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Tunes of Glory by James Kennaway

Canongate Classics, 1989, 180 p, plus v p Introduction by Allan Massie. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Tunes of Glory cover

Lt Colonel Jock Sinclair, ex-Barlinnie, has come up from the ranks and the Pipe Band via a good war to become acting commander of a battalion of an unnamed Scottish regiment. While the battalion is engaged in boisterous dancing practice the new Colonel, Basil Barrow, graduate of Eton, Oxford and Sandhurst (and a Japanese POW camp,) arrives the evening before he was expected. His displeasure at the raucous activity is clear and the seeds of conflict are sown. The new Colonel is soon dubbed Barrow boy, and his demand that all officers gather in the early morning three days a week to practice dancing in a more refined style incurs resentment.

Sinclair has a penchant for drink and a daughter, Morag, of whom he is overly protective. He also maintains an interest in Mary Titterton, an actress in the local Repertory company, with whom he can relax. These two women are the only two in the book and are little more than placeholders. Kennaway’s interests lie elsewhere, in the exigencies of army life, the necessity of sticking to military etiquette and the drawbacks these entail.

Sinclair’s behaviour on a night out in the town eventually puts Barrow in an impossible position. Neither can deal with the consequences.

I watched the film made from this on television a few years ago. As far as I recall it, it stayed remarkably true to the book. In his introduction Allan Massie says the ending works better cinematically than in the novel, mainly due to Alec Guiness’s presence as an actor. There is something to this analysis but Kennaway’s examination of army life and the pressures it puts on emotional life is nevertheless illuminating.

Pedant’s corner:- in the author’s background information page; Aucherarder (Auchterarder.) The publishing information says first published in 1933 in Canada; the text mentions television sets and is clearly set post-Second World War , so 1953? In Allan Massie’s Introduction; “a corporal, unknown to him, is his daughter’s boyfriend” (a corporal who, unknown to him, is….) locak (local,) Reportory (Repertory,) “He didn not.” (He did not,) respsonsibility (responsibility.) Otherwise: hooched (this can be read to be an allusion to illicit alcohol. The sound referred to is more usually written as ‘heughed’,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, clack-handed (usually it’s cack-handed.) “There were a score of details” (there was a score.)

Before Mars by Emma Newman

Gollancz, 2018, 345 p.

This is the second of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read.

 Before Mars cover

Anna Kubrin, child of free-thinking parents, is woken from the mersive (a recording of a memory played on a chip internal to the brain and that manifests as all but real) she’s been accessing towards the end of her trip from Earth to Mars. She’s been engaged by GaborCorp as a geologist but her primary task is to produce paintings of the Red Planet for the Corp’s chief, Stefan Gabor. She experiences the usual disorientation those reaching Mars undergo but seems to recover quickly.

What, though, is she to make of the note – clearly painted by herself – that she finds down the back of the bed in her quarters, warning her to beware station psychiatrist Arnolfi, or the fact that her wedding ring now has no engraving on it, the strange but familiar attraction she immediately feels to fellow base member Dr Elvan, and the lack of response to her comments in messages home – not to mention the human footprint she finds beside a Martian crater that is supposedly unexplored?

Is this immersion psychosis? Paranoia? Or a sign of something deeply wrong at the base?

Anna’s confusion is heightened by her ongoing guilt at the fact she didn’t feel the connection to her child, Mia, that is accepted as the societal norm and by fearing she has inherited the madness of her father whose actions almost killed Anna’s mother many years ago.

Through Anna’s use of mersives, and other snippets of information dumping, we find the book is set in a post-democracy era that nevertheless doesn’t seem to have got beyond the profit motive since it is ruled by gov-corps (some benefiting from the use of indentured labour) and where ordinary people struggle for access to good housing.

The implanted chips all but compulsory for employees in this world – and certainly so for those on the Mars base – enable communication with the base’s operating AI, verbally, visually or via virtual keyboard and can act as a kind of internal mobile phone for non-verbal information transfer with others. These future humans also have retinal cameras which enable the recordings from which mersives are made.

Newman’s invented expletive – JeeMuh – strikes a jarring note, possibly as it seems to lack an origin. This chimes with the tantalisingly opaque nature of the novel’s background. Events which were clearly important and have consequences for the characters are alluded to or referenced but not entirely explained. This is apparently the third in a series of books of which I have not read the previous two and so these things may be more obvious to those who have. Before Mars does stand alone, though, and can be read with no difficulty.

On this evidence Newman is capable enough as a writer but can tend to the long-winded and repetitious. Award-worthy, though? I’ll reserve judgement on that.

