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Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O’Brien

Penguin, 1982, 158 p.

 Girls in Their Married Bliss cover

Being a further installment of the lives of the two Irish friends introduced to us in The Country Girls and explored again in Girl with Green Eyes.

This book finds both of them married but, as its title sarcastically suggests, not entirely – or at all – happily. Unlike the previous two books in the series which were seen entirely from Kate’s point of view, here there are first person sections narrated by Baba, complete with her idiosyncratic spelling and grammar – in which frustrations with what she sees as Kate’s inadequacies are expressed. The other, third person, sections adopt Kate’s viewpoint. She is married to the Eugene Gaillard she took up with in the previous book and has a five year-old son, Cash. Baba married a “thick builder” who knew almost nothing about women when he met her – and still doesn’t. His money is welcome, though. Their marriage is childless at the start of the book.

Neither of the ‘girls’ acts in what you might call a mature manner even if Baba does have the thought, “People liking you or not liking you is an accident and is to do with them and not you.”

The trilogy could be seen as an illustration of the influences of background on behaviour and the harm a lack of a rounded education can do but this one seems to have devolved into a book about not particularly likeable people acting less than creditably – and muddling through with greater or lesser success.

It is though by modern standards incredibly short.

Pedant’s corner:- Gaeltacth (Gaeltacht,) “less that” (less than,) occasional missing commas before or after a piece of direct speech, a cleaners’ (a cleaner’s,) “Kate slung towards ..” (slunk?) “had looked … and drank from” (and drunk from,) plimsols (plimsolls,) connexion (connection.)

Cosmic Queries by Neil deGrasse Tyson with James Trefil

Star Talk’s Guide to Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going. Edited by Lindsey N Walker

National Geographic, 2021, 311 p, including i p Author’s Note, i p Introduction, ii p Acknowledgements, iv p Further Reading, iii p Illustrations credits, vii p Index and i p About the Authors.

Modern Physics can be a daunting and impenetrable subject to those unfamiliar with it (even to those who study it or for whom it is their life’s work.) Quantum mechanics is especially difficult. Richard Feynman once said that nobody understands it.

This book is an attempt by the authors to explain modern Physics concepts to (I assume) the general reader in ten chapters exploring our place in the Universe, how we know what we know, how did the Universe become what it is, its age, what it’s made of, the nature of life, whether we are alone in the Universe, how it all began, how it will end, and what does nothing have to do with everything. I would say it succeeds admirably. Footnotes or headnotes are cleverly disguised by setting them off with yellow lines so that they do not appear to be footnotes or headnotes, as are occasional examples of Tyson’s dated and timed historical tweets on various subjects. (My favourite, “Don’t Give up on us yet. Americans are inching towards the metric system.”)

Tyson and Trefil adopt an informal style, the feeling is as if they are having a conversation with the reader. As far as I recall there are only two equations rendered as such, that for Hubble’s law and of course Einstein’s most famous. (Another Tyson tweet, “You Matter. Unless you multiply yourself by the speed of light squared. Then you Energy.”)

The book is gorgeously illustrated with both historical and modern diagrams/pictures and photographs. One of these is a quite stunning “plan” view of the Milky Way showing its prominent spiral arms and the sun’s place in it.

Striking to the British reader is that temperatures are always quoted in Fahrenheit (before the Celsius figure is given in brackets.) This just seems very backward to someone from a country where the former temperature scale – and the imperial weights and measures system – was superseded around sixty years ago.

The text is a lucid summing up of present knowledge via a trawl through the past – though possibly overtaken by the confirmation of an unexpectedly large wobble of muons which may mean there are at present four forces working on the universe rather than three. This is how science works though, knowledge continually being tested against experiment, and explanations for the detected phenomena updated as a result. I cannot say whether someone lacking a background in Science would find Cosmic Queries as readable as I did but it would certainly act as a good primer for anyone eager to explore the subjects. My copy was very tightly bound, however, making it necessary to hold the pages firmly to keep them open.

I thank National Geographic for sending me this book for review.

Pedant’s corner:- “the world’s first federally funded research institute” (this was in Denmark, as far as I know never a federal country. Elsewhere than in the US ‘state funded’ would have been the appropriate phrase, but then ‘state’ means something different in the US,) “on hearing of the new device, Galileo immediately improved the existing design” (I think Galileo had to get his hands on one first rather than just hearing of it, before he could improve it,) spacecrafts (the plural of spacecraft is spacecraft,) antennas (whatever happened to antennae?) sprung (sprang,) “was the first show that” (the first to show that.) “Gold is the element of choice in this experience for how thin it can be hammered” (in this experiment,) “that only about a 10th of one percent … bounced back at him” (should be ‘that about a tenth of one percent’ – the surprise was that any at all bounced back,) “10-3 second”, “0.001 second” and “0.000001 second” (10-3 seconds, 0.001 seconds and 0.000001 seconds,) the text refers to zero gravity (zero gravity does not exist; there is always something exerting a gravitational pull, ‘zero gravitational potential energy with regard to Earth’ was meant,) “far enough away that Earth is no longer trying to pull it back” (ditto. Earth is trying to pull it back, it’s just moving too fast for Earth to do so,) William of Ockham (was always spelled Occam in my day but Ockham is now widely used.)

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Penguin Modern Classics, 1986, 282 p (including vi p Preface by André Maurois and ix p Introduction by James E Irby.) Edited by Donald A Yates and James E Irby. Translated variously from the Spanish in the publications Ficciones (1956,) El Aleph (1957,) Discusíon (1957,) Otras inquisiciones (1960) and El Hacedor (1960) by Donald A Yates, James E Irby, John M Fein, Harriet de Onis, Julian Palley, Dudley Fitts and Anthony Kerrigan. Preface translated by Sherry Mangan.

