due to a gentleman’s agreement soldiers never fight each other – “They might get hurt,” – and that, “The purpose of war is to kill as many civilians as possible.’” Also, “‘Writing is not about ‘fulfilment!’ Writing is about adoration! Glamour! Awards!’ …. ‘I learned the language of writers, ‘coda’ and ‘conceit’ for ‘ending’ and ‘idea’; ‘tour de force’ instead of ‘the good bit’; ‘cult classic’ instead of ‘this rubbish will never sell’.” This is a novel wherein is made literal the sentence, “Goatwriter’s words stuck in his throat,” and contains the line, “‘A stream of consciousness’ he rejoyced.” All well and good, but it seems more designed to show off the author’s facility with word-play rather than advance either the plot or knowledge of human relationships.

In Number9Dream Mitchell seems to have pushed his conceits as far as he thought he could get away with. (And possibly beyond.) Still, I’d never thought to see the word zwitterion in a literary novel; hats off to that.

Episodes of seriousness do intrude. A Yakuza tells Eiji that straight citizens of Japan are all living in a movie set. “A show is run from the wings, not centre stage. …… In most places the muscle is at the beck and call of the masters. In Japan, we, the muscle, are the masters. Japan is our gig.’”

A hint that this may be considered an altered history comes in an entry in an exquisitely written, intriguing, realistically toned journal supposedly from 1944 of a Tsukiyama ancestor who was a pilot on the kaiten project (the submarine equivalent of the kamikaze) which makes reference to someone who threw himself under a Russian tank with a bomb and also mentions stories of the Soviets’ cruelty in Manchūkuo. In our world the Soviets didn’t declare war on Japan till after Hitler was defeated in 1945. But in a work such as this where so much is invention in the narrator’s mind this could be another example. On the other hand it could simply be a mistake by Mitchell. There is not much solid ground to hang on to here. This is particularly so when, within the ‘present day’ span of the book a huge earthquake strikes the Tokyo area. This, of course, has not happened in the reader’s time-line.

To back this up, towards the end of the book a truck-driver says to Eiji, “‘Trust what you dream. Not what you think,’” and an old woman tells him, “‘Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Beaches where the yet-to-be, the once-were, the never-will-be may walk amid the still-are,’” which could be Mitchell describing his methods. Later we are told, ‘A dream is a fusion of spirit and matter.’

It turns out Eiji’s favourite John Lennon song is #9Dream “‘It should be considered a masterpiece.’” He fantasises a meeting where Lennon says it’s a descendant of Norwegian Wood. Both are ghost stories. The title means “the ninth dream begins after every ending.”

In a variation of the man stepping into the same river some time later conundrum Eiji thinks, “A book you read is not the same book as before you read it. Maybe a girl you sleep with is not the same girl you went to bed with.” Is this taking philosophical speculation too far?

If you were counting earlier there were only eight named sections. The ninth is untitled and contains solely a blank page. Presumably the dream.

Which only leaves the question, is Number9Dream a ‘tour de force’ or perhaps a ‘cult classic’?

Pedant’s corner:- not every often (very often.) “An aviary of telephones trill” (An aviary trills.) A missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) vocal chords (vocal cords.) “‘What would me pictures be doing there??’” (my pictures,) soccer (it’s football,) “the twelve-yard box” (no such thing in football. Penalty box, or eighteen yard box at a pinch,) Eiji scores a goal direct from a goal-kick (that wouldn’t count, goal kicks are indirect free-kicks,) “the enemy goalposts …. enemy player(s)” (the opposition goalposts …. opponent(s).) “A queue of the hippest people wait outside” (a queue waits.) “Daaimon tells the girls a long story … that make the girls shriek with laughter” (tells a story that makes the girls shriek,) hiccoughs (hiccups; it’s not any kind of cough,) “we are in miniature planetarium” (a miniature planetarium,) “and flashes and enamel smile” (an enamel smile.) “A garage band rehearse” (a band rehearses.) “Inside are a whole row of” (is a whole row,) “‘And will his trousers needing pressing’” (need.) “The string section bask in the applause” (the string section basks.) “The clatter and glitter of cascading silver balls hypnotize the ranks of drones” (the clatter and glitter hypnotizes.) “The crowd drain away” (the crowd drains away,) eidelweiss (edelweiss,) “he tobaggoned down the crater” (tobogganed.) “How do you write a letter a real private detective?” (to a real private detective,) “with an cane” (a cane.) “A coven of wives blowhole laughter” (a coven blowholes laughter.) “None of are eager to” (None of us is eager to,) “life-sized statute” (statue,) “I saw than Shiomi’s eyes” (that,) military bace (base,) “we all knew knew” (omit a “knew”.) “He neck is” (his neck,) “a crowd of very busy people surge in” (a crowd surges in,) “‘people use to build Tokyo’” (used to,) vortexes (vortices.) “One set of hands frisk me while another set holds my arms” (note that failure of subject to agree with verb in the first clause with no such failure in the second clause; it ought to be ‘one set frisks me’,) “the three men also sat at the card table” (the three men seated at, or sitting at,) “wracked with relief and guilt” (racked,) “handwriting is an clear as malice” (is as clear,) “the enemy are tracking me” (the enemy is tracking me.) “A row of men in uniforms occupy the urinals” (a row of men occupies the urinals.)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Europa, 2012, 328 p. Translated from the Italian L’amica geniale by Ann Goldstein.