Pedant’s corner:- Despite the narrator (and author) being from Britain – albeit a future Britain – we have many USian usages and spellings – though we have one ‘arse’ used to mean ‘bollocks.’ “‘I’m at high risk for that’” (high risk of that,) black currant (blackcurrant,) “for all intents and purposes” (the phrase is ‘to all intents and purposes’,) commas missing before quotations and sometimes, but not consistently, at their ends, “the latter only in Charlie’s case” (syntactically that would be better as ‘only the latter in Charlie’s case’,) “that I’d strived for” (striven, please.) “‘There are a handful’” (there is a handful,) “obligated to” (obliged to,) “‘I wrack my brain’” (rack my brain, wrack is a seaweed,) “none of the remaining dots correspond with the location of the mast” (none …. corresponds,) epicenter (it was a centre, not an epicentre,) “‘the images from one of the drones was missing’” (okay, it was in dialogue but it should still be “were missing”,) “lay of the land” (again, in dialogue, but it’s “lie of the land”.) “‘None of you are permitted to be here’” (again in dialogue, but by an AI. You’d think they’d programme them with correct grammar, wouldn’t you? “None of you is permitted to be here.”)

Embers of War by Gareth L Powell

Titan Books, 2018, 407 p.

This is the first of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read.

 Embers of War cover

Apart from the prologue, a somewhat ropily written account of the destruction of an entire ecosphere – an act which depending on point of view either brought the war between the Conglomeration and the Outward to a swift end, thus saving lives, or else was an unforgivable crime – this novel is told in first person chapters narrated from various viewpoints, three human, one spaceship AI and that of a peculiar alien creature with many legs whose feet act both as hands and faces and is the spaceship’s engineer/general dogsbody but nevertheless gets the last word, plus a single one-page chapter narrated by an ancient armada of spaceships.

Captain Sal Konstanz was present at that planet destroying act of war but since then has been dedicated to the peaceful House of Reclamation, an organistion set up to rescue survivors from space disasters or acts of piracy. Ona Sudak is a poet with a secret, a passenger on the stricken ship Geest van Amsterdam, Anton Childe a Conglomeration agent gun-running on a backwater planet till his bosses tell him to find Sendak, Trouble Dog is Konstanz’s ship’s AI, once dedicated to war but whose conscience made it too join the House of Reclamation, Nod is the alien, much given to rumination and philosophising.

A lot of this is the usual space opera stuff, various factions clashing, assorted interpersonal conflicts, a somewhat clichéd martinet General (shouldn’t that be Admiral if he commands a fleet?) and his milquetoast son, the exporation of a big dumb object (though this one has the internal characteristics of a TARDIS.)

OK, Embers of War is set in the aftermath of a war rather than its waging or genesis but I don’t see much to mark it out from the ordinary run of military SF/space opera. There must be better SF novels published in 2018 out there.

Pedant’s corner:- The Conglomeration is usually given a plural noun (I would use the singular for a collective entity,) cannons (the military plural is cannon,) “more than handful” (than a handful,) “few ships … had flown without numbering at least one member” – of the Druff – “among their crew” (among their crews,) “a hoarse voice shrieked itself into a crescendo of ragged, agonised silence” (Powell possibly meant climax rather than crescendo. In any case a crescendo builds, and not into silence, which in turn can only be silence, and therefore not ragged,) “this accommodation on the behalf of these ancient monuments (on the part of these ancient monuments,) “wheeling around each one like mosquitoes wheeling around a ship’s lantern” (two uses of “wheeling around” in the space of eight words?) “all of them coming and going from the doorways in th ziggurat like buses comng and gpoing from a central bus terminal” (two uses of “coming and going” in the space of fourteen words,) maw (a maw is not a mouth,) degrees centigrade (it’s degrees Celsius,) “a pack of four Carnivores were inbound from Cold Tor” (a pack was inbound,) staunch (stanch,) immoveable (immovable,) barbeque (barbecue.)

The Joke by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1998, 327 p including 5 p Author’s Note. Translated by Michael Henry Heim, the author himself, and Aaron Asher from the Czech Žert, originally published by Československỳ Spisovatel, 1967.

 The Joke cover

Kundera’s first novel endured a peculiar journey- outlined in the Author’s Note – to get to this publication, the fifth English language version of the novel. Kundera was unsatisfied with all previous renderings of The Joke as they contained altered syntax, different divisions, reconstructions, shortenings or omissions. He says he, “once left a publisher for the sole reason that he tried to change my semi-colons for periods,” but promises us, since he more or less undertook it himself, this will be the last translation.