 Labyrinths cover

As well as the preface and introduction the book contains twenty three works described as FICTIONS, none of which is greater than sixteen pages long, along with ten ESSAYS, mostly short but the last and longest of which is seventeen pages, eight PARABLES, never more than two pages, and a one page Elegy which is laid out as a poem. In his introduction we are told Borges once claimed that “the basic devices of all fantastic literature are only four in number: the work within the work, the contamination of reality by dream, the voyage in time and the double.” All are displayed here among multiple invocations of circularity, of obverse and reverse, mirror images, separateness and wholeness and – a few times – an indication of the significance of fourteen instances of an object or concept. The pieces here show that Borges was formidably well read and he is never afraid to display that learning; indeed defiantly unapologetic about it to the extent that his trust of the reader requires no apology. The reading experience is not straightforward – Irby’s Introduction says the original Spanish texts do not flow smoothly and we should therefore not expect the English translations to do so – the text demands concentration.
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is a tale about an elusive entry in the Encyclopædia Brittanica about the non-existent city of Uqbar and another relating to the orderly world of Tlön which has its own idiosyncratic language and philosophy.
The Garden of Forking Paths has a passage which illustrates the “many worlds” theory of quantum mechanics but prefaced it by decades. A man called Yu Tsun comes to an English estate where he finds the legacy of his ancestor Ts’ui Pên who withdrew from life to write a book and construct a labyrinth. The book is the labyrinth and the labyrinth is the book – the garden of forking paths. All this is wrapped up in a spy story, wherein Yu Tsun has to find a way to communicate his information through the fog of war to the German High Command of the Great War. It’s stunning.
The Lottery in Babylon is an account of how life in that city came to be dominated by chance as mediated through a Company which may or may not exist.
Pierre Menard, Author of the “Quixote” is a list of the written works of that author and an examination of his magnum opus the Quixote, a rewriting of Cervantes’s novel undertaken by immersing himself in seventeenth century Spanish and imagining himself as Cervantes. Nevertheless the story goes on to contend that even though the texts of the two books are identical Menard’s version is “almost infinitely richer.” The story also asserts that “there is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless.”
In The Circular Ruins a man crawls from a river onto land and then into a circular ruined temple where he sets out to dream a man. Eventually he succeeds but the story has more to come.
The Library of Babel is a complete universe made up of hexagonal galleries interconnected by passageways. Its uniformly formatted volumes contain every possible combination of twenty-five orthographical symbols; 22 letters, the comma, the space and the full stop.
Funes the Memorious was a man from Fray Bentos who could remember everything, but was unfortunately an invalid.
The Shape of the Sword is apparently a tale related to Borges by the “Englishman from La Colorada” (who was actually Irish) and concerns how he got his facial scar during the Irish Civil War.
Theme of the Traitor and the Hero is reported rather than told. It is a schematic outline of a story about a revolutionary hero who is in fact a traitor to the cause but whose unmasking would do damage to it.
Death and the Compass is a crime story revolving around revenge, geometry and the Tetragrammaton.
The Secret Miracle tells of the bargain which writer Jaromir Hladik makes with God the day before his execution by the Nazis to allow him to finish his play The Enemies.
Three Versions of Judas elaborates on the theories of one Nils Runeberg regarding Judas Iscariot as being a reflection of Jesus; theories excoriated by orthodox theologians but then revised to being a reflection of God.
The Sect of the Phoenix is a description of one of those secret societies which are so secret – and universal – even its members don’t know they belong to it.
In The Immortal a man hears of the city of the Immortals; both it and immortality itself said to be reached by drinking the waters of a certain river. Somewhere beyond the bounds of Africa he finds the city, a labyrinthine oddity built on the ruins of the one of the ancient Immortals. There he meets a thousand year-old Homer but yearns again for mortality.
The Theologians contrasts the wheel and the cross, the straight path of Jesus against the circular labyrinth followed by the impious, the Histriones and the thoughts of John of Pannonia.
Story of the Warrior and the Captive draws parallels between the story of Droctulft, a barbarian who died defending Rome, and an Englishwoman abducted by South American Indians who had come to accept what Borges calls “a savage life.” The story contains the wonderful phrase “that reluctant blue the English call grey.”
Emma Zunz is the tale of the elaborate revenge of the woman of that name on the man who committed the crime for which her father was exiled.
The House of Asterion is another labyrinth, with all of its parts repeated many times.
Deutsches Requiem is a courageous act of literary ventriloquism in the form of an apologia pro vita sua of a German from a distinguished military family as written the night before his execution for crimes committed as subdirector of Tarnowitz concentration camp. He is proud of his Nazi philosophy, proud of his anti-Judaic (and therefore anti-Jesus) beliefs, proud of destroying the Bible for ever, proud of forcing the Allies into, in order to win, being the Nazis’ image.
Averroes’s Search relates to his difficulty in fathoming Aristotle’s use of the words tragedy and comedy as these did not exist in Arabic. An addendum outlines Borges’s own difficulty in comprehending Averroes.
The Zahir relates the thoughts of the narrator (Borges mentions himself in this context, but these fabular tales are never so straightforward) about the relatively small denomination coin of that name – note obverses and reverses again – he picked up in change and how he could not stop thinking about it. It carries on to description of the effects of other similarly mesmerisingly fascinating objects and whether they are thereby close to God.
In The Waiting a man takes on the identity of his enemy, Alejandro Villari, as a means to avoiding his revenge. Every night he dreams that Villari comes to kill him.
The God’s Script contains the thoughts of an Aztec priest tortured and imprisoned by the Spanish. He sees God as a wheel encompassing everything that was, is, or will be, all things interlinked – including his torturer.