Book One: Childhood, Adolescence

My Brilliant Friend cover

Ferrante’s writing – especially her Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first – has been attracting a lot of attention if not hype. The mystery surrounding her identity – Ferrante is a pseudonym whose real-life counterpart has not revealed herself – is one of the elements in that I’m sure.

This volume is the tale of two childhood friends growing up in the back streets of Naples – not quite two children dressing in rags but poor certainly. Our narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter, her friend is Lila Cerullo, the shoemaker’s daughter. Lila is gifted intellectually – at least according to Elena – but does not progress at school, as she decides not to. (Not that her parents would have allowed her to.) Elena is given every opportunity by her teacher who persuades her parents to allow her to continue her education beyond the normal for her milieu.

While still young Lila reveals to Elena the conspiracy of silence about before, before the war, before they were born, seeing all her elders as complicit. Elena realises, “Without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too.”

Through Elena, Ferrante is good on the absurdities and embarrassments of puberty, the lack of control over the body and of how others perceive you. In time and in contrast to Elena, Lila begins to exert a magnetic attraction on all males. She is well able to defend herself (and Elena) against any unwanted advances however. She throws herself and her talents into designing shoes but her father has no faith in their ability to sell and scorns the possibility. Elena’s continuing education and the necessary separation as the new higher schools are across the city gradually puts a distance between the pair.

An element of fantasy – undeveloped in this volume – appeared when on New Year’s Eve 1959 Lila experienced what she will later describe to Elena as dissolving margins. To her the outlines of people suddenly dissolved, disappeared. How much this contributes to Ferrante’s overall story arc I can’t say but her story-telling in general I found irritating. There was too much telling not enough showing, too much concentration on boring minutiae – every test score Elena ever got seems to be included. In addition there were many cases in which the characterisation was lacking. There is an index of characters – inserted before the novel proper – so that you can tell them apart by name but many of them, the young males especially, do not stand out from each other on the page. I felt too that there was a stretching towards significance in phrases like, “there are no gestures, words, or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit,” and “‘When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities,’” which actually don’t bear scrutiny. Moreover the book ends on a point of imminent conflict. Yes, there are three more instalments of Ferrante’s quartet to go but this still felt like a breach of the contract between writer and reader.

I would agree that as a social document of a time and a place, of certain attitudes, My Brilliant Friend is interesting enough but despite that “cliffhanger” I wasn’t moved to seek out further instalments with any alacrity.

Pedant’s corner:- The text has been translated into USian. Otherwise; “an anti-gas mask” (this may be a literal translation of the Italian, but the English term is simply, gas mask.) “To not be second.” (Not to be second,) pubis (is the pubic bone not the pubic area,) knickers (conveys a different meaning to a British reader than the knickerbockers or plus-fours I took it was intended,) an useful (technically correct I suppose, but not a common usage,) Aeneas’ (Aeneas’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

Identity by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1999, 155 p. Translated from the French L’identité (Gallimard, 1998?) by Linda Asher.

Identity cover

After the loss of a baby from a previous marriage, the constant refrain from her husband and his family that another child would set things right Chantal left to take up with Jean-Marc, who feels he only engages with the world through her but is fearful that is only an illusion and without her he’d lose any connection to the world. Her realisation that, ‘Men don’t turn to look at me any more,’ is the starting point of the couple’s estrangement. She begins to receive anonymous letters, keeping them from Jean-Marc, and imagines who might be their writer. Eventually their contents contain too many details of her activities to be the work of someone who does not know her well. The confrontation that ensues sees Chantal take a trip to London, in part to escape.

In its early stages this book reminded me of the work of John Banville but then it took a left turn into a phantasia of unlikely occurrences which it is a tribute to Kundera’s skill are nevertheless entered seamlessly without any jarring to the reader.

Identity, the awareness of self, is of course the theme of the book. “Remembering our past, carrying it with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining the wholeness of the self.” Saying friends help to bolster this sense, Jean-Marc calls into evidence Dumas’s four musketeers and claims friendship is, “proof of the existence of something stronger than ideology, than religion, than the nation,” but Chantal tells him. “Friendship is a problem for men. It’s their romanticism. Not ours.”