The novel is a depiction of Czech life in the early to middle period of Soviet influence in the country. Main protagonist Ludvik Jahn provides the viewpoint for the odd numbered Parts – Part Two is narrated by a woman named Helena, Part Four by a man called Jaroslav, Part Five by another, Kostka, and Part Seven by Ludvik, Jaroslav and Helena in separate but intermixed sections.

Told from the perspective of a return to Ludvik’s home town in mid-life, we see the incidents influencing Ludvik’s circumstances from his time as a university student and part-time clarinet player in a cimbalom band, when he was a committed Communist. His life began to unravel when to impress a woman called Marketa he unwisely set down on a postcard the thought, “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” signed, and then sent it. When he was brought before a disciplinary hearing for this transgression, every member of his class voted for him to be punished. Despite his protestations that his action was a joke he was sent to a special Army unit, in effect a punishment battalion, not for training with weapons but set to work in mines. In what free time he was allowed Ludvik struck up a friendship with Lucie, but her reluctance to have sex with him (for which we later learn she had a very good reason,) made the relationship end badly.

Ludvik’s experiences are later given perspective by the thought, “no great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm and mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes all it touches.” So, too, is the sheer impossibility of proving yourself innocent in a world that sees evidence of guilt even in denial of the charge, still more in any efforts to prove loyalty.

Within the details of Ludvik’s life and embittered attempts at petty revenge Kundera finds time to touch on the importance of folk culture and traditions to a nation’s sense of itself. “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Czech nation almost ceased to exist. In the nineteenth century it was virtually reborn. Among the old European nations it was a child. True, it also had its own great past, but it was cut off from that past by a gap of two hundred years, when the Czech language retreated to the countryside, the exclusive property of the illiterate. But even in their midst it never ceased to create its own culture. A modest culture, completely hidden from the eyes of Europe. A culture of songs, fairy tales, ancient rites and customs, proverbs and sayings. The only narrow footbridge across a two-hundred-year gap….. The only fragile stem of an unbroken tradition. That is why the men who at the turn of the nineteenth century began to create a new Czech literature and music grafted them onto this stem…. why the first Czech poets and musicians spent so much time collecting tales and songs.”

Kundera goes on to argue that stripping away the veils of Czech music culture reveals the residue of the Great Moravian Empire, whose borders were swept away a thousand years ago, yet its legacy remains imprinted today in the most ancient stratum of folk songs. “The folk song or folk rite is a tunnel beneath history, a tunnel that reserves much of what wars, revolutions, civilization have long since destroyed aboveground,” even preserving classical antiquity for us.

When the state sanctions this culture though, it loses force. “The fact that something like folk music was on the radio constantly should not delude us.” What they play, “is more like opera or operetta, or light music…. A folk instrument band with a conductor, a score, and music stands! What bastardization! … Real folk art is dead.” And it can be abused in other ways. “Drunkards are the most loyal supporters of folk festivals. Once in a while, at least, they have a noble pretext for taking a drink.”

Translated fiction is arguably a necessary endeavour, revealing to others aspects of the world and thought systems of which they otherwise would not be fully aware, a reminder that the ability to read widely – and without restriction – is a blessing.

Consider the alternative. “We lived in a devastated world; and because we did not know how to commiserate with the devastated things, we turned away from them and so injured them, and ourselves as well.”

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian. Otherwise; repertory (repertoire,) “a slipshod permanent crumpling her hair” (ie, permanent wave; the British usage is perm,) aboveground (above ground,) “‘your not a woman who’” (you’re,) the opening quotation mark (deliberately) missing when a chapter begins with dialogue, Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “head bowed bowed” (only one “bowed” needed,) Mathias’ (Mathias’s.) “There are a number of hypotheses” (there is a number of.) “A group of people were walking after it” (a group of people was walking.)

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher

Guild Publishing, 1988, 507 p

The Shell Seekers cover

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

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

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

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

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

The Smoke by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2018, 300 p

 The Smoke cover

We start on a space vehicle on which the brother of protagonist Stuart Lanyon is about to take off from Woomera – powered by successive explosions of atom bombs underneath it blasting it into space. This is something of a distraction however, though a signifier of an altered history where Yellowstone erupted in 1874, immolating North America, and a Great War was ended in 1916 after the atomic bombing of Berlin.