Here Borges considers The Argentine Writer and Tradition and decries calls for such writers to stick to only Argentine themes as these would be less Argentine for it; the Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ti who built the Great Wall but also ordered all books published prior to his reign be burned so that history would start with him; the history of cosmogony as manifested in the infinite spheres; how Don Quixote is magical precisely for its realistic treatment of the world; Paul Valéry as the symbol of the perfect poet; how each writer creates his (or her, but Borges did not include ‘her’) own precursors by modifying the past and the future; the many ways of illustrating Zeno’s paradox; how attempts to understand the world are undermined by lack of self-knowledge; that Bernard Shaw’s later works educe almost innumerable persons or dramatis personae; and produces A New Refutation of Time a title which, as Borges notes, contains its own contradiction.

The PARABLES are of a piece with the Fictions and the Essays, finely wrought but compressed into at most one and a half pages.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “Perhaps the most striking characteristics of his writings is their” (either ‘characteristic’, or, ‘are’,) snobbism (what is wrong with the word snobbery?) Otherwise; a missing full stop (x2,) Cervantes’ (x 2, Cervantes’s – used in this form later, twice,) dilacerated (not misshapen teeth. The surrounding text argues for ‘lacerated’,) gradins (gradines,) demiurgi (x2, demiurges,) eucalypti (x3, eucalyptuses,) connexion (connection,) the text could be read as implying that “the armoured vanguard of the Third Reich” first entered Prague in March 1943 (they actually invaded in late 1938,) “military tribute of one of Rome’s legions” (tribune,) Histriones’ (Histriones’s,) strategem (stratagem,) Guzerat (normally ‘Gujarat’ in English.) “Nor is it banal to pretend that the most traditional of races renounce the memory of its past” (renounces,) hexametres (hexameters,) Scopenhauer (Schopenhauer.)

Impossible Things by Connie Willis

This is a book of short stories by the person who has won more Nebula and Hugo Awards than any other writer.

Bantam, 1994, 471 p, plus vi p Introduction by Gardner Dozois Plus vi p of Acknowledgements and lists of contents and illustrations.

The Last of the Winnebagos sees a near future where a mutated parvovirus has killed off all species of dog. Only jackals are left and even those are vanishingly rare. The Humane Society monitors and polices any animal deaths. The roads are dominated by water tankers servicing the city of Phoenix and the like and travelling very fast to blur the speed cameras. Our narrator is a photojournalist who sees a dead jackal on the road while on his way to photograph the last Winnebago, and is drawn into a web of suspicion.

Even the Queen was apparently written in response to complaints that Willis never wrote about women’s issues. (Her view is of course that there ought to be no restrictions on what a writer writes about.) In the story a device called a shunt disseminates a drug called ammenerol which prevents periods. The narrator’s daughter causes a stushie in the family when she announces she wishes to join a group called the Cyclists, who see shunts and ammenerol as instruments of the male patriarchy seeking to deprive women of their natural functions. Nevertheless, the story is played for laughs.

Schwarzschild Radius combines the theory of a star’s gravitational collapse into a black hole with the memories of a Dr Rottschieben who apparently served with Schwarzschild in the Great War. It’s beautifully written and its embedded metaphor ingenious but doesn’t really hold up under retrospective scrutiny.

Ado imagines a future (very litigious, very USian) in which everybody complains about everything and so teaching is made almost impossible. Hamlet consists of only two lines.

Spice Pogrom is Willis’s tribute to Hollywood screwball comedies but also reminded me of one of James White’s Sector General stories. Aliens called Eahrohhs have come to Earth, or, rather, to a space station called Sony which has an idiosyncratic housing policy. One of them, Mr Ohghhifoehnnahigrheeh, has promised to deliver NASA a space program (sic) and narrator Chris’s Nasa employed fiancé has billeted him/it on her and told her to allow it/him whatever it wants. There is plenty of the incidental happenings the screwball comedy enshrines to complicate the story-line. This one turns on whether Mr Ohghhifoehnnahigrheeh actually understands the English words they are all using but the story’s pay-off doesn’t really reward the time investment required by the reader.

Winter’s Tale riffs on the theory that since Shakespeare was low-born he could not have written all those magnificent plays and poems. Told as by Anne Hathaway it plays with that notion (which Willis’s foreword insists is surely incorrect,) and with the possibility that Christopher Marlowe’s murder in a Deptford Inn was faked while also providing a reason for Shakespeare’s famous bequest to Anne.

In Chance a woman has moved back to the town where she attended college (where everything is the same but everything is different) because her husband, who is interested only in career advancement, has a new job there. She starts to see the students as people she knew back in her youth and wonders on the chance happenings that change lives for the better – or worse.

In the Late Cretaceous is a satire on neologisms and academia, with the institution where it’s set also riddled with an over-officious set of traffic wardens, ticketing anything that doesn’t move. The professor of palæontology is a metaphorical dinosaur, still using chalk on blackboard. Willis’s preface to this laments what she calls political correctness, as being inimical, or at least antithetic, to comedy and moans about “every anti- (Choose one: smoking, animal research, logging, abortion, Columbus.)” Well she did include anti-abortionists, so she’s not a complete lost cause.