Chantal works at an advertising agency. One of her colleagues declares, “‘Only a very small minority really enjoys sex.’” When challenged, he adds, ‘If someone interrogates you on your sex life, are you going to tell the truth?….. while everyone may covet the erotic life everyone also hates it, as the source of their troubles, their frustrations, their yearnings, their complexes, their sufferings.’” Sex is never far from the surface in a Kundera book. Here advertising is characterised as, “Toilet paper, nappies, detergent, food. That is man’s sacred circle, and our mission is not only to discover it, seize it, and map it, but to make it beautiful, to transform it into song.” We are, “condemned to food and coitus and toilet paper.”

Identity is a slight volume at 155 pages but packs a lot in. However, the simile in, “her voice wavering like the lament of a woman raped,” strikes an off-note.

Pedant’s corner:- Patroclus’ (Patroclus’s,) Alexandre Dumas’ (Dumas’s,) unfriendlike (is that a translation of a French word for which there is no direct English equivalent?) “an burdensome thing” (a burdensome thing, surely? Or was it a peculiar emphasis in the French?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Britannicus’ (Britannicus’s,) “to épater les bourgeois” (not translated, but italicised,) a curious shift to past tense for one paragraph in a section otherwise rendered in the present.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 119 p. Translated from the Spanish Memoria de mis putas tristes (Mondadori, Barcelona, 2005) by Edith Grossman

Memories of My Melancholy Whores cover

The title strongly suggests this (short) novel will address at least two of literature’s big three themes. Sex certainly and, if not death, then at least old age. And it does so from the first sentence, where our narrator reveals that the year he turned ninety he, “wanted to give himself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” A columnist on a Colombian newspaper, this is a man who has always paid for the women he has had sex with – even if they threw the money on the floor straight away.

He contacts his madam of choice, Rosa Cabarcas, to arrange the contract. In the event, though, when he enters the room the child is sleeping and he does nothing to disturb her. Instead he begins to idolise her and reminisce about his past life.

That title is slightly misleading, there is not actually much about whores in the 119 pages, whether melancholy or otherwise. What there is, are the ruminations of an old man on life, love and obsession, thus hitting squarely on literature’s third big theme. Of women he says, “they know the how and the why when they want to,” and of ageing as a man, “among the charms of old age are the provocations our young female friends permit themselves because they think we are out of commission.” There is also some wit. The state censor at the newspaper, altogether too fond of striking his pen through the whole of a piece of copy, is dubbed the Abominable No-Man.

It is definitely the work of a writer who knew thoroughly what he was doing and how to achieve his ends but also with the sly urge to provoke.

Pedant’s corner:- “the incipient down on her pubis” (the pubis is the pubic bone, not the genital area. The external prominence is the Mons pubis.) “The best part of her body were her large, silent stepping feet” (the best part was,) Praxiteles’ (Praxiteles’s,) Heraclitus’ (Heraclitus’s.)

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 1977, 104 p.

The Abbess of Crewe cover

On its surface a tale of nefarious goings-on in a nunnery involving electronic eavesdropping, a nun’s assignations with a Jesuit and a stolen thimble, all against a backdrop of an election for the post of Abbess, the cover’s assertion that it is “a wicked satire on Watergate” could nowadays be applied to political machinations more widely.

Sister Felicity had been stirring up the nuns before the election with her stance on what you could designate as modernity, certainly in her espousal of sexual freedom (she is the one nipping off Compline or Nunes or Lauds or Vespers to meet with her Jesuit,) but the old guard, Alexandra and Walburga, even if their disapproval of her activity is nuanced, (‘I must say a Jesuit, or any priest for that matter, would be the last man I would elect to be laid by,’ says Alexandra. ‘A man who undresses, maybe; but one who unfrocks, no.’ To which Walburga observes – in a sentence that shows such proclivities on the part of clerics were never exactly a secret in some circles – ‘That type of priest usually prefers young students’) is determined she should not prevail.

As could sometimes be her wont Spark does not present us with a straightforward linear narrative, chapters set pre- and post the Abbess’s election being scattered throughout the short tale. Occasional lighter moments arise in the content of telephone calls to Sister Gertrude, off doing good works in Africa.

There are occasional bons mots such as, ‘Philosophers, when they cease philosophising and take up action are dangerous,’ and, “‘Invariably a man you feed both ends,’ Gertrude says. ‘You have to learn to cook and to do the other,’” and it’s all very readable, but somehow off-hand.

Pedant’s corner:- covent (convent,) Gent’s (Gents’.)

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.)

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