The main meat of the story is the ramifications of the discovery of the Gurwitsch ray – biophotonic weak ultraviolet pulses passing from cell to cell in living things, each creature with its own characteristic emissions, orchestrating development, leading to the ability of humanity to sculpt organic forms at will. Hence we are in the age of speciation of mankind. The dead of the Great War battlefields were subjected to Gurwitsch’s ray, producing strange organisms known as chickies which are able to exert sexual allure among other abilities, a technocratic intellectually superior elite called the Bund has arisen in Eastern Europe and dominates world affairs.

The weird aspects of all this are underlined by Ings’s story-telling, part of the novel being narrated in the second person, though the down to Earth sections are more traditional first person and some interludes are in third. Though the background details seem to sit oddly with one another – a thoroughly industrial Yorkshire can feel more like the 1930s, a television series more signifies the early 1960s, parts of London are dominated by ultra-modern architecture – Ings manages to hold them together. The setting is occasionally reminiscent of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia with the merest hint of Ballard thrown in for extra alienation.

At the novel’s heart is the love story between Stuart and Bund citizen Fel, aka Felicine Chernoy, daughter of Georgy, inventor of the Chernoy Process which utilises Gurwitsch’s ray to enable rebirth. Stuart’s mother, dying of cancer, undergoes this treatment and is reconstituted as an infant. A curious phenomenon to behold, this, a child with an adult’s memories, behaving in unchild-like ways – and subject to unthinking prejudice. Stuart and Fel’s different backgrounds lend their affair the attributes of all star-crossed lover stories.

The characters are well drawn but despite their supposedly greater intellects the two members of the Bund shown here – Fel and her father – do not seem significantly different from humans as we know them. Stuart does though in his narration refer to his father as Bob and mother as Betty, which is a touch unusual.

Ings’s vision here is a particular one, at once curiously fantastic and yet also recognisable, a flight of fancy (several flights if you like) but utterly human emotions. The Smoke goes to show that Science Fiction continues to produce work of which those detractors who dismiss it without ever sampling it assume it to be incapable.

Pedant’s corner:- “the Bund” is treated as plural throughout, but ought to be singular, “And since no one wants to meet each other’s eye, it makes logical sense that the entire audience repair en masse to the bar” (others’ I think, plus make that no-one, and, the entire audience repairs,) Lutyens’ (Lutyens’s,) potshard (potsherd, please,) Picasso is referred to as a Parisian artist (he was Spanish, but this is an altered history,) “the family were meant to cheer Jim off to Woomera” (the family was meant to,) “it would be the most natural thing in the world for me to stove this thing’s head in” (the verb is to stave in, stove is the past tense form.) “The odds against there being no set now increases” (the odds …. increase.) “‘According your friend’” (According to your friend,) “till it run out of” (runs out,) a parenthetical sentence not started with a capital letter as it ought to have been, “for goodness’ sake” (this ought to be written “goodness’s” even if it’s pronounced “goodness”.)

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Penguin, 2005, 296 p

The Jane Austen Book Club cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain

night shade books, 2015, 240 p

 After the Saucers Landed cover

As the title suggests this book is set in a time after aliens have come to Earth. Things, however, are not as dedicated Ufologists would have wished. They came down in a mundane manner – exactly as expected, setting down on the White House lawn as if they were an incarnation of Klaatu, the alien from The Day the Earth Stood Still. (That was also the name of the band which first recorded the song Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, which is referenced in the text.) The time these aliens landed though was not in the future but in the 1990s – making this an Altered History – but this allows Lain to saturate the book with cultural references from then and the immediately preceding decades. The aliens, called Pleidiens, do not seem to be concerned with conquest but wander around in sequined jumpsuits, hovering their disc-shaped “saucers” over the streets of the US (no wider perspective of their impact on the world is afforded to the reader) offering redemption of a wishy-washy sort. There is some discussion of a phenomenon called Missing Time and of time travel to a second before things happen but this is never developed and the aliens are more like an absence in the book rather than a driving force. This may be the point, though. New dispensations, what might once have been wonders, tend to become accepted relatively quickly and soon settle down to normality. Still, bits of this reminded me vaguely – very vaguely – of Philip K Dick’s mainstream fiction.

The novel’s main protagonist is Brian Johnson, once an author of UFO books, who encounters an alien capable of morphing into – in effect becoming – people, specifically Johnson’s wife Virginia (though Johnson is able to perceive slight differences. (Others are also impersonated in like fashion.) The Pleidien, Asket, wants Johnson to investigate the aliens and write another UFO book. However, there is very little resembling a plot here. Lain presents us with a metafictional construct, frequently addressing the reader and discussing events to come later in a matter of fact way.

What meat there is in this may be contained in the revelation vouchsafed to Johnson by the chief Pliedien, Ralph Reality, “The Pleidien doctrine was simple but absurd. The universe was imaginary….. your head was imaginary too.”