Time Out centres round a project to produce a “temporal oscillator” with which to manipulate “hodiechrons” (quantum units of time which Willis has presumably named from the Latin for today and the Greek for time.) An anatomy of both the quotidian routines of marriage and parenthood – the domestic detail is thoroughly true to life – the vicissitudes of not well resourced research and nostalgia for youth it suggests a mechanism for the origins of déjà vu. The whole is intricately plotted but leans a bit too heavily on light-heartedness.

Jack returns to the subject of the London Blitz which Willis explored in her short story Fire Watch and novels To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear. As in those (and The Doomsday Book) it is marred for a British reader by a failure to get details of life and usages in the UK correct. The story concerns a new member of an ARP unit who shows an uncanny knack for detecting bodies buried by rubble. He also disappears sharply to his day job. The narrator develops suspicions.

At the Rialto’s title has a different meaning to Sons of the Rock of my generation compared to those who hail from elsewhere. It was the name of the local cinema. The Rialto here is a hotel in Hollywod hosting (or not) a meeting of quantum physicists. The plot revolves around a series of uncertainties.

Pedant’s corner:- flack (x3, flak,) “the Queen of England” (was of course not crowned as such but as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and is of course Queen of many other places besides,) gladiolas (gladioli,) Russian Front (in the Great War it was called the Eastern Front,) LaGrangian points” (Lagrange points,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “‘The seasons’ just started’” (season’s.) “‘Five years and no sex have made desperate’” (have made me desperate’,) “I don’t’” (I don’t,) a missing full stop, “setting her cap for you” (setting her cap at you,) liquor (the British usage is booze, or drink,) a character is said by another to be from Yorkshire but himself says he’s from Newcastle (all British people know Newcastle [either of them] isn’t in Yorkshire,) ME 109s (it’s Me 109s – and the text implies that type of plane was a bomber. It was a fighter,) bannister (banister,) oleo (the word used in the UK for this type of spreadable butter substitute is margarine,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, automobile jack (‘car jack’, or just ‘jack’,) row houses (terraced houses,) the Duchess of York (by this time [1941] the said woman was the Queen and was only ever referred to as ‘the Queen’,) a medal is said to have been awarded at a military HQ (investitures are [and were even during the war] held at Royal Palaces,) a recipient’s father is said to have pinned the medal on his son himself (medals are conferred by a member of the Royal family or perhaps, in extreme cases, by a representative such as a Lord Lieutenant,) the Duchess of York kissed the award recipient on both cheeks (absolutely not,) “and said he was the pride of England” (the ‘pride of Britain’ possibly, ‘England’ I very much doubt. The Queen [formerly Duchess of York] was Scottish,) an inland revenue collector (a taxman,) “had gotten married” (had got married,) the award recipient had shot down fifteen German planes so must have been in Fighter Command but is later said to be flying nightly bombing missions over Germany – a Bomber Command task.) “‘meaning’ or possible ‘information’” (or possibly.)

Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin

Illustrated by John Sibbald. Serpent’s Tail, 2004, 210 p, including 14 p Notes about the composers and philosophers. Plus vi p of Acknowledgements and lists of contents and illustrations.

This is a collection of 26 short stories, none of which is longer then twelve pages and even that includes one of the illustrations. Their tenses shift from past to present and back again. Trappings of the present day irrupt into the past or vice versa, modern day phenomena like pizza deliveries precede composing by candlelight with quill pens. Within the context, though, it all makes a surreal heightened sense. Unlike a lot of Scottish fiction the writing is laced with humour. Seventeen of the stories are listed under the heading “The lives,” four under, “The letters,” three are “The thoughts,” and, finally, one is “The last word.”

All of it is delightful stuff.

The lives:-
Sheep being scarce in Venice would-be priest Antonio Vivaldi – familiar with McDonald’s, TV and spaghetti westerns – tries to sleep by counting cardinals jumping off the papal balcony, one of whom brings to him both God and music via the number 3. 500 concerti later Vivaldi tries to go on holiday but is caught up in a war. A later incarnation learns to walk on water by channelling his anger at a Stravinsky comment that he always writes the same concerto.
In the glass box of her marriage Alma Mahler writes down the notes of the string quartet she is composing only for them to disappear from the paper as soon as she’s finished. Bach, who in his youth had aspired to be a professional footballer until a retired player suggested his true vocation, struggles to respond to the deluge of parcels he receives following the publication of an article titled ‘If Only Bach Had a computer’ in the previous month’s Digital Digest. Beethoven anticipates the benefits due to flow to him from a pyramid scheme while striding the mean streets of Edinburgh till he comes to “the Zone-of-Everything-and-Nothingness” that is South Bridge, which always defeats him. A Hamburg perpetually mist-bound and stuck at 4.45 in the afternoon due to the composer’s previous failures waits for Brahms to complete his first symphony: a fantastic interlude brings resolution. Antonin Dvořák finds his knowledge of Science Fiction and fairy-tale useful while stalking the Bohemian wilds for musical inspiration. Fresh from an invitation onto The Jerry Springer Show, Haydn hears a voice telling him just how many trios he still has to compose. Enthused by a cable channel film noir series, Mozart decides on a new career as a private investigator in a story which also features him bicycling through the air like the ident scene at the start of a Dreamworks© film. Schubert glides through the streets of 1828 Vienna on his skateboard before being given a magic business card. In a manifestation which may be an indication of Schumann’s state of mind Liepzig morphs its architecture daily: then he takes the underground to Herr Wieck’s flat where he meets Clara. An aged Sibelius is in his last hours invited to join the circus by three clowns. Richard Strauss and Amenhotep IV share their dreams of finessing Nazi racial policies and building pyramids respectively. Tchaikovsky laments the madness of his marriage as he considers a last ballet. Georg Telemann writes his best-selling concertos amongst the mountain of mail order goods he has requested (or not) while his agent adopts his identity. One of the Mighty Handful of Russian composers who form a five-a-side football team conceives the idea of introducing passing to their game; their results get worse.

The letters:-
Composer Q makes a compact with the Mr Sinclair who turns up at his door: thereafter the music flows and Q’s domestic life becomes blissful. There is a catch of course. Composer X’s career creating music for films has given him all the trappings of success – girls, glamour and real estate. He flees the Calvinistic persecutions of messages in the Edinburgh sky to Tenerife only to find the stars have rearranged themselves into a message in Spanish. Composer Y labours under the affliction of coming between “the celebrated X and the no less renowned Z” (perhaps due to his fondness for the double-bass) till one day the world pauses and the sky becomes a Tiepolo-style ceiling of angels; suddenly he is in constant demand. Composer Z gazes from his window into the vista beyond the end of the alphabet through the large plate-glass window installed for just that purpose. In one universe the glass becomes insubstantial and he is pulled through. (This story contains a comparison between Scottish midges and the dead in Hades – both are summoned by human blood.)

The thoughts:-
A drunken David Hume cosies up to a woman “who had come so close to freezing to death on the pavement outside the Caledonian Hotel she had never warmed up again” before he is, in a phrase which could summarise this whole book, “stranded in this makeshift world put together from the sweepings of history.” Nietzsche tries to break free from monetisation at the hands of his University by keeping chickens. Seneca settles on Edinburgh’s Southside as the perfect place to prove Stoicism firmly as number one of all the world’s philosophies. Socrates attends the opening of Greece’s first supermarket, ‘Zealous Hellas’.

The last word:-
On her death bed Nadia Boulanger is visited by other female composers – her sister Lili, Hildegard von Bingen, Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” and “within seconds” count; substantial – a few had gone by before I noticed the prevalence but they soon become extremely intrusive. Otherwise; crochets (crotchets,) manoeuvering (manoeuvring,) vermillions (vermilions,) “a set of garden furniture say with no memory of ever having ordered them” (ordered it,) extendible” (extendable,) the text implies the great Real Madrid team of 1959 had invented the passing game (they didn’t. It was the mighty Sons of the Rock in the 1880s/90s who did that,) “Puskas, Di Stefano, Santa Maria … [were] … to secure the European Cup for Real Madrid three years in a row” (Real won that cup five years in a row, the first five of its existence; those three players may not have been present for all five, of course.) “A few second’s later” (seconds,) “duvetted by straw and feathers” (should the spelling be ‘duveted’?) An unindented paragraph, Socrates’ (Socrates’s.)

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Head of Zeus, 2020, 510 p.

Why would an Israeli author better known for exploring Middle-Eastern or Jewish themes and concerns and the byways of Altered History turn his attention to the (so-called) matter of Britain? For that is what Tidhar has done in By Force Alone, a retelling of the story of King Arthur from a novel angle – what would it really have been like to contest for kingship in a bygone age, to gain, hold and wield power by force alone? I suppose the tale is well enough known, though, and, as Tidhar’s Afterword shows, it has always been fair game for reploughing and reinterpreting.

Here we have all the familiar names of Camelot and the knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Morgause, Galahad, Mordred etc, but seen in a downcast light. Forget any notion of parfit, gentil knyghts (especially as that was a phrase which Chaucer no doubt devised cunningly.) The characters here are earthy, human, venal, demotic in speech, prone to all the vices known to man and few of the virtues, their surroundings mostly squalid, their motivations base.

By Force Alone is told in an urgent present tense, its background is England before it was England, in the Dark Age aftermath of the Roman withdrawal. A “wild country, a host of warring tribes who scrabble for scraps in the ruin of civilisation,” with a new religion, Christianity, on the ascendant. Most of the characters are Brythonic Celts but offstage sundry Angles, Saxons and Jutes are making inroads into the territory of southern Britain, mainly by peaceful settlement but bringing their harsh, guttural Anglisc tongue with them.

Arthur is engendered in the usual way, Uther Pendragon disguising himself with Merlin’s help to resemble the lady Igraine’s husband and so impregnate her, but the resulting child is whipped off by Merlin to a foster home in Londinium, where, growing up, he learns the dark arts of street fighting and survival. Joseph of Arimathea features as the trainer of Lancelot in martial arts and his inductor into membership of the Inner Circle of the Venerated Secret Brotherhood of the Seekers of the Grail. Joseph’s conviction that the Grail was to be found in Britain brings Lancelot somewhat reluctantly to its shores.

In what in retrospect is an odd interpolation Tidhar brings in elements of SF with the appearance of a falling star – which can be read as a descending spaceship or, more prosaically, Halley’s Comet, but its later reascent militates against that – and the growing up round its landing/crash site of the Zone, where strange things happen, odd creatures appear, food rots instantly or stays unaccountably preserved and where those who frequent it tell newcomers, “Don’t touch anything.” Merlin spends his time thinking about this apparition and Lancelot conceives it as the location of the grail. In this context that streak of light in the sky might be considered as an avatar of the Star of Bethlehem.