Pedant’s corner:- Pleides, Pleidien (Is this a misreading of Pleiades? [] Therefore Pleidean?) loud speakers (loudspeakers,) “when a man in a sequined jumpsuit steps comes around the corner” (either “steps” or “comes”, not both,) “and then zips away toward our solar system. The saucer zips toward a three dimensional rendering of our solar system” (I suspect there’s been a revision there and the original text has not been removed from it.) “For Flint this was this difference that mattered.” (Either, “For Flint it was this difference that mattered,” or, “For Flint this difference mattered,”) “as the light from street lamps and neon signs illuminate the back seat” (illuminates,) “lets it fall from their” (from there,) “because her parents forbid it” (forbade it.) “None of the locals were very interested” (none was interested.) “It more of a modernist sculpture hanging over us” (It’s more.) “What my wives imagined was that that they” (only one “that” needed,) “how they ended up climbing onto our kitchen table” (the text implies “how we ended up climbing” as a better word choice.) “This time I don’t stay anything” (This time I don’t say anything,) Charles’ (Charles’s.) “These things weren’t distinct but one.” (?????) shined (shone,) “squiggles and gestures that Patricia knew was something like a language” (were something like a language.) “Back in in 1957.” (only one “in” required.) “The agents pull up a plastic stool for me and then pushes down on my shoulders” (either “the agent” or “push”,) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech in a continuing sentence, cotiliion (cotillion,) “The Rascals’ “Groovin’” (when “Groovin’” was released they were The Young Rascals,) a regress (a regression?) “as she lays back” (lies back,) “her explanations, her story, drifts away” (drift away,) Pledien (Pleidien,) kids game (kids’.)

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

William Morrow, 2005, 472 p

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land

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

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

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

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

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

Winter by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2017, 328 p

 Winter cover

The novel starts with a reference to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, “God was dead: to begin with,” but is set around a curious Christmas visit to his mother Sophia’s home by Arthur just after his girlfriend Charlotte has left him but he wishes to disguise that fact. Accordingly he hires a woman he sees at a bus-stop to pretend to be Charlotte. His mother has been neglecting herself, and has no food in the house so Arthur summons his aunt Iris to rescue the situation. Since Iris, a lefty, and Sophia, a staunch Tory, have been at loggerheads – indeed not speaking to each other – for years this leads to some strained conversations, not least when Charlotte’s impersonator rather lets the cat out of the bag and reveals her name is Lux – and that she hails from Croatia.

In the incidents from the sisters’ lives we are regaled with a short history of the Greenham Common protests – what happened at Greenham changed the world Iris says. She is also less than pleased with the prevailing climate in the country, “‘The furious grumpy faces, like caricatures on some terrible sitcom on TV. England’s green unpleasant land,’ and complains of the Prime Minister’s background, “what kind of vicar, what kind of church, brings up a child to think that words like very and hostile and environment and refugees can ever go together in any response to what happens to people in the real world.’” The there is, “Google. Not so long ago it was only the mentally deranged , the unworldly pedants, the imperialists and the naivest of schoolchildren who believed that encyclopaediae gave you any equivalence for the actual real world, or any real understanding of it. ….. But now the world trusts search engines without a thought.”

Lux compares modern life to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline “it’s like the people in the play are living in the same world but separate from each other, like their worlds have somehow become disjointed or broken off each other’s worlds.” Later we find, “She is explaining to him how it is that she can be from somewhere else, and have been brought up somewhere else again, but still sound so like she grew up here. ‘It takes hard work. Real graft and subtlety. It’s a full-on education being from somewhere else in your country right now.’” Smith is also careful to give Sophia’s points of view but for some reason they didn’t strike much of a chord with me. Maybe it didn’t really with Smith either. In a coda, reflecting on Trump’s “Merry Christmas again” speech she tells us, “in the middle of summer it’s winter,” and adds, “God help us, every one.”

Like most of Smith’s novels there seems a sort of – I can only say coldness – at Winter’s centre. Her Seasons sequence (I reviewed Autumn here) was supposedly conceived as a response to the EU referendum result. The relevance of that to the content of Autumn was muted but here, while it is not the main preoccupation of the characters (Charlotte’s social media trolling of Arthur is a sort of running joke in the narrative,) it is undeniably the sea-swell under their surface interactions. And it is all presented with that unjustified right margin Smith’s books always seem to have.

Pedant’s corner:- “Oh for Christ sake” (Christ’s,) “each other’s worlds” (strictly, each others’ worlds.)

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