We all know how things will end but finding out what happens is not the driving force for the reader to continue. This tale of Arthur may be, as the text has it, “just a sad, simple tale of violence and greed,” but it is the telling of it that matters, the slants it takes – Guinevere as a sort of bandit, a leader of Amazons up for a scrap as much as anyone else in this, Arthur as almost feckless – and uncaring that he is cuckolded by Lancelot – Galahad an administrator supreme.

The text is replete with allusion and quotation, including Kurt Vonnegut’s recognition of the inevitability and ubiquity of death (three words not unfamiliar to readers of this blog) and even a riff on the “choose” rant from Trainspotting, not to mention a scene depicting musings on an Antikythera mechanism. Some readers may find this sort of thing distracting but others that it adds to the flavour, a reminder that this is a commentary on its sources as well as a skewed recapitulation. Repetition too is an ingredient, especially of the three words of the title which describe the way in which Kings in these circumstances win and keep their crowns.

Merlin’s thoughts perhaps at times speak to Brexit, “A shared identity, Merlin thinks. A story to unify all these warring tales, so that Britons now and in centuries to come could tell each other that they share a thing. That they are one. And to be one, as Arthur understands implicitly, you must be defined against an other,” and his reflection that “this island’s just a piece of Europe with the landbridge submerged,” and, “It doesn’t really matter, this matter of Britain. Just another way to pass the time.” Later Sir Pellinore muses, “And who’s to say whose land this is, really? Land’s just land.” (Which may – or may not – be a reflection by Tidhar on his Israeli background.)

It is the characters that make By Force Alone. The humans feel like flesh and blood people. The wizard (who doesn’t himself believe in magic) or the fae folk are all as they are in fantasy tales, instruments of darkness to tell us truths, to betray their victims in deepest consequence. (That allusiveness can be catching.) Warnings, all.

The novel is a vigorous, vibrant retelling of “the glorious age of Camelot” rendered more powerful by focusing on the individuals rather than the appurtenances or overall architecture of the tale. In a curious way this demystification of the myth almost makes it more memorable.

Pedant’s corner:- “fifteen hundred heads of cattle” (usually ‘head of cattle’,) “moat pleasantly” twice within the space of a line, and “most pleasant” another line later, Nennius’ (Nennius’s – all of the names here which end with the letter ‘s’ are given possessives with s’ rather than s’s,) “ he lays back, sated” (lies back,) mithraeums (the Latin plural would be mithraea,) ass (in a narrative like this, set where it is, that just seems so wrong. The correct word is arse,) Morgana (is used once for Morgan, but it was Merlin thinking it and will have been an allusion,) “a money changers’” (a money changer’s.) “And he resents her that” (for that?) “…. Kay says Shrugs” (should have a full stop after ‘says’,) “off of” (off, just ‘off’s no ‘of’ required,) fit (fitted.) “It gauges out eyes” (gouges out, surely/) “he flies across a darkening skies” (omit ‘a’ or have a singular sky,) “‘The Angles and the Saxons’ growing influence’” should have apostrophe for Angles as well as Saxons.) “Previous stones. Coin” (Precious stones, I think.) “They are a tribal peoples” (either, ‘They are a tribal people,’ or ‘They are tribal peoples,’ the latter preferably, given that ‘they’.) The army of mutatio scatter” (scatters.) “Lancelot expands little energy” (expends.) “Lancelot is shook” (shaken.) “‘That’s none really of your business’” (has odd syntax – ‘that’s really none of your business’ is more usual,) “The trees don’t sway unless the king commands” (this was in Orkney, traditionally thought to have no trees. When I was there I saw none worth the name,) parlay (parley,) sat (sitting, or, seated,) the town of Wormwood has a sign saying Pop 971 853 (so populated? In the Dark Ages?) epicentre (centre,) “and the water turn to dull reflection” (turns,) “nought but an illusion” (naught.) “A veritable rain of arrows flies down from the enemy’s archers then and hit him” (‘rain … flies down’, therefore should be followed by ‘hits him’,) snuck (sneaked.) In the Afterword; Tidhar says Britain was unified once more by the end of the Wars of the Roses. (It wasn’t. England – with Wales – might have been; but Scotland was politically separate till much later,) ditto “the Norman conquest of Britain” (the Normans conquered only England – until within 200 years the Plantagenet Edward I had also subdued Wales – though their influence spread into Scotland with dynastic marriages and the like.)

Close Quarters by Angus McAllister

Matador, 2017, 493 p.

When I picked this up I wondered if it might be a kind of Glasgow riposte to Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh set 44 Scotland Street novels. Close is of course the Scottish word for the entranceway and stairwell of a tenement block and the inhabitants of such a building do live in proximity to each other – if not necessarily always on good terms – and there are certainly differences between the two cities to be exploited in a project of that sort. However, Close Quarters, while still genteel in its way, has a more earthy, more Glaswegian, approach to the aspects of communal living, and is its own thing.

There are faint echoes of A Christmas Carol in the opening line, “Walter Bain was dead,” but McAllister is not providing us with a ghost story. What he does is outline the various reasons why the building’s occupiers over the years might have had a motive to kill Bain. As the officer in charge of the case says to his sergeant in the prologue, “We’re talking about Walter Bain. The Walter Bain. Did any of them not have a motive?”

For Walter Bain was one of those self-appointed, nit-picking guardians of moral and social welfare, forever peering out through his windows at visitors or residents arriving at the close to check they’d shut the gate of the small enclosure at the front of the building, posting through doors misspelled and ungrammatical missives scribbled onto scraps of paper regarding the stair and window cleaning rota, or the undesirability of wheelie bins being left outside for hours on end, harping on disturbances to the tranquillity of the family nature of the building; or else arranging meetings of tenants to discuss problems with cleaning, maintenance and upkeep, though reluctant to take on himself his portion of any financial burden that might necessitate.

We are shown the experiences with Bain of new tenants Jenny Martin and Joe Robinson, of long-term residents Gus McKinnon, George Anderson and his girlfriend (later wife) Cathie, Billy Briggs, Henrietta Quayle, and that of more recent occupant Tony Miller. Most are rendered in third person past tense but Anderson’s (a lecturer in English at Strathkelvin University – a recently upgraded technical college) is couched as a set of diary entries he composes for Cathie to read as practice for the novel he intends to write and Henrietta Quayle’s is in the form of a psychiatrist’s report by one Philomena Warner who treated Quayle when she had a breakdown after her mother’s death.

The story also centres round the Centurion pub on the corner of Byres Road. Several of the drinkers there are lawyers and McAllister has a lot of scope in his tale to send up both the law and academia. Since Briggs is a dealer in comic books we are also provided with a history of the graphic novel.

Despite the body on the carpet this is not a typical crime novel. McAllister’s interest is not in the murder per se and his treatment is far from po-faced. At several points in reading it I could not suppress giggles. Close Quarters, is also, due to the time frame of McKinnon’s, Briggs’s and Quayle’s occupancies, a social history of the 1980s and 1990s.

It is not difficult to guess who the murderer was. I had my suspicions from early on and indeed it turned out to be the only person it could possibly have been, revealed in an epilogue titled Who Done It. However, working that out in no way spoiled my enjoyment of the book. The gratification here is in the journey, in the many ways in which Bain could wind up his neighbours, and in their reactions to him.

Pedant’s corner:- “the epicentre of the West End” (I don’t think McAllister meant it was off-centre,) a missing punctuation mark – either a comma or full stop would have done the job – before a piece of direct speech, margarene (margarine,) a projected graphic novel is titled Last Exit to Salcoats (that town is spelled Saltcoats,) e-mails (the passage was set in 1999, so fair enough, but this book was published in 2017 so, ‘emails’,) “e mail” (inconsistent with the previous instance,) “‘put his gas on a peep’” (usually ‘gas at a peep’,) syllibi, (syllabi, or, syllabuses.) “None of our classrooms … were big enough” (None …. was big enough,) “divided about half in half” (half and half,) “which would allow me make these appearances” (allow me to make,) “which he he’d recently missed” (remove ‘he’,) “that Matilda has aked me to collect” (the rest of the passage was in the pluperfect so, ‘had asked me’,) “‘glad to be assistance’” (glad to be of assistance’,) “had showed” (had shown.)

The Journey to the East by Herman Hesse

Peter Owen, 1970, 91 p. Translated from the German Die Morgenlandfahrt by Hilda Rosner.

This is one of those pieces of fiction which tend not to be produced by English language writers. It is an account of a journey through Europe supposedly to the East (though we never in fact get there) but also through time: the narrator (H H) encounters various historical characters, in the Middle Ages and the Golden Age, during his wanderings.

The book begins with H H’s reflections on the Great War, shortly after it ended. (On his journey an interlocutor who has written a book about the war tells H H that no book “‘could convey any real picture of the war to the most serious reader, if he had not himself experienced the war.’”)

H H joins the League, a secret organisation whose makeup and dealings he is constrained by vow not to reveal. Despite this he is attempting to write down just those – without breaking his oath not to do so. His great experience, the journey to the East, was, “a constant pilgrimage towards East, towards the Home of Light. The goal was not only the East, but the home and youth of the soul.”

He describes various aspects of the journey, a stop at Bremgarten, meetings with those people from history, an incident in the Morbio gorge. This last involves an attendant called Leo whose disappearance from there is the central point of the (very short) book. All the League remnants seem to think Leo has taken some of their belongings with him but later H H has access to their written accounts of the time and they remember things differently to him. He becomes separated himself from the League and all its members to the extent that he begins to believe it never existed – till he is rejoined to them and finds his lonely sojourning and despair was a test. At his trial for such apostasy the head of the League tells the court, “despair is the result of each earnest attempt to understand and vindicate human life. Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and to fulfil their requirements.”

This, then, is an allegory; of a spiritual and ethical journey. As a consequence, it has few of the usual consolations of fiction, but makes up for it with gravitas.

Pedant’s corner:- “From the castle’s turrets of Bremgarten” (an inelegant translation? From the castle turrets of Bremgarten? From the turrets of the castle of Bremgarten?) “as if each one endeavoured to conceived as lost” (to conceive as lost,) “the time was not that ripe for that” (another inelegancy, ‘the time was not ripe for that’ would do fine,) dissention (dissension.)

The Gates of Eden – A Story of Endeavour by Annie S Swan

Read Books, 2008, 319 p. First published 1893.

This is a facsimile reprint (presumably via photocopy) reproducing the original in all its aspects – including illustrations at each chapter heading and one of Swan opposite the title page – of an edition published in 1893 by William Briggs. The title page has the writer’s married name (Mrs Burnett-Smith) after her author’s credit.

I would not have picked this up (my previous reading of Swan left the impression of her as an adequate talent but not worth seeking out) had it not been lent to us by a friend since part of it is set in the nearby village of Star (aka Star of Markinch.) I am therefore familiar with the local places mentioned, Star (Swan has her characters refer to it as the Star,) Markinch, Kennoway and the Lomond Hills. Swan actually lived in Star for two years but in her biography said she didn’t much like the place. However, “it did give her two books.” Of which I assume this is one.

It is essentially the tale of two brothers, Alexander (Sandy) and Jamie Bethune, whose mother had died in childbirth. Sandy is apparently favoured academically and his father sets him down for the Church. James is designated to keep his father’s holding at their croft. His better education, eventually graduating from University at St Andrews, leads to Sandy having a high opinion of himself and coming to look down on his young adult sweetheart, Mary Campbell, whose broad Scots manner of speaking he thinks will ill become him in his first charge at Lochbroom where he is in any case captivated by Beatrice Lorraine, the daughter of a widower recently moved to a big house in Lochbroom.

Meanwhile James is taken under the wing of the local schoolmaster and taught Latin and literature but it is only once the boys’ father has died that James strikes out on his own, seeking a job on a newspaper in Edinburgh to work his way up. His attendance at St Giles leads to its minister, Doctor Kinross, inviting him to his home and befriending him. It turns out that Kinross and Lorraine are brothers-in-law and James too meets Beatrice but recognises a deep sadness in the Lorraines’ lives.

What follows is fairly predictable, Sandy proposes to Beatrice, who turns him down, James eventually gets a job in London whereupon Beatrice asks him to seek out her disgraced brother, whom her father has sworn never to see again.

The Gates of Eden is a reasonably typical Victorian novel, overly sentimental at times, not too taxing, and one where virtue is rewarded. Even Sandy comes to his senses. It has the style and cadences of its origins but some people may have difficulty with the very broad Scots of the inhabitants of Star. There are, too, occasional interpolations by the author which tend to break the suspension of disbelief.

And once again we have that intimation of the Scottish character of yore, “she belonged to a stern, undemonstrative race, who deemed any exhibition of the finer feelings a sign of weakness.”

Pedant’s corner:- cotttage (cottage,) “‘these sort of gatherings’” (strictly speaking ‘sorts’ but it was in dialogue,) ““Lux Benigna”” (later rendered as ‘Lux Benigna’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “insolvable problem” (Victorian usage? – insoluble/unsolvable,) a missing full stop, a missing ‘close quote’ mark at the end of a piece of direct speech.

The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

riverrun, 2019, 409 p.

This book is an odd mixture of three types of narrative, the first person memoir of Andrew Garvie, a man of small stature (four feet nine inches,) inevitably nicknamed the Dwarf at school, and who has been fascinated by dolls since he was a boy before going on to manage to make a living producing bespoke dolls, interspersed with letters to him from Bramber Winters, an inhabitant of an asylum in the West Country, and five short stories, The Duchess, Amber Furness,The Elephant Girl, Happenstance and The Upstairs Window, as written by one Ewa Chaplin (and supposedly translated from the Polish by Erwin Blacher 2008, as the text notes after each one’s title.) Chaplin, another doll maker, had had to flee Poland for England just before the Nazis took over.

Despite Andrew not being a true achondroplasic – his narrative informs us there are many varieties of dwarfism – he suffers frequent comments on his size and appearance and there are other references to the famous seven dwarfs. His affinity with Bramber comes after he answers an advertisement she placed in a magazine named Ponchinella asking for information on Chaplin’s life and work.

The book veers at times into fantasy but only occasionally. One of the short stories mentions the fae folk and Andrew steals from a museum a doll, ‘The Artist,’ which is able to talk to him – but may of course only be voicing his inner thoughts.

Allan’s writing, whether as Garvie, Winters or ‘Chaplin,’ is superb. It flows, builds up a picture of Garvie and Winters, lays out their lives and, as Chaplin, the characters in ‘her’ stories deftly and economically. Those stories parallel and counterpoint the experiences of Garvie and Winters and most of them either feature or mention a dwarf or someone with a physical deformity – but they do tend to interrupt the flow of Andrew and Bramber’s relationship and require the reader to reset every time they appear. If you were harsh you could say that Allan has found a way to recycle her short stories into a larger whole, fixing them up into a novel. The overall impression though is that this has been extremely well thought out and executed.

My previous reading of Allan had been that there was something skightly askew about her writing, an oddness. The first ‘Chaplin’ story here crystallised that. It was almost as if in her previous books I were reading a translation and something in the background wasn’t coming through. Some of that oddness is apparent in the ‘Chaplin’ stories – but they are supposed to be translations which is why I made the connection. In the Andrew and Bramber sections here though everything is transparent and lucid.

Allan is a talent, of that there is no doubt. Here, her strengths show up in that lucidity.

Pedant’s corner:- “were stood at the bar” (standing,) “a team of detectives were tgrashing” (a team .. was trashing,) sprung (sprang,) vanishment (awkward sounding word. It’s in the dictionary but ‘disappearance’ would do just as well,) stumm (schtum.) “He decision to stay on” (Her decision,) “a ragged reddish-brown ellipsis” (ellipse – Allan seemed to be referring to a shape, not to a truncation, or if so it could only be interpreted that way at a severe push,) “the post office stores” (eight words later referred to as ‘it’, hence, ‘store’,) “the Church of St Ninian’s” (the possessive is already included in ‘Ninian’s’, hence either ‘St Nininan’s Church’, or ‘the Church of St Ninian’,) Andrew buys a return ticket from Bodmin to Tarquin’s Cross but then at the start of the return journey (surely unnecessarily) buys another ticket to Bodmin, “‘the Penzance train normally arrives on to Platform 3’” (trains arrive ‘at’ platforms, not on to them.)

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